Brother, I'm Dying
Brother, I'm Dying
Brother, I'm Dying, published in 2007, is Edwidge Danticat's nonfiction family story that centers around her father, her uncle, and the events that linked them in the last months of their lives. On a single day in 2004, the author discovers she is pregnant with her first child and that her father has end-stage pulmonary fibrosis. Using these events to frame her memoir, Danticat explores her family's troubled history in Haiti and the United States and her experience of having to leave the only home she had ever known. Using information taken “from official documents, as well as borrowed recollections of family members” the author tells the story of the men closest to her heart “only because they can't.”
A best-selling novelist, short story writer, and editor, Edwidge Danticat has received numerous literary awards and has been heralded as the voice of Haitian Americans. Brother, I'm Dying, a National Book Award Finalist, is Danticat's second work of nonfiction. Like her earlier works, it focuses on the Haitian diaspora, Haitian history, and the Haitian American experience. In this book, Danticat employs a combination of emotion and restraint to weave the political and the personal into a well-crafted memoir.
Edwidge Danticat was born on January 19, 1969, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to Andre Miracin Danticat
and Rose Souvenance Danticat. When she was two years old, her father moved to New York, leaving his wife and two children behind. Two years later, Danticat's mother left Haiti to join him. Danticat and her two-year-old brother, Bob, were placed in the care of their Uncle Joseph—her father's older brother—and his wife, Denise. In 1981, Danticat and her brother were allowed to join their parents and immigrated to Brooklyn, New York. The author initially had difficulty assimilating to her new culture due to her style of dress, her accent, and her hairstyle. She found solace from the isolation she felt by writing about her native country. Her parents wanted her to pursue a career in medicine, but Danticat, from an early age, maintained a devotion to writing. She graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from Barnard College in 1990 and went on to earn a master of fine arts degree from Brown University in 1993.
Danticat began work on what would eventually become her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, when she was still an adolescent. Published in 1994, the novel received both critical and popular praise and was assured best-seller status when it became a 1998 Oprah Winfrey Book Club selection. Her next book, Krik? Krak!, a collection of short stories published in 1995, earned the distinction of becoming a National Book Award Finalist. In 1996, Danticat was named one of twenty “Best of American Novelists” by Granta. In 1998, Danticat's second novel, The Farming of the Bones, was published. This historical tragedy about the 1937 massacre of Haitian farm workers by soldiers from the Dominican Republic won the 1999 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation.
Between publishing novels, Danticat took time to edit other writer's fiction. Two major projects include 2000's The Beacon Best of 2000: Great Writing by Women and Men of All Colors and Cultures and 2001's, The Butterfly's Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States. In 2002, Danticat's third novel, Behind the Mountains was published to critical acclaim. That same year, After the Dance: A Walk Through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti, a nonfiction account of the author's first encounter with Carnival (a pre-Lenten festival), was published. The Dew Breaker, a collection of nine interrelated short stories, followed in 2004. It was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. It won the Story Prize for outstanding collection of short fiction and earned Danticat a Lannan Foundation Fellowship. Following the successful publication of The Dew Breaker came Danticat's 2005, Anacaona, Golden Flower, a novel written for young people. Brother, I'm Dying, Danticat's second work of nonfiction, was published in 2007. The book was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award. Danticat lives in Miami with her husband and daughter.
Have You Enjoyed Your Life?
The first chapter of Brother, I'm Dying begins, “I found out I was pregnant the same day that my father's rapid weight loss and chronic shortness of breath were positively diagnosed as end-stage pulmonary fibrosis.” The sentence serves as an introduction to the author, her father, and the life experiences that bring them together.
The story begins on a morning in early July 2004. Danticat has flown from her home in Little Haiti, Miami, Florida, to New York. On their way to visit a pulmonologist at Brooklyn's Coney Island Hospital, Danticat and her father stop to see a Jamaican herbalist. Both she and her father are treated by the herbalist—he for his illness, she for cramps. The herbalist suggests Danticat take a pregnancy test. Later, at the hospital, the pulmonologist examines her father and tells Danticat the name of her father's condition, calling it “a very bad disease.”
Danticat takes a pregnancy test that turns out to be positive. She calls her husband to tell him, but keeps the news from the rest of her family. She and her brother Karl discuss possible reasons for the doctor telling Danticat—but not their father—the prognosis. When she shares her father's prognosis with her mother, her mother says, “I knew it was something bad.” The family gathers for a meeting and Danticat's brother Bob asks their father, “Have you enjoyed your life?” After hearing her father's response to this question, the author explains why she decided to record her family history.
Brother, I'm Dying
The chapter begins with the story of how Danticat's Uncle Joseph met his wife, Denise, in May 1946. It describes how the two bought a plot of land in Bel Air, “a hilltop neighborhood overlooking Port-au-Prince harbor” and built a three-room cement house together. Danticat provides a brief history of the area, including the events that led to the nineteen-year occupation by American forces, which began in July 1915. The author then tells the story of Uncle Joseph's life, his participation in Haitian politics, his Baptist conversion, his building of a Baptist church, and his decline into illness. Danticat describes how, in 1978, Joseph learns of a hospital in the south of Haiti and travels for days to get there. At the hospital, an American doctor tells Joseph he has cancer and needs to go to the United States for a radical laryngectomy. He travels to New York alone, stays with his son, Maxo, and ends up having an emergency laryngectomy. The surgery causes him to lose his voice at the age of fifty-five. Despite Danticat's father's pleading, Joseph returns to Bel Air a month after his surgery.
What Did the White Man Say?
At the beginning of this chapter, Danticat is on her way to the airport to return home. She tells her parents she is pregnant. Danticat's parents spend the rest of the ride to the airport giving her advice. At the airport, Danticat says goodbye quickly and, from the airport lobby, watches her parents drive away.
Danticat begins the chapter by describing what her father did after quitting school in 1954 at the age of nineteen. After working as a tailor's apprentice for six months, he started his own business sewing shirts and selling them directly to vendors. When demand for his shirts waned, he became a shoe salesman. While working at the shoe store, he began thinking about leaving Haiti. In 1962, Danticat's mother came into the shoe store. Three years later, Danticat's parents were married. They “moved into a small house in an increasingly packed section of Bel Air” and immediately tried to conceive a child. After four years they were successful and in 1969 Danticat was born. Twenty months later, Danticat's brother Bob was born.
Later, Danticat's father was granted a one-month tourist visa, which he used to travel to New York. He had no intention of returning home. Two years after her father left, Danticat's mother was granted a one-month tourist visa. The chapter ends with a description of the preparations she made before her final, tearful departure.
We're All Dying
In this chapter, Danticat's plane is delayed, so she spends her time waiting at the airport to call family members and friends and tell them about her pregnancy. She decides to tell one close friend about her father, too. The friend becomes angry when she learns Danticat easily accepted the doctor's prognosis. She says, “Screw the doctor. We're all dying.” Danticat remembers her uncle saying something similar: “Maybe we're all dying, one breath at a time.”
