Edwidge Danticat teeters on a high wire that stretches from the U.S., where she’s lived much of her life, to her native Haiti. Her books levitate somewhere in between, meshing historical fact and the figments of her haunted imagination. “A few years ago we had two governments in Haiti—the elected government and a parallel government,” Danticat says, sipping tea in the sedate offices of her publisher. “I think my books offer a similar sort of parallel reality.”
The Dew Breaker, her third novel, braids together a series of stories loosely linked to one family: a young sculptor named Ka and her parents, elderly Haitian immigrants who live a quiet life in Brooklyn. Ka’s father is the singular subject of her art. She longs to monumentalize his years of suffering in a Haitian prison, to etch his scars into wood—never guessing that she’s been venerating a lie. As Ka discovers, this father was no martyr but a shoukèt laroze, a mid-level torturer during the Duvalier dictatorship. Danticat doesn’t hold back this information like a cliff-hanger, but uses it as an entry point, one of many in these nine perfectly formed chapters written in prose that feels like blood moving slowly through veins.
Danticat hesitated to publish The Dew Breaker this year—the Haitian bicentennial of independence—because “I was worried that the story would seem like a stain on the celebration.” She couldn’t have foreseen that the novel would hit stores at an even more uncomfortable moment, just weeks after Aristide was forced out of office, the country again blighted by violence. “There’s a part of me that feels so guilty, especially now,” she says haltingly of the current situation. “Whatever it is I write doesn’t even add up to one person’s life. When I wrote The Farming of Bones [about the 1937 massacre of Haitians in the Dominican Republic], I had to wrestle with that so much. What does it serve, is it exploitative? And inevitably as I’m writing I notice these painful patterns—I keep thinking, ‘Oh, this has happened before, and now it’s happening again.’ When I’m done, rather than feeling empowered I feel a little bit helpless.”
Her mother and father fled Haiti when she was a toddler, temporarily leaving Danticat behind with relatives. She finally arrived in Brooklyn at age 12, totally disoriented, to be reunited with her long-lost parents and two younger brothers she’d never met. Her debut novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory—published when she was just 25 and later chosen for Oprah’s Book Club—recast this experience in the tale of a girl reunited with her mother. Now 35, Danticat says the specters of childhood still sneak into her work, even though she wasn’t necessarily conscious of events back then. “You were just aware that there were things you don’t say. You noticed that people sometimes disappeared . . . that there were rules you respected at all costs. And that’s one of those things that replicates itself later in your life—the feeling that you always have to be careful what you say.”
All of Danticat’s books convey an intense ambivalence about silence—anger mixed with reverence for those who bury their memories as a means of self-preservation. In The Dew Breaker, a new immigrant glides wordlessly through Brooklyn, unable to speak English or breach the gap between her previous life and this new one; and a melancholy nurse watches over a woman who has lost her larynx. Most dramatically, there is Ka’s father, who finally wants to divulge his sinister past. “It’s definitely a Pandora’s box,” Danticat says. “It’s seductive for Ka to know there’s a curtain, and behind it there are these revelations. . . . But she also realizes that there’s a good part of her parents left in Haiti that she’ll never have access to.” I suggest that, even if one’s dad wasn’t a torturer, your parents’ past is the first major mystery of your life. Danticat’s eyes light up. “Yes!” she says, smiling. “It’s the greatest mystery of your life, and you can only piece it together from fragments. Only when you’re an adult and you have experiences like your parents did can you understand and start to put yourself in the story.”
One of the most startling chapters in the novel is “Night Talkers”: Danticat introduces Claude, a young Haitian American New Yorker deported back to Haiti after committing a violent crime (something that also happens in real life). Although Claude knows no Creole and has lost touch with his family, his ancestral village takes him in. He imagines himself as “a weird-ass kind of puzzle . . . and these people are putting me back together, telling me things about myself and my family that I never knew or gave a fuck about.”
Danticat says she loosely based this episode on a trip she made a few years ago to visit an elderly aunt in the mountains of Haiti. There she discovered that, like Claude, she and her aunt both chattered in their sleep—just two women sitting around talking into the darkness. So when she writes that Claude “was even luckier than he realized, for he was able to speak his nightmares to himself as well as to others,” Danticat just might be talking about herself.