Breath, Eyes, Memory

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Edwidge Danticat Depicts a New Haiti

“Sometimes people know our most vulnerable places,” Edwidge Danticat says. “Because of that, we do things we know we shouldn’t do—things that have tragic outcomes. This is the kind of conflict that I’m drawn to: people asking very hard questions.”
In Danticat’s new collection, Everything Inside, these questions may explore romantic infidelity, broken pacts, or the identity of a long-lost parent; sometimes, they involve the labyrinthine question of whether to return to Haiti—the country—from Little Haiti in Miami, where many of the stories take place. Danticat says that above all, she wished to “show all the layers” of the women in her new stories when they make their decisions—good, bad, and everything in between. And it is this core idea—women faced with choices at once mundane and magnitudinous—that perhaps best characterizes Everything Inside.

Danticat’s earliest fiction was dense with blood and violence, steeped in Haiti’s past: the history of Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier’s tyrannical regimes and the horrific presence of the Tonton Macoutes, the Duvaliers’ legendarily brutal, murderous paramilitary force. In “Children of the Sea,” one of the stories from Krik? Krak!, the Macoutes’ excesses are described in excruciating detail: They make family members rape each other in front them, then murder them, acting with the impunity of their belief that vodou protects them. These earlier works subtly nod to Haiti’s other historic moments of violence, from the brutalities of the French during the slave trade to the bloodshed during the former slaves’ epochal takeover of Haiti in 1791, which made it, in 1804, the first free black republic in the Americas.
But Haiti’s history is also one of astonishing rebellion and of ordinary people just trying to get by—facts often ignored by American media, which insists on painting Haiti as an epicenter of suffering. This is what Danticat’s fiction has sought to capture, too, through the tenderness and resilience of its characters. Rather than focusing solely on the ravages, she also shows Haiti’s beauty, geographically and culturally. Her work has always been quietly revolutionary in both its explicit depiction of tragedy and its examination of deep interpersonal relationships.
Danticat’s newest collection takes this idea further, presenting Haitians, Americans, and Haitian-Americans who have varying degrees of distance from the Caribbean nation. Some of the characters have never experienced the horrors that Danticat’s earlier characters fled; many live in America. In these stories, Haiti’s enduring presence feels more ethereal—urgent in a different way for this new generation.

Everything Inside, Danticat says, is “a personal milestone”—the result of trying something new. She wanted to create a story collection that was, inarguably, a collection of stories, rather than, as with The Dew Breaker or Claire of the Sea Light, a text that can be interpreted as a novel in fragments. The narratives in Everything Inside contain “echoes” of each other, she notes, and she points out that the tales, though nonlinear, span a year. Danticat says that she composed Krik? Krak! and Breath, Eyes, Memory in her twenties; this latest book comes as she turns 50, and so, she adds, it signals a turning point for her.
Danticat says that these new characters may be thought of as the grandchildren of the characters in Krik? Krak!, Breath, Eyes, Memory, and The Dew Breaker. In those works, she notes, the protagonists were “brand-new, face-to-face with exile”: they cohabited with horror, unable to escape, for long, the terrors of Haiti’s dictatorial regimes. In Everything Inside, however, the characters include people born in America—they’re from a generation that knows of Haiti’s blood-drenched past but does not feel its weight to such an oceanic degree as the protagonists in her earliest books. These new characters “have a different relationship to Haiti,” she argues. “Most of the characters have been in America for a while. They’re sort of safer than their parents and grandparents were.”


