Does Your Face Light Up? Keynote by Edwidge Danticat

Kweli Journal presented "The Color of Children’s Literature Conference" on Saturday April 9, 2016. Edwidge Danticat's keynote speech: "Does Your Face Light Up?" opened up the program. Edwidge Danticat is the author of many ancluding Breath, Eyes, Memory, an Oprah’s Book Club pick; Krik? Krak!, a National Book Award nominee; The Farming of Bones, an American Book Award Winner; and Brother, I'm Dying, a National Book Critics Circle winner.

Danticat is a 2009 winner of the MacArthur Genius Grant. Danticat lives in Miami, Florida with her family. 

Please visit her online at


The title of the conference was inspired by Charles Johnson's essay of the same name in American Book Review magazine, Volume 34, Number 6, September / October 2014.


Oprah: The common denominator in the human experience is that everybody wants to be appreciated or validated. That got clarified in such a way that the hairs on my head rose when I heard Toni Morrison, who was on the show for The Bluest Eye, one of my favorite books of all time. I’d chosen her for a book club selection yet again. And she said these words:

It’s interesting to see when a kid walks in a room, your child or anybody else’s child, does your face light up? That’s what they’re looking for. When my children used to walk into the room when they were little, I looked at them to see if they had buckled their trousers or if their hair was combed or if their socks were up. And so you think that your affection and your deep love is on display ‘cause you’re caring for them. It’s not. When they see you, they see the critical face. What’s wrong now? But then, if you let, as I tried from then on, to let your face speak what’s in your heart. Because when they walked in the room I was glad to see them. It’s just as small as that, you see.

Oprah: That’s what I think is so profound because that is how you learn what your value is.

Toni: That’s right. That’s right.

Oprah:  Not by what the person is saying to you, but by what you feel.
Oprah: That was a huge, aha, bing bing bing bing bing, light bulb moment for me. First of all, I was thinking about myself growing up, as everybody thinks about themselves when someone is telling a story. I was thinking about myself growing up and how that didn’t happen to me and when I said those words ‘that is how you determine what your value is,’ I was thinking, oh gee, that is why for so many years, I was a kid with low self esteem because nobody’s face lit up or eyes lit up when I entered the space. But where I got that value, that validation, was when I went to church, speaking in the church, or when I went to school.

Edwidge: Does your face light up? Aside from just absolutely loving two amazing black women talking about children and their feelings and their being appreciated and validated, I chose this clip to open this keynote because the words in it ring so true for me, both as a parent, and as a person who writes now for children and young adults. And I thought that there were some lessons that we could extract to set off this incredible day. So we’ll get right to it.

Does your face light up when you think about writing for young people? Does your face light up when you think how much your work might make a young person feel appreciated or validated or less traumatized or less alone?

There’s so many kids out there—-and some of us know many of them—-kids who have nobody in their lives whose face light up when they walk in a room, or kids who have never had the good fortune of feeling what its like to be deeply, deeply loved and appreciated. For some, that’s an absence that is a huge gap in their lives. For others, it’s a bit milder. They might just be feeling odd or different, but still alone walking in a crowd. And many of these kids find that adoring gaze, or that questioning gaze or that challenging gaze or that sense of identification or escape in the pages of a book.

As a parent who floats between two countries, I see many extremes of that. I have seen many kids in Haiti who want to read, who desperately want to read, but have no books. And I see many kids in the U.S. who have many books, but have no desire to read. I always think one group of kids know what they’re missing and are pining for it, and another group of kids don’t know what they’re missing or are underestimating the power, the connection they could be making reading a great, or even an okay book that they feel so deeply, or identify with so much, or have lost themselves in with such passion, that the book feels like it is more their book than the book of the author who wrote it.

I have been both kinds of kids. I was born in Haiti during the Duvalier dictatorship of Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier. My dad left Haiti in 1971 when I was two, and my mom when I was four. And I was raised by my aunt and uncle until I joined my parents in Brooklyn, NY when I was twelve. I grew up at a time in Haiti when many people, those who had books, had to hide and sometimes bury their books because the books might be considered contraband. One of my classmates’ fathers was arrested because he had red wrapping around a book that, without even looking at it, the person who arrested him said was communist contraband. 

