I come from a place where breath, eyes and memory are one, a place from which you carry your past like the hair on your head.
I was first introduced to Danticat’s writing by the tutor of my American Literature module at university. This was her debut novel and it sparked a fascination with Haiti, somewhere that always seemed tragic, but also strangely magical. This book took those childhood impressions and put flesh on their bones. It showed the human cost of such a chequered history, particularly for women and it’s characters have stayed with me for a long time. I think it’s also a wonderful depiction of generational trauma, emotional healing and counselling’s place in that difficult process.
We follow a young woman called Sophie Caco, who lives in Haiti as a child with her Tante Attie. Then at the age of twelve is relocated to New York to live with her mother, with whom she needs to forge a relationship. Sophie doesn’t want to go, but has no choice. Up till this point Tante Attie has been the only mother she knows. Her mother left Haiti long ago with the ghosts of the past at her heels. Sophie doesn’t know what life will be like when she gets there, but she is anxious about the journey, immigration and what it will be like going to school with children who speak a different language. Sophie will need to think on her feet and adapt to the new way of life quickly. What she finds though, is that it’s hard to escape Haiti. It does not let go of its daughters and her mother suffers mood swings and nightmares linked to her past there. Generational pain and trauma are played out in this relationship until Sophie realises they must face Haiti together -aunts, mothers and daughters – if they are ever to break the cycle .
I loved Danticat’s way of comparing these two very different places and their contrast with what’s going on deep inside these characters. Haiti is a place of deep sadness, particularly for Sophie’s mum. For those who don’t know it’s political and social history, Haiti covers half of the island it shares with the Dominican Republic. For many years both countries were colonised by the Spanish, but in 1697 after disputing territory the Western side of the island was ceded to the French. However, unlike the Dominican, Haiti was stripped of all it’s natural resources, even down to the island’s trees which were cut down for logging and to make way for planting sugar cane, leaving the island prone to landslides and unprotected against tropical storms. All this left a rather bare country, peopled by slaves, harvesting the cane that would ship to Britain as the final part of the ‘slave triangle’. During the French Revolution, the slaves revolted under the leadership of Toussaint Louverture, and freed themselves. They were the first of the colonies to successfully liberate themselves and become a state on 1st January 1804. Whilst it was always politically turbulent, Haiti entered a reign of terror in 1956 under the autocratic government of Papa ‘Doc’ Duvalier and then his son until 1986; the period was characterized by state-sanctioned violence against the opposition and civilians, corruption, and economic stagnation. After 1986, Haiti began attempting to establish a more democratic political system. Yet the violence of the past thirty years left a legacy of pain in the people of Haiti, especially it’s women, for whom a history of sexual violence carried out by Papa Doc’s henchmen the ‘tonton macoutes’ had left them controlled and terrified.
Such a history leaves a legacy of rage and deep, deep sadness in the people. Yet Danticat depicts a vibrant culture filled colour, music, and incredible food. Tante Attie is an absolute rock of a woman. She’s a storyteller, passing down women’s stories and history to other woman. When we are without power, education and means we have to find other ways of recording our history – in the clothes we wear, the food we cook and the songs we sing. Attie is the keeper of her family’s history, but there are secrets she has kept, only because it is not her story to tell. It takes a departure from all that she knows for Sophie to truly know her family history and a practice past down through the generations which is horrifying to read. When women are mere commodities, to be owned by men, there are certain things that affect their value. Controlling the ways women behave is always set out by men, but often policed by other women.
True healing can only begin when we stop running from our past, instead we must confront it and begin to process any trauma we have experienced. Sophie’s mum must return to Haiti to do this. Meanwhile Sophie’s demons come calling when she gives birth to her daughter and actively chooses change. She must confide in her husband and seeks therapy to come to terms with her trauma. Only then can mother and daughter truly get to know one another. Despite it’s difficult subject matter I always feel that it’s a hopeful book. It seems to explore a psychological outlook I have held for a long time; anyone can create change in their life. Think how powerful and freeing that statement is. It’s up to us. This is a powerful look at a country that’s often seen as unlucky. Here we can see why and how that history has been constructed, largely by men and colonisers. Through this family of women we see a different Haiti. The violence and pain are real, but so is the beauty, the healing and the love.
There is always a place where, if you listen closely in the night, you will hear a mother telling a story and at the end of the tale she will ask you this question: “Ou libéré? Are you free my daughter?” My grandmother quickly pressed her fingers over my lips, “Now” she said “you will know how to answer.”
Meet The Author.
Edwidge Danticat is the author of several books, including Breath, Eyes, Memory, an Oprah Book Club selection, Krik? Krak!, a National Book Award finalist, The Farming of Bones, The Dew Breaker, Create Dangerously, Claire of the Sea Light, and Everything Inside. She is also the editor of The Butterfly’s Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States, Best American Essays 2011, Haiti Noir and Haiti Noir 2. She has written seven books for children and young adults, Anacaona, Behind the Mountains, Eight Days, The Last Mapou, Mama’s Nightingale, Untwine, My Mommy Medicine, as well as a travel narrative, After the Dance. Her memoir, Brother, I’m Dying, was a 2007 finalist for the National Book Award and a 2008 winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography. She is a 2009 MacArthur fellow, a 2018 Ford Foundation “The Art of Change” fellow, and the winner of the 2018 Neustadt International Prize and the 2019 St. Louis Literary Award.