Between-States: Conversations About Bardo and Life

In Tibetan Buddhism, “bardo” is a between-state. The passage from death to rebirth is a bardo, as well as the journey from birth to death. The conversations in “Between-States” explore bardo concepts like acceptance, interconnectedness, and impermanence in relation to children and parents, marriage and friendship, and work and creativity, illuminating the possibilities for discovering new ways of seeing and finding lasting happiness as we travel through life.


 “I have been writing about death for as long as I have been writing,” says Edwidge Danticat in The Art of Death (2017), an account of losing her mother to cancer and a meditation on how other writers explore death. Danticat is the author of seventeen books, including novels, short story and essay collections, and memoirs. Through the lens of the Haitian diaspora in the United States, she writes about family and legacy, violence and poverty, migration and the meaning of home; her themes are rooted in an enduring engagement with the inevitable loss we experience in life.

Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1969, Danticat moved to the US at age 12 to join her parents, who emigrated when she was a small girl. She attended Barnard College and planned to become a nurse but decided instead to follow her passion for writing, which had been sparked and nurtured by the Haitian storytelling tradition. When she was honored with a MacArthur Fellowship in 2009, she said, “Growing up in Haiti, I was told lots of stories, and I wanted in my own way to become a storyteller. Migration…certainly heightened the desire to tell not only stories of what it was like to have lived in Haiti but also what it is like to live in the United States.” 

In addition to the MacArthur, Danticat has received many awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Everything Inside (2019), a collection of stories, and Brother, I’m Dying (2007), a memoir. She holds honorary degrees from Yale University and Smith College, and contributes to the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and Harper’s, among many others.

From her home in Miami, Danticat spoke with me about why death is central to her storytelling and how she finds meaning in the face of impermanence.


The bardo teachings are about the art of living in a world where nothing lasts forever. In your writing, you explore how we grapple with the end of the things and the people we love, as well as our own end. Why is death a preoccupation for you? When I was writing The Art of Death, I thought about that a lot. The earliest I could trace it to was the circumstances of the house in Haiti where I grew up. My uncle was a minister, which meant going to all the rituals. A lot of weekends for us were a Friday night prayer service, then a Saturday morning funeral and a Saturday night wedding, and then a Sunday service. I remember the shock at the funerals of seeing someone motionless in a coffin whom I’d just spoken with the week before. And then, of course, I was growing up during the Duvalier dictatorship, and you’d see bodies lying in the street that the families couldn’t claim because of the political situation. So in one way or another, death was always present with me.

Did it become something you took for granted? Yes, until I realized that I could die! When I was 10 or so, a teenager I knew got tuberculosis and died. I thought, “That could happen to me!” I imagined what people would do, what people would say. My parents had gone to live in the US, and I thought, “Wow, they would be so sad, they would feel so guilty.” 

Did the realization that you could die make you afraid of death? If you listen to enough sermons, where someone is saying you know neither the hour nor the day, or to everything there is a season, you realize, “Oh, the calendar is not up to me.” Often at the funerals my uncle presided over, there would be a whole section dedicated to getting your life together, because you don’t know when your turn will come. Some people die at 7 days, he’d say, or 7 months, or 7 years or 77 years—very biblical. Since I had the chance to come to terms with the fact that it was not up to me where I would fall in that framework, I didn’t worry about it. But I did still wonder: How sad would people really be? And would they miss me?

What your uncle said is very much in line with the bardo concept that we don’t know how long we have, so we should do what’s important to us now. For my uncle, getting it together meant “Come to Jesus.” You decide where you’ll spend your eternity. But yes, there was also an element of carpe diem, the idea that at some point it will be too late to do certain things. I remember that my mother felt this when she was dying. She wanted to get certain things off her chest and made a lot of phone calls—sometimes they were angry calls! 

I learned a lesson about carpe diem from both my parents when they were dying. I saw that being on the threshold between life and death allowed for a wisdom or vision that I hope to have at the end, a surrender that allows you—even though your body is still in this world—a glimpse of what’s to come. The dying are already looking past this sphere of things. When my parents got sick, they would say, “When I’m gone…” and I would say, “No, no! You’re going to get better!” Once we got past that, I was like, “OK, when you are gone, what do you want?” When I am gone… Let them finish that sentence. If we’re not too afraid, some beautiful, honest conversations can emerge.

“If we’re not too afraid, some beautiful, honest conversations can emerge.”

In the Tibetan belief, we often fall into denial when confronted with endings. It’s said that after we die, we hover about, unwilling to accept what has happened. We see our relatives and friends weeping and call to them: “Hey, why are you crying? I’m right over here!” That’s so powerful. It relates to this novel I just finished writing. The book starts with an experience I had at a mall here in Florida, where I heard gunfire and I thought I was in a mass shooting. This was a couple of days before Christmas, so you can imagine how full that mall was. Everyone started running, but it turned out it was just some kids who’d used an app to tap into the mall’s sound system and make gun sounds. I didn’t realize it was a hoax until I had run and hidden behind a bush.

