In her fiction, Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat (The Dew Breaker) has a nice way of keeping you off-balance. Her prose may be trickless clarity itself, but the angles at which a scene or anecdote unfolds in her hands can often come as a surprise.
She’s an alchemist of understatement and the oblique hint. And while her writing is often cool and taut on the surface, it’s rife with hidden currents and flashes of warmth. Again and again she’s able to distill her subject matter—exile existence, refugee desperation, political torture and upheaval in Haiti itself—to the point where a tale that is epic in scope is somehow given ample due in well under 300 pages.
Her ability to render large complex stories in compact format is powerfully evident in her new memoir, Brother, I’m Dying, a finalist for this year’s National Book Award. But there’s nothing oblique about her storytelling method here. She comes head-on at the painful tale she has to tell, with results that are both eloquent and devastating.
Brother, I’m Dying is the story of two Haitian brothers: the author’s father, Brooklyn cabdriver Andre Miracin Danticat (“Mira” to his family and friends), and her uncle, preacher Joseph Nosius Dantica, who served a congregation in one of the roughest neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. (An error on Mira’s birth certificate led to the different spellings of the family name.)
Brother is the story, too, of Danticat’s pregnancy during the year when her 69-year-old father was found to be terminally ill with pulmonary fibrosis and her 81-year-old uncle had to flee his country when rebel gangs burned down his church and threatened his life. Joseph made it out, only to die a week later while under the care of U.S. Customs and Border Protection—whose treatment of a shattered and sick old man was so callous and snarled in unnecessary red tape, it beggars belief. (Joseph had battled throat cancer and used an artificial voice box, complicating communications with him; he also, unknowingly, had pancreatitis.)
In flashbacks, the book recounts how both men acted as fathers to Danticat and her younger brother Bob. Mira, a shoe salesman, began to think of fleeing Haiti when Papa Doc Duvalier’s militia, the Tonton Macoutes, took to helping themselves to his footwear. He made the move to Brooklyn in 1971, followed by his wife two years later. Edwidge and Bob were left with Joseph and his wife in Port-au-Prince. Eight years later, they joined their parents and two new U.S.-born brothers in Brooklyn (an awkward reintegration of family that Danticat details with a poignant precision).
Danticat, drawing on her own memories, family reminiscences and U.S. government documentation, makes vivid every stage of this fractured family history. In her hands, the distance between experience as it’s lived and experience as it’s rendered on the page all but disappears. A sentence as spare and unadorned as “Wrong was now the norm,” for instance, has a power beyond anything you might expect, simply because of its careful placement in Danticat’s flow of recollection. This is an author who hits her targets with minimum fuss.
Danticat is also an author with a political point to make. “In Florida,” she writes, “where Cuban refugees are ... immediately processed and released to their families, Haitian asylum seekers are disproportionately detained, then deported.”
Given that the U.S., through military occupation (1915-1934) and other intercessions, has been entangled with Haiti for almost a century, it doesn’t seem unreasonable that a more merciful policy regarding Haitian refugees be put into effect—especially when they have family in the U.S. able and willing to take them in. The story of Joseph’s death at the hands of a fumbling, unsympathetic bureaucracy is harrowing.
Danticat, in her self-portrait, comes across as shy and a little awkward, but also forthright when put on the spot—and very determined, from an early age, to be a writer. Her most notable quirk: waiting until the last possible minute to blurt vital news (of her pregnancy, for instance) during family visits.
If you have any interest in why would-be immigrants risk so much to reach this country, you will want to read Danticat. And if you already have an interest in Danticat, you will want to read this book.