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Critical Essay by Garry Pierre-Pierre
SOURCE: "Haitian Tales, Flatbush Scenes," in The New York Times, January 26, 1995, pp. C1, C8.
In the following essay, based on discussions with Danticat, Pierre-Pierre examines her past in Haiti and her present life as a Haitian-American living in Brooklyn.
It was the kind of dark, cold New York winter day that sundrenched people from the Caribbean dread. But Edwidge Danticat, a 25-year-old Haitian-American novelist who immigrated to Brooklyn a little more than a dozen years ago, would not let it dampen her spirits.
"You want some coffee, tea?" she said in a soft melodic voice, as if the liquids would warm the day. "The tea is cannelle."
So Ms. Danticat (her name is pronounced ed-WEEDJ dahn-tee-CAH), the author of Breath, Eyes, Memory, her first novel, which was published by Soho Press last spring and received respectful reviews, set small flowered, ceramic cups on a coffee table. She settled into a plastic-covered velour chair in the beige-carpeted living room of her parents' attached brick home in East Flatbush and explained that the cannelles, or cinnamon sticks, had been bought just blocks away, from Haitian street vendors.
"It's wonderful," she said, pouring the steamy light brown liquid into the cup. "It's like 'infusion' tea. Haitians think of tea as a cure-all."
While much is written about the troubled, mountainous island nation, Ms. Danticat's debut novel is probably the first to chronicle the Haitian-American experience. In the last decade, the number of Haitian-Americans has grown to more than a million; their communities are centered in New York and Miami.
The book is about four generations of Haitian women who struggle to overcome poverty, powerlessness and abuse. The story is told through the point of view of Sophie Caco, a teen-ager who, after spending years with her aunt in rural Haiti, is reunited with her mother in Brooklyn. Sophie feels compelled to return to Haiti after she learns that her birth resulted from her mother's rape there.
Critics have praised Ms. Danticat's vivid sense of place and her images of fear and pain, which have been compared to Alice Walker's.
The New York Times Book Review said the book "achieves an emotional complexity that lifts it out of the realm of the potboiler and into that of poetry."
Ms. Danticat has dared to probe into some of the most painful and hidden Haitian traditions, including "testing," a mostly rural practice in which a mother inserts her fingers in her daughter's vagina to ascertain that she is still a virgin.
"Haitian men, they insist that their women are virgins and have their 10 fingers," Sophie's aunt says after Sophie is tested, explaining to her the virtues of virginity and the reasons for testing.
Sitting in her living room, Ms. Danticat said that among Haitian-American women, "there is a great deal of rage toward the book." At readings across the country, she said, some of the strongest opposition comes from middle-class Haitian-American women who consider themselves modern and liberated. They are ashamed of things like testing, she said, and some, raised in cities, are shocked to learn that it is exists.
"I think a lot of people see Haiti as the good guys against the bad guys," she said. "It is so much more complex than that."
Ms. Danticat insisted that the story is not about herself, although she too was raised for several years by an aunt in Port-au-Prince after her parents—her father, André, is a cabdriver, and her mother, Rose, is a factory worker—left for Brooklyn in search of a new and better life. She said the most autobiographical aspect of the book is the heroine's emotional reaction to coming to America. Like Sophie, Ms. Danticat said it left her feeling severed from her roots.
"The first time was when my mother left, when I was 4," Ms. Danticat said. "I remember vividly being yanked from her as she was getting on the plane. The second time was coming here. My uncle had a laryngectomy. At that time I was the only person who could read his lips and understand what he was saying. Without me he would have had no voice."
Ms. Danticat began working on what became her first novel soon after she arrived in Brooklyn, in 1981. Taunted at school for her Creole lilt and her not-so-hip wardrobe and coiffure, she found solace in her writing. Even her dimpled and expansive smile faded as she recalled the painful memories of those early years in New York.
"It was very hard," she said, shifting in her chair as if to dispel an intense feeling that was still with her. "'Haitian' was like a curse. People were calling you, 'Frenchy, go back to the banana boat,' and a lot of the kids would lie about where they came from. They would say anything but Haitian."
It was a time when the bodies of Haitian boat people routinely washed up on the beaches of South Florida. The early 1980's was also a time when Haitians were officially classified as a high-risk group for AIDS by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
Her love for Haiti and things Haitian, of which she spoke again and again in the course of a day's visit, was deepened by memories of neighbors in her first building who helped her through the tough years.
On Sundays, they shared pumpkin soups, as people do in Haiti. They looked after each other.
"It was a … la cour," she said, referring to a Haitian courtyard, where almost communal living is commonplace among the poor, especially in the countryside. "It was a shelter in a storm."
