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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Author Danticat Closes Annual Literary Festival with President’s Lecture

Acclaimed Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat spoke of her country's proud artistic heritage, her literary roots and the power of love in a moving appearance Thursday as part of Old Dominion University's President's Lecture Series.

Speaking to an overflow audience in the North Cafeteria of Webb University Center, Danticat closed the 38th annual Old Dominion University Literary Festival by paying tribute to the Haitian artists who "bore witness" during the island nation's Duvalier reign from 1957 to 1986.

"Writers and poets tried to move their world in another direction with their art, even as they were being hunted and persecuted during a brutal dictatorship," she said. "To be a writer was a dangerous thing. But I'm a writer in part because of the choices they made."

A MacArthur Fellow who holds a Master of Fine Arts from Brown University, Danticat is widely considered a powerful and celebrated voice in contemporary fiction.

She has written numerous books, short stories and essays for adults and young adults, including the memoir "Brother, I'm Dying," the 2013 novel, "Claire of the Sea Light" and the recently released young-adult novel "Untwine."

Her honors include the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Story Prize and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. She also is a longtiime contributor to The New Yorker.

Danticat published her first novel, "Breath, Eyes, Memory" at age 25. It was selected for Oprah's Book Club, and Danticat was immediately recognized as a shining, new literary talent.

"Her stories and novels are widely taught in MFA programs and creative writing courses across the country," said Janet Peery, ODU English professor and festival co-director. "Her voice speaks lyrically and with color and magic about her home country, but also about its political struggles and the difficulty of being a woman in the unique social strictures of the place."

Danticat, 46, cited the transformational influence writers James Baldwin and Toni Morrison have had upon her life and work.

"James Baldwin wrote, 'Love takes off the masks that we feel we cannot live without and know we cannot live within,'" Danticat said. "I think if you have self-love, and love for others, you can stand anywhere."

For her reading, Danticat chose a long passage from her 1998 work, "The Farming of Bones." The historical novel is set in 1937 after the massacre of Haitian sugarcane workers in the Dominican Republic that was ordered by Dominican president Rafael Trujillo.

"'We tell ourselves stories in order to live,' Joan Didion famously said, and perhaps we tell each other stories for the same reasons," Danticat said. "A story is always much bigger than the person who tells it. That's why stories outlive their authors."

Old Dominion's President's Lecture Series brings to campus speakers who share their knowledge, experiences, opinions and accomplishments about important topics of the day. The speeches are free and open to the public, and have previously included addresses by scientists, writers, educators, historians and Pulitzer Prize winners.

Next in the series is an appearance Feb. 23 by humanitarian aid worker and former Cuban hostage Alan Gross, ODU's Marc and Connie Jacobson Raoul Wallenberg Humanitarian Speaker. And on March 22, the Friends of Women's Studies presents Ai-Jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

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