Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Breath, Eyes, Memory from Edwidge Danticat


At the age of twelve, Sophie Caco is sent from her impoverished Haitian village to New York to be reunited with a mother she barely remembers. There she discovers secrets that no child shouldever know, and a legacy of shame that can be healed only when she returns to Haiti – to the women who first reared her. What ensues is a passionate journey through a landscape charged with the supernatural and scarred by political violence.

In her stunning literary debut, Danticat evokes the wonder, terror, and heartache of her native Haiti – and the enduring strength of Haiti’s women – with vibrant imagery and narrative grace that bear witness to her people’s suffering and courage.

Reading this incredible debut novel at university sparked a lifelong interest in the history of Haiti and its people. The republic shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic and despite only occupying three eighths of the island, it has a staggering population of 11.4 million making it the most populated island in the Caribbean Sea. However, there is a huge Haitian diaspora with many residents relocating to the USA, probably due to the fact that Haiti has the lowest Human Development Index in the world. The indigenous Taino people seem to have been the original residents of the island, but the first European settlers landed in the 1400’s claiming the island for Spain and it remained part of the Spanish Empire until the 17th Century. The French then laid claim to the most westerly point of the island and they brought the first slaves to Haiti for labour on their new sugar plantations. It has the incredible honour of being the first island in the Americas to abolish slavery after a successful slave revolt led by Toussaint Louverture and eventually declared sovereignty on Jan 1st 1894 under his successor Dessalines. As the country slowly united there were attempts to declare the whole island as Haiti, but eventually they recognised the Dominican Republic as a separate state. Haiti has been notoriously unstable due to crippling debt owed to France, the dearth of resources left by the French and Spanish, as well as political volatility. The USA took control of the island in the early twentieth century, until Haitian leader Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier took power in 1956 and it is this period that is explored in the novel. Papa Doc’s reign and the following rule of his son known as ‘Baby Doc’, was characterized by state-sanctioned violence, against any political opposition and it’s own civilians, corruption, and economic stagnation. It was only after 1986 that Haiti began attempting to establish a more democratic political system.

Danticat’s story is about the women of Haiti, particularly the three generations of Sophie’s family, and how this period of history impacted upon the women of Haiti. Sophie has been brought up by her Tante Atie and this is a beautifully warm relationship that really grounds Sophie in her Haitian identity. They are also incredibly close to her Grandma Ifé who tells Sophie stories passed down orally about people who could carry the sky on their heads. Atie is beautifully conveyed as a loving but slightly abrupt woman, conflicted between the needs created by her own motherlessness and her love for this child who has been left behind. Both Sophie and Atie have a void that each other can fill, but Atie is honour bound not to replace Sophie’s mother and to be sure that her mother’s wishes are carried out. This comes to a head one Mother’s Day when Sophie takes a Mother’s Day card home from school clearly wanting to give it to her aunt, not the woman living thousands of miles away who she’s never met. Danticat is very adept at evoking her homeland with recipes and descriptions of mouth watering food. It’s not been a wealthy upbringing, but it is rich in stories, colour, warmth and nourishment. So when Sophie is sent to live with her mother in New York City the contrast is stark and confusing. Whereas Tante Atie seems comfortable in her skin, Sophie’s mother is shown to diet and use skin lightening creams, showing an obvious discomfort about her body and possibly even her identity as a black Haitian woman.

Men are largely absent in this novel, but their impact is enormous. Maxine lives in an apartment with her boyfriend and Sophie hears her mother’s nightmares through the wall. Left alone for long periods, Sophie forms a friendship with a male neighbour in the apartment block. This seems to trigger Maxine and the truth of Sophie’s family starts to come to light, as her mother becomes obsessed with protecting her. She begins the horrific practice of ‘testing’ her daughters virginity – something apparently passed down from her own mother – causing shame, confusion and trauma. Sophie learns she is a child of rape and we travel back to the Haiti of Maxine’s teenage years where she is spotted by one of the ‘Tonton Macoutes’ – Papa Doc’s foot soldiers and the bogeymen of every Haitian child’s nightmares. He drags Maxine into the sugar cane field and assaults her. It will take a return to Haiti, for both Sophie and her Mother, to bring about healing. Danticat beautifully portrays inter generational trauma and the oppression of women that’s caused by the patriarchal system, but enacted by mothers on their daughters. Daughters who were virgins kept their value in the marriage market, just as in other cultures the men want wives who have undergone FGM. It takes rebellion and refusal from the women to create change. Sophie must also face the the ghosts of slavery, represented by the sugar cane her ancestors were brought from Africa to cut. Danticat paints a vivid, colourful but painful picture of a country created by trauma that is still felt many centuries later. She explores how each new generation must find some way to live with that past, whether by leaving the country of their birth for something different or by staying to face the past and break the chain of hurt each generation has passed on to the next. This is an emotional, evocative and difficult read in parts, but is a beautiful debut from an author whose love of her homeland shines through.

