Edwidge Danticat | Critical Essay by Paul Moses

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Edwidge Danticat.
This section contains 1,020 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Paul Moses

Critical Essay by Paul Moses

SOURCE: "Haitian Dream, Brooklyn Memory," in Newsday, May 21, 1995, p. A52.

In the following essay, Moses provides an overview of Danticat's life and career.

Novelist Edwidge Danticat remembers that when she went to junior high school in Crown Heights, it was hard to be proud of being Haitian.

The newcomers took separate classes taught in Creole. When they gathered with other students, they were met with taunts that Haitians had AIDS. "There were a lot of fights with blood, because when teased, the students would react," Danticat remembers.

But childhood memories have served Danticat well, helping to inspire her in writing two books that have won her national attention at the age of 26. Her work has brought the Haitian immigrant experience to the American literary world and introduced a new chapter in the literature of Brooklyn.

In an interview last month in the living room of her East Flatbush home, she was serene but full of anticipation. She sat straight up in an easy chair and said she looked forward to a national book tour.

Her 1994 novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, had just been issued by Vintage Books in paperback; a collection of short stories, Krik? Krak!, was released that day by Soho Press.

"It's hard to imagine it all started last year," she said as she described her plans to travel to Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Minneapolis to promote her books.

They were new places for Danticat, who moved to Brooklyn at the age of 12.

Like the people she writes about, her life has been detoured by the politics and hardships of her homeland. Her father, Andre, a taxi driver, left Haiti when she was a toddler. Her mother, Rose, a factory worker, followed when she was 4. She remained behind to be raised by an aunt.

In her novel, she writes about Sophie Caco, who took a similar path.

"It's something we're always trying to define, what it means for our children, when they lead half their lives in one place and half their lives in another," Danticat said.

Sophie loves the yellow daffodils, the smell of cinnamon rice pudding, the plantains, the yams, the magical stories and games of childhood in Haiti. And she loves her Tante Atie, who raised her.

"You kind of know more the wonderfulness of it as a child," Danticat said of her homeland.

But Haiti's troubled politics also intrude on Sophie's life. As she heads for Port-au-Prince to catch a flight to New York, her aunt hurries her away as soldiers shoot and beat demonstrators.

When Sophie arrives in Brooklyn, there are fights over "HBO"—Haitian body odor. "Many of the American kids even accused Haitians of having AIDS because they heard on television that only the 'Four H's' got AIDS—heroin addicts, hemophiliacs, homosexuals and Haitians," Danticat wrote.

That detail comes from her years at Jackie Robinson Intermediate School in Crown Heights. "The most autobiographical part involves my childhood because my story is very similar," Danticat said.

She went on to Clara Barton High School in Prospect Heights, where she wrote about her experiences for New Youth Connections, the citywide newspaper for high school students.

"When she was a ninth grader, she was in my writing class. I really was very impressed with her," said teacher Fay Thomas. "She was very creative and wrote well. The thing that I really remember about her is that she was very quiet in class, very conscientious."

Guidance counselor Marianne Finn recalled Danticat, who graduated in 1986, as a very quiet and family-oriented young lady.

"She pretty much stood in the background, very shy, extremely reticent about speaking up," she said. Then she saw Danticat on the "MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour," outspoken on immigration issues. "I said this is not the Edwidge I knew, by no means."

Danticat got her bachelor's degree from Barnard College and then a master of fine arts degree from Brown University—the novel was her thesis—before returning home to live with her parents and three brothers.

Today, home is a quiet side street off Avenue D. with spacious, one-family brick-and-frame detached houses, a block association, friendly neighbors and birds chirping in the trees.

"For a long time, Brooklyn was America. It's a place that has made a big impression on me," she said. She enjoys watching how people of many national origins adapt to life here.

"People are re-creating home all over Brooklyn," she said. "The way I see Brooklyn, it's like a country, a world with all its neighborhoods. There's a lot here, especially for immigrants. For Haitian immigrants, it's often a first stop."

This theme of adapting to change appears in the longest story in her new collection.

The story, "Caroline's Wedding," focuses on two Haitian-American sisters and their mother. One sister has just become a U.S. citizen, the other is about to marry an American man despite her mother's uneasiness.

"I kind of pictured it happening in this house," she said.

The scene is indeed East Flatbush, right down to the B-8 bus.

Danticat's work "has been extremely well received in the Caribbean community, especially in the Haitian community," said Règine Latortue, chairwoman of the Africana Studies Department and professor of comparative black literature at Brooklyn College.

Her first book, Latortue added, "is the first novel we know of entirely in English by a Haitian woman…. In many ways, she is a pioneer."

"Naturally there are some reservations," continued Latortue, an immigrant from Haiti. "Particularly about her depiction of the family practice that she describes."

She was referring to passages in the novel about "testing," a practice in which mothers physically examine their daughters to check whether they are virgins. In the novel, it is seen as contributing to sexual dysfunction.

"Almost virtually everybody says that has not been done in their families," Latortue said. "… But other than that, and that really has riled people up, people are happy."

"We don't really talk comfortably about these things in our culture," said Danticat. She said people have told her: "There's so many things negative [that] people say about us. Why would you want to write about this?"

But for the most part, "I think people in the community in general are very kind," she said. "Women will say, 'Thank you for telling our story.'"

(read more)

This section contains 1,020 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Paul Moses
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