This chapter focuses on Uncle Joseph and how losing his voice affected his life. He sometimes took Danticat or his grandson Nick to the bank or other official buildings to help “interpret him” if he felt he would not be understood otherwise.
Danticat introduces the reader to Granmè Melina, Tante Denise's centenarian mother. The old woman shared a roomwith Danticat and her cousin, Liline, and was famous for her folktales. When she dies, Uncle Joseph feels the loss of his voice acutely. Normally he would deliver an eloquent homily, but, due to the loss of his voice, he can only mouth the word “Good-bye” from the church's lectern at her funeral.
This chapter focuses on Marie Micheline, Uncle Joseph and Tante Denise's adopted daughter. When her secret pregnancy is discovered and the father refuses to acknowledge he is responsible for her condition, Marie Micheline is sent to live with Liline's mother in a distant part of town. A man named Pressoir Marol, a stranger to the family, marries the girl in a civil ceremony. After the baby is born, Uncle Joseph secures a small apartment for the family near his house in Bel Air. He and Tante Denise soon discover that Marol is a Tonton Macoute, the Haitain secret police, a “battalion of brutal men and women aggressively recruited from the country's urban and rural poor.” Shortly after arriving in Bel Air, Marol moves his family out of the apartment Joseph had obtained for them. Danticat writes, “He left word with their landlord for my aunt and uncle that he now had bullets and that Marie Micheline was forbidden to see anyone.” Marol moves his family from place to place, ensuring that Uncle Joseph and Tante Denise never know their whereabouts. Finally, Uncle Joseph discovers where they are living and sets out to bring Marie Micheline home. He finds her beaten and sick and separated from her baby, Ruth. As he carries her from her bed, she whispers, “Papa, even though men cannot give birth, you just gave birth tonight. To me.”
This chapter describes Danticat's parents' brief return to Haiti in 1976. While in New York, Danticat's mother had given birth to two more children, Kelly and Karl. Kelly's birth made them instantly eligible for permanent residency in the United States. They came to Haiti to petition the government to allow Danticat and Bob to join them in New York. During their stay, Danticat and Bob could never fully trust that their parents were really there or that they would be around for long. When they left for New York again, neither child shed a tear or threw a tantrum at the airport as they had done when their mother first left them five years prior. Danticat writes, “We were much older now and were more accustomed to being without them than being with them. At least, I remember thinking, we had seen them again.”
One Papa Happy, One Papa Sad
Four years after their parents' visit, Danticat and Bob receive a request from the American consulate that they take physical exams to see if they were fit enough to travel to the United States. Danticat is eleven years old at the time. The physical exams reveal that both she and her brother had inactive tuberculosis and they must undergo treatment for six months. They will only be allowed to leave Haiti and join their parents once they are cured. During her final interview with the American consul after being cleared for travel, Danticat feels that her old life is “quickly slipping away.”
Danticat does not want to leave her Uncle Joseph. She writes, “For better or for worse, I had to go. These were my parents, my real parents, and they wanted me to come and live with them.” In the car on the way to his new New York home, Bob admits that Uncle Joseph seemed sad to see him and Danticat leave. His father replies, “I suppose that's how it is sometimes. One papa happy, one papa sad.”
In this chapter, Danticat describes her new home and her impressions of being reunited with her family. On the first morning after her arrival in New York, her father presents Danticat with a welcome gift, a Smith-Corona Corsair portable manual typewriter. She writes, “they feel like such prescient gifts now, this typewriter and his desire, very early on, to see me properly assemble my words.” She writes a letter to Uncle Joseph, but he never writes back. She wonders if she and Bob are no longer special to him and is reminded of the Haitian saying, “When you bathe other people's children, you should wash one side and leave the other side dirty.” She wonders if her uncle agreed with the saying, which “cautions those who care for other people's children not to give over their whole hearts, because they will never get a whole heart back.” Danticat describes her father's job as a gypsy cab driver and its many inherent dangers.
Part Two: For Adversity
This chapter opens in the summer of 1983 when Danticat is fourteen and Bob twelve. It spans a six-year period that begins with Uncle Joseph's visit to New York and ends with the sudden death of Marie Micheline.
Uncle Joseph comes to New York for a medical checkup and is shown a device that could restore his voice. After buying the device at a medical supply store, he and Danticat, who had accompanied him to his appointment, return to her family's apartment and show her father and brothers “the miracle” that has given Uncle Joseph his voice back. After Joseph returns home to Haiti, he sells his first house and builds a small apartment behind his church and school. He also installs a home telephone and uses it to call Danticat, Bob, and their father on a regular basis. He expands the school and church to include a clinic that Marie Micheline runs. She is thirty-seven by now and the mother of four children.
In 1986, Haitian leader Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier fled the country for France, leaving Haiti in the hands of a military junta. For three years, military forces battled one another and a succession of leaders were ousted or deposed. In April 1989, opposing military factions came to Bel Air. A volley of gunfire inside Uncle Joseph's church compound gives Marie Micheline a fatal heart attack, though Tante Denise claims she was frightened to death.
The Angel of Death and Father God
The chapter is named for the story Tante Denise tells Danticat when she returns to Haiti in the fall of 1994. That same year, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the popular Haitian leader who was elected and summarily ousted from power in 1991, returned to Haiti accompanied by twenty thousand United States soldiers. In his absence, the country had been tormented by violence and destruction. Uncle Joseph had taken to counting “the many bloody corpses that dotted the street corners and alleys of Bel Air.” Danticat's father calls Joseph almost every day over the first weeks of the coup. He is angered and confused by his brother's refusal to leave Bel Air.
Tante Denise suffers a massive stroke the day Aristide returns to Haiti. When Danticat arrives at her aunt's house that same fall, she has to remind the older woman who she is. “She, like those buildings, had been disassembled while I was gone.”
You're Not a Policeman
Tante Denise dies of another massive stroke in February 2003. The reader learns that Danticat has made more than twenty trips to Haiti in a decade, returning there to teach, travel with documentary filmmakers, and attend academic conferences. When she returns with her father to attend her aunt's funeral, the family decides against a wake for Tante Denise, fearing that “neighborhood gangs might take advantage of a wake to storm the house.” As they walk to the gravesite, shots ring out, causing the mourners to scatter “in a nervous stampede.”
