The Most Important Story of Her Life (Poets & Writers)
While Haitian American author Edwidge Danticat's widely recognized writing career has been a journey of constant exploration and growth, the alternately terrifying and hopeful events of 2004 provided her with the greatest test of her skills so far.
-- Sept/Oct 2007
By Nina Shen Rastogi
ON A hot day this past June, the massive annual publishing binge known as Book Expo America (BEA) once again descended on New York City. Over the convention's three days, an estimated thirty-seven thousand people streamed through Manhattan's cavernous Javits Center to schmooze, jostle, and see what was new, while houses from across the country trotted out their most promising titles, hoping to build sales buzz and stoke awards chatter.
One such book, Brother, I'm Dying, is a powerful new memoir from the celebrated Haitian American author Edwidge Danticat. Knopf, Random House's pedigree imprint, presented it as one of the highlights of its fall catalog at BEA, and the book is sure to generate a ﬂurry of press when it's released this month. All the hype seems jarring, however, when one considers the highly personal events the book describes: an extraordinary year in Danticat's life, one in which she lost two fathers and gained a daughter.
On the ﬁrst day of BEA, Danticat sits at a West Village coffee shop, far from the bustle of the convention ﬂoor, to discuss the process of writing Brother, I'm Dying. She's wearing what she calls her "all occasions" outﬁt: black shirt, black pants, gray blazer, black backpack. Her only concessions to vanity are a few small, polished pieces of jewelry and a little shell perched lightly in her braids. Her face is young--she still looks like the prodigy whose MFA thesis became a best-selling debut novel. At the same time, she exudes such a gentle, soothing vibe that it's no stretch to imagine her as a mother.
She wears her utilitarian uniform to face the day's hectic schedule. After this it's back uptown to the hotel, then off to Expo, then downtown to the Knopf party, where she'll be feted alongside a number of the venerable publishing house's brightest lights, including Richard Russo, Michael Ondaatje, and Nora Ephron. The next day she will ﬂy home to Miami, where she's lived for the past ﬁve years with her husband, Fedo, the owner of a translating company that produces books and documents in Haitian Creole. Earlier today she brought her niece to her brother's home in Brooklyn--the girl lives with her mother in Miami during the school year, and Danticat had taken advantage of her own commitments in New York to accompany her niece on the trip. When I ask which of her brothers is the girl's father, she says, "Bob," and I nod: I know who Bob is. Bob is the sibling just behind Edwidge, the one who teaches global studies at a high school in Brooklyn. When Bob and Edwidge ﬂew to New York City for the ﬁrst time, he was so enamored by the individual packets of airline butter that he put one in his pocket, where it melted.
My nod of recognition throws her off, but then she laughs, generously if a little nervously. She hasn't quite gotten her head around the fact that she's about to publish a book consisting entirely of information about her personal life. Her readers may have gotten the impression over the years that they could divine her private history through her books, but now the sheltering screen of ﬁction has been lifted. "People are going to see the well I draw from," she says. Danticat's nervousness is also due to her expectation that, when critics write about this book, it's sure to be a very different experience for her than when they write about her fiction. "Here they're talking about my life," she says. "I have to tell you that I'm very...I feel very scared. And I'll tell you, I'd never have written a memoir had this thing not happened to my uncle. It would never have occurred to me to do it."
EDWIDGE Danticat was born in Port-au-Prince in 1969, twelve years into the increasingly brutal regime of Franšois "Papa Doc" Duvalier. When Danticat was two, her father, Mira, left Haiti to seek work in America. His wife, Rose, joined him two years later, and for the next eight years Edwidge and Bob lived with their father's brother, the Reverend Joseph Dantica. Though she found herself in a large, loving household--Joseph and his wife Denise were also raising a grandson, a niece, and a girl that a family friend had abandoned on their doorstep--Danticat keenly felt her parents' absence. In order to feel "some kind of continuity" with her mother, she began counting her age two different ways: There was her real age, and then there was her "mama age," which she calculated by subtracting the years they had been separated. The effect of distance--whether between generations or continents--is an ever-present theme in Danticat's fiction.
When Danticat was twelve, she and her brother finally secured the proper immigration papers and came to the United States, where they joined a family already in progress: Mira and Rose had had two more sons and become well established in the Haitian community of Flatbush, Brooklyn. Her parents' new lives in New York City weren't always easy. Rose worked in a factory; Mira drove a gypsy cab (an unlicensed taxi) and in the course of his job was shot at and held at gunpoint.