Rather than facing Haiti’s gunmen and ghosts, this post–Krik? Krak! generation is navigating more quotidian concerns such as romantic breakups and sending kids to college. Danticat says that at the same time, they are “dealing with interpersonal exile”—separated from each other by heartbreak and painful secrets. These lacunae permeate Everything Inside.
Exile, to be sure, has always defined Danticat’s work, in all of its protean, poignant forms—be it political, geographic, cultural, or existential. And though Everything Inside focuses perhaps most on interpersonal distances, Danticat’s American characters are still connected to Haiti, and so, she observes, they must face “the flip side of exile: whether or not to return.” When these characters do travel to Haiti, she notes, they don’t wish solely to see monuments to loss; they want to see “the pretty places,” too—“the multiplicity of Haiti and of their ancestry.”
Of course, political exile still appears; in one story, a xenophobic Caribbean minister expresses Trump-like anti-immigrant rhetoric. But generally, these are tales of a different exile, tales of emotional severance and reconnection. Some of Danticat’s protagonists are women who have been wronged, deceived, or dismissed, often by men—though sometimes, it is other women who wrong them. (The latter cases, she says, were “important” to show; her women are not blameless but are morally complex.)
In one narrative, a woman encounters a married man whom she fell in love with before the 2010 Haitian earthquake, when he lost his family and disappeared from her life; their feelings are complicated, as she realizes that he both is and isn’t the man she once pined for. In another, a girl who doesn’t know her father learns that he is dying and must decide whether to ignore him or go see him. With powerful grace, Danticat captures the moment when the woman sees her father’s dead body; they are worlds apart yet linked by a quiet intimacy. And this remarkable, moving tenderness is perhaps the collection’s most persistent theme. Women find moments of special nearness to other women and to men.
In one scene, a woman touches her tattoo to that of her roommate, both tattoos signifying their emotional growth. In an extraordinary moment from another story, a woman, her friend, and her husband lie together in bed in the shadows, holding each other, touching, kissing, losing, at some sense, the knowledge of whose body is whose—a moment of unabashed love, irrespective of gender or body, all the more salient because the protagonist’s husband leaves her afterward for the friend. These stories contain layers of betrayal and secrecy, but their characters find ways to commiserate, forgive, or at least attempt to understand the ones who have hurt them.
It’s important, Danticat says, that Everything Inside not be read purely as a text of a particular cultural moment—partly because she considers books to be “always behind the cultural moment”—but rather as something as much of the present as the past and future. She decries what she identifies as the day-to-day grotesquerie of the American political present. Obliquely, her book, with its focus on transnational figures who have family in Haiti and America, critiques both the closed-border sentiments of the Trump administration and governmental corruption in Haiti. Her characters “are in the middle” of all this, she says, just “trying to keep it together” in a volatile world.
But in the end, Danticat says, this is a collection about people and the complex interactions and decisions they share. Its tenderness feels striking in a hectic 2019. In the end, we are left with these characters’ brutal, banal, and beautiful moments, like a wide night luminous, every so often, with firefly stars.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

But We Are Here: Reading Edwidge Danticat in the Age of #MeToo

On April 16, 2018, Junot Díaz came forward in a daring New Yorker piece sharing his story as a survivor of childhood sexual assault. Fast-forward to May 4—Díaz appears once more in newspapers, this time in the New York Times, as the subject of accusations of sexual misconduct (“The Writer Zinzi Clemmons Accuses Junot Díaz of Forcibly Kissing Her”). Clemmons was quickly supported by Carmen Maria Machado and Monica Byrne, both of whom gave accounts of being subject to disproportionate aggression from Díaz.

This came on the same day as the Swedish Academy’s announcement that no Nobel Prize in Literature would be awarded this year, “in view of the currently diminished Academy and the reduced public confidence in the Academy.” This followed the disgrace of Jean-Claude Arnault, husband of Academy member Katarina Frostenson; Arnault faces allegations of sexual assault from 18 women as well as an investigation over the leak of the names of seven Nobel literature laureates.

Three days later, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman resigned following a #MeToo exposé as four women, including Michelle Manning Barish and Tanya Selvaratnam, revealed accounts of physical and emotional abuse at his hands. The #MeToo movement has become a formidable force following the fall of media mogul and serial abuser Harvey Weinstein—and subsequent revelations of misconduct surrounding R. Kelly, Aziz Ansari, and James Franco, just to name a few. The movement became so widespread that the Time “Person of the Year” was named “The Silence Breakers.”

The seeds of #MeToo were planted more than 10 years ago with the work of activist Tarana Burke (whose thoughtful reflections can be found here). Burke’s original campaign offered survivors of sexual violence, mainly women of color, an avenue to ask for help with the neutral, short signal of “Me Too.” Her work is predicated on the statistically proven greater likelihood of women of color becoming victims of domestic violence and/or sexual assault. Violence against women, understood as a tool for continued control and subjugation, occurs at higher rates in poor and immigrant communities. Undocumented immigrants, poor women of color and trans women also disproportionately underreport sexual violence, meaning that many continue to suffer in silence.

