The Dew Breaker
The Dew Breaker
The Dew Breaker (2004) is a novel by Edwidge Danticat, an American writer who was born in Haiti. Haiti is a small, impoverished country that occupies the western third of the island of Hispaniola; Haiti is bordered by the Dominican Republic, which occupies the eastern two-thirds of the island. Haiti is located in the Caribbean Sea between Cuba and Puerto Rico, and is 700 miles from the coast of Florida.
The Dew Breaker consists of nine linked stories. The stories are set either in the Haitian-American community in New York, or in Haiti during the time of the brutal dictatorships of François Duvalier, known as Papa Doc, and his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, who ruled Haiti from 1957 to 1986, during which time thousands of people were tortured and killed. The torturers, members of the Duvaliers' militia known as the Tonton Macoutes, were also known as dew breakers because of their practice of coming for their victims before dawn. The novel focuses on one dew breaker in particular, a man who committed horrible crimes in Haiti in the 1960s and who has since lived an unremarkable life in New York with his wife and daughter. But as the novel shows, the crimes he committed have left a terrible legacy that still haunts the Haitian-American community in New York so many years later. Is it possible that he could ever be forgiven or redeemed? Danticat's subtle treatment of this theme makes The Dew Breaker a compelling exploration of the mind of a torturer and the limits of compassion.
Edwidge Danticat was born January 19, 1969, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to poor parents. When Danticat was two years old, her father immigrated to the United States, working as a taxi driver in New York. Two years later, Danticat's mother joined her husband in New York, leaving Danticat and her younger brother Eliab to be raised by their uncle. In 1981, when Danticat was twelve, she joined her parents in New York.
Raised speaking Creole and French, Danticat learned English by reading the works of African-American novelists such as James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Alice Walker. As a recent immigrant attending a high school in Brooklyn, she felt isolated from her classmates and took to writing about her homeland as a way of escape.
After high school, Danticat attended Barnard College in New York, graduating in 1990 with a degree in French literature. Although her parents wanted her to pursue a career in medicine, she chose not to enroll in nursing school. Instead she pursued a Master of Fine Arts degree at Brown University, graduating in 1993. Her thesis was an early version of her semi-autobiographical novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, a revised version of which was published in 1994. The novel was well received and became a bestseller when it was selected by the Oprah Winfrey Book Club in 1998.
Danticat followed her success with Krik? Krak! (1995), a collection of short stories that was nominated for the National Book Award. Danticat's second novel, The Farming of Bones, was about a 1937 incident in which thousands of Haitian farm workers were massacred by soldiers in the Dominican Republic. The novel won the American Book Award.
After she wrote Behind the Mountains (2002), a book that takes the form of the diary of a teenaged Haitian girl, Danticat published The Dew Breaker (2004), her most critically acclaimed novel. It was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2004, and received a PEN/Faulkner Award nomination in 2005.
In addition to her fiction, Danticat has written After the Dance: A Walk through Carnival in Haiti (2002), a nonfiction account of Haiti's annual Carnival celebrations. She has also edited The Butterfly's Way: From the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States, a collection of stories, poems, and essays by Haitian writers living in the United States.
In 2007, Danticat published a memoir, titled Brother, I'm Dying. As of 2008, Danticat lived in Miami, Florida.
The Book of Ka
The first of the nine interconnected stories in The Dew Breaker is set in Lakeland, Florida, and is narrated by Ka, a young female Haitian immigrant who lives in New York. She has traveled to Florida with her father, also a Haitian immigrant, in order to sell her mahogany sculpture of her father to Gabrielle Fonteneau, a Haitian-American television star and art collector.
Ka and her father stay in a hotel, but when Ka wakes in the morning her father has vanished, and the sculpture is gone, too. Her father finally returns at sunset, without the sculpture. He drives Ka to a lake and indicates that he threw the sculpture in the water. Ka is angry, and her father explains that he did not feel worthy of the statue. His daughter has always been told that her father had been imprisoned in Haiti, but now he confesses that he was never in prison; instead he was responsible for killing and torturing many people who were prisoners. He says he would not do such things now.
When they return to the hotel, Ka calls her mother, wanting to know how she could love her husband, knowing what she knows about him. Her mother responds that she and Ka have saved him; it was when he met his future wife that he stopped torturing others.
The next day, Ka and her father visit Gabrielle for lunch. When asked where in Haiti he comes from, Ka's father lies, in order to reduce the possibility of being identified. When they leave the Fonteneaus' house, Ka dreads the long journey home, knowing that she must come to terms with what she has learned about her father's dark past.
A Haitian immigrant in New York is about to be reunited with his wife, whom he has not seen in seven years, since they were married in Haiti. He has spent those years working, saving, and acquiring a green card so that he can bring his wife to the United States. The man, who works two jobs as a janitor, shares a basement apartment with Michel and Dany, two other Haitian immigrants. They rent the apartment from a Haitian immigrant couple (who later turn out to be Ka's parents).
The man greets his wife at JFK airport and drives her home, pleased that she has taken trouble with her appearance in honor of the occasion. That night they make love. He goes to work the next morning, leaving her at home, where she listens to Haitian radio stations. She spends an entire week in the apartment, fearful that she would get lost if she ventured outside. She passes the time cooking and listening to the radio, which informs her of the troubles of being a Haitian immigrant in New York. She also writes letters home. On the weekend, her husband takes her to a park in Brooklyn, and she thinks back to times they spent in Haiti together. She is conscious of being in a strange land where she does not speak the language.
Nadine is a thirty-year-old Haitian immigrant who lives alone in Brooklyn and works as a nurse in the Ear, Nose and Throat department of a hospital. Her parents in Haiti write to her, urging her to call more often, but she feels disinclined to do so. Having split up with her boyfriend, she still suffers mental pain from the abortion she had seven months ago. She lives an isolated life.
Nadine has to deal with the distress of a patient in the ward, Ms. Hinds, a woman who has had a laryngectomy, leaving her without the ability to speak. Nadine has to train Ms. Hinds to write down what she wants to say.
That night, Nadine tries to call Eric, her ex-boyfriend, but finds that he now has an unlisted number. (Eric is the man in "Seven," who has now been reunited with his wife.) She calls her mother instead, but they are unable to talk of anything important.
The next day, after she says good-bye to Ms. Hinds, Nadine sees a distorted, enlarged reflection of herself in the metal of the elevator doors, which reminds her of her aborted pregnancy and the fact that the baby would have been born that week.
- An unabridged audio CD of The Dew Breaker was published in 2004 by Recorded Books.
The Book of Miracles
This story is narrated by Anne, the wife of the dew breaker, as she, her husband, and their daughter drive to a Christmas Eve Mass. Anne is the only member of the family who believes in miracles and is eagerly anticipating the midnight Mass, which is the only time she and her family go to church together. During the Mass, Ka spots a man she thinks is Emmanuel Constant, who is wanted for murder and torture committed when he led a death squad in Haiti. Fliers have been posted in the neighborhood with his picture on them. Anne worries that one day her husband's face may appear on a similar flier. She also worries that one day her daughter may find out about her father's past. As she goes to take Holy Communion, Anne looks at the man and realizes he is not Constant. But she decides never again to attend Mass for fear that someone might recognize her husband.
Dany, the tenant in "Seven," returns to the Haitian countryside to visit his blind aunt, Estina Estème, who lives in a one-room house in a valley. Dany wants to tell her that he has found in New York the man who killed his parents and was also responsible for blinding her. When Dany tries to tell his aunt his story he is interrupted by a visitor, but that night he dreams about the conversation he wants to have with her. He recalls the night his family's home was blown up and his parents shot. He was six years old, and he remembers seeing the man responsible for the carnage, who threatened to shoot him as well. After Dany found himself living in the house of the guilty man in New York, he once went to the man's bedroom at night, intent on killing him. But he lost the desire to kill out of fear that he might be mistaken about the man's identity. Dany does not get the chance to tell his aunt the full story because one night she dies in her sleep.
