An Artful Discussion About ‘The Art of Death’

Edwidge Danticat examines ways we leave the world as seen through her life and the narratives of other great writers.

Death is not about the end of life… It’s about absence.

In the introduction to this remarkably rich, brief examination of how literature has dealt with the end of life, National Book Critics Circle Award winner Edwidge Danticat welcomes the reader by examining the life of a writer. It’s her life, our life, and how she fits as somebody who has given testimony to her perspective as a woman, a Haitian, a memoirist, and a novelist. Best known for Breath, Eyes, Memory and other books that have shed a bright light on the Haitian experience, Danticat widens her perspective with The Art of Death and proves that the stories we tell each other about struggles and perseverance and (as is the case with this volume) eventually surrendering to the inevitability are universal.

The “Art Of” series, edited by Charles Baxter and published by Graywolf Press, has a mission that’s a mixture of the deeply personal, the brief, the comfortable, and the profound. The series has looked at (among other things) time in memoir, history, and description. Danticat has a difficult journey with her topic, but the mood she sets from her introduction onward proves she’s more than willing and able to handle it. The book is enveloped by the story of her mother, diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer in early 2014. She was fond of giving people copies of Danticat’s books, and during the period when they were consulting doctors about treatment, the gifting of books continued:

“‘This is a special woman, Dr. Blyden said, referring to my mother. ‘She raised an author.’ My mother beamed… that day made me want to… shout… ’My mother is dying and I write books!”

For Danticat, writing is about discovery. She continues, in the Introduction, to note that the ideas and works she plans to explore will not be objective but rather deeply personal. The authors she brings into this journey we will take with her have offered “… hints, clues, maps… to some still undiscovered and undefined ‘other side.’” Danticat starts, logically, with the legendary Christopher Hitchens. He’s the perfect guide to bring us into this narrative of imminent mortality. Hitchens was a steadfast essayist, a controversial political commentator whose switching of allegiances in that venue by the end of his life may have been more controversial than his ardent atheism. It was in that aspect Hitchens was the antithesis of Danticat’s mother, but the two shared a steadfast determination to not question why this imminent death was within sight.

One of Hitchens’s primary messages was clear, as Danticat quotes: “ ‘I don’t have a body, I am a body.” Two other essayists, Susan Sontag and Audre Lorde, also had the mission to create “living dyingly” texts, to “meet death elegantly”, and to not make death the central story. Therein lies the primary struggle for Danticat, and she brilliantly confronts it in this book. Like Dr. Sherwin Nuland’s landmark volume How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter (1993), and much of Oliver Sacks’ final work, Danticat weaves her way fearlessly through this terrain. That’s the point. Where some might relegate matters of faith (from birth to death) as “mysteries” whose purpose is not for us to understand, Danticat wants to go on this journey and understand that the objective is to be at peace with reaching deeply subjective conclusions.

Death is not about the end of life, or the termination of brain function and heart activity. It’s about absence. It’s not even about loss but rather pure absence. People are here, and suddenly they’re gone. If The Art of Death were some sort of van transporting expert witnesses through territory we’d rather not deal with until absolutely necessary, Toni Morrison and Leo Tolstoy are riding in the front seats. Take this passage, where Danticat examines the death of the eponymous character from Morrison’s 1973 debut novel Sula:

“…the definitive moment, at least for me, is not the death itself, which is stated simply enough (‘She was dead’) but the ‘crease of fear’…”

In Leo Tolstoy’s despair-filled short memoir Confession, and strong elements from the work of Albert Camus, the goal is simple. We write about death because it’s the only way to make sense of those losses. Putting it in context is the only way to ensure it will make sense, and we cannot stop until it makes sense. This is not about finding reasons, Danticat seems to be arguing. We need to be “…less haunted, to turn ghosts into words, to transform an absence into language.” Earlier in this chapter, “Ars Moriendi” (Latin for “The Art of Dying”), Danticat follows the train of thought from Tolstoy’s reported final words, “How do peasants die?”

“How do peasants die? Or how do mothers die? …Each death is as singular as the individual who is dying, and in the end… all we have is our faith and belief and imagination to either haunt or comfort us.”

