The Immigrant Song

Death, folktale, and Haitian gangs in Edwidge Danticat's family memoir

Wisdom rarely alights on the young. When it does, one usually finds a trail of sorrow in its wake. At 25, Edwidge Danticat published her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994), an insightful and elegant multi-generational saga that takes the immigrant's tale from the familiars of escape and exile into the intensely private realm of one girl's dysfunctional sexual initiation. Her second book, Krik? Krak! (1995), a collection of stories, brought readers a suicide by hot-air balloon ("A Wall of Fire Rising"), a prostitute cuddling her young son ("Night Women"), and a woman adopting a dead orphan ("Between the Pool and the Gardenias"). Danticat's imagination stirs up stories from the kitchen poetry heard at her family table in Haiti and New York, from history books and documents, from ancestral memory. She writes with clarity and purpose, as one of the chosen for whom the muse refuses respite.

In her fiction, Danticat channels the voices of her native Haiti, where she and her brother were raised by her uncle Joseph until age 12, when she left to live in New York with her mother and father, whom she'd not seen in years. When she arrived, she was given, presciently, a typewriter, and keeping in mind the model of her beloved Uncle Joseph, a preacher, she took notes, organized her words. But unlike him, she's had opportunities to place her work in the public eye. Her new book, Brother, I'm Dying, her first major work of nonfiction, is a family memoir that she wrote "only because they can't."

In the memoir, Danticat recalls the three-paragraph monthly missives she received in Haiti from her father as "dispassionate . . . his way of avoiding a minefield, one he could have discharged from a distance without being able to comfort the victims." Danticat herself, similarly, disciplines her emotions, forcing them into lean prose to recount the harrowing confluence of events that befalls her in 2004: the death of her father—who worked as a taxi driver—mere weeks after the birth of her daughter, and the disdain shown to her 81-year-old Uncle Joseph at a detention center in Miami in which he died days after arriving in America. Like her fiction, Brother reads with page-turning speed. She does not exploit cruelty. Rather, she seeds the book with hope and leavens it with folktale, a remedy with which her characters make sense of the incomprehensible.

Danticat's parents André and Rose on their wedding day, 1965
Courtesy of Edwidge Danticat
Danticat's parents André and Rose on their wedding day, 1965

Details

Brother, I'm Dying
By Edwidge Danticat
Knopf, 272 pp., $23.95

Danticat shows herself following political events in Haiti during her girlhood in Brooklyn—"Baby Doc" Duvalier's rise and fall, during which a cousin caught in between bullets was "frightened to death," and then Jean-Bertrand Aristide's rise and fall, during which "the army raided and torched houses and killed hundreds of my uncle's neighbors." Later, when neighbors drive her uncle out of Haiti and ultimately to his death, she observes: "His entire life was now reduced to an odd curiosity, a looting opportunity." A respected man, who sought to do good, slips away in a wig, only to end his days vomiting in shackles. With ample opportunity for fury, Danticat maintains her chin-up type of dignity, leaving the reader to froth for her.

If Danticat feels anger toward God, the government, the doctors, the neighborhood gangs who drove her uncle to seek asylum in the United States, she doesn't lose her cool. She comes across as a good girl, a worrier perhaps, not bitter or vengeful. But in the memoir these admirable qualities bring limitations and raise the question: How forthcoming is she being with the reader? Her reporting appears impeccable, but perhaps she does not yet have the emotional distance of time to examine the tumult that enveloped her. Perhaps the story is intended to be more about her father and uncle than about herself—but isn't she the linchpin joining their story? (In 2004, her novel The Dew Breaker was published to wide acclaim, but it is never mentioned, nor is there much detail offered about her inner writing life throughout the chaos of events.) Perhaps she holds back with her family's pride in mind: They've been through enough. It's as if she's writing with the light turned down to ward off the sharp pain of reality. In her fiction, the light roams wide, fanning out across a life, burrowing into crevices of recollection.

Brother, I'm Dying leaves some crucial questions unanswered: What happened to Maxo, Uncle Joseph's son, who was also detained in Miami? Her parents' house burns down shortly after her father's death—what happens to her mother? Nevertheless, Danticat raises issues that many struggle with when examining a life: What are the consequences of moving far from home and family? Will you be there when a loved one is ill or dying? Will your loved ones see your ancestors in your newborn's face? And, in the end, how much do these moments matter to you? Or, as Danticat's brother says to their father once they know he is dying: "Have you enjoyed your life?"

 
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