The Bridal Seamstress
Aline Cajuste, a young Haitian-American who is an intern journalist with a Haitian-American periodical, interviews Beatrice Saint Fort, who is retiring from her job as a bridal seamstress. Beatrice is also originally from Haiti. After the interview, they walk in the neighborhood, and Beatrice points out the house where a Haitian prison guard lives. She tells Aline that, when she was young and still living in Haiti, this man, angry that she refused to go dancing with him, took her to a prison where he whipped the soles of her feet. Intrigued by Beatrice's story, Aline later takes a close look at the house, but a neighbor tells her that no one lives there. She goes back to Beatrice and says the house is empty, but Beatrice replies that the man always lives in empty houses, otherwise he would be caught and sent to prison. She thinks that he is always able to find her, wherever she lives. Aline concludes that the woman's anguish over what she suffered has left her mentally unbalanced.
Michel, the tenant at the dew breaker's house in New York, looks back at a traumatic day in Haiti in 1986, when he was a fatherless twelve-year-old boy. The dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier has just been driven from power, and members of the dictator's once-feared militia, the Tonton Macoutes, are being attacked in the streets by the angry populace. Michel seeks out his friend Romain, an older boy, who was abandoned by his father, Regulas. Regulas is a militia member who is being sought by the local people because of the crimes he committed against them. Romain and Michel decide to escape the chaos by going to a hotel, but they are unable to get a room. It turns out that Romain thought he might find his father at the hotel. While they are there, Romain lets slip that Michel's father is a local man named Christophe. Michel had suspected this but had never been willing to acknowledge it. Romain then says he is fleeing the country, and Michel is to go home to his mother. The next day Michel discovers that Regulas shot himself to avoid being captured. Michel never hears of Romain again.
The Funeral Singer
Rézia, Mariselle, and Freda, three young female Haitian immigrants in New York in the 1970s, become friends when they are the only Haitian students in an English class. They tell one another their stories. Freda, the narrator, used to be a professional singer at funerals in Haiti. Her father was arrested and beaten by the authorities and, after being released, he vanished at sea. Later, Freda refused to sing at the dictator's palace and then fled the country at her mother's insistence. Mariselle's husband was killed because he painted a portrait of the president that the government disapproved of. Rézia was raped by a member of the militia. Now these women are trying to imagine a better future for themselves in their new country.
The Dew Breaker
The final narrative begins in 1967, when the dew breaker was a member of the militia group known as the Volunteers. He is waiting in his car outside a church, where he plans to assassinate a popular Baptist pastor who has been preaching against the government. He joined the militia a decade ago, when he was nineteen. As he rose in the hierarchy, he gained a reputation for enjoying the psychological and physical tortures he would inflict on the prisoners at Casernes, a military barracks.
The preacher is a man without fear. His wife is dead, poisoned at the order of the authorities, and he knows he will soon be assassinated, too. Against the wishes of his deacons, he goes to the church that evening. His stepsister Anne is there but she leaves early. During the sermon, the dew breaker and his gang of thugs burst in, seize the preacher, and take him to prison, beating him severely. However, later, the dew breaker is told by his superior, a woman named Rosalie, that the preacher is to be released. The government does not want him to become a martyr. The preacher is brought to the prison office, where he encounters the dew breaker. During the interview, the chair the preacher is sitting on collapses. He takes a broken piece of wood and strikes the dew breaker's cheek with it and then draws the wood down the man's face, badly injuring him. The dew breaker shoots him dead. Fearful that he will now be arrested himself for breaking orders, he starts to go home. He encounters Anne on the street, who is rushing to the prison to see her stepbrother. But instead, she accompanies the dew breaker home and tends to his wounds. She appears to thinks he is a victim who has escaped the prison. When he recovers, the dew breaker arranges for them both to fly to New York. He never harms anyone again. They never fully discuss what happened the night the preacher was murdered, but they both find a kind of redemption through their mutual love for their daughter, Ka.
Anne is the wife of the dew breaker. She loves him in spite of his brutal past, believing that he has now become a decent man. She thinks that she and Ka, their daughter, have saved him. Anne is a religious woman who has always believed in miracles. Originally from Haiti, her early life was full of tragedy. Her younger brother was drowned, and both her parents died when she was young. She moved to the city to be with her stepbrother, the preacher who was later killed by the dew breaker. On the night of her stepbrother's death, she helped the dew breaker recover from the wound the preacher inflicted on him, without knowing how the dew breaker had sustained the injury. Then she traveled with him to New York, where they married and later had their daughter. Anne never investigated the full story of what had happened the night her stepbrother was killed, and she cannot fully explain to her daughter why she loves her husband. One thing she does know is that the epileptic seizures she used to suffer from ceased after she met the dew breaker. But she is worried about how Ka will react now that she has learned about her father's past. In addition, Anne feels the insecurity of her life: "This pendulum between regret and forgiveness, this fright that the most important relationships of her life were always on the verge of being severed or lost."
Aline Cajuste is a young Haitian woman living in New York who works as an intern at a Haitian-American magazine. She is sent to interview the retiring seamstress, Beatrice Saint Fort. Aline is a lesbian who has recently been jilted by a girlfriend thirty years older than she is.
Monsieur Christophe appears in "Monkey Tails." He is the owner of a tap station in Port-au-Prince, and he sells water to the local people. He is the father of Michel, but he refuses to acknowledge it.
In "Night Talkers," Claude is a young Haitian man who immigrated to the United States but has been deported after killing his father. Claude is happier back in Haiti than he ever was in New York. He shows no remorse for killing the father who tried to stop him from using drugs. But Claude also believes that he was rehabilitated while in a U.S. prison.
Dany is one of the two Haitian immigrant men who live in the basement of the dew breaker's house in Brooklyn. He recognizes the dew breaker as the man who killed his parents, and at one point Dany wants to kill the dew breaker, but then changes his mind. Dany returns to visit his Aunt Estina in Haiti to inform her of what he has discovered.
The Dew Breaker
The dew breaker is never named. He came from a family of landowning peasants and was educated at a school run by Belgian priests. But the family's land was confiscated by army officers after Papa Doc came to power in 1957. After this, the dew breaker's father became insane and his mother vanished. At the age of nineteen, the dew breaker joined the militia, the Volunteers for National Security. Over the next decade, he killed and tortured many people at Casernes, the military barracks. He would devise the most cruel tortures and enjoy carrying them out.
In 1967, the dew breaker kills the Baptist preacher, but not before the preacher badly injures the dew breaker's face, leaving him scarred for life. But then the dew breaker's life changes. Escaping possible arrest himself, he flees to the United States with Anne. They begin a new life, settling in Brooklyn; he works as a barber, and renounces his violent past. His daughter, Ka, describes him as a "quiet and distant man." He likes museums and frequently takes Ka to the Brooklyn Museum, where his particular interest is in the Ancient Egyptian rooms. But the dew breaker can never really escape what he did. He suffers from nightmares because of it and has a guilty conscience. He fears detection, which forces him to live almost as a fugitive, not having close friends, never inviting anyone back to the house, and never teaching his daughter anything about Haiti. After Ka is born, however, he seems to believe that in some way he has been redeemed from his past, and he tells her "Ka, no matter what, I'm still your father, still your mother's husband. I would never do those things now."
Aunt Estina Estèeme
Aunt Estina Estème is Dany's aunt who lives in the Haitian countryside. She has been blind since the dew breaker and his accomplices set fire to the house where she was living with Dany's parents and then six-year-old Dany. Aunt Estina dies before Dany can fully explain that he has found the dew breaker in New York.
Gabrielle Fonteneau is a young Haitian American who is a television star and art collector. She lives in Florida and has agreed to buy a sculpture from Ka.
Freda is the narrator of "The Funeral Singer." She is a twenty-two-year-old Haitian immigrant in New York who used to sing professionally at funerals in Haiti. But after her father was beaten by government thugs and was then lost at sea, she refused an invitation to sing at the dictator's palace and immigrated to the United States.
In "Water Child," Ms. Hinds is a patient in the Ear, Nose and Throat department of a Brooklyn, New York, hospital. She is frustrated and angry because she has just had a laryngectomy and is unable to speak.
Josette is a nurse in the Ear, Nose and Throat department of a Brooklyn, New York, hospital. She is a young Haitian immigrant who came to the United States as a girl and so, speaks English without an accent.
Ka is the daughter of Anne and the dew breaker. She narrates "The Book of the Dead" and also appears in "The Book of Miracles." Unlike all the other major characters in the book, she was born and raised in the United States—in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. She has never been to Haiti. Ka is artistic and creates wood sculptures of her father. Unlike her religious mother, she professes to be an atheist. She is angry at her father when he throws away her sculpture of him in Florida. She is utterly dismayed when he confesses to her that he was not imprisoned for a year in Haiti, as she had always understood to be the case, but was in fact one of the notorious killers and torturers in that country.
