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Winner of a Pushcart Short Story Prize and a finalist for a National Book Award in 1995, Edwidge Danticat is a Hatian-American writer whose work has received positive critical attention. Her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994), was selected for Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Immigration from Haiti
Fiction writer Danticat was born in Haiti and lived there the first twelve years of her life. In 1981, she came to the United States, joining her parents who had already begun to build a life for themselves in New York City. When she started attending junior high school in Brooklyn, she had difficulty fitting in with her classmates because of her Haitian accent, clothing, and hairstyle. Danticat recalled for Garry Pierre-Pierre in the New York Times that she took refuge from the isolation she felt by writing about her native land. As an adolescent, she began what would evolve into her first novel, 1994’s highly acclaimed Breath, Eyes, Memory. Danticat followed her debut with a 1995 collection of short stories, Krik? Krak!—a volume that became a finalist for that year’s National Book Award. According to Pierre-Pierre, the young author has been heralded as ”’the voice’ of Haitian-Americans,” but Danticat told him: ”i think i have been assigned that role, but i don’t really see myself as the voice for the Haitian-American experience. There are many. I’m just one.”
Publishing in New York City
Danticat’s parents wanted her to pursue a career in medicine, and with the goal of becoming a nurse, she attended a specialized high school in New York City. However, she abandoned this aim to devote herself to her writing. An earlier version of Breath, Eyes, Memory served as her master of fine arts thesis at Brown University, and the finished version was published shortly thereafter. Like Danticat herself, Sophie Caco, the novel’s protagonist, spent her first twelve years in Haiti, several of them in the care of an aunt, before coming wide-eyed to the United States. There the similarities end. Sophie is the child of a single mother, conceived by rape. Though she rejoins her mother in the United States, it is too late to save the still-traumatized older woman from self-destruction. Yet, women’s ties to women are celebrated in the novel, and Sophie draws strength from her mother, her aunt, and herself in order to escape her mother’s fate.
Haitian Politics Influence Writing
Haiti’s difficult history influences much of Danticat’s work. Father and son dictators, Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier, brutally ruled Haiti from the 1950s through the 1980s with the help of a vicious army called the Tonton Macoutes. When the younger Duvalier was overthrown in 1986, Haitians were overjoyed and full of hope for a democratic country. Former members of the Tonton Macoutes took power, however, and circumstances did not improve much until 1990, when former Roman Catholic priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president. Political violence and persistent poverty have remained central features of Haitian society. The Tonton Macoutes are the subject of Danticat’s novel The Dew Breaker (2004).
Danticat continues to write about the dual experience of life in Haiti and America throughout her fiction. She won the National Book Award in 1999 for her book The Farming of Bones (1998), a historical novel centering on the massacre of thousands of Haitians living near the Dominican border in 1937. Danticat lives, writes, and teaches in New York City.
Works in Literary Context
Danticat focuses on Haitian culture and tradition in her writing. Breath, Eyes, Memory, told through the eyes of Sophie Caco, details the lives of four generations of Haitian women as they struggle against poverty, violence, and prejudice in Haiti and the United States. Encompassing contemporary Haitian history, the novel portrays the country’s recent upheavals at the hands of the Duvalier regime and its brutal secret police, the Tonton Macoutes. While the stories in Krik? Krak!—the title refers to a Haitian story telling game in which one person’s story is exchanged for another—employ a wide range of plot types and characters, each story is part of the larger tale of Haiti. Some of the power of Danticat’s fiction lies in its shocking subject matter which mirrors the nation’s brutal political climate; she often depicts violent death, incest, rape, and extreme poverty. Danticat fills her stories with characters who exist within a painful external world. Like Haitian writers who have come before her, Danticat battles against the despair of the past and the pain of exile while also describing a culture in which people learn, love, and laugh. Despite growing up in a society which often seeks to silence women, Danticat has found her voice. She has found a way to tell the stories of her country’s men and women in a modern voice that brings attention to the problems of the past.