#MeToo is thus crucially not just an Anglo-American, white phenomenon, and it is spreading around the world. Women in China, for example, are beginning to use the hashtag (cleverly dodging censors with the homophone #MiTu, meaning “rice bunny”), chiming in with women from Finland, Spain, Vietnam, and more. Where there is patriarchy and where male power has been institutionally ratified, #MeToo will naturally (and rightfully) put down roots. The literary community is no exception and must contend with its own ability to provide responses. How can writers speak for those just learning to tell their stories? Can we? Should we? Can any writer with the privilege of success, class, whiteness, or maleness even ethically tackle the complexities of contemporary gender politics?

Here’s where Edwidge Danticat steps in.

A remarkably prolific author, Danticat is particularly dexterous with genre, stepping in and out of the parameters of novel, short story, testimonial, and biography throughout her oeuvre. Her most recent publication, The Art of Death (Graywolf Press, July 2017), was nominated for the 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism and is impressive in demonstrating her wide reading as well as talent for deeply introspective prose as she reflects on her mother’s death. Raised in Haiti before moving to Brooklyn, N.Y., at the age of 12, Danticat’s works have been doing the work of #MeToo for over a decade longer than the movement has existed.

In particular, her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, revolves around the stories of women who have suffered the trauma of sexual violation. Sophie Caco, the narrator of the story, is sexually abused by her mother within the tradition of “testing,” where daughters are penetrated to verify that their hymens are intact, and therefore their virginity too. Raised by her Tante Atie after her mother, Martine, flees Haiti, Sophie only learns later that Martine was raped by a Tonton Macoute, one of François Duvalier’s army. This results in Sophie’s birth and Martine’s lifelong nightmares and psychosis. Martine’s fears add to her socially inherited paranoia over Sophie’s virginity, leading to the testing and the accompanying story of the Haitian “Marassas.” Martine narrates:
They were the same person, duplicated in two. They looked the same, talked the same, walked the same.

The love between a mother and daughter is deeper than the sea. You would leave me for an old man who you didn’t know the year before. You and I we could be like Marassas.
Ironically, however, Sophie mirrors Martine in another way; they both become victims of sexual violence through the socially sanctioned abuses of power of the Tonton Macoutes as well as the patriarchal cult of virginity. Plagued by nightmares and delusions of the voice of her rapist speaking to her from her fetus, Martine eventually kills herself by stabbing her stomach 17 times. It is crucial in Breath, Eyes, Memory that Sophie and Martine are “twinned,” as it is only through Sophie that Martine’s story is told. Sophie as a foil for Martine demonstrates that for every woman who has been able to overcome her trauma, there are others who are unable—whose present remains overwhelmed by their past, obstructing any meaningful catharsis.

Only in death does Martine triumph, as she is dressed by Sophie in bright red, “too loud a color for a burial.” Martine thus “would look like a Jezebel, hot-blooded Erzulie who feared no men, but rather made them her slaves, raped them, and killed them” (emphasis author’s). The metaphor for Martine as Erzulie, a Vodou goddess with different forms, combines within Martine a myriad of female characters. Earlier in the text, Martine is compared to the maternal Erzulie Dantor, “the healer of all women and the desire of all men.” At the end of the text, however, the “hot-blooded Erzulie” is a manifestation of the flirty and sensual Erzulie Freda. The binary of the Madonna-whore is thus challenged within the Erzulie figure, while victims of sexual assault are underscored as not necessarily one or the other.

Danticat’s writing also captures the complexity of abuses of power that have plagued the #MeToo movement as detractors respond to the flood of testimonies in varied ways. Notably, the New York Times published an opinion piece defending Aziz Ansari’s actions, claiming he could not have been expected to know Grace’s (not her real name) discomfort and that “The insidious attempt by some women to criminalize awkward, gross and entitled sex takes women back to the days of smelling salts and fainting couches.” More recently, director Roman Polanski (of The Pianist fame) sued the Oscars academy following his expulsion after sexual assault revelations against him, calling the #MeToo movement “mass hysteria.” Earlier in May, Chitra Ramaswamy questioned how to respond to Junot Díaz being both a victim and perpetrator of sexual assault and misconduct.