So maybe this was all amplified by the initial association of books and danger, but my first teachers of narrative, or the people who influenced me the most as a writer, for both children and adults, were the storytellers of my childhood. My aunts and grandmothers who told stories at night during blackouts or periods of electricity rationing. They were often telling these stories in the dark, by the light of a kerosene lamp or candles, but the images, the things they were describing were exploding like fireworks in my head. They were wise too, connecting with us young people in that semi-darkness and modifying the story based on how we were reacting to it. So if a child started yawning, then the story would suddenly get really, really suspenseful and then there would be a song thrown in. One of my favorite stories was the story about a magic orange tree. It’s about a little girl who was living with her stepmother and is hungry because the stepmother, as all fairy tale stepmothers are mean, so she’s hungry. And then suddenly this mysterious figure gives her a seed and she starts growing an orange tree, sort of Jack and the Beanstalk style. And there's a song that we all got to sing sort of when it seemed like we were falling asleep. Suddenly the storyteller would sing. And we would be like [Edwidge sings]. You would sing as you were listening to the story to help the tree grow. And in those moments I felt also as if my imagination was growing at the same time as this magic orange tree. 

There were a lot of angry step mothers in all those stories, as in many tales. But we somehow understood in our particular reality that there were so many stepmothers in our stories because maternal mortality was so high that many children did end up losing their parents as they were being born.

I was told these folk tales, but I was also told stories about history and legends and how they both came together. For example, we have a story in the region in Haiti where my family is from of Galipot. It’s a three legged horse who got the name galipot, galipot, galipot because that’s apparently how a three-legged horse sounds. Once we had a period of U.S. occupation, and people then started thinking [of that sound]. It turned out that the sound that the Marine’s boots made sounded like the three-legged horse. So those became married. Those two things became married, legend and history.

So it was the same thing also for the henchmen of the dictatorship. They ended up being called Tonton Macoutes. And initially Tonton Macoutes came from a children’s story. If you were bad, then this uncle who had a knapsack would put you in the knapsack. So then the dictator—- as dictators are sort of these mad geniuses—-decided one way to terrorize a population was to use a children’s myth, then everybody is scared.

So that’s why I love, when in the clip when Toni Morrison talks about the importance of our faces lighting up. Not just when our children walk into a room, but other people’s children too. Because if you want to write for children, or young people, even if you don’t have children yourself, suddenly all those young people become your children. And if they really like your book, or connect with your book, as I did when I was younger when I connected with an author, that author created a bond with me that I didn’t have with many people in my life. “We all think about ourselves when somebody is telling a story,” Oprah says. Of course, we do. And often when we read, especially when we’re younger—-I certainly did when I was younger——-we are looking for a mirror, echoes of our voices, people who might look and sound like us. We’re also looking for opportunities to lose ourselves into a book, to soar above the possibilities of our current selves, to dream of becoming more than we currently are.

The first book I ever owned, besides a small bible the preacher gave my parents at my christening, was Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline. I was an early reader and my uncle gave me a copy for my fourth birthday. What did this little girl in a house in Paris that was covered with vines have in common with a little girl living in what many were calling a slum in Haiti? Turns out a lot. Elsewhere Toni Morrison has said that Tolstoy didn’t know that he was writing for a little black girl in Lorain, Ohio. Did Ludwig Bemelmans know that he was writing for me?

There’s a Haitian proverb that says Paròl gin zèl. Paròl gin pie. Words have wings. Words have feet. We never know how far our words will travel and where they will land, who they will comfort and who they might even save.

Like Miss Clavel in Madeline, my uncle was raising a lot of us whose parents were away.  And I always wondered where were Madeline’s parents anyway? Like Madeline and her friends, we slept many to a room. And Madeline sure had a lot of spunk. Since I was really shy, it made me dream one day of being like her. I kind of felt like Madeline could kick the Duvalier’s butts, or at least confuse them by getting appendicitis, then get away with it because she was French. (laugher) That book took me to a place beyond what was going on on the page. Among other books that I later read, it helped me grow my imagination and that dream space became a deep internal kind of freedom for me. Though I had some cold water thrown on me when I started reading other French books in school—at the time, all the books we read were novels by dead, French white men. And for a while I thought, my god, what a high price I will have to pay to be a writer. I’ll have to be dead, French and white! (audience laughter) And a dude! (laughter)