In "The Funeral Singer," Mariselle is one of the three young Haitian immigrants who meet at an English class in New York. She left Haiti after her artist husband was killed by government assassins and is now trying to establish a new life for herself. She gets a job at an art gallery.
Michel is one of the two Haitian immigrants who live in the basement apartment of the house owned by the dew breaker in New York. In "Monkey Tails" he looks back at his childhood in Haiti, especially the day in 1986 when the dictator fled the country.
Nadine Osnac is a young Haitian immigrant who works as a nurse in a hospital in Brooklyn. She lives in a one-bedroom condo and is a solitary figure without friends. She keeps the television on all day just to have human voices in the room. Her parents in Haiti want her to keep in touch with them more frequently, but she puts off calling them. Nadine recently had an abortion and the memory of it troubles her. She has erected a shrine to the aborted baby in her apartment.
The preacher, who is never named, appears in "The Dew Breaker." He is a fearless Baptist minister who preaches against the government. He willingly courts martyrdom and is killed in prison by the dew breaker in 1967, after being arrested at his church while giving a sermon. The preacher is not cowed by his attackers or his jailers, however, and manages to inflict a severe wound on the face of the dew breaker before he is shot dead.
In "Monkey Tails," Regulus is the father of Romain. He abandoned Romain when the baby was only one month old. Regulus is a member of the militia that has committed atrocities against the local people. He tries to hide from the mob and then shoots himself to avoid capture.
Rézia is one of the three Haitian immigrant women in "The Funeral Singer." She owns a Haitian restaurant in Manhattan. In Haiti, when she was young, she was sent by her parents to live with her aunt, who ran a brothel. Threatened with imprisonment by a militia member, her aunt allowed the man into Rézia's room one night, where he raped her.
Romain in "Monkey Tails" is a friend of Michel's. Abandoned by his father, he is an only child. He is some years older than Michel, who looks up to him. Romain is quite worldly, sophisticated, and intellectual, with a habit of quoting from the books he has been reading.
Rosalie is a short, stout woman in her fifties who occupies a senior position at the military barracks. She is the dew breaker's superior and reproaches him for the clumsy way he arrested the preacher.
In "Monkey Tails," Rosie is a distant cousin of Michel's. She is employed as cook and cleaner by Michel's mother. Michel is in love with her.
Beatrice Saint Fort
In "The Bridal Seamstress," Beatrice Saint Fort is a seamstress in Queens, New York, who makes bridal gowns. She is a small woman in her fifties, and is about to retire from the job she has done almost all her life. As a young woman in Haiti, she was tortured by a prison guard and has never forgotten the experience. She believes that the guard is living in her neighborhood in Queens, although this is not really the case.
In "Monkey Tails," Vaval is Michel's cousin. He watches the chaos on the streets and tells Michel about it.
Redemption and the Weight of the Past
The dew breaker is a man who has committed horrible crimes that weigh on his conscience still, thirty-seven years after he left Haiti. He is haunted by his shameful past and still fears that he may be recognized by someone he has harmed. But since he feels remorse for his actions and has tried in his way to make amends by loving his wife and daughter, he is not presented as irredeemably evil. He is in fact a rather ordinary man who in a violence-prone society was unable to resist his worst impulses. His wife is a religious woman who believes in miracles and loves telling stories about them. She believes that her love for the dew breaker has helped to save him. For her, it is a miracle that he has been transformed. The dew breaker tries hard to believe this himself, naming his daughter Ka, meaning "good angel," as a sign that he had been changed and blessed. But his redemption can at best be only partial. The scar on his face is a reminder that he will always be marked by what he did, and Ka sees how troubled he remains, all those years later. He does not like being photographed, and when she tries to take a snapshot of him, he holds his hands up, hiding his face. He literally must hide from the world. His guilt also affects his wife, since she must live with the fear that he may be discovered, and she will lose him. She also fears that Ka, having learned his secret, may reject them both.
Redemption from the misdeeds of the past is also a theme in the story "Night Talkers," in the character of Claude, who killed his father while in the United States. He is deported to Haiti, but finds himself at peace there. He tells Dany: "I'm the luckiest fucker alive. I've done something really bad that makes me want to live my life like a fucking angel now." Like Dany and Aunt Estina, Claude is a "night talker" who is able to talk in his sleep about his troubles. Not only that, Claude is "able to speak his nightmares to himself as well as others, in the nighttime as well as in the hours past dawn." Speaking out his story is a healing experience for Claude, and he does it without apparent feelings of guilt or remorse, something that the dew breaker is unable to do. Unlike Claude, the dew breaker remains tied to his past, in spite of all his efforts to transcend it.
The Struggles of Haitian Immigrants
In addition to the horrific picture the novel gives of life in Haiti under the Duvalier regimes, many of the narratives give insight into the difficult lives led by Haitian immigrants in New York, living in society that is so different, in everything from language to climate, from their own. Some, like Beatrice the seamstress, are still haunted by the torture inflicted on them in Haiti; others, like the man in "Seven," are compelled to work two low-paying jobs as a janitor so that he can send money back to his wife in Haiti. Long family separations are frequent, as for Dany and Michel, who feel the loss keenly. When their roommate's wife arrives, they enjoy the meals she cooks for them, which "made them feel as though they were part of a family, something they had not experienced for years" (p. 46). Nadine Onesco in "Water Child" also experiences loneliness, cut off from her family but unable to create lasting ties of her own. Like her married ex-boyfriend Eric, she sends half of her salary back to Haiti, to support her parents.
There are also references to the perils of being a Haitian immigrant in New York. To illustrate this, the author twice draws on real incidents. In "Seven," it is reported that Dany and Michel used to frequent the Cenegal nightclub but stopped going there after a Haitian man named Abner Louima was arrested and beaten at a police station. In the same story, Eric's wife hears on the radio about another real-life incident in which a Haitian American named Patrick Dorismond was shot by a policeman in Manhattan.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Write an essay in which you describe U.S. policy toward Haiti from the 1960s to the 1980s and up to today. How has it changed over the years? What has caused the changes? What can the United States do to help Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere?
- Research the incidents referred to in "Seven," concerning the Haitians Abner Louima and Patrick Dorismond. What difficulties have Haitian immigrants encountered in New York and Florida? What difficulties do they have in common with other immigrant groups, and in what ways are their problems distinctive? Conduct a class presentation in which you discuss your findings.
- Imagine Ka's feelings at the moment she hangs up the phone on her mother in "The Book of the Dead." Write a poem in which she relates her thoughts and feelings at that moment—about her father, her mother, and herself.
- Conduct a class presentation in which you discuss the issue of torture. How is torture defined? How can it best be prevented internationally? What is U.S. government policy regarding torture? Can torture ever be justified?
Yet there are also success stories among the Haitian immigrants. The three young women in "The Funeral Singer," all of whom fled persecution in Haiti, show every sign of having the strength and the resources to succeed in their new country. That success is possible for Haitian immigrants is shown by the example of Gabrielle Fonteneau. As the dew breaker says to Ka: "A Haitian-born actress with her own American television show. We have really come far."
Symbols of Redemption
At the nadir of the dew breaker's life, the night following his killing of the preacher, he dreams of his childhood. It is like a dream of paradise. He is working with his mother in the garden, and for a while his father watches them unobtrusively. Pristine nature touches all the boy's senses, and he notices that the seeds he and his mother planted have sprung into trees and "healing weeds." It is a scene of peace and perfection, suggesting that even in the midst of evil, some sense of beauty lives on and carries within it the possibility of healing from all wounds. The dream, which the dew breaker wants to tell Anne about, thus forms part of the redemption theme.
If the dream contains the idea of redemption through images of nature, a similar theme is conveyed through art in the form of the sculpture that Ka creates of her father. It shows him kneeling, eyes downcast, a humble posture that, although it is based on a false idea of her father in prison, nonetheless conveys the regret that he feels about his past life and, ironically, his feeling that he does not deserve to have a sculpture made of him. In that sense, he is redeemed from his former arrogance.