Brother, I Leave You with a Heavy Heart
Uncle Joseph comes to New York in August 2004, a trip that coincides with Danticat's father's first hospitalization since his diagnosis. Danticat, nearing the end of her first trimester, flies to New York to see her uncle and dying father. Once released from the hospital, her father stops working and begins a new routine that centers on eating, resting, praying with his brother, and watching Haitian movies. In September, Uncle Joseph leaves New York to tend to his students and church in Bel Air. He leaves his brother with the words, “Brother, I'm going, but I'm leaving you with a heavy heart.” The same week, Tropical Storm Jeanne displaces more than a quarter of a million people and leaves five thousand dead. After September 30, 2004, Haitian protests become a daily event in Bel Air. When Danticat does not hear from her uncle and sees news stories of violence happening around his church, she begins to worry.
Beating the Darkness
This chapter describes the violence that occurred on Sunday, October 24, 2004, at Uncle Joseph's church compound. Beginning around 3:30 am, United Nations (UN) peacekeepers and Haitian riot police came together in a joint operation and rooted out the most violent gangs in Bel Air. Storming Uncle Joseph's neighborhood, they flattened barricades, knocked down walls, bulldozed piles of torched cars, and barraged homes with gunfire. After the forces leave, several people accuse Uncle Joseph of inviting the forces onto his roof in exchange for a reward. The old man cannot convince them otherwise. He talks his son Maxo into leaving Bel Air with his wife and children. By sunrise the next morning, Uncle Joseph is left by himself “in a bullet-riddled compound.”
Uncle Joseph is forced to flee his home when a mob of dreads—dreadlocked Haitian gang leaders—slip into the church compound and threaten his life. They blame the old man for giving the UN peacekeepers access to his roof the night before. Uncle Joseph convinces the gang to let him find a phone and ask his family for the money they require. On his way out of the compound, the mob begins looting his apartment, storming the classrooms, and dragging the church pews into the courtyard to be set alight. A kind neighbor allows Joseph to hide in her home for several hours, then disguises him in a muumuu and wig. He needed to protect his identity on the way to Man Jou's—Tante Denise's cousin's—house where he plans to hide and make phone calls. While at the cousin's home, Joseph learns that the Haitian gang that drove him out has already taken over his apartment, church, and school. They are using it as a base of operations and vow to burn Joseph alive if he dares to return.
Tante Zi makes the dangerous, if short, journey to Man Jou's house. She picks up Uncle Joseph and accompanies him to her stationery stand. He begins making plans. He had previously contacted Maxo, who decides to travel with his father to Miami. They agree to meet at Tante Zi's as soon as Uncle Joseph is able to get out of Bel Air. Once outside the city, Joseph files a complaint with the police's anti-gang unit and the UN, stops by a bank and withdraws money, buys a plane ticket for Maxo, and refills his prescriptions. He meets Maxo, who had also filed a report with the anti-gang unit, at Tante Zi's house.
No Greater Shame
Danticat's father's health takes a turn for the worse, and Uncle Joseph and Maxo do not arrive in Miami as expected. Family and church members call one another throughout the day trying to determine what might have happened to them. Finally, at 1:30 the next morning, Danticat's phone rings. Her uncle and cousin have been detained by United States Customs and Border Protection and are awaiting transfer to Krome Detention Center because they arrived without papers. Danticat is told she cannot speak to her uncle but that he will contact her once he gets to Krome.
Danticat outlines the details of what happened to her uncle and cousin when they arrived in Miami. Even though the two men carried valid passports and tourist visas, Danticat suspects they are “treated according to a biased immigration policy dating back from the early 1980s when Haitians began arriving in Florida in large numbers by boat.”
Danticat's father, growing sicker, has an appointment with a pulmonologist at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. He is saddened to know his brother and nephew are headed for Krome, “a place that he, like all Haitians, knew meant nothing less than humiliation and suffering and more often than not a long period of detention before deportation.” At Krome, Joseph and Maxo are separated. Uncle Joseph undergoes a medical screening and is sent to a medical facility inside the prison due to his high blood pressure. Danticat calls Ira Kurzban, an acquaintance and author of “one of the most widely used immigration manuals in the United States.” The immigration lawyer promises to send one of his best colleagues to try and get Uncle Joseph released from Krome as soon as possible.
During his immigration interview, Uncle Joseph becomes very ill. He appears to have a seizure, begins vomiting, and goes in and out of consciousness. Despite obvious signs that something is terribly wrong, the prison medic accuses Joseph of faking his condition and refuses to assist the elderly man. Maxo is called to his father's aid and breaks into sobs when he sees the old man slumped in a wheelchair, covered in vomit, and unable to communicate. Finally, Joseph is transported to Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital. He is transferred on the same morning his brother has his appointment at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.
Let the Stars Fall
Danticat describes the various tests, examinations, and interventions performed on her uncle from the time he arrived at the emergency room at Jackson Memorial Hospital to the time of his death eight and a half hours later. It is nearly midnight before word reaches Danticat that her uncle has died. She cannot get anyone at the hospital or the prison to provide official confirmation of the fact, so she decides to wait until morning to begin telling family members. She worries how the stress and sadness she feels is affecting her unborn daughter. When he is told of his brother's death, Danticat's father appears unfazed. It was, her mother said, “as if he already knew.”
Brother, I'll See You Soon
Maxo is released from Krome to bury his father. Word from Haiti is that news of Uncle Joseph's detainment and death has spread, which causes the gangs to rejoice. They vow to behead his dead body if it is returned to Haiti for burial. Because Uncle Joseph's religious beliefs do not allow him to be cremated, it is decided that he should be buried in New York. Danticat writes, “Now he would be exiled finally in death. He would become part of the soil of a country that had not wanted him. This haunted my father more than anything else.” At the funeral, her father is terribly frail, thin, and weak. He tells his dead brother that he will see him soon.
In this, the final chapter of the book, Danticat describes her daughter's birth, her trip to New York to see her family three weeks later, and her father's death. She stays with her mother and father for a month. Three days after she has returned to Miami, she receives a call from her brother Bob. Because he calls before daybreak, she knows he is calling to say their father has died. She shares with the reader one of Granmè Melina's stories—one about a daughter whose father has died. She also fantasizes about her father and uncle “on a walk through the mountains of Beausejour. It's dawn, a dazzling morning over the green hills. They're peacefully making their way down the zigzag trail that joins the villages to the rest of the world below.”
In 1990, Aristide was a young priest who had developed a massive following by delivering sermons that spoke against the Duvaliers, corrupt Haitian leaders. He was sworn in as Haiti's president in 1991, but was summarily ousted from power seven months later. He fled to Venezuela, then Washington, where he lived for three years. In 1994 he returned to Haiti with twenty thousand U.S. soldiers. They were on a mission called Operation Uphold Democracy, an effort backed by then U.S. president Bill Clinton. The mission was intended to curb the brutality of Haiti's military regime “and the menace of a mass exodus of Haitian refugees to nearby Florida.”
Bob is Edwidge Danticat's younger brother. Both he and the author were raised in Haiti by their Uncle Joseph and Aunt Denise. As an adult, Bob teaches Global Studies at the high school near his home in New York. Due to his proximity to his parents' home, he frequently accompanies his father when the old man goes to the doctor.