Still, Danticat's parents were able to give their daughter one luxury: the time and freedom to write. Though she spoke very little English when she moved to the United States, Danticat took to the language quickly. At fourteen she published her ﬁrst piece, an article about Haitian American Christmas celebrations, in a New York City teen magazine. After graduating from Barnard College with a degree in French literature, she continued to write at night while working as a financial aid counselor. During her college tenure, she had won second place in Seventeen magazine's prestigious ﬁction writing contest. (Past winners include such luminaries as Sylvia Plath and Lorrie Moore.) Bolstered by her success, she decided to try sending part of the novel she was working on to book publishers. She found an entry in Writer's Market that looked promising: Not only did Soho Press publish the kind of ﬁction she was writing, but more important, it accepted unsolicited manuscripts. Soho Press's editor and publisher, Laura Hruska, pulled Danticat's submission from the slush pile, read a hundred or so pages, and sent her a letter asking for the rest of it. Danticat spent a feverish few weeks trying to complete a manuscript, and though Hruska felt the ﬁnal product wasn't quite there yet, she encouraged the young writer to stay in touch as she polished the work.
The editor's words had a decisive effect on Danticat. "I was choosing between getting my MFA at Brown and business school," she says. "Her letter tipped the scale for me." The manuscript Danticat had submitted--about a young Haitian girl who leaves the aunt who raised her to live with her mother in New York--became her thesis project at Brown. When she ﬁnished the novel, she sent it back to Hruska. "She said to me, 'When you come back to the city, let's have lunch.'" In 1994, the year after Danticat received her MFA from Brown, Soho Press released Breath, Eyes, Memory to wide acclaim. The New York Times named her one of the thirty artists under thirty who would "change the culture for the next 30 years." Danticat was twenty-ﬁve years old.
She quickly followed with Krik? Krak! (Soho Press, 1995), a collection of short stories inspired by the Haitian storytellers of her childhood. Accolades came thick and fast: Krik? Krak! was a finalist for the National Book Award. In 1996, Granta placed her among its Best of Young American Novelists, alongside future heavy hitters like Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen. Oprah Winfrey selected Breath, Eyes, Memory for her career-catapulting book club in 1998.
Because she was--and still is--the most notable Haitian author writing in English, writers and reviewers quickly dubbed her the "voice" of her community. Danticat became known not only for her literary talent, but also as a kind of interpreter for a nation most Americans knew little about--despite the fact that their government occupied Haiti twice and continues to heavily influence its politics. (As Danticat describes it, the relationship of the tiny Caribbean nation to America is that of "a mouse under a big foot.") Her multicultural perspective proved as attractive as her youth and prestige, and her books were widely adopted by teachers and professors, further cementing her status.
Danticat's work has continued to focus on Haitian Americans and Haitian history. The Farming of Bones (Soho Press, 1998) follows a young woman her attempts to escape the 1937 massacre of Haitians in the Dominican Republic. The Dew Breaker--her ﬁrst book with Knopf, published in 2004--is a collection of linked stories whose title character, having committed horriﬁc acts of violence in the name of the Duvalier regime, reinvents himself as a family man in Brooklyn. Along the way, Danticat has also experimented with different forms of narrative, writing two books for young readers--Behind the Mountains (Orchard Books, 2002) and Anacaona, Golden Flower (Scholastic, 2005)--and a travelogue, titled After the Dance: A Walk Through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti (Crown, 2002). Danticat also helped produce two documentaries about Haitian themes--Patricia Benoit's 1996 Courage and Pain and 2003's The Agronomist, directed by Jonathan Demme.
Danticat has always seen her writing as a journey of constant exploration and growth, and in dealing with the alternately terrifying and hopeful events of 2004 she would venture into the most challenging territory of her career. In July of that year, her father was diagnosed with terminal pulmonary ﬁbrosis. Three months later, armed gangs in the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Bel Air seized the church her uncle had built and presided over for several decades. The eighty-one-year-old watched helplessly as neighbors looted his property and young men he had known since childhood threatened to burn him alive. With his son, Maxo, Joseph Dantica ﬂed to Miami, where the two men were detained by customs ofﬁcials, despite having the proper paperwork. Five days later, deprived of the prescription medicine he took for high blood pressure and an inﬂamed prostate, Danticat's other "papa" died in custody.
In the midst of this annus horribilis, a small miracle arrived. Four months after her uncle died, Danticat gave birth to a daughter, whom she named Mira. Her father was able to hold his infant namesake just once before dying; he is buried next to his brother in Queens.