After the January 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti, many child-friendly spaces were established in the tent camps that sprung all over the capital, and I was surprised that among many of the demands, things that people were asking for, were books, including some by those French, dead, white dudes. A mother and daughter team, friends that I know, had this idea to start an organization called Lit, Lit, Lit (Read. Read. Read), to go to read to kids at the tent camps. “In the midst of such sadness and turmoil, why read to displaced children?” a lot of people asked them. Children who are living in tents, who are fearing the rain or assault or abuse or hunger. “We read to these children for the same reason people read to all other children” said one of the readers of Lit, Lit, Lit. Many of them were teachers who were also living in the camps, people who had lost their homes. “We read to those children,” they would say, “to help them grow their imagination, to teach them about the world, this new world around them and beyond them. We also read to learn from them.” And having gone with them to those tent camps many times, including a trip we took with Scholastic which had published a book Eight Days that I had written about the earthquake and we donated money to the International Rescue Committee and then bought supplies to the kids in the camp during those trips. And having done those trips and really watching the way these children’s faces light up in the midst of these awful circumstances, really taught me the power of reading to transport us and frankly, at least for a while, you could tell that these hours these teachers, these readers were spending with these children were really protecting their sanities.

Those reading sessions also reminded me that I am very much an accident of literacy. The only reason I’m a writer, —-and many other gifted and talented people who grew up under similar circumstances that I did—-is because I learned to read and write.

I know as you spend the day today thinking about craft and mechanics of writing, it might seem elementary and sometimes this is the same very basic creation space is literacy, a tool many young people in different parts of the world cannot even afford to acquire. Words are our tools, first and foremost as writers, a tool which some folks never get.

When I moved to the U.S. at age 12, the first book I read in English was Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and I read that book with a dictionary and because I was so pulled in by that story. This wasn’t my childhood, but in many ways, it also was. Then I read James Baldwin and Richard Wright. Their childhoods were also very different from mine, but still very similar. Their dictatorship was racism, and they seemed like they were accidents of literacy too. The lengths that they went to, and especially Richard Wright, . .  In Black Boy, . . . he talks about the lengths he went to to get a book out of the library—getting a co-worker to give him a note for the librarian to borrow books—to me seemed so extraordinary. But what I extracted from these narratives was what they were saying was] that the library liberated them.

So I decided to go to the library. In the library were all the mentors I needed. And I always give this advice to people who are starting in the field, whether you are writing for younger people or writing for older people. And often we are seeking mentors from people who are incredibly busy and want to mentor but they might have small children or they might have a lot to do. So I always say all the mentors you need are in the library. And one thing I used to do for myself is that I would go through an author’s entire oeuvre, as sort of a teaching exercise for me. So I started reading Alice Walker. I read the first book through the most recent book as a kind of study of the growth of that writer. I read Rosa Guy that way and Paule Marshall and Judy Blume too because that was the only thing that explained our periods. In a Caribbean family, they just didn't do that. (audience laughter). And I read a lot of Nancy Drew. And then I started writing. And when I told my parents that I wanted to be a writer, they were afraid because during the dictatorship, what it meant to be a writer was that words were dangerous. A lot of our writers had been killed. “Nurse,” they said. “Be a nurse. You can heal people.” Even though I don’t know if nurses really heal people. But my mother was taken care of recently by some wonderful nurses, so in many ways they are. But it just didn’t feel like it was for me. 

So I started writing for a high school newspaper called New Youth Connections which is written by young people and distributed throughout high schools. And the last essay that I wrote for them about my first day in the United States ultimately became Breath Eyes Memory. After I was done with that essay, I felt like I had more to say. And I didn’t know what it was to write a book, but I knew that I had this impulse to continue to tell that story. And so I sent it unsolicited to two places, the Feminist Press, and they wrote me a beautiful letter back. And then I sent it to Soho Press, to an editor there at Soho, Laura Hruska. And Laura years later would tell me that the only reason she started reading the book was that she couldn't tell if I was a man or a woman and she wanted to know how to address my rejection letter, whether to Mr. Danticat or to Ms. Danticat. And so she started reading it and she kept reading, she kept reading. I was at Brown in the MFA program then and I remember getting the call from Laura and she said we want to publish your book. And I said “how much do I pay you?” (laughter) And she said “we pay you” and that killed the negotiations, probably. (laughter)

So, don’t do that.

So I was also an accident of publishing.

Though this might sound like a fairy tale, there are a lot of lessons that I learned from that day on, a few that I will share with you. And one of them has been so valuable to me. It was something Laura told me once the book was about to be published. She said you know you should always start something right after, before your book is published. You’re very young and impressionable—-as that question about me paying her had displayed to her. It is advice that I like to pass on. You should always have something going before your next thing is published because no matter if the reaction is good or bad, at least you will be in the middle of something else.