André Miracin Danticat
Edwidge Danticat is the author of the book. Born in 1969 and raised in Haiti, she is now a citizen of the United States. When Edwidge is two years old, her father leaves Haiti for New York, never to return. When her mother leaves to join him, Edwidge and her brother Bob are left in the care of their Uncle Joseph and Tante Denise. She loves her uncle and aunt and is sad when she leaves Haiti to live with Bob, her parents, and her two new brothers in New York. In 2002, she marries and moves to Miami. In July 2004, on the same day she learns her father has end-stage pulmonary fibrosis, she discovers she is pregnant. During a visit with her dying father in New York, Edwidge perceives the pain he feels knowing that he cannot talk to his brother Joseph in Haiti. As a result she decides to record their stories.
Joseph Nosius Danticat
See Uncle Joseph
Tante Denise is Uncle Joseph's wife and the author's aunt. She and Joseph meet in 1946, buy a plot of land together in Bel Air, Haiti, and build a house on it. She gives birth to a son and, ten years later, she and Joseph marry. She is known as one of the best cooks in Bel Air and is always impeccably dressed. She and Joseph raise and care for their children as well as several other children they come to regard as their own. Tante Denise suffers a series of strokes before she finally dies in 2003.
Duvalier, known widely as “Papa Doc,” became the president of Haiti when Daniel Fignolé was deposed by the Haitian army and forced into exile in 1957.
Ezekiel is Karl's eldest son.
On May 25, 1957, Fignolé was sworn in as president of Haiti. Nineteen days later he was deposed and forced into exile. The leader of the Laborers and Peasants Party, he is a hero of Uncle Joseph's. For years, Joseph and Tante Denise open their home to Fignoleé sympathizers—known as Fignolists—where they host meetings and give speeches.
Uncle Franck is the author's father's youngest brother. He is also the only other surviving sibling living in the United States. Uncle Franck runs the car service business with the author's father.
Guillermo Hernandez is a Cuban emigreé who worked as a fellow fabric salesman alongside Uncle Joseph in 1947. The two men quickly become best friends. In 1952, after his wife dies, Guillermo asks Uncle Joseph and Tante Denise to look after his six-month-old daughter, Marie Micheline. He says he is going back home to Cuba for a visit, but he never returns.
This is the author's husband. He is overjoyed to find out that his wife is pregnant. He and the author live in Little Haiti in Miami, Florida.
Uncle Joseph is the older brother of the author's father. Because he took care of her for most of her life, the author considers him a second father. She begins his story in 1946, the year he met his future wife, Tante Denise. The couple settles in Bel Air, “a hilltop neighborhood overlooking Port-au-Prince harbor,” and remains there throughout their lives. In the late 1950s, Uncle Joseph joins a Baptist congregation and eventually becomes a pastor and builds his own church, school, and clinic. He and Tante Denise take in several children, including the author and her brother Bob, and raise them as their own. In 1977, Uncle Joseph begins losing his voice. A year later he travels to a hospital in the south of Haiti and discovers he has throat cancer and needs a radical laryngectomy. The operation, which is done in New York, leaves him unable to speak. He purchases an electronic device in 1983 that allows him to speak again. In October 2004, after a clash between United Nations peacekeepers and Haitian gangs takes place in his church compound, Uncle Joseph is forced to flee Haiti for the United States. He is detained and sent to a Miami immigration detention center where he falls ill and dies.
Karl is the author's youngest brother. He was born in New York when she and Bob were living in Haiti. As an adult, Karl works at a brokerage house in New York. Like Bob, he lives in close proximity to his parents' house in East Flatbush, New York.
Kelly is the author's younger brother. Of the four Danticat children, he is the first to be born in the United States. As an adult, he works as a musician and computer programmer. He lives in Lancaster, Massachusetts, and travels to New York when his father is diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis.
Ira Kurzban is the author of Kurzban's Immigration Law Sourcebook and an acquaintance of Edwidge Danticat. He has represented Haitian immigrant clients for over thirty years, worked as general counsel to the governments of Panama, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Haiti, and served as former president Aristide's attorney. Danticat contacts Kurzban when Uncle Joseph and Maxo are sent to the detention center in Miami.
Liline was one of six children in a struggling household. After her father Linoir leaves to look for work in the Dominican Republic, Liline is sent to live with Uncle Joseph and Tante Denise. The author and Liline share a bunk bed across the room from Granmè Melina's bed and love to listen to the old woman tell stories before bed.
Granmè Lorvana is the author's paternal grandmother. She moved to Bel Air shortly after Joseph did in 1948.
Marie Micheline is Guillermo Hernandez's daughter, but she was raised by Uncle Joseph and Tante Denise. When Marie Micheline becomes pregnant and the father refuses to take responsibility, Tante Denise sends the young woman to live with her mother in a distant part of town. There, Marie marries Pressoir Marol, a macoute that beats her and separates her from her family. After Uncle Joseph rescues her, Marie Micheline moves back in with him and Tante Denise. She becomes a nurse and eventually helps the old man by running his clinic. She is the mother of four young children when she dies of a heart attack during a gunfight near the clinic.
Pressoir Marol is a macoute that married Marie Micheline when she was pregnant with her first child, Ruth.
Maxo is Uncle Joseph and Tante Denise's firstborn son. As a young man Maxo leaves Haiti for New York, though he remains in close contact with his parents and extended family. When Uncle Joseph has to undergo an emergency laryngectomy, he stays with Maxo. Years later, when Uncle Joseph is forced to leave his home in Haiti, Maxo returns in order to assist his aging father in dealing with immigration agents and the police. He and Joseph are detained at the airport and eventually sent to a detention center where Uncle Joseph becomes fatally ill. Maxo is released from the detention center to attend his father's funeral.
Granme Melina is Tante Denise's mother. She comes to live with her daughter and Uncle Joseph in 1979. At the time, she is between ninety-seven and one hundred years old. People from the neighborhood gather in the evenings and listen to her tell folktales. She dies in her sleep in the room that the author and Liline share with her as children.
This character is the author's mother. She left her two eldest children in Haiti when she went to live in New York with her husband in 1974. She gives birth to two other children while living in New York. She never lives in Haiti again and visits her home country only a few times. When the author breaks the news of her father's illness, her mother does not seem surprised. She is thrilled to find out that her daughter is pregnant. She cares for her husband until his death.
Nadira is Bob's daughter.
Lieutenant General Henri Namphy
Namphy is the ambitious army officer who led the military junta that ruled Haiti after Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier fled the country for France in 1986.
Nick is Maxo's son. He is left in the care of Uncle Joseph and Tante Denise when his parents separate. His father leaves for New York and his mother for Canada. When he is a boy, he and the author act as interpreters for Uncle Joseph when the old man can no longer speak. He is the one who discovers that Granmè Melina is dead.