The Use of Multiple Languages
The Haitian immigrants belong in two worlds, and these worlds are marked out by language. Ka's mother, Anne, whose native language may be Creole or French, speaks ungrammatical English. "He come back," she says of her husband, intending to use the future tense but omitting the word "will." The dew breaker is also caught between two linguistic worlds. Sometimes he uses Creole phrases, saying that he wants "Yon ti koze, a little chat" with Ka. He cannot express his deepest thoughts in English, and when he tries to explain his past to Ka he says will have to speak in Creole, while she continues to speak in English. This shows the gulf that has suddenly opened up between them.
In "Water Child," when Eric leaves a telephone message for Nadine, Nadine notices that he manages in three words to speak Creole, French, and English: "Alo, allo, hello," and then speaks English in a heavy accent for the rest of his message. The three Haitian women in "The Funeral Singer" all struggle with their English, which suggests the difficulty they are having in adjusting to
their new country. On the other hand, Josette in "Water Child," who has been in the United States since she was a young girl, speaks perfect English. However, she uses Creole words from time to time because, like many immigrants, she still has a need to remember her origins. "She's so upset and sezi" she says of a patient, and she also uses the word "banbòoch" to refer to a party.
Haiti from the 1960s to the 1980s
In 1957, François Duvalier, a country doctor who became known as Papa Doc, was elected president of Haiti. He proved to be a ruthless leader who quickly cemented his own power, and he declared himself president for life in 1964. To curb the power of the Haitian army and the influence of the Catholic clergy, he created the militia called the Volunteers for National Security, also known as the Tonton Macoutes, that was entirely loyal to him. (This is the militia the dew breaker joins in the story.) The Macoutes had the power to arrest anyone they chose and were entirely above the law.
The Duvalier dictatorship brooked no opposition and was responsible for killing as many as 30,000 people and forcing many more into exile. Torture was routine. As Elizabeth Abbott describes in her book Haiti: The Duvaliers and Their Legacy, "even [Duvalier's] splendid palace had a torture room, its walls painted rusty-brown to camouflage blood spattered from its victims." Duvalier himself would watch the torture sessions through peepholes in the walls.
After Duvalier died in 1971, his son Jean-Claude Duvalier, known as Baby Doc, was appointed president for life at the age of nineteen. He proved to be almost as ruthless as his father, curbing the press and eliminating political opposition. Baby Doc was also financially corrupt, enriching himself and his family by the misuse of government revenue. Nothing was done to address the fundamental inequality in Haitian society, in which a tiny French-speaking elite owned about half of the country's wealth at the expense of the Creole-speaking majority who were kept in poverty. Popular discontent with the Duvalier dictatorship gathered force in the 1980s, helped by a 1983 visit of Pope John II, who publicly called for change. In 1986, as protests continued to grow, Duvalier was forced by the army to resign. He fled with his family to France. From 1986 to 1990, Haiti was ruled by a series of governments in which the military played a large role. In 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest and champion of the poor, was elected president with 67 percent of the vote in a free election.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1960s: The first wave of modern emigration from Haiti to the United States takes place. Many Haitians, fleeing from political repression and poverty, seek a better life in the United States.
1980s: As conditions in Haiti remain turbulent, thousands of Haitians attempt to immigrate to the United States. However, the U.S. government, apprehensive about large-scale immigration from Haiti to Florida, imposes severe restrictions on the number of Haitians who are allowed to stay.
Today: According to the U.S. Census conducted in 2000, there are 419,317 foreign-born Haitians living in the United States. Most of them live in Florida (43.5 percent) and New York (29.9 percent).
- 1960s: The murderous and corrupt regime of President François Duvalier in Haiti creates a dark decade in Haitian history. Thousands of Haitian citizens are tortured, killed, or driven into exile.
1980s: After the dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier is overthrown in 1986, Haitians hope for a new democratic era, but elections in the later part of the decade are marred by intimidation and violence.
Today: In May 2006, Haiti inaugurates René Préval as president after a fair and democratic election. A democratically elected parliament is also inaugurated.
- 1960s: Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and one of the poorest countries in the world. Eighty percent of its population lives below the poverty line.
1980s: In a population of 5.5 million, 50 percent of Haitians are unemployed.
Today: In 2006, helped by the International Monetary Fund, the Haitian economy grew by 1.8 percent. It is the first year of economic growth since 1999.
The twenty-nine-year long brutal dictatorship of the Duvaliers resulted in a large increase in the
number of Haitians coming to the United States, both by legal and illegal means. This occurred especially during the 1970s. In 1972, hundreds of Haitians fleeing the country by sea landed in Florida. They, and subsequent Haitians arriving by the same means, became known as "boat people." Many found asylum in the United States and later became U.S. citizens. Communities of Haitian Americans sprang up in South Florida, in cities such as Miami (where the Haitian enclave became known as Little Haiti), Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach. Other Haitian immigrants settled in New York, forming communities in areas such as East Flatbush, Brooklyn (where the dew breaker and his family live). Many Haitian immigrants went into business for themselves, opening barbershops (the dew breaker earns his living as a barber) and restaurants specializing in Haitian cuisine (as Rézia does in "The Funeral Singer"). Most first-generation Haitian immigrants were poor, but second-generation immigrants born in the United States achieved higher educational and income levels.
The Dew Breaker received very favorable reviews, with critics praising Danticat's skill and insight. In Time, Pico Iyer comments that "Danticat's gift is to combine both sympathy and clarity in a moral tangle that becomes as tight as a Haitian community." Referring to the ubiquitous sense of loss that the characters experience, Iyer argues that "all these scarred characters are looking for, in effect, is a way to mourn their dead properly, as in the rambunctious, storytelling wakes of home." In Booklist, Donna Seaman refers to the novel as "Danticat's beautifully lucid fourth work of fiction: the baffling legacy of violence and the unanswerable questions of exile." Seaman concludes: "Danticat's masterful depiction of the emotional and spiritual reverberations of tyranny and displacement reveals the intricate mesh of relationships that defines every life, and the burden of traumatic inheritances: the crimes and tragedies that one generation barely survives, the next must reconcile."
One of the few reservations about the quality of the book was expressed by the reviewer for Publishers Weekly, who suggests that "some readers may think that what she gains in breadth she loses in depth; … Danticat does not always stay in one character's mind long enough to fully convey the complexities she seeks." However, the reviewer acknowledges that "the slow accumulation of details pinpointing the past's effects on the present makes for powerful reading, however, and Danticat is a crafter of subtle, gorgeous sentences and scenes."
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English. In this essay on The Dew Breaker, he discusses some key aspects of Haitian history, as well as how Danticat presents the character of the dew breaker.
Few readers will put down Edwidge Danticat's The Dew Breaker without being haunted by the stories that it tells in such an elliptical fashion. They strongly evoke the two extremes of the human condition: the capacity of human beings to inflict extreme physical suffering on other human beings; and the human capacity to love what seems unlovable, and in doing so to offer a kind of redemption to those who seem scarcely to deserve it. And yet The Dew Breaker also shows how the shadow cast by those who torture other human beings spreads dark and long over many years and many miles, reaching out even to touch those unborn at the time of the crimes. The novel also shows that redemption from such inhuman acts of cruelty and sadism will always remain, at best, tentative and incomplete.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Danticat's memoir Brother, I'm Dying (2007) tells a story that will sound familiar to readers of the The Dew Breaker. Her life story is one of tragedy and hope intermingled.
- The Butterfly's Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States (2001), edited by Edwidge Danticat, is a collection of thirty-three essays and poems by Haitians living in the United States. Many of the writers explore the theme of being an outsider in the United States but no longer belonging in Haiti either.
- Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance (2001), by Beverly Bell and with a foreword by Danticat, is a collection in which thirty-eight Haitian women of varying backgrounds tell their stories of arrests, beatings, torture, and sexual abuse suffered at the hands of the Haitian authorities. The common thread is that they all chose to resist their oppression and lived to tell their tales, becoming voices for justice.
- Haiti in Focus: A Guide to the People, Politics, and Culture (2002), by Charles Arthur, is a concise guide to the history and culture of Haiti. Arthur examines topics such as how the country first became independent in 1804 and the U.S. occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934. He also describes all aspects of the country as it is today, offering visitors advice about what to do and see.