So these are a few things that I have learned over the years. I’m not a pushy person in life, but I always feel like I pushed myself into YA because I really wanted to do it. I wanted to do it when I was much younger because I thought I could be closer to the age of the audience, but I didn’t have the emotional distance to do it. Sometimes you have to be kind of pushy, though it is hard for some of us who are introverted or not as savvy at networking. I remember reading these Royal Diaries series. Scholastic publishes this and I was really fascinated by the way they blend history and the personal narrative. So they take you back to the youth of a historical figure, like Cleopatra. And I said, well “I want to do one of those.” And I said that I want to do it; and I just wrote Anacaona, who was a Haitian Arawak leader. Thankfully they reacted positively to my pushiness.

I thought I would share with you some lessons growing up these past twenty years, published and writing for both young people and adults, fiction and non-fiction. Some of it might feel a bit obvious to you. But sometimes when you’re getting started, or trying to get going, you can get beat down or discouraged, so much that you might forget some of these things.

First of all, I think that it’s important to remember that your story matters. Albert Camus, the French Algerian writer from whom I borrowed “Create Dangerously” for the title of a collection of essays that I wrote, had said that “a person’s creative work is nothing but a slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three images in whose presence his or her heart first opened.”

So what are those stories for you? Those stories in whose presence your heart first opened, or closed or got broken or got healed. My stories matter. A lot of people will say to you, oh you’re published because you are from a particular place. And sometimes it’s puzzling because people are saying you’re published because you’re black. They say this to people of color, you’re published because you are black. And I said now if that were true then there would be a lot more of us published. So we need diverse books because that is a problem. But people sometimes sort of think because you are exotic. But my stories matter, not because I am exotic, but because they are mine. And my voice matters and there are people who will feel less alone or comforted or whose faces will light up when they read them.

Second, only you can tell your story. Yes, no one else can tell your particular story, even if someone is writing about you. And don’t we all wish, those of us who write, we had a dime for everybody who says “I have a great story. You’ll make a million dollars.” And I always say “No, only you can tell that story.”

Be your own muse. Don’t wait for the muse to descend from heaven and come down on you. Don’t wait for a sudden strike of inspiration. Sit down and force the muse down. You know, in the spiritual tradition of many cultures, including many African and African diaspora traditions, people who are trying to invoke a spirit or a god or goddess must call it, either through song or symbol or chant. So all this is you have to be there for the muse to show up. You have to be at your desk, wherever it is you write. And I think the way you invite the muse is by sitting down and doing your work.

Discipline is not often discussed when we talk about writing. People often think that if they have a schedule, it is sort of like they are not artists, you know. But yet when I think about other creative endeavors, . . . you know, my daughters are now doing violin in school. And parents will know this, the sort of daily struggle to “practice, practice.” But that has also brought to me how important the notion of practice is in other disciplines like music and how even sometimes the most experienced musicians go back to playing scales. But they practice everyday. But writers don’t talk so much about discipline and even if you are doing a lot of writing in your head, sometimes you have to do that, there is so much happening in your life, you have to write while you are doing other things. But I think discipline is very important. And the best time is now. As many people that I meet who want to write their story, and make you rich, I also meet a lot of people who say, “you know, when I retire, I’m going to write that book.” So I always say, don’t put it off. Do it now. And think of all the ideas you might be missing out on because you’re waiting to retire or waiting for the right time. It’s like what people say about having kids: it’s never the right time. And sometimes the thing you’re not writing is the mountain in front of you. It’s the thing that will keep you from writing the next thing.

I love, I adore these stories that you hear of the people who wake up at 3 in the morning and write from 3 to 6, and then their book sells ten million copies and then they have a 40 mile commute after not sleeping. But what I love more in the stories is the discipline, that people were able to put that time in.

James Salter is an 89 year old writer who pretty much wrote until the end, who gave these series of talks at the University of Virginia. They are now published in a very small book called The Art of Fiction. He said that the things you haven’t written down don’t grow old with you. And I thought that was so very powerful for me. The things you haven’t written down don’t grow old with you. And it seemed very much to marry with something else that I’m always thinking about, something that Zora Neal Hurston said, that “there is no agony like burying an untold story inside of you.”