Granpè Nozial is the author's paternal grandfather. He joined the guerrilla resistance against U.S. forces after they invaded Haiti in 1915. He was “often away from home fighting a battle he did his best to keep from reaching his young children.”
Papa is the author's father and the brother of Uncle Joseph. At the beginning of the book, he is diagnosed with end-stage pulmonary fibrosis and is not expected to live long. In 1954, at the age of nineteen, he quit school and began an apprenticeship with a tailor. He later starts his own garment-making business before becoming a shoe salesman. He meets his future wife at the shoe store in 1962. They marry in 1965 and become parents in 1969. In 1971, he is granted a one-month tourist visa and leaves Haiti and his family for New York. He has no intention of returning. In the United States he works a series of jobs until he starts his own gypsy car service, the profession he holds until his death. He is very close to his brother Joseph and worries about him when the situation in Haiti becomes politically unstable. He lives long enough to attend his brother's funeral, but dies soon after.
Jean Pradel lives across the alley from Uncle Joseph and Tante Denise. When Marie Micheline is discovered to be pregnant, she admits that it is Jean's baby. He does not admit to being the father.
John Pratt is the “stern-sounding man with a slight southern drawl” sent by Ira Kurzban to represent Uncle Joseph when the old man is sent to the Miami detention center.
Zora is Karl's daughter.
Family love is the most prominent theme in Brother, I'm Dying. Indeed, the book would not have been written had the author and her main characters—her father and his brother—not shared the kind of love that sustained them through the trials described within its pages. It is because the author feels so close to these men that she is prompted to tell their stories. She writes,
This is an attempt at cohesiveness, and at recreating a few wondrous and terrible months when their lives and mine intersected in startling ways, forcing me to look forward and back at the same time. I am writing this only because they can't.
That first intersection takes place in early July 2004, on the day the author discovers she is pregnant with her first child and that her father is dying of pulmonary fibrosis. Her father's diagnosis prompts a family meeting that brings the author and her siblings together in their parents' home in Brooklyn. During the meeting, her brother asks their father if he has enjoyed his life. The dying man's answer is framed entirely in relation to his children. He says,
You, my children, have not shamed me. I'm proud of that. It could have been so different…you all could have turned bad, but you didn't. I thank God for that. I thank God for all of you. I thank God for your mother. Yes, you can say I have enjoyed my life.
The author tends to focus most of her attention on her Uncle Joseph, the man who took care of her when her parents left Haiti to live in the United States. He took in not only the author and her brother but the children of other friends and relatives as well, treating each like one of his own; this speaks volumes about the importance of family love in Joseph's life. Of the many instances that prove his devotion and love for his family, probably the most telling is outlined in the chapter titled, “Giving Birth.” In this chapter, the author describes how Joseph risks his life to rescue his adopted daughter, Marie Micheline, when she is abducted and beaten by her husband, a Tonton Macoute. After a treacherous journey through the mountains, Joseph finds Marie Micheline sick, wounded, and separated from her infant daughter. As he carries her from the shack she'd been forced to live in, she says, “Papa, even though men cannot give birth, you just gave birth tonight. To me.”
The book ends with the author imagining her father and her uncle in the afterlife. “I wish I were absolutely certain that my father and uncle are now together in some tranquil and restful place, sharing endless walks and talks beyond what their too-few and too-short visits allowed…. I wish I could fully make sense of the fact that they're now sharing a gravesite and a tombstone in Queens, New York, after living apart for more than thirty years.” It was their love for one another that bound them over the years and miles in life and determined that they be placed in a shared grave after death.
Because Brother, I'm Dying deals primarily with the separation of family members across years and miles, the theme of exile plays a central role. The author experiences exile in different ways at different times during her life. As a child, she is affected by her parents' absence after they move to New York and leave her and her brother in Haiti. As an adult, she is exiled from her family again when she moves from New York to Miami to live with her husband. Her father, ironically, points out,
Your mother's here in Brooklyn. I'm here. Two of your three brothers are here. You have no family in Miami. What if this man you're moving there for mistreats you? Who are you going to turn to?
Danticat's father's decision to leave his family behind while he seeks a better life in the United States has lasting implications for him and his entire family. Separated from his wife for two years, and his two children for almost ten, he is absent for much of their lives. Unable to communicate with one another via telephone, the family must rely on letters to stay in touch. This is difficult for her father who later says, “What I wanted to tell you and your brother was too big for any piece of paper and a small envelope.” So he writes half-page, three-paragraph missives that provide brief bits of news and the assurance that his family would hear from him soon. This kind of communication inspires anxiety in everyone involved.
For the family readings, I recited my father's letters in a monotone, honoring what I interpreted as a secret between us, that the impersonal style of his letters was due as much to his lack of faith in words and their ability to accurately reproduce his emotions as to his caution with Bob's and my feelings, avoiding too-happy news that might add to the anguish of separation, too-sad news that might worry us, and any hint of judgment or disapproval for my aunt and uncle, which they could have interpreted as suggestions that they were mistreating us.
The fact that Uncle Joseph refuses to leave Haiti, or even move from his very dangerous neighborhood when the country is thrown into chaos, is a constant source of concern for his brother. When the author asks her uncle why he never tried to move to New York like her father did, he responds, “It's not easy to start over in a new place. Exile is not for everyone. Someone has to stay behind, to receive the letters and greet family members when they come back.” Joseph's insistence on staying through political turmoil, riots, and hurricanes is a constant source of worry for the author's father, despite knowing firsthand the difficulties of being a Haitian immigrant in the United States. In a bitter irony, Joseph does finally settle in the United States, but only after he is dead. The author's father is haunted by the fact that his brother is exiled finally in death. His response to the fact says much about his own experience as a Haitian immigrant and why he chose self-exile. “He shouldn't be here. If our country were ever given a chance and allowed to be a country like any other, none of us would live or die here.”
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Write a poem that describes a time when you were away from your family. If you have not had that experience, imagine how you would feel if you were separated from them for a significant amount of time. Record your thoughts and organize them into a poem.
- Research the contemporary history of Haiti, from the time of Edwidge Danticat's birth in 1969 to the present. How do the historical events you found in your research compare to those described in Brother, I'm Dying? Does the historical context of the story help you to better understand Andre Danticat's desire to leave Haiti and move to the United States? Write a paper detailing your findings and how they relate to the book.
- Research the life of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, former president of Haiti. Write a paper that traces his evolution from charismatic leftist Roman Catholic priest to international political figure. Be sure to include the role that the United States played in his rise and fall.