In practical terms, Danticat's interest in writing about a torturer who immigrates to the United States and lives among some of those he once tortured, or their relatives, was stimulated by a real-life case in New York in the 1990s, a case that also found its way into "The Book of Miracles," one of the stories in The Dew Breaker. It concerns a man named Emmanuel Constant. In Haiti in 1993, Constant founded a militia, The Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH), which raped, terrorized, and killed supporters of ousted Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Like the dew breaker in the novel, members of the FRAPH death squad would swoop on their victims at dawn. In one notorious incident in the town Cite Soleil, FRAPH gunmen set fire to houses, forcing victims, including children, back into burning buildings and killing fifty people. (This incident is eerily similar to the one recorded in "Night Talkers," when Dany's parents are shot by the dew breaker and their house is burned down.) After Aristide was restored to power by the United States in 1994, Constant fled to New York, where he became a real estate agent and lived in plain sight in Queens, not very far from a Haitian immigrant community. In 2000, he was convicted, as noted in "The Book of Miracles," in absentia by a Haitian court for his part in a massacre in 1994.
Many Haitians in New York recognized Constant but were too scared to speak out, fearing that he still had the power to harm them. A woman in a New York train station nearly fainted when she recognized him from a photograph, according to an article published in the New York Times in 2006, when Constant had finally been arrested and charged with defrauding banks. This recalls the incident in "The Dew Breaker" when an old woman who had been tortured was interviewed about her experience thirty years later. She "would stammer for an hour before finally managing to speak, pausing for a breath between each word." The psychological effects of torture remain long after the physical wounds have healed, as evidenced also by Beatrice, the woman in "The Bridal Seamstress," who is mentally unbalanced by her experience of torture that happened probably thirty or forty years ago. Another example is that of Dany, whose parents were killed by the dew breaker, and who by some grim coincidence has ended up living in the same house as the torturer. Even after the passage of many years, Dany still has a fear that the man will make good on the threat he made to shoot Dany when Dany was six years old.
With the example of Emmanuel Constant in mind, well-wishers of Haiti will note with regret that torture and random killings by militias did not end with the departure into ignominious exile of Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986. It may be scant comfort to know that at least Haiti during the 1990s was not as bad—as far as state-instituted violence and torture was concerned—as the era of the Duvaliers, which was truly a hideous chapter in Haiti's troubled, violent history. For the most part, The Dew Breaker approaches the Duvalier years obliquely, but readers of Elizabeth Abbott's Haiti: The Duvaliers and Their Legacy, will find enough revolting details of the dictators' murderous practices to keep them awake at night. Abbott describes conditions inside Fort Dimanche during Papa Doc's rule. This is the prison mentioned in "The Dew Breaker" as being "literally a sepulcher from which no one was ever expected to resurface." Abbott reports that at Fort Dimanche the cells were so over-crowded that the prisoners slept in shifts. "Gruel was slopped twice daily onto the floor….Sanitary facilities consisted of a foul, overflowing bucket." Malnourished prisoners died every day, and the corpses were taken away by the jailers on the same carts that were used to deliver the food. And then there was the torture itself. One punishment was to confine a tortured prisoner to a device known as a cachot: "A tiny coffin-like cell without room to move where prisoners slated for especially lingering deaths were confined and given no food or water until they died of their injuries, infections, dehydration, starvation, and the absence of all hope."
Abbott also mentions that some of the prisoners at Fort Dimanche would try "to cure their diarrhea by scraping lime from the walls and mixing it with food. Flesh, beaten and sore, was bathed with lime and urine, soothing it, preventing infectious eruptions that would kill." This small detail describing the resourcefulness shown by those who were forced to endure such horrific treatment finds its way into "The Dew Breaker," when the recently arrested preacher awakes to find that the other prisoners are urinating on him. He discovers that they believe "their urine could help seal the open wounds on his face and body and keep his bones from feeling as though they were breaking apart and melting under his skin." This incident movingly dramatizes the presence of mercy, empathy, and humanity in the midst of callousness and brutality.
It is in "The Dew Breaker," the final story in the book, that Danticat confronts head-on the terrifying details of Papa Doc's Haiti and the atrocities carried out by the Tonton Macoutes. Danticat delves into the life and the thinking of the torturer, as if to answer the question that is surely on the reader's mind: what manner of man is this? The answer is both illuminating and disturbing. The dew breaker turns out to be not so different from the ordinary man. He could be almost anyone. In fact, he and his family started out as victims themselves, when their land was taken over by the army after Papa Doc came to power in 1957. With his father driven insane and his mother disappearing, it is easy to see how a nineteen-year-old might have been seduced into joining the militia after attending an impressive presidential rally in Port-au-Prince. After that, the steady accumulation of power in immature hands in the service of a brutal government led to all-too-predictable results.
A decade into his career as a torturer and murderer, as he waits in his car for the opportunity to kill the preacher, the dew breaker reveals at least some of the mental processes that allow him to carry out such acts. He convinces himself that he is in fact doing a good thing, since he dislikes the Protestant church and thinks that the preacher has brainwashed his followers. He, the dew breaker, will help to liberate them by slaying the preacher. It is likely that many men throughout history who have committed crimes against humanity have assuaged their consciences with similar logic, however lame their reasoning might appear to others.
In another deft touch that provides insight into the torturer, Danticat shows him, as he waits to carry out his mission, sending a boy who is studying his schoolbooks under a tree to get him some cigarettes. He offers the boy some extra money because he recognizes in him something of his own former self. As he engages the boy in conversation he shows that he is not entirely devoid of human feelings: "There was a part of him that wished he could buy that child a future, buy all children like that a future."
To this insight into the mind of the torturer, one might add what can be gleaned about him from the first story in the book. "The Book of the Dead" reveals that the dew breaker, in the thirty years or so that he has spent in the United States, is a quiet, insignificant, ordinary man; the kind of man no one would suspect of committing such horrific deeds. It appears that he has been a good husband to his wife and a father who inspires devotion in his daughter. In fact, Ka admires and idealizes him so much that she depicts him in noble postures in her sculptures. The Dew Breaker is as much about the sudden shattering of Ka's tranquil life as it is about her formerly murderous father. Innocent of any wrongdoing, she must now deal with the painful knowledge that her beloved father is not the man she thought he was. Thus, as Shakespeare's character Feste puts it in Twelfth Night, "the whirligig of time brings in his revenges." The physical agony that the dew breaker inflicted on his innocent victims has crossed the ocean and transcended time; it is now manifested as the mental pain of his own daughter—and who can say when, or if, that pain, that stain on her happiness, can ever be removed?
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on The Dew Breaker, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
In the following review, McCormick critiques the book's structure, which he feels leaves too many aspects of the story unexplained.
"Ka, your father was the hunter, he was not the prey." With those words, Ka's father reveals the truth to his daughter in "The Book of the Dead," the first section of Edwidge Danticat's recent work, The Dew Breaker. One vaguely intuits then why he threw Ka's wooden sculpture of him, called "The Prisoner," into one of Florida's innumerable artificial lakes. We don't understand completely, however, the significance of his prominent facial scar, although we sense as was the case in Danticat's 1998 novel The Farming of Bones (see WLT 73:2, p. 377), that it is the scar of Haiti, the badge Haitians wear as a visible sign of their collective suffering.
Danticat's latest fictional work starts slowly. One suspects the author may have made too many concessions to reality in her photographic representation of the flatness of American life with its newly enriched Haitian American television stars; its motel culture; its police officers from Lakeland, Florida, who don't know the geography of the New World; the social pressure in East Flatbush to put up Christmas decorations, et cetera. There is, too, a bit of the sociologist in her detailing the folklore of Haiti: the ritual "branding" of the clothes of those soon to be buried, her presentation of the "palannits," or the "night talkers, people who wet their beds, not with urine but with words." By the end, however, we understand why Ka's Haitian American parents choose to remain on life's surface.
I wish I could say this text was well constructed. Its powerful final chapter explains certain mysteries, such as the origin of Mr. Bienaime's scar. It also illuminates certain ironies of the lives of Ka's parents, such as Anne's patrolling the aisle at midnight mass on Christmas Eve to inform her daughter that a stranger they see there is not the Haitian assassin whom his daughter thinks she recognizes from posters. Or the fact that the son, whose parents were victims of the former "dew breaker," rents a basement apartment from the unobtrusive Mr. Bienaime, who, in Brooklyn, has become a barber. Some of the nine segments don't seem to belong, though. In fact, almost all the chapters were published previously as short stories.