Still in this long chapter, Danticat unravels a frightening personal connection while reflecting on Alice Sebold’s 2002 novel The Lovely Bones. Most who have read this book will remember the conceit. A girl named Susie Salmon routinely narrates the story of her murder and present time in the after life, watching those she’s left behind deal with her absence. In that novel, Susie tells not only her story but those of two others who had also been raped and murdered by the same man. “Each time I told my story, I lost a bit, the smallest drop of pain.” Sebold had paused the novel to write what would eventually become her memoir of rape Lucky, but it’s the sentence from The Lovely Bones that most resonated with Danticat. “Reading this line reminded me of the first time I thought someone could kill me.” This line from Danticat makes the reader wonder if more such times followed, but she’s judicious enough to not make this book completely about her own experiences.

In “Dying Together”, Danticat does continue with her own experiences, her own narrative, about time dealing with the devastating aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti. She’d been in Miami’s Little Haiti, but soon she was back in Haiti, sleeping on roofs, terrified about the prospect of aftershocks. Here, rather than stay with this narrative (which definitely could have been equally compelling), Danticat wisely stays with her mission. This story of her homeland reminded her of Haruki Murakami’s 2002 short story collection “After the Quake”, about similar devastation in Japan. There are the stories of natural disasters and statistics, death tolls and body bags, but Danticat notes that you cannot stay there and expect a compelling narrative. “The more specifically a death and its aftermath are described, the more moving they are to me.”

Danticat continues, in this chapter, by drawing in the tragedy of 9/11 and works by Don Delillo. She notes that around the 10th anniversary of those attacks, while her family members in Haiti were still finding bones of their relatives in the rubble, there were those who, on 9/11, were trying to be “unboned”, grabbing the hands of others and jumping from the tallest floors of either World Trade Center. It’s a devastating but apt comparison that speaks to Danticat’s attention to detail. The closer we get to the horror, the more darkly beautiful these narratives become. She ends her discussion of the 9/11 dead by quoting a heartbreaking Vanity Fair essay by Morrison published in the numb wake of that day. In it, Morrison aimed to address the dead, the disappeared, the absent loved ones:

“…To speak to you… I must be steady and I must be clear, knowing all the time that I have nothing to say — no words stronger than the steel that pressed you into yourself…”

In “Wanting to Die”, Danticat wisely notes that “Literature thrives on suffering.” Tolstoy knew, with Anna Karenina, that he could not have his title character throw herself under a train without describing every detail. For Tolstoy suicide was apparently immoral, but he did not impose that sense of judgement on his tragic heroine. This chapter sensitively and clearly deals with suicide both in high drama (Tolstoy) and reality (memoirs from Poet Anne Sexton’s daughter.) Danticat notes, at the end of this chapter, that “Even though Anne Sexton is dead, both she and her daughter continue to do language, and that in the end may be the measure of both their lives.” It’s an apt call back to Toni Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Literature Lecture, which Danticat quotes earlier in this book:

“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

In “Condemned to Die”, Danticat examines infanticide in Morrison’s novels and her own. She makes us want to re-visit these stories. Further, she neither excuses nor forgives these characters and their actions. The chapter jumps seamlessly from Anton Chekhov, the great Russian writer, to Mumia Abu-Jamal, the Philadephia journalist and radio commentator who spent 30 years on death row. As with the earlier chapters, she refuses to tentatively enter the darkness. Moreover, she ensures that the job of the writer is to testify.

In “Circles and Circles of Sorrow”, Danticat confesses “I realize I’m writing this in circles. This is the only way it makes sense to me now.” From the Christian ruminations of C.S. Lewis, to The Beatitudes from the Bible, the chapter also looks at the subconscious. “Dreams are sometimes portals of grief,” Danticat writes.

“One of the tragedies of death is that it interrupts a lifelong dialogue, rendering it a monologue.” Earlier in her book, Danticat draws in a line from Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient who notes:

“Death… means you are in the third person.”

More so than any other job, Danticat never forgets to be a writer, even in the darkest moments.

By the end of this book, in the chapter “Feetfirst” Danticat brings the story to a full circle conclusion. She gives us a visual to accompany her mother’s idea that we enter the world head first and leave it feet first. “When my mother was dying, I kept taking cell phone pictures of her feet — in sandals, in socks, barefoot.” She took the pictures to remind her of walks they’d shared together. A cemetery was nearby, but for Danticat and her mother the dead were not neighbors. Their dead were only passing through.

The beauty of the way Danticat envelops her story with this narrative of her mother speaks to the stunning grace and power of The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story. We die through close calls, murder, natural disasters, through the authority of the state, or the unavoidable inevitability of cancer, heart disease, and other illnesses. This is a volume that respectfully and brilliantly draws in astute observations about scores of great writers and their relationship with death. More important, the skill and tact she employs in bringing outside texts into her narrative should be a required roadmap that will reward inquisitive readers for years to come.