- Critics have called Edwidge Danticat “the voice of Haitian immigrants.” Research the author's biography and the biographies of other contemporary writers who immigrated from the Caribbean or are children of Caribbean immigrants (such as Claude McKay, Paule Marshall, or Michelle Cliff). What characteristics or experiences do they share? How and why did they become writers? Explore their work and look for common themes. Write a paper that explores these writers' influences on contemporary society.
Brother, I'm Dying relies heavily on flashback to tell its story of family and political history. Because a significant portion of the book is spent recounting past events, many that occurred before the author was even born, she must “look forward and back at the same time” to accurately relate the story of her father and his brother. A collection of facts culled from official documents, memories, and “borrowed recollections of family members,” the story weaves past events and present experiences together to create a cohesive whole.
First-Person Point of View
Brother, I'm Dying is told from the point of view of the author. Because the story she is telling is very much her own, she uses the first person “I” throughout. Doing so gives the tale a sense of immediacy, clarity, and honesty that is crucial in a nonfiction work such as this. Danticat places herself in the middle of the story, and states that much of what she relates was “learned from my father and uncle…out of sequence and in fragments.” In her own voice, Danticat organizes these narratives in a story told through a personal perspective.
Haiti, the world's first independent black republic, has a history of unrest prompted by economic and political instability. Beginning in 1949, when dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier succeeded General Paul Magloire as president, the country was brutally ruled by Duvalier's secret police force, the “Tontons Macoutes.” Directly responsible only to Duvalier, this unpaid volunteer militia was given license to kill, extort, and torture Haitians as they saw fit. Hundreds of Duvalier's opponents were murdered during his reign. In 1971, when Duvalier died and his son, Jean-Claude, or “Baby Doc,” became the leader of the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, the force was renamed the National Security Volunteers. They continued to terrorize the citizenry throughout his administration and even after he fled the country in 1986.
Haiti was one of the first countries to face an AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s. Foreign visitors stayed away for fear of the disease, which caused the tourist industry to collapse. The resulting rise in unemployment threw the country into unrest, which prompted Baby Doc to flee. The international community began to take an interest in establishing a democracy in Haiti throughout the 1990s. The country managed to elect a chief executive, a charismatic leftist Roman Catholic priest named Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who epitomized the promise of a new Haiti. He took office in February 1991, but was overthrown by a military coup nine months later and forced to leave the country. For the next several years, Haiti was governed by a rapidly changing succession of leaders until the United Nations imposed an oil and arms embargo on the country. This prompted exiled President Aristide and General Raoul Cedras, head of the Haitian armed forces, to sign the UN-brokered Governors Island Agreement in 1993. It established a process for restoring a constitutional Haitian government and returning Aristide to power by October 30 of that year. Despite these efforts, the Haitian military derailed the process by sanctioning the repression, assassination, torture, and rape of its citizens in flagrant defiance of condemnation by the international community.
Economic sanctions were tightened, and on July 31, 1994, the UN authorized all member states to facilitate the departure of Haiti's military leadership and restore constitutional rule and Aristide's presidency using all necessary means. The United States took the lead and established the military intervention known as Operation Uphold Democracy. The intervention involved an airdrop of 3,900 American paratroopers who persuaded Haitian officials to agree to a peaceful transition of government and permissive entry of U.S. forces. The restoration of a legitimate Haitian government was underway when Cedras and other top military leaders left Haiti. Aristide returned on October 15 of that year and was restored to office.
In the country's 1996 elections, Rene Preval succeeded Aristide. Four years later, United States soldiers and UN peacekeepers left Haiti. The government remained ineffectual and the economy continued to stagnate. In 2000, when the country had the highest rate of infant mortality, AIDS, and malnutrition in the region, former president Aristide was re-elected president. Because the election was boycotted by the opposition and questioned by international observers, the United States and other countries threatened Haiti with sanctions. They demanded that democratic procedures be strengthened. Aristide, who had grown more authoritarian, seemed incapable of improving the lives of his people. In January 2004, the month of Haiti's bicentennial, violent protests swept the country. Protestors demanded that Aristide resign.
A month later, a full-blown armed revolt was underway. By February 29, pressure from protestors, armed rebels, France, and the United States led to the ousting of Aristide. Afterward, a U.S.-led international force of 2,300 entered the ravaged country, attempted to restore order, and established an interim government. Months later, in September of 2004, Hurricane Jeanne hit the country and killed more than 2,400 people. The natural disaster prompted widespread lawlessness and gang violence and kept the interim government from being able to maintain control over large swaths of the country.
Many critics who reviewed Brother, I'm Dying remarked on Edwidge Danticat's graceful transition from fiction, which she is best known for, to family memoir. Donna Rifkind of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “There is no guarantee that a distinguished fiction writer will produce a successful memoir. Yet Edwidge Danticat—the author of three elegant and complex novels, including Breath, Eyes, Memory, and the story collection Krik? Krak! brings the same lucid storytelling to Brother, I'm Dying.” Referring to the remarkable way Danticat tells the story of her uncle's tragic death, Jess Row of the New York Times wrote, “How does a novelist, who trades in events filtered through imagination and memory, recreate an event so recent, so intimate and so outrageous, an attack on her own loyalties and sense of deepest belonging?” Explaining that the author follows the dictum, “Anger is a wasted emotion,” Row describes Brother, I'm Dying as “a memoir whose clear-eyed prose and unflinching adherence to the facts conceal an astringent undercurrent of melancholy, a mixture of homesickness and homelessness.”
Critics also noted Danticat's dispassionate, detached emotionalism, often crediting it with the book's success. In her Village Voice review, Lenora Todaro wrote,
Danticat…disciplines her emotions, forcing them into lean prose to recount the harrowing confluence of events that befalls her in 2004…. She does not exploit cruelty. Rather, she seeds the book with hope and leavens it with folktale, a remedy with which her characters make sense of the incomprehensible.
She explains, “With ample opportunity for fury, Danticat maintains her chin-up type of dignity, leaving the reader to froth for her.”
Ann Guidry is a freelance writer and editor. In this essay, she explores the correlation between death and Haitian and American politics in Brother, I'm Dying.
Brother, I'm Dying is primarily a family memoir, but it is also a story about how the history and politics of two countries—Haiti and the United States—profoundly affect the members of the Danticat family. The story of Joseph and Miracin Danticat—one exiled in New York, one stubbornly grounded in Haiti's capital—is a story of separation, loss, and death largely dictated by the Haitian political system. The author uses a cool tone and mingles news reports and official documentation with personal reflection. The result is more emotionally wrenching than an impassioned lament might be. The cold, hard facts surrounding her family's history are deeply affecting without rhetorical adornment. By weaving Haiti's political history with her family history, Danticat emphasizes the profound effect one has over the other.