This writer suggests Danticat’s The Dew Breaker (2004) as a launchpad for discussion. The Dew Breaker features nine stories, three of which revolve around “the Dew Breaker” (translated from chouket laroze, a colloquialism for “torturer” in Haitian Creole), three that concern Haitian men he rents a basement apartment to (“Seven,” “Monkey Tails,” “Night Talkers”), and three affiliated to this network (“The Bridal Seamstress,” “Water Child,” “Funeral Singer”). The Dew Breaker’s life in Brooklyn and Florida remains plagued by insecurity over the revelation of his past, while the family members of his victims continue to agonize over the deaths or traumas he is responsible for.

To consider Danticat’s themes of guilt, responsibility, and concealment is to reflect on consent and power outside the legal system and to demand better from men. Rather than indulging female weakness or encouraging female delicacy, men are to be held accountable for their past mistakes while coming to terms with the violence they are capable of, the violence that has long been enabled by a patriarchal society, just as the Dew Breaker himself was authorized by Duvalier’s dictatorship. The Dew Breaker demonstrates that victims are far from weak, rather that complicity with systems of power has long-term consequences for abusers and victims alike, as well as their families. Power and its use do not produce a binary of good and evil, but instead a web of concealment, shame, guilt, anger, and trauma.

The use of the short story cycle and anachronistic form is particularly potent in connecting narratively independent pieces in a thematic consideration of the consequences of violence, from both the perspective of the abuser and the victims. Like many of the stories of #MeToo, the story of the Dew Breaker is not straightforward, and Danticat avoids a prescriptivist approach to the revelation of his crimes. What is more important, however, is the beginning of a larger conversation over who holds power, the conditioning of men toward violence, and the ability of victims (like “the seamstress,” for example) to resist or to tell their stories. As the first book in Danticat’s career that shifts toward an extended interrogation of paternal relationships, The Dew Breaker is a particularly useful text in raising questions of gendered power as well as the extent to which abusers are and remain culpable for their actions.

As a female African-Haitian-American writer (as Danticat refers to herself in her essay “AHA!”), Danticat also descends from a rich tradition of black women’s writing as well as Haitian political writing. Régine Michelle Jean-Charles, for example, (in Martin Munro’s Edwidge Danticat: A Reader’s Guide, 2010) identifies Danticat’s work as addressing similar themes to black women’s writing in America (think Phillis Wheatley, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker), such as female relationships, motherhood, and political resistance. Female testimony combats the erasure of women’s histories. In The Farming of Bones (1998), for example, narrator Amabelle Desir tells the story of the 1937 Parsley Massacre, where Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the murders of thousands of Haitians and Haitian Dominicans. Amabelle’s story places women in the historical narrative, reminding readers that women were there and providing a testimony (if fictional) to the lives lost.

On the other hand, Danticat descends also from a Francophone Haitian literary tradition and names amongst her inspirations Frankétienne and Marxist Jacques Roumain, as well as novelist-journalist Dany Laferrière. In particular, The Dew Breaker makes a reference in its title to Roumain’s Gouverneurs de la Rosée (Masters of the Dew), published in 1944. Haitian literature is inseparable from its political history, which has long identified itself with leftist resistance dating from the 1804 Revolution where Haiti became the first black republic, the only to be formed from a successful slave revolt. Threads, therefore, of the right of individuals to become self-fulfilled and self-determined have long characterized Haitian literature. The combination of Haitian and black women’s writing traditions within Danticat’s oeuvre thus generates a body of work interested in the rights of women, writing in the spirit of universal egalitarianism, and resisting dominant political structures including violent dictatorships and patriarchy.

This political imperative has remained consistent and unwavering, combining the personal with grand political narratives and seeing both as necessarily co-existent. Danticat’s 1996 essay “We Are Ugly, but We Are Here,” for instance, details the continued resistance of Haitian women from the time of Spanish colonialism dating from the murder of Taino Queen Anacaona, who chose to die rather than become a concubine to the invaders. The figure of Anacaona simultaneously resists colonial exploitation and sexual violence, while predating the destruction of the Taino community and the formation of the African diaspora through slavery in Haiti.