The ambiance at that building, in Flatbush, was not too different from that in Bel Air, the teeming Port-au-Prince slum where Ms. Danticat spent 12 years before coming to America.
"This friend of mine kept saying that in Haiti his mother had a maid, but here his mother is a maid," she said. "I can be friends with women that, if we lived in Haiti, our paths would never cross. People where I was from were the maids."
Ms. Danticat, however, has become a quintessential Haitian-American, living in both worlds and speaking flawless American English interrupted with an occasional Creole word.
She dresses smartly and conservatively. On this day she was wearing an ankle-length black skirt, a black sweater and moccasins; her hair was in long, narrow braids. She looked every bit the Barnard College and Brown University graduate that she is.
She has blended her two worlds, and when she talks about her beloved East Flatbush, her delight shows through.
She relishes the sounds of calypso, compa and reggae that thunder from the assorted shops along Avenue D in the East 40's, a stone's throw from her parents' home. The conversations on the streets are enlivened by hints of the Caribbean, peppered with a Haitian Creole clip here and a Spanish intonation there.
In fact, after living in Providence, R.I., where she earned a Master of Fine Arts degree at Brown, she craved the familiarity of East Flatbush and rushed back to Brooklyn and her family, which includes three brothers—Eliab, 24, a teacher in the Bronx, and Kelly, 20, and Carl, 18, both college students.
"To me, Brooklyn is the world," she says, adding that she tells people she is from Brooklyn by way of Haiti. "I can eat Haitian food or any food I want. You just can't get that anywhere."
In the tradition of Haitian families, where art and literature are seen more as pastimes that vocations, her parents still think of her as unemployed.
But she is very much at work.
A tiny room on the second floor, decorated with her Alpha Kappa Alpha relics and African tarot stickers, serves as her bedroom and office.
She writes on a Macintosh that is perched on a desk under a loft bed. It is there she completed a second book, Krik? Krak!, a collection of short stories to be published by Soho in April. She is doing research on another novel about Haitian sugar-cane cutters in the Dominican Republic.
When she rejoined her family in New York in 1981, Ms. Danticat told her father of her aspiration to become a writer. But he had other ideas. He told her she could write on weekends. A more respectable profession like medicine would be more suitable, he thought.
"My parents think that it's a hobby that ended up well," she said of her writing. "The only time that my work seemed honorable was when they came to the book party. That's when they finally grasped the importance of it."
During her high school years, Ms. Danticat said, she barely spoke above a whisper because she was embarrassed by her accent, which has now faded to almost nothing.
Having published her novel, she has to wear the mantle of being "the voice" of Haitian-Americans. It is a responsibility that she has accepted hesitantly.
An Excerpt from Breath, Eyes, Memory
The streets along Flatbush Avenue reminded me of home. My mother took me to Haiti Express, so I could see the place where she sent our money orders and cassettes from.
It was a small room packed with Haitians. People stood on line patiently waiting their turn. My mother slipped Tante Atie's cassette into a padded envelope. As we waited on line, an old fan circled a spider's web above our heads.
A chubby lady greeted my mother politely when we got to the window.
"This is Sophie," my mother said through the holes in the thick glass. "She is the one who has given you so much business over the years."
The lady smiled as she took my mother's money and the package. I kept feeling like there was more I wanted to send to Tante Atie. If I had the power then to shrink myself and slip into the envelope, I would have done it.
I watched as the lady stamped our package and dropped it on top of a larger pile. Around us were dozens of other people trying to squeeze all their love into small packets to send back home.
After we left, my mother stopped at a Haitian beauty salon to buy some castor oil for her hair. Then we went to a small boutique and bought some long skirts and blouses for me to wear to school. My mother said it was important that I learn English quickly. Otherwise, the American students would make fun of me or, even worse, beat me. A lot of other mothers from the nursing home where she worked had told her that their children were getting into fights in school because they were accused of having HBO—Haitian Body Odor. Many of the American kids even accused Haitians of having AIDS because they had heard on television that only the "Four Hs" got AIDS—Heroin addicts, Hemophiliacs, Homosexuals, and Haitians.
I wanted to tell my mother that I didn't want to go to school. Frankly, I was afraid. I tried to think of something to keep me from having to go. Sickness or death were probably the only two things that my mother would accept as excuses.
Edwidge Danticat, in Breath, Eyes, Memory, Soho Press, 1994.
"I think I have been assigned that role, but I don't really see myself as the voice for the Haitian-American experience," she said. "There are many. I'm just one."
This section contains 1,857 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)