"Without sounding too grandiose," she says in her low, lilting voice, "everything I had ever written was so I could learn to tell this story. This is the most important story of my life."
THE journey that resulted in Brother, I'm Dying began with a single photocopied document.
After her uncle died, Danticat's cousin Maxo was released from custody to bury his father. She went to pick him up at the Krome Service Processing Center, the federal detention facility that looms ominously in the imaginations of Miami's Haitian community.
Only 710 miles from Port-au-Prince and home to a large population of their countrymen, Miami is a beacon for many fleeing Haitians. Denied the Temporary Protected Status automatically granted to immigrants "unable to safely return" to other troubled nations, such as Somalia and Sudan, however, Haitian refugees are routinely deported when they reach American shores. In Miami, the glaringly disparate treatment afforded Cubans--who are allowed to stay in the United States if they reach dry land--adds insult to injury.
Denied entry despite having a valid visa, relatives in the United States, and legitimate health concerns, Danticat's uncle became tangled in an immigration policy that she describes as being "almost persecutory" of Haitians. "Someone his age, in that situation, with relatives nearby...if he were not Haitian, if he were not black, I don't think it would have happened to him. I truly believe that." Haitian asylum seekers are often held at Krome while they await processing and, in most cases, deportation. Danticat once wrote that the concrete complex on the edge of the Everglades "had always seemed like a strange myth" to her, "a cross between Alcatraz and hell."
When Maxo walked out of Krome's gates, Danticat was "stunned" to see how little he had with him. "I was assuming that he'd be walking out with a suitcase, as you would at the airport," she says. Instead, Maxo carried only a small bag, his father's briefcase, and a plastic bag with his father's clothes and shoes in it. On the outside of the bag--misspelled--was the word deceased. "Those were all the worldly belongings that they had left," she says.
Among those belongings was a photocopied transcript of the immigration interview that had been conducted by customs ofﬁcials after Joseph landed at Miami International. The dialogue--which Danticat reproduces in its entirety in Brother, I'm Dying--records her uncle's ﬁnal words to the American ofﬁcials, as well as his last words in life. "When I read that," she says, "I knew that I would somehow have to write about him and what had happened to him. It began with that document."
Even as those terrible events were unfolding, Danticat had been trying to weave the confusing facts into a coherent narrative. As she sat in her home in Miami--four months pregnant and desperately trying to reach her uncle, getting stonewalled at every turn--her ailing father was calling her from Brooklyn to learn about his brother's situation. "I had to tell a story to my father, and I had to tell a story to myself," she says. "Because I think the most terrifying things, when you lose a loved one, are the things you imagine--the things the imagination constructs itself. And I guess I have this imagination that goes to the darkest places immediately. I was imagining the worst, and I needed to know. I needed to know."
The papers Maxo carried out of Krome afforded Danticat a measure of clarity; from there, she waded through a complex bureaucratic tangle to collect more documents relating to her uncle's case. "It was like something out of Kafka," she says. With the help of her longtime friends at the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (FIAC), Danticat and her family filed a series of Freedom of Information Act requests with the various government agencies involved, hoping to procure her uncle's medical and detention records. Most of these early attempts were met with opposition; officials claimed that because of an investigation being undertaken by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General--an investigation Danticat and various human rights groups had lobbied for in the ﬁrst place--they could not release the relevant documents. Subsequent Freedom of Information Act requests were also fruitless. "A lot of people were like, 'You're this writer, you couldn't call a congressman?'" she remembers. "[But] in that situation, I had no kind of political power. All I had at my disposal, really, was this craft, this ability to tell a story." Eventually, FIAC helped the family bring a lawsuit in federal court against the Department of Homeland Security; bolstered by sympathetic articles being written across the nation, they ﬁnally managed to procure the government records pertaining to her uncle's time in detention.
Ironically, the Inspector General's report on her uncle's case--which claimed to have found no evidence of wrongdoing by customs officials--was her greatest research windfall. The hundred-some page document is riddled with redactions in thick, black pen, but it contains a wealth of information about Joseph's five-day ordeal, from internal government memos to an interview with the medic who memorably claimed that Joseph was "faking it" when the elderly man collapsed in a seizure and began vomiting uncontrollably the day before he died. Danticat uses the report to great effect in the memoir, reproducing large parts of it relatively untouched in the book's closing chapters. "I was in the dark the whole time when it was important to know things," Danticat says. "So I really wanted to convey the feeling of this family member just being lost in that world." Reading these chapters, you feel as if you, too, are drowning in information, without an answer in sight.