In the first chapter, Danticat provides the reader with an overview of Haitian history in general and Bel Air in particular, explaining that a famous battle between mulatto abolitionists and French colonists took place there in the seventeenth century. In 1804, slaves and former slaves forced the French out and formed the Republic of Haiti. A century later, in July 1915, U.S. Marine forces landed in the world's first black independent republic and occupied it for nineteen years. The occupation gave rise to Haitian guerrilla fighters, Cacos, who organized attacks on U.S. forces from Bel Air. From this point on, violence and unrest were common in Bel Air, Joseph Danticat's chosen home for the bulk of his life. The decision to stay or go, in the face of near constant unrest and Haiti, was wrenching to many. Danticat's father chose to go; her uncle Joseph, deeply connected to his community, chose to stay. Danticat explains:
Over the years, this had been a touchy subject between my father and uncle: my father wanting my uncle to move to another part, any other part, of Haiti and my uncle refusing to even consider it. I now imagined my father longing to tell his brother to leave Bel Air, but this time not for the reasons he usually offered…but because my father was dying and he wanted his oldest brother to be safe.
Unlike his brother, Miracin Danticat, the author's father, began thinking of leaving Haiti when the country's declining political situation began to intrude on his life. Danticat writes, “That period in my father's life, the early 1960s, was also shadowed by much larger events.” The events she refers to surround the rise to power of the infamous Haitian dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier became president of Haiti in a rigged election in 1957, and, once in power, refused to step down. Duvalier was a brutal, superstitious, unstable man who relied on voodoo rituals to sustain his power and enforced his will on the people by way of a countrywide militia called the Tonton Macoutes. The Macoutes answered to no one but Duvalier, and had, in effect, more power than the army. They could do whatever they wanted. Part of doing whatever they wanted included going into Miracin's shoe store, demanding to try on the best shoes, and walking out the door with them. It was understood that Miracin would risk his life by challenging them. This constant threat of violence convinces Danticat's father to leave Haiti. Danticat presents this decision, which would have a huge impact her own life, as a matter of practicality. Her tone in describing these historical events is dry, not enraged or appalled. She merely sets out the facts as the backdrop for the story of her own family's experiences.
At the beginning of Part Two of Brother, I'm Dying, the author details the events leading up to the death of Joseph's adopted daughter, Marie Micheline. Caught in the crossfire of a military shootout, the young woman is literally “frightened to death”—she suffers a fatal heart attack during a firefight near her work. Although she was not shot, the heart attack she suffered was a direct result of the gunfire. Interestingly, Danticat notes that the whole tragedy was the subject of a news articles written by an American journalist:
Because Ron Howell, a New York journalist, happened to be covering the military shoot-out in Bel Air that afternoon, Marie Micheline's death was the subject of a Newsday article published on April 17, 1989…. Marie Micheline, wrote Howell, was in many ways “a reflection of Haiti and its potential, a flicker of light frustrated in its attempt to shine.”
It is as if Danticat wants to stress the plain reality of the event, not just its emotional impact on her family. In stressing the “news” aspect of the death, she also makes it more universal—not just a personal tragedy.
The Haitian political situation continued to deteriorate as the 1990s began. On September 30, 1991, the wildly popular Jean-Bertrand Aristide, sworn in as president only seven months prior, was ousted by a military coup. This spurred a rash of protests and demonstrations that were countered by army raids and the killing of hundreds of Joseph's neighbors. He managed to avert attack by avoiding demonstrations and other overt political activity, but “every morning he got up to count the many bloody corpses that dotted the street corners and alleys of Bel Air….” Danticat relates that Joseph kept detailed notebooks in which he wrote the names of the victims, the condition of their bodies, and how—and by whom—the bodies were retrieved. Here, Danticat focuses on the records kept by her uncle. The records, not just the reaction of her uncle, keep the horror of what he has experienced out of the realm of personal nightmare and squarely in the realm of reality. When asked why he did not try and move to New York in the face of such a hellish experience, Joseph replied, “Exile is not for everyone. Someone has to stay behind, to receive the letters and greet family members when they come back.” His response is telling in that it acknowledges the natural tendency for family to leave, and, one day, to return. Although he decides to stay, he understands why his son and two of his brothers make the decision to emigrate to the United States, despite the obvious and inherent difficulties of that decision.
Danticat is at her most emotional when describing the confluence of events involving Haitian gangs, United Nations (UN) peacekeeping forces, and United States customs officials that bring about the tragic end of Joseph's life. When UN soldiers storm Joseph's church compound and kill and injure several Haitian gang members, the old man's neighbors accuse him of working with the enemy. “‘Here's the traitor,’ one man said while pointing at him. ‘The bastard who let them up on his roof to kill us.”’ Threatened with his life, Joseph is forced to flee the home, church, school, and clinic he had spent a lifetime building. Worse, he witnesses the looting of it all by neighbors and gang members. Two days later, the compound is completely taken over by the forces that drove Joseph out. Gangs have taken over his home, the school, and the church and have threatened to “burn him alive” if Joseph ever comes back.
The bitterest irony of the book lies in the fact that Uncle Joseph dies in the custody of United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement. When the elderly man is finally driven out of Haiti and asks U.S. officials for temporary asylum, his fate is sealed. Post-9/11 immigration policies, especially regarding Haitian immigrants, dictate that Joseph and his son Maxo be detained indefinitely, despite the fact that they hold valid tourist visas. To make matters worse, Joseph's medication is taken away from him while in detention. This leads to his becoming gravely ill during his credible fear interview. “Fifteen minutes had passed since my uncle first started vomiting. A registered nurse and medic finally arrived,” Danticat writes. “By then my uncle looked ‘almost comatose.’” When Joseph's attorney asks if the author's uncle could be granted humanitarian parole given his condition and age, a medic cuts Pratt off by saying, “I think he's faking.” The medic abuses Joseph, refuses to allow anyone to clean the vomit from him, and insists that the old man is being uncooperative. In relating the events of Joseph's last hours, Danticat shifts into a strict reportorial style, quoting almost verbatim from the medical records taken at the hospital where he died. And the facts are heart-breaking. Her kind, brave uncle, who sought nothing except help in his hour of greatest need, was gravely mistreated and allowed to die by the U.S. government.
Despite her reportorial style throughout most of the book, Danticat's sorrow and rage are abundantly clear. Her decision to give historical documents—newpapers, notebooks, medical charts—do her screaming for her makes her writing all the more powerful.
Source: Ann Guidry, Critical Essay on Brother, I'm Dying, in Literary Newsmakers for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
In the following review, Broyard provides a critical analysis of Brother, I'm Dying.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Breath, Eyes, Memory, published in 1994, is Danticat's debut novel. Praised for its insight into Haitian culture, it concerns itself with the coming-of-age of narrator Sophie Caco under very difficult circumstances. The book was an Oprah Winfrey Book Club selection in 1998.
- Krik? Krak!, published in 1995, is Danticat's first collection of stories. A finalist for the National Book Award, the collection features stories detailing everyday life in Haiti under a military dictatorship.
