September 4, 2007
Books of The Times
A Haitian Tragedy: Brothers Yearn in Vain
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
BROTHER, I'M DYING
By Edwidge Danticat
272 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $23.95.
When Edwidge Danticat was 2 years old, she recalls in this deeply affecting memoir, her father, Mira, left her and her brother in Haiti to move to New York City. Two years later, when her mother followed him to America, she left Edwidge with 10 new dresses she'd sewn, most of them too big for the little girl and meant to be saved to be worn in the years to come. During the following eight years Edwidge and her brother Bob lived with her father's brother, Joseph, and his wife, Denise, in their pink house in Bel Air, a Port-au-Prince neighborhood caught in the crossfire between rival political factions and gangs.
Since Joseph and Denise did not have a phone, and access to call centers was too costly, the family stayed in touch by mail. Every other month Edwidge's father mailed a half-page, three-paragraph letter addressed to her uncle - "the first paragraph offering news of his and my mother's health, the second detailing how to spend the money they had wired for food, lodging and school expenses for Bob and myself, the third section concluding abruptly after reassuring us that we'd be hearing again from him before long."
She later learned in a college composition class that her father's letters had been written in a so-called "diamond sequence, the Aristotelian `Poetics' of correspondence, requiring an opening greeting, a middle detail or request, and a brief farewell at the end." The letter-writing process had been such an "agonizing chore" for her father, she observes, that this "specific epistolary formula, which he followed unconsciously, had offered him a comforting way of disciplining his emotions." He later said to his daughter, "What I wanted to tell you and your brother was too big for any piece of paper and a small envelope."
In "Brother, I'm Dying," Ms. Danticat brings the lyric language and emotional clarity of her remarkable 2004 novel "The Dew Breaker" to bear on the story of her own family, a story which, like so much of her fiction, embodies the painful legacy of Haiti's violent history, demonstrating the myriad ways in which the public and the private, the political and the personal, intersect in the lives of that country's citizens and exiles. Ms. Danticat not only creates an indelible portrait of her two fathers, her dad and her uncle, but in telling their stories, she gives the reader an intimate sense of the personal consequences of the Haitian diaspora: its impact on parents and children, brothers and sisters, those who stay and those who leave to begin a new life abroad. She has written a fierce, haunting book about exile and loss and family love, and how that love can survive distance and separation, loss and abandonment and somehow endure, undented and robust.
Ms. Danticat's father was a tailor's apprentice - expected to sew two dozen shirts a day, for which he received about 5 cents a shirt – who eventually went into business for himself. When cheap, used clothes from the United States (called "Kennedys" because they were sent to Haiti during the Kennedy administration) flooded the country in the 1960s, he went to work as a shoe salesman, making less than the equivalent of $20 a month. Fear of being killed by the dreaded Tontons Macoutes (the violent enforcers of Francois Duvalier's murderous regime) would eventually lead him to start thinking about leaving Haiti for good. In America he and his wife settled in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, and for 20 years he would drive a gypsy cab.
Despite his brother's entreaties to move, Uncle Joseph clung to his home in Bel Air, determined not to be driven out. After the rise of Duvalier dashed his own political ambitions, he'd become a devout Baptist and decided to build his own church. Nothing could persuade him to abandon his congregation: not a radical laryngectomy (for a cancerous tumor) that left him unable to speak, not his desire to spend more time with brother and family in New York, not the growing violence in the streets outside his church.
Only the burning and looting of his church and death threats from local gangs - who mistakenly believed he had allowed riot police to shoot people from the roof of his building - finally drove Joseph from his home. But while he amazingly managed to smuggle himself out of the neighborhood, where a gang leader vowed to "burn him alive" if he were found, his flight to America would quickly spiral into a nightmare. After making it to Miami and asking for asylum , Ms. Danticat writes, her 81-year-old uncle was put into detention by United States officials. Shortly after arriving at the Krome detention facility, he fell ill and was transported to a hospital. He died a day later.
Meanwhile, in New York, Joseph's brother, Mira was failing. Suffering from end-stage pulmonary fibrosis, he found it increasingly difficult to drive or walk or speak. Even as his daughter learned that she was pregnant with her first child - a daughter she would name Mira, after him - he struggled to get through each day. He lost more and more weight, and took to wearing a jacket even on the warmest days to hide how thin he'd
Though Joseph had never wanted to leave his beloved Haiti, he was buried in a cemetery in Queens, "exiled finally in death," becoming "part of the soil of a country that had not wanted him." Not that much later he would be joined by his brother, Mira. Two brothers who made very different choices in their lives - one who wanted to stay in the homeland he loved, the other who wanted to invent a new life for himself in the north – and who ended up, side by side, in a graveyard in one of New York's outer boroughs.
"I wish I were absolutely certain that my father and uncle are now together in some tranquil and restful place," Ms. Danticat writes at the end of this moving book, "sharing endless walks and talks beyond what their too few and too short visits allowed. I wish I knew that they were offering enough comfort to one another to allow them both not to remember their distressing, even excruciating, last hours and days. I wish I could fully make sense of the fact that they're now sharing a grave site and tombstone in Queens, New York, after living apart for more than 30 years."
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company