Unlike The Farming of Bones, which focused on Haiti and the Dominican Republic in the late 1930s, this text is grounded in the 1960s but also relates the last few minutes in Haiti of "Baby Doc" Duvalier in 1986 and the subsequent vigilantism directed against the henchmen he left behind. It also vaguely evokes Aristide, because Ka's father, in his last official act, abducts from his church in Bel-Air and then kills a converted Baptist clergyman (Aristide is Catholic), the same clergyman who, in the Casernes Dessalines military barracks, will scar his interrogator's face with the splintered wood of a broken chair in his last defiant act. Running away, bleeding, the torturer encounters the pastor's stepsister outside the barracks, ignorant of his role as her stepbrother's murderer, even of the clergyman's death, she nurses the facial wounds of the Tonton Macoute. The National Palace, however, wanted the preacher alive, so the next day Ka's future parents obtain seats on a plane for New York.
Ultimately, one understands why the father always covers his face and never wants it photographed. We understand why Anne goes to mass regularly and why she must view the ‘"transformation" of her husband as a quasireligious miracle in which she plays the primary role. We understand their unobtrusive lifestyle, why they don't put up Christmas decorations. What we don't know, though, is just as important, for, although Anne ultimately learns her stepbrother was killed, it is not clear whether she ever learns that her husband was the preacher's murderer.
The text presents two levels of truth. One is the father's admission to Ka at the beginning that he was the "hunter." After having read the final chapter, though, we wonder how much he really told his daughter. Did he tell her he killed the preacher? Danticat doesn't tell us how Ka will react to what she has learned after she hangs up on her mother.
Source: Robert McCormick, Review of The Dew Breaker, in World Literature Today, Vol. 79, No. 1, January-April 2005, 2 pp.
In the following excerpt from an interview, Danticat discusses life in Haiti and her writing process for The Dew Breaker.
… RB: Haiti used to manufacture baseballs.
ED: They don't make them anymore, that's moved on. Even when they were, that was something like 10 cents a day. People were being paid that, with no benefits and ruining their health. But there's not many opportunities in the city and fewer now in the country. For example, someone who would spend a couple of months growing a chicken and now you can buy chicken legs from Miami that arrive the same day [as they are slaughtered] for less than that, so who is going to waste their time doing that? We had a cochon oui, the local pig, and that was, for a lot of people, that was a bank account. You grew your pig and if your child has to go to school, you sell the pig or you slaughter it and sell the meat. And in the 1990s the U.S. had a campaign where they eradicated all the pigs because the FDA decided they had swine fever. So there was a complete eradication of that whole population. One of the last indigenous animals to this island.
RB: No replacement?
ED: There were replacements of these pigs from Iowa who couldn't live there. [both laugh] They had to build houses for those pigs. They had to buy grain from the U.S. So they killed the pigs and now you have to buy the Iowa pigs from the same people, buy the grains to feed them because they couldn't eat what local pigs had eaten. And it took more than a decade to replace some of them—now you see more of them because they also came from Jamaica and other places. But it was a valuable resource that was completely depleted.
RB: That kind of arrogance reminds me of a story I read recently [in Todd Balf's The Darkest Jungle] about a plan to cut another canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific in the Darien Gap, the area in Panama that borders what is now Colombia. Apparently in the '70s the plan was to cut the second canal using eight nuclear devices to blow up the channelway. This was a reserve that was inhabited by 40,000-50,000 indigenous people whose roots are prehistoric. And, of course, these people would be resettled.
ED: Yeah, yeah, it's collateral damage. And all the people who starved because their pigs were killed, they were collateral damage.
RB: I don't know if this is an apocryphal story but I was told that the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti is clearly demarcated, with the Haitian side being barren and foreboding and the Dominican side being lush and green.
ED: That's true in a lot of places where you have the boundary. There was a very large program behind that. Trujillo, who was a president [of the Dominican Republic] for many decades, had a program specifically aimed at that, sprucing up a lot of the border towns in order to contrast them from Haiti—it was a very conscious effort. Haiti has a larger population, in a smaller area. Not that there isn't poverty in the Dominican Republic, but aside from that you have more tourism, so part of whatever preservation has been connected to that, too. Trujillo was interested in the contrast. And even for myself when I have had to go there, if I am staying in Cap-Haitien, which is on the Haitian side close to the border, there are times when I, shamefacedly, need to make a phone call or something, [and] I have had to cross the border.
RB: And now what about the writing of a book about Haiti? Some parts of The Dew Breaker have appeared before, what was the very first story you wrote?
ED: The very first story was ‘The Book of the Dead.’
RB: Did you know that you were going to write this as an interwoven collection of stories?
ED: No, I had just finished my book The Farming of Bones, the book about the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and I was going back to writing stories. I didn't feel like I could go into a novel just then. So I went back to writing stories and I started this one story about a father and a daughter who went on a trip. And the father makes this revelation to his daughter, that he was not a prisoner, as his family had thought, but was a ‘dew breaker,’ a sort of a torturer.
RB: That is an interesting phrase for such an odious thing.
ED: It comes from the Creole. It's an expression choukèt laroze; it really means somebody who breaks or shakes the dew. That's where that comes from. Creole is very forgiving of things like that. There is also an expression on the other side, gouverneurs de la rosée, people who govern the dew, who are kinder people, people of the land who nurture the land and try to control their destiny through the land. But that was the first one I wrote and I was very intrigued by the father so I started writing the very last story, which talked about his past and the last time he was in Haiti.
RB: That story that is called‘The Dew Breaker.’ And so the stories in between?
ED: The stories in between really came in between. The third one was in the middle, which involved the family. So I was always circling around this family. But how do you write a book about Haiti? And this particular book, like a lot of the other books I have written, came from a kind of desire to go back to Haiti and to revisit and maybe to understand better some things from the past. I am very much intrigued by Haitian history and the way it is connected to current struggles. So the book is an attempt at exploring that.
RB: The notion of Creole being very forgiving is fascinating. In the very first story the father does something and—without giving it away—the daughter is clearly angered and she gets around to getting angry but first she says something to the effect that she had always thought anger was not a useful thing. I thought, ‘Oh really?’
RB: All through the stories I have this sense of the Haitian ethos having so little malevolence—[pause]
ED: I'll give you an example of something very real and similar. In the 1990s we had a man who, again, was backed by the CIA and he was on 60 Minutes, Emmanuel Constant, he started an organization called FRAPH. There was a point in the late '90s in New York where people would say, ‘Guess what? I was at party …’ and they would mention his name. For me, that was always extraordinary. How forgiving are we? Even the fact that people think now that they would accept Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier coming back. How either forgetful or forgiving that Emmanuel Constant—whose organization killed 5,000, and if you hear 5,000 in a Haitian estimation it's probably double that number—that he can feel safe to walk in the community, some of whom are wounded people. That to me was the kind of lack of malevolence—
RB: Danny [sic] in one of the stories has an opportunity to harm the dew breaker and doesn't.
ED: But he didn't want to be wrong—like many of the characters that felt they would want to repeat exactly this thing. Because on one level they were wrong about his parents—that there was a mistake made and his parents shouldn't have been killed.
RB: I have been thinking about forgiveness. I caught some piece of Elie Wiesel's speech at Auschwitz, where he said something like, ‘No, you cannot forgive these people’—
RB: My sense of the conditions in Haiti with these predatory dictators and their elite killers, the Tonton Macoute, sustains my sense of the horrific. You do mention one instance of a Tonton Macoute having gasoline poured down his throat and then ignited.
ED: There were many cases like that after the dictatorship ended in 1989. There was a term that was created around that—dechoukaj—‘uprooting.’ Many of these Tonton Macoutes were killed. What interested me in the stories and in these people and in this era because it was the last era that I lived consistently in Haiti was to understand these people so at least to try to get as close to understanding these people as possible. The country and other countries, too, where things are difficult, keeps repeating or keeps recreating this environment that creates these kind of people. Now we have a phenomena with young men who are deported, many from the United States and were returned to Haiti and became what is called chimé—
RB: Like Claude?