- The Farming of Bones, published in 1998, is Danticat's second novel. A historical tragedy, the book is a fictionalized account of the 1937 massacre of Haitian farm workers by soldiers from the Dominican Republic.
- The Dew Breaker, published in 2004, is Danticat's second collection of stories. The nine interrelated short narratives recount the life of a Duvalier regime dissident torturer. The book was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. It won the Story Prize for outstanding collection of short fiction and earned Danticat a Lannan Foundation Fellowship.
- Why the Cocks Fight, published in 2000, is American journalist Michele Wucker's first book. Using the metaphor of cockfighting, Wucker frames the complex relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
Source: Bliss Broyard, “So Far Away—Edwidge Danticat recalls a childhood split between two fathers and two countries,” in The Washington Post, October 14, 2007, p. BW02.
In the following article, Todaro examines Brother, I'm Dying and the questions the memoir leaves unanswered.
Wisdom rarely alights on the young. When it does, one usually finds a trail of sorrow in its wake. At 25, Edwidge Danticat published her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994), an insightful and elegant multi-generational saga that takes the immigrant's tale from the familiars of escape and exile into the intensely private realm of one girl's dysfunctional sexual initiation. Her second book, Krik? Krak! (1995), a collection of stories, brought readers a suicide by hot-air balloon (“A Wall of Fire Rising”), a prostitute cuddling her young son (“Night Women”), and a woman adopting a dead orphan (“Between the Pool and the Gardenias”). Danticat's imagination stirs up stories from the kitchen poetry heard at her family table in Haiti and New York, from history books and documents, from ancestral memory. She writes with clarity and purpose, as one of the chosen for whom the muse refuses respite.
In her fiction, Danticat channels the voices of her native Haiti, where she and her brother were raised by her uncle Joseph until age 12, when she left to live in New York with her mother and father, whom she'd not seen in years. When she arrived, she was given, presciently, a typewriter, and keeping in mind the model of her beloved Uncle Joseph, a preacher, she took notes, organized her words. But unlike him, she's had opportunities to place her work in the public eye. Her new book, Brother, I'm Dying, her first major work of nonfiction, is a family memoir that she wrote “only because they can't.”
In the memoir, Danticat recalls the three-paragraph monthly missives she received in Haiti from her father as “dispassionate…his way of avoiding a minefield, one he could have discharged from a distance without being able to comfort the victims.” Danticat herself, similarly, disciplines her emotions, forcing them into lean prose to recount the harrowing confluence of events that befalls her in 2004: the death of her father—who worked as a taxi driver—mere weeks after the birth of her daughter, and the disdain shown to her 81-year-old Uncle Joseph at a detention center in Miami in which he died days after arriving in America. Like her fiction, Brother reads with page-turning speed. She does not exploit cruelty. Rather, she seeds the book with hope and leavens it with folktale, a remedy with which her characters make sense of the incomprehensible.
Danticat shows herself following political events in Haiti during her girlhood in Brook-lyn—“Baby Doc” Duvalier's rise and fall, during which a cousin caught in between bullets was “frightened to death,” and then Jean-Bertrand Aristide's rise and fall, during which “the army raided and torched houses and killed hundreds of my uncle's neighbors.” Later, when neighbors drive her uncle out of Haiti and ultimately to his death, she observes: “His entire life was now reduced to an odd curiosity, a looting opportunity.” A respected man, who sought to do good, slips away in a wig, only to end his days vomiting in shackles. With ample opportunity for fury, Danticat maintains her chin-up type of dignity, leaving the reader to froth for her.
If Danticat feels anger toward God, the government, the doctors, the neighborhood gangs who drove her uncle to seek asylum in the United States, she doesn't lose her cool. She comes across as a good girl, a worrier perhaps, not bitter or vengeful. But in the memoir these admirable qualities bring limitations and raise the question: How forthcoming is she being with the reader? Her reporting appears impeccable, but perhaps she does not yet have the emotional distance of time to examine the tumult that enveloped her. Perhaps the story is intended to be more about her father and uncle than about herself—but isn't she the linchpin joining their story? (In 2004, her novel The Dew Breaker was published to wide acclaim, but it is never mentioned, nor is there much detail offered about her inner writing life throughout the chaos of events.) Perhaps she holds back with her family's pride in mind: They've been through enough. It's as if she's writing with the light turned down to ward off the sharp pain of reality. In her fiction, the light roams wide, fanning out across a life, burrowing into crevices of recollection.
Brother, I'm Dying leaves some crucial questions unanswered: What happened to Maxo, Uncle Joseph's son, who was also detained in Miami? Her parents' house burns down shortly after her father's death—what happens to her mother? Nevertheless, Danticat raises issues that many struggle with when examining a life: What are the consequences of moving far from home and family?Will you be there when a loved one is ill or dying? Will your loved ones see your ancestors in your newborn's face? And, in the end, how much do these moments matter to you? Or, as Danticat's brother says to their father once they know he is dying: “Have you enjoyed your life?”
Source: Lenora Todaro, “The Immigrant Song—Death, folktale, and Haitian gangs in Edwidge Danticat's family memoir,” in The Village Voice, September 11, 2007, p. 1.
In her following review, Rifkind provides an analysis of Brother, I'm Dying and discusses events pertinent to Danticat's life.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
Source: Donna Rifkind, “Brother, I'm Dying, by Edwidge Danticat,” in The Los Angeles Times, September 9, 2007, p. 1.
Danticat, Edwidge, Brother, I'm Dying, Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.
GlobalSecurity.orghttp://www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/uphold_democracy.htm (January 23, 2007).
Infoplease.comhttp://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0107612.html (January 23, 2007).
Row, Jess, “Haitian Fathers,” in The New York Times, September 9, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/09/books/review/Row-t.html?pagewanted=prin
Todaro, Lenora, “The Immigrant Song: Death, folktale, and Haitian gangs in Edwidge Danticat's family memoir,” in The Village Voice, September 11, 2007, http://www.villagevoice.com/books/0737,todaro,77735,10.html
Bell, Beverly, Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance, Cornell University Press, 2001.
Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance is a collection of thirty-eight stories written by Haitian women. Edwidge Danticat provides the foreword text.
Danticat, Edwidge, After the Dance: A Walk Through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti, Crown, 2002.
After the Dance: A Walk Through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti, is Danticat's first work of nonfiction. The book describes the author's first experience with Carnival, twenty years after emigrating to the United States.
Danticat, Edwidge, ed. The Butterfly's Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States, Soho Press, 2001.
Danticat edited The Butterfly's Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States, a collection of thirty-three essays and poems written by Haitians immigrants.
Robinson, Randall, An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, from Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President, Basic Civitas, 2007.
An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, from Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President provides a political history of Haiti that focuses on American policies and their relation to the forced exile of former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.