This character in my novel is in a mall shooting and she escapes. When I was writing the aftermath of the shooting, I thought, “Maybe she’s actually dead, but she doesn’t know it.” I started writing the next part of the story as though she were dead and was hovering and haunting. I saw that the desire to hold on, especially if you feel like you have unresolved business, is very strong. 

In The Art of Death you say that Annie Dillard asks in The Writing Life, “What would you begin writing if you knew that you would die soon?” Is there something you’d begin writing if you knew you were near the end?Exactly what I’m writing now. As I creep closer to 60, I’m aware of the limit on my time and I feel a sense of urgency with the things I write. The other part of that Annie Dillard quote that’s memorable is that she says, “Assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case.” We all—both reader and writer—have this terminal condition called life, so there’s no time to waste.

You write fiction, memoir, and essays. Do you feel any difference in terms of which you’re more drawn to as you realize your time is limited? They have equal weight for me. I just want to feel awakened and excited by what I’m doing. That’s what I love about creating: you’re putting something new into the world. You’re birthing or rebirthing ideas with your particular stamp on them, and that’s what will stay behind after you’re gone. 

Also, through my writing there’s a part of my mother, of my father, that I manifest and share with my children and other people in my family. After my parents died, I felt joy when someone shared something about them that I’d never heard before; it was like being given a piece of them back. That’s what I try to do in my writing, especially the part that’s just for lineage, for family, because my children will extract things from my writing that other people won’t. They’ll probably read some parts and be like, “Oh, that’s what she was working on when we were supposed to be on vacation!” When I’m writing, I think, “I’m putting these little nuggets in there for them.” That’s also the part that will live on without me. 

Does this make you more accepting of your mortality? Absolutely. The generations that follow in my family will know me so much better than I know my grandmother and great-grandmother. I feel blessed about the way that the work I do allows a bridge, a thread, to continue in my family. Because we’re immigrants, we’re not going to be on censuses for generations, extending beyond the time when we came to the US. And the next generations here won’t be able to just go back to Haiti and say, “Give me my mother’s archives.” But at least they’ll have what I know, when I’m no longer here.

Some years ago, I interviewed Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas. He was living in exile in Manhattan, and he told me that sometimes he wasn’t sure if he was in New York City or Havana. Sometimes he felt like he was in both places at once, or in limbo between the two places. Do you feel like you’re between Haiti and the US? When I turned 24, I realized, “After this year, my time in Haiti will stay frozen at twelve years, and my time in the US will just keep growing.” I remember being aware of the imbalance of that. But given the situation now, it’s hard for me to go back as often as I used to. Because of WhatsApp, we’re in constant touch with family members in Haiti, and often we wake up to them saying, “I’m hiding under the bed because they’re shooting outside.” And then I’ll hear the sound of gunfire. My parents couldn’t live my experiences when I was a girl in Haiti because we had to go to a phone booth once a week to tell them, or we’d send cassettes, whereas now you’re living your loved ones’ difficulties together with them. I talk about it with my friends here in Miami, and we’re like, “I can’t sleep, because this is happening in the neighborhood where my family is. I haven’t heard from my loved one in a couple of days, and I’m afraid, because the last time it was something terrible.” All of this makes me feel emotionally in between in a way that’s much more about fear than homesickness or nostalgia.

You write powerfully about the history and politics of Haiti, and about the importance of bearing witness. Do you feel like you’ll also live on in what you’ve written about Haiti? I hope that whatever I’ve written about Haiti will be a singular time capsule of it in my lifetime, because I’ve had the privilege to have lived through different historical periods there, as well as to know what it’s like to live here, to migrate and try to make a life. There’s a Haitian-Canadian writer, Dany Laferrière, who calls all his books his “American autobiography,” like when Maya Angelou wrote seven autobiographies. A parallel project for me has been tracing my personal lineage through Haiti’s history and our story of migration. My hope is that people on that journey with me now and after I’m gone will find echoes of their experiences in the pages I write.

In The Art of Death, you quote something Margaret Atwood says in her essay “Negotiating with the Dead”: “Perhaps all writing [is] motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality—by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead.” Is this true of your writing? I always go back to something similar to what Atwood is saying. It’s a Haitian proverb: “When you see some bones on the side of the road, remember they once had flesh on them.” Thinking about all the people in my life that I’ve written about who have passed on, especially the people I love, I feel that my job as a writer is putting the flesh back on their bones.