This edition published by Abacus 7th March 1996

Meet the Author

Edwidge Danticat picture from Fresh Air Archive

Edwidge Danticat was born in Haiti in 1969 and came to the United States when she was twelve years old. She graduated from Barnard College and received an M.F.A. from Brown University. She made an auspicious debut with her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, and followed it with the story collection Krik? Krak!, whose National Book Award nomination made Danticat the youngest nominee ever. She lives in New York.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat.

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.

Posted in Netgalley

The Island at the Edge of the World by Deborah Rodriguez.

#TheIslandAtTheEdgeOfTheWorld #Netgalley #LittleBrownBookGroup

I have loved reading this novel while in lockdown, because it’s taken me away from my everyday life and thrown all my senses into the vibrant country of Haiti. I’ve been introduced to Haitian literature at university many years ago and love the author Edwidge Danticat. I’ve also read a lot about the history of the island and particularly the aftermath of the terrible earthquake, This novel follows four protagonists in that same time period. Charlie works as a hairdresser and has a great relationship with her grandmother but is estranged from her mother. Charlie has a traumatic past. These issues are both common to women in Haiti – trauma and the estrangement of families. Her grandmother Bea, thinks that Charlie needs a relationship with her mother to make sense of her past and find peace.Lizbeth has travelled to the island from Texas and is hoping to find her grandchild. She’s a widow, who has taken the courage to travel alone and find this part of her family that’s missing from her life. Senzy lives in Haiti and has a pivotal role in teaching these women true strength and resilience of spirit.

The descriptions of the island are immersive, I was assailed by sights, smells and colour until I’d built up such a vivid sense of place it was weird to look up and see my own living room! I enjoyed being educated about Voodoo. I knew how it came about as a combination of African animistic religions from the days of slavery and the French occupiers who practised Catholicism. It was interesting to see what the practice means to everyday Haitians and where spirituality fits into their lives. I also enjoyed the contradiction in both the island and the women of the novel. Haitian women are described as walking with ‘surety’, a pride and certainty in themselves. Rodriguez writes that you were left in no doubt they were not to be messed with. The island is equally bold and strong, but underneath there is some weakness – a sense that life here can be very fragile, despite its vibrant, powerful appearance.

Rodriguez will open some people9s eyes with her exploration of Haitian politics and society. There is, it seems, almost a resigned acceptance that corruption permeates all official organisations. As I know from my own reading, this extends to the NGOs too. The people have seen decades of this and it is now part of life. I find that so sad and struggle to imagine how trapped those at the bottom of society feel – nothing they do can make a difference. Through one of the narratives the author shows how corrupt the orphanages are in the country. Even those trying to help, might have ulterior motives.

Each woman felt real to me and I knew them well by the end of the novel. The author weaves their past into the narrative so we understand how they came to be here. They are well rounded with as many flaws as good points, but that only serves to make them more relatable. More than anything though I loved being immersed in this incredible place and the author completes the experience by giving us information on how to help and recipes to try. This is brilliant for me as I like to cook something to complement the book on my book club evenings. It is rare to come across a novel that balances both escapism and a social conscience but this book has both elements.

Meet The Author

Deborah Rodriguez spent five years teaching at and later directing the Kabul Beauty School, the first modern beauty academy and training salon in Afghanistan. Rodriguez also owned the Cabul Coffee House. She is now a hairdresser, a motivational speaker, and the author of the bestselling novel The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul. Deborah currently lives in Mexico where she owns the Tippy Toes Salon. To learn more about her visit http://www.debbierodriguez.com