The “daughters” of Anacaona, bearing the same spirit of resistance and female solidarity, exist throughout Danticat’s work, creating matrilineal communities of women holding each other up through the oral tradition of storytelling, as seen in the short story collection Krik? Krak! (1996). Formed of nine short stories, the collection as a whole connects the lives of “Women Like Us” (the title of the epilogue), as the protagonists of all nine stories are revealed to be connected. A daughter visits her mother who has been imprisoned for being a witch in “Nineteen Thirty-Seven”; a mother-daughter pair attend the funeral of “boat-people” in “Caroline’s Wedding”; the story of Célianne, victim of rape and one of the drowned, is told in “Children of the Sea.”

The lives of women are revealed to be linked and brought together by shared tradition and narrative, while the text acts as testimony for their lives, putting their stories on the page just as #MeToo has done for women. As Nick Nesbitt astutely comments, “Such a politics of solidarity would erase distinctions of the personal and political that have historically allowed for various forms of injustice to continue unabated in the ‘private’ sphere.” Danticat’s writing proves that discussions of politics, Haitian dictatorships, and the formation of the Haitian diaspora are ultimately only rendered complete when private, individual lives are also considered.

Regardless of what you think of the movement or how uncomfortable female confession makes you, #MeToo is not going away anytime soon. To quote Danticat from “We Are Ugly”: “The daughters of Anacaona. We have stumbled, but have not fallen. We are ill-favored, but we still endure. Every once in a while, we must scream this as far as the wind can carry our voices: We are ugly, but we are here! And here to stay.” To read Danticat is to confront the same issues that the #MeToo movement does—issues of gender politics, female solidarity and resistance as well as the construction of male roles in patriarchal societies. As #MeToo goes global, we need to think about the stories of women around the world—and the works of Edwidge Danticat are as good a place as ever to begin.

Image: Flickr/editrrix

A Year in Reading: Jacqueline Woodson

2016 was a strange year in so many ways.  We were at once confused and hopeful about the coming elections, I was traveling way too much — first because of the National Book Award for my memoir Brown Girl Dreaming and then for my novel Another Brooklyn.  I was talking about writing more than I was writing and that was making me cranky.  I was away from my family and that was making THEM cranky. Then we were planning our trip abroad and gut renovation so we were all scattered and crazed.  Reading became a balm for all of us.  In the days I was home, time was spent reading to my eight-year-old.  He had turned a corner as a reader and listener so we moved from the younger graphics — mainly his favorite book of all time: The Crock Ate My Homework — to deeper books like Jason Reynolds’s As Brave As You and later, Ghost, both of which are so brilliantly written that I often tried to move bedtime up a bit to get back to our nightly readings.  At the same time, my daughter was grumbling her way through the (still assigned!) Lord of the Flies, (poor child, I felt her pain!) and finding comfort in Edwidge Danticat’s Krik Krak.  Krik Krak for my daughter, was the Danticat gateway.  She went on to devour Brother, I’m Dying, Breath, Eyes, Memory, and Untwine.  I was more than thrilled to see these books stacked beside her bed and, in the morning, one or the other of them brought down to the breakfast table.  Losing a teenager to Danticat is not really losing a teenager.  The child that re-emerged was a bit deeper, a bit kinder.  Then there was my partner — a doctor by day and a reader by night.  The stack of books grew high beside her bed, got hauled up to the library, only to be replaced by a new stack.  The book she loved the most was Carolina De Robertis’s The God’s Of Tango. It came with us to France this summer and got passed around our extended family.  Not one of the people who opened that book didn’t love it.  I’d have to say The Gods of Tango is on the list of amazing books written in my lifetime. I would love to spend the rest of this commentary telling anyone who wants to listen about The Gods of Tango but I won’t.  Just read it. Or listen to it on audio. Or do both.  The same of anything Ann Patchett puts a pen to.  Commonwealth – Wow!!  State of Wonder — Jeez — how did she do that?!  Bel Canto — What…?!

Audio was big for me this year.  Spending so much time on planes and trains, the words of other writers were healing, reminding me of why I write.  So I plowed through Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, Kaitlyn Greenidge’s We Love You, Charlie Freeman, Naomi Jackson’s The Star Side of Bird Hill, Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs, Brit Bennett’s The Mothers and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.

Here’s the truth about me — while my partner will read a book she doesn’t really like until the last word, I will not finish a book I don’t love to the bone. Life is too short. There are far too many good books out there. I’m looking forward to finishing more of the ones I love.

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