In contrast with the dispassionate, detached tone of the final chapters, other key scenes of Brother, I'm Dying are rendered novelistically, such as one in which Joseph's church is raided first by United Nations peacekeeping troops and then, after a terrifying shootout, by angry neighborhood gangs, and another detailing the death of her cousin, Marie Micheline, during a military shootout in Bel Air. "I wasn't attempting to do this journalistically," she explains. "What I said was, 'I'm going to work with what I have.'" For these scenes--two of the book's most vivid--Danticat derived many details from press reports. But for the scenes' dramatic power, she relied heavily on what she calls her "storytellers"--aunts, neighbors, and friends in Haiti who updated her as the events were occurring and who continued to ﬁll her in after the fact.
The importance of storytelling has always been a key theme in Danticat's work. Krik? Krak! takes its title from the call-and-response that initiates a Haitian tale-telling session, and she has often spoken of the inﬂuence the folktales told by her grandmother's had on her own literary sensibility. "We're a very oral culture, but also a very oral family," she explains, "and these stories about my uncle--like, 'Oh yeah, they took the altar, and they burned it, and the guy said this and the guy said that'--are told the same way these other stories, these folktales are. These things quickly become large, and quickly become mythic in people's minds." She worried about the tonal shift between the cinematic, you-are-there Bel Air scenes and the cool, almost forensic chapters that describe her uncle's detention, but the two modes of reportage accurately reﬂect the twin threats her uncle faced: death by violence and death by bureaucracy.
OF COURSE, Danticat's two most important sources in writing Brother, I'm Dying were her uncle and her father. Early on in the book she claims, "I am writing this only because they can't," but throughout the book you get the impression that Danticat was always, in some important sense, translating her "two papas" for the wider world. As a child in Haiti, not only was Danticat given the task of reading aloud her father's brief missives from New York City, but before her uncle--who had lost his voice to throat cancer--got a mechanical voice box, she grew adept at deciphering his lip movements and would often interpret for him. Her uncle had always wanted to write a book about his church work and the loss and miraculous recovery of his voice; he had hoped that his talented niece would be his amanuensis. Her father may not have had literary ambitions of his own, but Danticat believes he was "ﬂattered" by her interest. They spoke at length during his ﬁnal days, and though she worried about the seemliness of her inquires--"At first I was hesitant to ask, because it seemed like, 'Oh, give me everything before you go,'"--he told her what she needed to know, and did so in detail. "He would speak to me as though he knew I would share," she says. "Especially in those last months, it was so hard for him to speak sometimes. But I knew from the effort he was making that it was important to him."
Though she says that both men "prized restraint" and would therefore have written very different books from the one she has ("To them it was this thing of, like, mache ak kil˛t ou dey˛--'walking with your panties out'"), Danticat was, perhaps, in a unique position to appreciate how the two brothers' lives were running on parallel tracks, even before their deaths. Those lives, after all, unfolded with a symmetry that seems plucked from one of her novels: one brother in Haiti, one brother in America; linked by the daughter they shared. And while her uncle thrived in a hard country doing work he loved, Danticat believes that in his ﬁnal days her father was "really struggling with this idea that maybe his life had not meant much." She remembers how he had always told her brothers and the young men at his church that they didn't want to be cabdrivers when they grew up, that they should do more. "My father, at some level, was almost a prisoner to this life," she says, "to making sure we were all okay. And I think in the end that was very hard for him, because a lot of the dreams that he had nurtured were gone by that time."
Brother, I'm Dying is Danticat's way of bearing witness to all of this-her father's determination and his dreams deferred; her uncle's strength and his harrowing journey. But she also hopes that the book resonates in a more universal register. Through her tale, she speaks for many people who ﬁnd themselves caught in situations like her family's, people toward whom she feels a particular sense of responsibility. A few weeks after our initial interview, Danticat recommends I read a New York Times article by Nina Bernstein, which details the cases of several other immigrants who have died in detention. "There's a slight sense of justice," she says, "because these families, too, are getting their stories told." One of Danticat's greatest fears is that people will read Brother, I'm Dying and assume her uncle's case was a unique one.
"Because this is my work, this is what I do, it forced me to imagine all these people who can't tell their stories-and not just my father and my uncle, but the people they leave behind, who just have this heavy weight of silence," she says. "You hope that it's like that Ralph Ellison line," she says, recalling the famous ending of Ellison's novel, Invisible Man: "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?"