This advice is clichéd but true: start small, but dream big, because sometimes we are overwhelmed by the task, by what we have to do. And starting small, ten minutes a day, sitting down, giving yourself a routine. And it’s also important not to give up. For me, I had the most daunting type of discouragement when my parents were saying “it's dangerous to be a writer,” they weren’t being metaphorical. They knew writers who had died. So that could have really driven me off the writing, but thankfully it didn’t.

Also, seek fellowship wherever you can get it. Fellowship, definitely money type of fellowship. (laughter) But also fellowship of the spiritual variety. I mentioned that I was in an MFA program at Brown and my MFA program was very experimental. And a typical critique for someone like me who wrote more linear narrative was always like “Jane Austen wrote this.” (laughter) But so, in the summer I would go to Florida, Miami. They had this Caribbean writers workshop and in summer I would go there and I felt like I was in fellowship in that situation. And sometimes it’s one friend, sometimes it's a group. But sometimes it’s important to have some fellowship so that you can keep learning, keep growing, and keep reading.

Ursula LeGuin has this book, Steering the Craft, Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing, that I’ve been reading recently because I’m writing a short book on craft by Graywolf Press, but it’s about how people have written about death and reflecting on that. So I’m reading a lot of these writing books. And she had one chapter: Be Gorgeous. And I thought that was so gorgeous.  And she explained it. Allow yourself to be gorgeous, of course, in your writing, in your story, in your craft, in your style, in your voice. But also you can be gorgeous by being raw, by being tough, by being shocking, by being bold, by being sad, by being tragic. But just be. Be present, be there at your desk, at work. That’s the only part of it as writers that we can really ultimately control. Because the rest of it, once it goes out to editors, to the world, we are not in charge of. So she says “you are the navigator of the mutinous crew” and you have to be courageous enough to wave good-bye to the pier and plunge right in, full steam ahead. And I completely agree with that. It is also important to write around the life you have, not the one you wished you had, not the one you think everyone is having on Facebook. Sometimes when people ask writers, “well, how do you write?” There are writers who, it rarely happens, but there are writers who are like, “I have to have the right temperature in the room (laughter) with my Mont Blanc, at the beach, you know. That’s not your life. That's not my life. So you have to write around the life you have. It also takes the pressure off having to postpone because you’re waiting to have the life you want. But if you’re writing around the life you have then you can actually manage to bring it into your own reality.

So, does your face light up when you think of sitting down to write in the middle of that life, the life you have, not the one you wish you had? It doesn’t have to light up every single time, but the ideas of your words taking flight and landing someplace where they touch someone, where they touch a child, should give you a lot of joy. You should have a desire, a hunger even to tell stories. Would you still write even if no kid, no other person would read what you were writing? Can you not not write? Would you write those stories for the kid you were, the kid who wished those stories existed for them? Toni Morrison has said that if there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it. If there’s a story that the kid you used to be wanted to read, and it hasn’t been written yet, maybe you can write it.

During Q&A, people always ask, who do you write for? And I always say that I write for this 12 year old girl who came from Haiti, who was at the Brooklyn Public Library looking for both a mirror of who she was and a window onto a bigger world. And if you don’t know where to begin where you’re writing, take it back, way back, at least initially as I often do, to the very basics. Take it all the way back to ‘once upon a time.’ The chain of storytelling from once upon a time traveled such a long way that Toni Morrison began her nobel prize speech for literature with once upon a time.

Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind but wise.

Sometimes when I have to write something and I’m not sure where to begin, or it's not coming, I want to begin with once upon a time or I will start with Krik Krak, which is a call and response for Haitian storytelling in which the storyteller says Krik and the listener says krak. Or I will use the words of John Juan ? , hey I grew up in a house with a minister. In the beginning was the word and the word was everything. And the word is still everything.

So once upon a time I grew up under a dictatorship and some stories were dangerous. But here I am. Stories challenged me. They helped raise me, offered me a window out unto the world and a window onto myself. Stories also elevated and expanded my imagination.

Does your face light up when you think about doing that for a child or even an adult. Does your face light up when you think how much your work might make a young person feel appreciated or validated or at least less traumatized or less alone. Here are a few things that should make it light up. By writing your story you might become, as Oprah said in her video, . . . you might become someone's church, someone's school, somebody's favorite teacher, somebody's greatest teacher, somebody’s greatest self, somebody's once upon a time. The possibility of all of you doing that is making my face light up right now. And it’s making it light up even more when I think of what it will do for my two young daughters who are eagerly, and always eagerly, waiting for more to read. Thank you.