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A Haitian Tragedy: Brothers Yearn in Vain

Posted: Sat Sep 08, 2007 7:30 am
by Guysanto
September 4, 2007
Books of The Times
A Haitian Tragedy: Brothers Yearn in Vain


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."

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Posted: Sat Sep 08, 2007 7:51 am
by Guysanto
By Edwidge Danticat.
272 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $23.95.

A New York Times Book Review
by Jess Row , Sept. 9, 2007

Joseph Dantica, one of two brothers at the heart of this family memoir, was a remarkable man: a Baptist minister who founded his own church and school in Port-au-Prince, Haiti; a survivor of throat cancer who returned to the pulpit using a mechanical voice box; a loyal husband and family man who raised his niece Edwidge Danticat to the age of 12, when she joined her parents in Brooklyn. (The “t” at the end of “Danticat” is the result of a clerical error on her father's birth certificate.) When Dantica fled Haiti in 2004, after a battle between United Nations peacekeepers and chimères — gang members — destroyed his church and put his life in jeopardy, he was 81, with high blood pressure and heart problems, and yet for 30 years had resisted his family's pleas to emigrate to the States. He intended to return and rebuild his church as soon as the fighting stopped. But to the Department of Homeland Security officers who examined him in Miami, his plea for temporary asylum meant he was simply another unlucky Haitian determined to slip through their fingers. When he collapsed during his “credible fear” interview and began vomiting, the medic on duty announced, “He's faking.” That refusal of treatment cost him his life: he died in a Florida hospital, probably in shackles, the following day.

How does a novelist, who trades in events filtered through imagination and memory, recreate an event so recent, so intimate and so outrageous, an attack on her own loyalties and sense of deepest belonging? The story of Joseph Dantica could be, perhaps will be, told in many forms: as a popular ballad (performed, in my imagination, by Wyclef Jean); as Greek tragedy; as agitprop theater; as a bureaucratic nightmare worthy of Kafka. But Edwidge Danticat, true to her calling, has resisted any of these predictable responses. “Anger is a wasted emotion,” says the narrator of “The Dew Breaker,” her most recent novel; in telling her family's story, she follows this dictum almost to a fault, giving us a memoir whose cleareyed prose and unflinching adherence to the facts conceal an astringent undercurrent of melancholy, a mixture of homesickness and homelessness.

Haunting the book throughout is a fear of missed chances, long-overdue payoffs and family secrets withering on the vine: a familiar anxiety when one generation passes to another too quickly. In the first chapter Danticat learns she is pregnant with her first child just as her father, Mira, receives a diagnosis of pulmonary fibrosis and loses his livelihood as a New York cabdriver after more than 25 years. At a family meeting, one of his sons asks him, “Have you enjoyed your life?” Mira pauses before answering, and when he does, he frames the response entirely in terms of his children: “You, my children, have not shamed me. ... You all could have turned bad, but you didn't. ... Yes, you can say I have enjoyed my life.”

That pause, and that answer, neatly encapsulates an unpleasant, though obvious, truth: immigration often involves a kind of generational sacrifice, in which the migrants themselves give up their personal ambitions, their families, native countries and the comforts of the mother tongue, to spend their lives doing menial work in the land where their children and grandchildren thrive. On the other hand, there is the futility, and danger, of staying put in a country that over the course of Danticat's lifetime has spiraled from almost routine hardship — the dictatorship of the Duvaliers and the Tontons Macoute — to the stuff of nightmares. Danticat's father and uncle stand on opposite sides of this bitter divide.

It is Joseph's story that takes up the better part of the book. He began life in a farming family in the rural town of Beauséjour, moved to Port-au-Prince in the late 1940s to seek a better life and fell under the sway of the populist leader Daniel Fignolé, who became president but was deposed three weeks later and was eventually replaced by François Duvalier. Joseph's disenchantment with politics and gift for rousing oration led him to the Baptist church, and for more than four decades he served as a pastor, school principal and community leader, doing the quiet work of maintaining and uplifting the people around him — including his large extended family. Though he was a strong supporter of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, he served as a witness and chronicler of the crimes and abuses committed by all sides. Had his life and Haiti's history turned out differently, his records and eyewitness reports — destroyed in the burning of his church — might have been used as evidence in human rights tribunals bringing the country's leaders to justice.
All of which makes what happened to him in 2004 the more outrageous. In Danticat's recounting, the United Nations peacekeepers who arrived to stabilize the country after Aristide was forced into exile appear far more interested in battling local gangs than in serving the traumatized civilian population. The Creole expression for this kind of governance is “mòe;de soufle”: “where those who are most able to obliterate you are also the only ones offering some illusion of shelter and protection.” Joseph Dantica's greatest failing, it appears, was his refusal to cut deals or strategize; his withdrawal from politics early in life left him without the instincts or vocabulary to defend his church and himself. He arrived in the United States holding a valid tourist visa, but because of the circumstances and his intent to return later than he had originally planned, he insisted on asking for “temporary asylum,” not fully comprehending what this meant. Had he not clung so stubbornly to his own truth, he might still be alive.

After his brother was buried — against his wishes, not in Haiti but in Queens — Danticat's father declared: “He shouldn't be here. If our country were ever given a chance and allowed to be a country like any other, none of us would live or die here.” Danticat lets this stand without comment; we are left to imagine how painful it must have been for her and her American-born siblings to hear this sentiment spoken aloud. Are Haitians in America immigrants, and the children of immigrants, or exiles? Do they accept a hybrid identity, a hyphen, or do they keep alive the hope of “next year in Port-au-Prince,” so to speak? Of course, in one sense, it's a pointless question: when her parents couldn't understand her “halting and hesitant Creole,” Danticat reports, they would respond, “Sa blan an di?” — “What did the foreigner say?” She and her brothers, from all appearances, are fully, firmly assimilated; her own success, as a writer of novels in a distinctly American idiom — English being her third language — is the ultimate proof of that.

There is, however, such a thing as self-imposed, psychic exile: a feeling of estrangement and alienation within one's adopted culture, a nagging sense of homelessness and dispossession. “A man who repudiates his language for another changes his identity,” wrote E. M. Cioran, a Romanian exile in Paris for nearly 60 years: “He breaks with his memories and, to a certain point, with himself.” “Brother, I'm Dying,” in its cool, understated way, begins to gesture in that direction. Danticat's father died shortly after Joseph and was buried under the same tombstone; she imagines them together again in Beauséjour, reconciled and happy once more. But she makes no indication of how she might reconcile these shattering events with her own near-miraculous American odyssey. It's hard to imagine how anyone could.

Jess Row is the author of “The Train to Lo Wu,” a collection of stories.

Posted: Sat Sep 08, 2007 8:05 am
by Barb
I have been touched and disturbed by the death of her uncle since it occured. So many people suffer and die in such needless ways. It is somehow very sad that it takes a gifted writer to transform the story of such a death into something that we can perceive for the tragedy that it is.

One of my students asked me yesterday, "Why do they hate us so much when we are working so hard and doing so much good for the United States?" She is part of the current flood of new immigrants. A tough question from an eleven year old, and I'm not sure that any answer is good enough.