Oral narrative is the method that many cultures have used to maintain their family histories; a mother tells stories to her daughter, for instance, as a way of keeping the family identity alive. A strong part of Haitian culture is its tradition of storytelling. The title of Danticat’s second book, Krik? Krak!, a collection of short stories, bears witness to her rich heritage of storytelling and is explained in the epigram: ”We tell the stories so that the young ones will know what came before them. They say Krik? We say Krak! Our stories are kept in our hearts.” Krik? Krak! takes its title from the practice of Haitian storytellers. Danticat told Deborah Gregory of Essence magazine that storytelling is a favorite entertainment in Haiti. A storyteller inquires of his or her audience, ”Krik?” to ask if they are ready to listen; the group then replies with an enthusiastic, ”Krak!” The tales in this collection include one about a man attempting to flee Haiti in a leaky boat, another about a prostitute who tells her son that the reason she dresses up every night is that she is expecting an angel to descend upon their house, and yet another is exploring the feelings of a childless housekeeper in a loveless marriage who finds an abandoned baby in the streets. Ms.’s Jordana Hart felt that the tales in Krik? Krak! ”are textured and deeply personal, as if the twenty-six-year-old Haitian-American author had spilled her own tears over each.”
Works in Critical Context
Most commentators have found Danticat’s works to be powerful fiction, conveyed with sure-handed style. Breath, Eyes, Memory has been praised by many critics for its lyric language, which provides a counterpoint to the novel’s occasionally dire subject matter. Some reviewers suggested that Danticat did not display complete control of her material in this book, lavishing detailed descriptive passages on things and events that did not warrant them. Most point out that this is a flaw common to many first novels. Critics have lauded Krik? Krak! for the diversity of narrative voices and literary styles presented in the stories. Danticat is again praised for making potentially downbeat material readable and enjoyable through her skillful, lyrical use of language. Critics have noted that some of the stories reveal a too self-conscious manipulation of form and structure, a false note of “preciousness” that detracts from their realism. Most critics agree with Richard Eder, however, that the ”best of [the stories], using the island tradition of a semi-magical folktale, or the witty, between-two-worlds voices of modern urban immigrants, are pure beguiling transformation.”
Breath, Eyes, Memory
Breath, Eyes, Memory caused some controversy in the Haitian-American community. Some of Danticat’s fellow Haitians felt that some of the practices she documented portrayed them as primitive and abusive. American critics, however, widely lauded Breath, Eyes, Memory. Joan Philpott in Ms. hailed the book as ”intensely lyrical.” Garry Pierre-Pierre in the New York Times, reported that reviewers ”have praised Ms. Danticat’s vivid sense of place and her images of fear and pain.” Jim Gladstone concluded in the New York Times Book Review that the novel ”achieves an emotional complexity that lifts it out of the realm of the potboiler and into that of poetry.” Bob Shacochis, in his Washington Post Book World review, called the work ”a novel that rewards a reader again and again with small but exquisite and unforgettable epiphanies.” Shacochis added, ”You can actually see Danticat grow and mature, come into her own strength as a writer, throughout the course of this quiet, soul-penetrating story about four generations of women trying to hold on to one another in the Haitian diaspora.”
- Eder, Richard. ”A Haitian Fantasy and Exile.” Newsday (March 30, 1995): B2, B25.
- Epstein, Grace A. Antioch Review (1990): 106.
- Farley, Christopher John. Time (Sept. 7, 1998): 78.
- Gladstone, Jim. Review of Breath, Eyes, Memory. New York Times Book Review (July 10, 1994): 24.
- Gregory, Deborah. ”Edwidge Danticat: Dreaming of Haiti” (interview). Essence (April 1995): 56.
- Hart, Jordana. Review of Krik? Krak!. Ms. (March-April 1995): 75.
- Philpott, Joan. ”Two Tales of Haiti” (review of Breath, Eyes, Memory). Ms. (Mar-Apr 1994): 77-78.
- Pierre-Pierre, Garry. ”Haitian Tales, Flatbush Scenes.” New York Times (Jan. 26, 1995): C1, C8.
- Shacochis, Bob. ”Island in the Dark.” Washington Post Book World (Apr 3, 1994): 6.
- Edwidge, Danticat. Voices from the Gap. Retrieved September 29, 2008, from http://voices.cla.umn.edu/vg/Bios/entries/danticat_edwidge.html.
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