ED: Yeah, they are stranded there. And they have assembled together [in gangs] to survive and some of them, not all of them become involved in crime and are labeled this way in the country. The greatest of ironies is that you have some American soldiers from the country that deported them, some will be killing them. So you have this situation that keeps opening this opportunity to allow these types of people to be created or recreated. First you had the Macoutes under Duvalier then in FRAPH and now the Chimé. There are people, I am sure, that have gone from group to group because they don't have work. Because they don't have other things. So there is this culture and the lack of infrastructure that perpetuates this kind of system.
RB: What are you going to do next?
ED: I am taking it easy for a little while. I am doing a young adult book that I am almost done with [about] Anacaona, who was actually one of the few female indigenous leaders before Columbus came and she was a very powerful leader and known to be a poet and she was one of the last ones. She was hung by Columbus's people a couple of decades after they landed on the island. She hung in there and fought and was a true warrior-queen. I don't like to use the word ‘queen’ but a true warrior and leader in our history.
RB: And you chose to make this a young-adult story?
ED: Yeah, it's my first attempt at dealing with this story. It will be in a series called ‘Royal Diaries’ that sort of positions it with other women who were leaders but it concentrates on a particular time, like their teens. Maybe I will do something later with her later but this was a way to approach it in a manageable way.
RB: Well, I hope we talk again.
ED: Likewise, thank you.
Source: Robert Birnbaum, "Birnbaum v. Edwidge Danticat," in Morning News, April 20, 2004, 11 pp.
In the following review, Cobham applauds The Dew Breaker. The critic feels that the novel expertly shows the struggle to retain humanity in even the worst of circumstances.
Aristide's desperate struggle to govern in Haiti is barely mentioned in Edwidge Danticat's new novel. Her focus is mostly on the ways in which events in the 1980s, near the end of the Duvalier regime, continue to haunt Haitians who have since migrated to America. Nevertheless, the nagging uncertainties surrounding Haiti's recent crisis reverberated like the shadow pain of an amputated limb all through my reading of The Dew Breaker. The narrator in Danticat's last novel, The Farming of Bones, bore witness to the genocide of Haitians at the hands of their Dominican neighbors in the mid-1930s. This time, however, both hunter and prey are the monstrous progeny of Haiti itself.
The narrative line in The Dew Breaker is strung across a series of linked short stories that leads to a single question: Can the tales we tell about our past offer us any alternatives in the future other than those of becoming either hunter or prey? The answer, like the answer to the riddle about trees and their shadows with which the book closes, depends on perspective: the angles from which the multiple plots illuminate character; the chronology the entire narrative imposes on events; the quotidian details—a stone in a glass of water, an overflowing ashtray, three snippets of fabric—through which the stories locate or sublimate pain. Danticat's unexpected juxtapositions intensify the quiet tragedies on the periphery of the action. Thus, a casual sexual liaison one story mentions in passing seems merely ornamental in a plot that focuses on the protagonist's reunification with his newly arrived wife. When the same liaison resurfaces at the margins of another story, from the perspective of the woman whose happiness it destroyed, we discover that the small cruelties we easily forgive in fictional heroes and close friends may be susceptible to the same scrutiny as the enormities of which we accuse our most sadistic enemies.
Danticat's use of language raises the stakes in the wider debate over the most effective way to represent the Creole voice on the page. Unlike Patrick Chamoiseau's Martinican Creole in his Prix Goncourt-winning novel Texaco, which acquires a patina of innocence in response to the corrupting dominance of colonial French, Danticat's Haitian Creole is used by state officials as well as ordinary Haitian people. Consequently, her narrators cannot claim to speak a language that has no alliances with institutional authority. Moreover, Danticat sees Caribbean Creoles as vital, increasingly metropolitan, phenomena that change continuously in response to new political and linguistic challenges. The title The Dew Breaker, for example, is one translation of shouket laroze, an expression that refers to the silent, magical way in which dew "falls," or "breaks," as they say in Haitian Creole, on the early morning leaves. As Danticat explains, Haitians under Duvalier's regime often used the term ironically to name the state-sponsored torturers who typically descended upon their victims in the silence before dawn. But Danticat's title also signifies on Jaques Roumain's 1946 novel, Les Gouverneurs de la rosee, translated into English by Langston Hughes as Masters of the Dew. Roumain co-opts the picturesque, rural imagery of shouket laroze into his novel's rewriting of Romeo and Juliet as Haitian pastoral. His translation of the Creole phrase allows him to connect Haiti's feudal past to his utopian vision for a triumphant proletariat future in a modern nation state, where men will be masters of the elements, capable of transcending narrow allegiances to family and clan. At the time Roumain was writing, nationalism in Europe already had demonstrated a sinister proclivity for co-opting "authentic" folk customs and language to support the agendas of totalitarian regimes. However, Roumain's translation of shouket laroze elides that possibility in the Creole context. Danticat's alternative translation suggests violence as well as mastery. It makes visible the excesses of the nationalist, socialist, and capitalist ideologies that have stunted Haiti's growth during the six decades that separate The Dew Breaker from Masters of the Dew.
Freed from the myth of a morally untainted Creole, as well as from the assumption that Creole-speaking subjects never think or speak on their own behalf within the discourse of modernity, Danticat can use any language register she chooses to carry her message. All the registers available to her characters make their appearance in the stories. The text indicates their presence by meticulously documenting the media through which these multiple languages are filtered. There are New York AM talk radio broadcasts in French and Creole; answering machine cassettes containing messages in stilted English that start off with "Alo!"; notebooks crammed with English sentences in barely decipherable script; tables bearing food or drinks over which American English is peppered with Haitian expressions like sezi—the Creole word for crazy—or Kennedy—Creole slang for secondhand American clothes. Much of this linguistic variety is transcribed onto the page in English, but Danticat alerts the reader each time the language shifts. In one tense exchange between the protagonist, Ka, and her father, for example, the three language registers represented are crucial to the emotional nuance of the passage. Ka's continued identification with the father she can no longer trust; his need, after year's of silence, to explain himself to her; the necessity and impossibility of their communication—all are indicated in their awkward shifts between Haitian English, Haitian Creole, and American English:
"I say rest in Creole," he prefaces, "because my tongue too heavy in English to say things like this, especially older things."
"Fine," I reply defiantly in English.
"Ka," he continues in Creole, "when I first saw your statue, I wanted to be buried with it, to take it with me into the other world."
"Like the Ancient Egyptians," I continue in English.
He smiles, grateful, I think, that in spite of everything, I can still appreciate his passions.
And then there are the endless, empty silences that leave their bearers scarred and bloated: A reflection in a shiny metal elevator door grotesquely inflates the body of a woman who can speak to no one about the pregnancy she has aborted. The bruised, calloused hands of a child bear silent witness to the daily torture of the classroom. Like the novice journalist who interviews a wedding seamstress in one story, the reader is challenged to imagine "men and women whose tremendous agonies filled every blank space in their lives. Maybe there were hundreds, even thousands, of people like this, men and women chasing fragments of themselves long lost to others." For these silent characters, the issue is not one of authenticity—which choice of language is most politically correct for describing their pain—but of ontology—how does one begin to describe a pain that exists beyond language?
The answer, for Danticat, seems to be that stories must be told with whatever words we have—even the stories about their victims that torturers revisit in their dreams. One crucial moment of storytelling occurs deep in the Haitian countryside. The scene is reminiscent of Joseph Zobel's 1955 novel Rue Cases-Negres, better known to American audiences in its 1983 adaptation for the screen by Euzhan Palcy as Sugar Cane Alley. The film follows the conventions of the Caribbean narrative of childhood, in which Creole communities figure as sites of rural innocence that the boy protagonist celebrates, even as he moves away from femininity, orality, and pastoral freedoms towards masculinity, text, and the disciplines of modernity. Danticat's story inverts this paradigm. Instead of sitting with the child protagonist at the feet of a wise old griot who instructs us in the myths of his people's origins, we lounge with the teenager Claude, as he imports the hip-hop idiom of Flatbush Avenue into a new myth of origins about a son who destroys his father in order to feed his drag habit. Claude cannot speak Creole, yet he is one of the few protagonists in the novel who comes close to achieving absolution through narrative. Another man writes down his story in a formal letter addressed to his unborn child. A woman learns how to "parcel out [her] sorrows" in stories and songs among her friends, "each walking out with fewer than we'd carried in."
Like Danticat's previous novels, The Dew Breaker succeeds in transforming Haiti and its diaspora from an abject spectacle to a symbol of the persistence of human dignity in the face of terror. Even the hunters in this grim passion play seem to struggle for redemption through the penance of speech. Like their prey, they carry on their bodies the scars left by the indignities they have suffered and inflicted. And yet those same bodies continue to yearn for beauty and order and the possibility of love. There is nothing sentimental about Danticat's novel. It has etched into my imagination images I would prefer to think have no basis in reality. But, like the mouth that contains both speech and silence in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, from which Ka gets her name, this novel's unlikely combination of shadows, rhythms, and silences captures the aspirations all immigrants bring with them, the nightmares we are trying to escape, and the fantasies of joy, loss, and longing that tie us inextricably to imagined homelands in the Caribbean, in Brooklyn, and beyond.
Source: Rhonda Cobham, "The Penance of Speech," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 21, No. 8, May 2004, 3 pp.
In the following review, Eder explores how The Dew Breaker could or could not be considered a horror novel.
Archimedes held that he could lift the earth if he had a lever long enough, and an extraplanetary fulcrum to rest it on. There are horrors so heavy that they seem untellable. To bear to tell them so that we can bear to read them, a writer must find somewhere outside—peaceful, unmarked—to project them from. Atrocity enters the imagination not as the violating point of the knife but as the fair flesh violated.
That is how the Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat has managed over the past 10 years to portray with such terrifying wit and flowered pungency the torment of the Haitian people. In one of the stories in Krik? Krak!, a National Book Award finalist, a maid to a rich Haitian family finds a dead baby, names it Rose, keeps it for days, washing it to dissipate the smell, and finally buries it. It is discovered by the gardener, her lover, who calls the police.
So much for horror; but what locks it in is the maid's irony: "We made a pretty picture standing there, Rose, me and him. Between the pool and the gardenias, waiting on the law."
Or in The Farming of Bones, a novel about Trujillo's 1930's massacre of Haitian workers in the Dominican Republic, no awful detail precipitates the bloody swirl so clearly as the lilting innocence of the word "parsley." "Pesa" in Creole, "perejil" in Spanish; but Haitians can't manage the Spanish "r" and its guttural "j," so those unable to say "perejil" were killed and parsley stuffed in their mouths.
The final and title story of The Dew Breaker, Danticat's new collection, makes a more direct approach to horror. Set in the 1960's during the reign of François Duvalier, it recounts, dry-mouthed, the hours spent by a Tonton Macoute (one of Duvalier's murderous agents) as he waits in his car for a dissident preacher to arrive at church.
The agent bursts in after the sermon, throws the priest into a truck, tortures him and takes him to headquarters to kill him. Word mysteriously comes—the regime's terrors were always mysterious—that he is to be released instead. Before the agent can obey, the priest gouges his face with a shard of wood; the agent shoots him dead.
Yet even this story, with its headlong darkness, has strangely flickering lights that permit us to see it by. Waiting, the agent sends a loitering schoolboy to buy cigarettes; when the boy returns, the man questions him paternally about his schoolwork. There is the street scene itself. Among the kiosks purveying tobacco, trinkets and food, the waiting car is one kiosk more, purveying death; and as much part of daily neighborhood life as the others.
When the priest is dragged into prison, bleeding and burned with cigarettes, his cellmates urinate on him. It is a work not of contempt but of corporal mercy, since they believe urine to heal and soothe. Haiti lives at depths where contempt cannot grow; down there, mercy straggles but persists.
In her other stories and in this collection Danticat often uses the Haitian community in the United States as the horror-spared site for her fulcrum. Despite difficulties, strangeness and uncertainties, these characters are swimmers pulled from the depths. Nitrogen bubbles course agonizingly in their bloodstream, memories rack them; yet there is an uncertain daylight, and it is by this that darkness is called up and told.
In "The Funeral Singer," the telling is light but painful. Three Haitian women meet regularly at a restaurant one owns on the Upper West Side. She'd fled after being forced to have sex with the Tonton Macoutes; another, after her painter husband was shot for a caricature of Duvalier. The third, the narrator, was the daughter of a fisherman who drowned, perhaps deliberately, after his fish stall was taken over. At his funeral she sang "Brother Timonie"—the name means "steersman"—so affectingly that soon she was in demand at other funerals. Now, with the slow rock of a fishing boat on a sea swell, the women talk, remember, try to look ahead. Lubricated with rum, the narrator sings "Brother Timonie," the steersman's song learned from her father. The others join in; tableware is smashed. "And for the rest of the night," the story concludes, "we raise our glasses, broken and unbroken alike, to the terrible days behind us and the uncertain ones ahead."
In "Monkey Tails," an immigrant groping at the edge of security and perhaps happiness lies in bed with his pregnant wife and tapes, for their unborn child, his own childhood memories of chaos and betrayal. In "Seven," a man preparing for his wife's arrival from Haiti, after seven years apart, gets his bachelor housemates to agree not to sit around in their underwear.
Venturing from their room on her first night, the wife reports "two men playing dominoes in the kitchen … dressed in identical pink satin robes." It is the lightest of the stories yet shadowed with the marital uncertainty that follows long separation.
In a breathtaking displacement, Danticat starts the collection with the aftermath, 25 years later, of the prison murder story recounted at the end. A young Haitian-American artist drives to Florida to deliver a carving. Her father comes for the ride, a quiet man who has worked as a barber in Brooklyn since he fled Haiti. She adores him; in fact, he is her sole subject so far, rendered kneeling, naked and disfigured by a facial scar inflicted in a Haitian jail. Her intention was to symbolize the torment of their country; soon we see the terrible complexity of the torment.
One morning the father sneaks out of their motel and throws the sculpture into a lake. He doesn't deserve a statue, he tells her. "Your father was the hunter, he was not the prey." His years in prison were spent as torturer and killer. As for the nightmares he often complained of, they were "of what I, your father, did to others."
To the reader—who has not yet been plunged into the terror of the final story—it is a whiplash, searing yet oddly cauterized. This is America, not Haiti, and the daughter can own the confidence to feel horror and express it. "How do you love him?" she demands of her mother, who always knew the truth and who also knew a different one. Her husband had indeed fled a nightmare. "You and me, we save him," the mother says. "When I meet him, it made him stop hurt the people. This how I see it. He a seed thrown in rock. You, me, we make him take root."
A different truth and one impossible, perhaps, for an American daughter to accept. Hard for the reader, as well. And almost certainly for Danticat. She has written a Haitian truth: prisoners all, even the jailers. With neither forgiveness nor contempt, she sets it upon a fulcrum from where she's had the courage and art to displace the world even as she is displaced by it.
Source: Richard Eder, "Off the Island," in New York Times Book Review, March 21, 2004, p. 5.
Abbott, Elizabeth, Haiti: The Duvaliers and Their Legacy, McGraw-Hill, 1988, pp. 133-35.
Danticat, Edwidge, The Dew Breaker, Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.
Iyer, Pico, "When Life Is a Ghost Story: In Edwidge Danticat's Collection of Interwoven Tales, Haitians Try to Mourn Their Bloody Past," in Time, Vol. 163, No. 10, March 8, 2004, p. 79.
Kilgannon, Corey, "To His Compatriots' Relief, Haitian Exile Is Arrested," in the New York Times, July 11, 2006.
Newland, Kathleen, and Elizabeth Grieco, "Spotlight on Haitians in the United States," in The Migration Information Source, April 2004, http://www.migrationinformation.org/USfocus/display.cfm?id=214 (accessed December 12, 2007.)
Review of The Dew Breaker, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 251, No. 8, February 23, 2004, p. 49.
Seaman, Donna, Review of The Dew Breaker, inBooklist, Vol. 100, No. 12, February 15, 2004, p. 1033.
Shakespeare, William, Twelfth Night, Methuen, 1981, p. 152.
Farmer, Paul, The Uses of Haiti, Common Courage Press, 2005.
Farmer, a physician who has worked in rural Haiti for many years, offers a critique of U.S. policy toward Haiti, pointing out among other things that the United States supported the dictatorship of Papa Doc Duvalier.
Galembo, Phyllis, Vodou: Visions and Voices of Haiti, Ten Speed Press, 2005.
Galembo examines vodou, or voodoo, the spiritual beliefs of Haitian people as they are practiced today. Based on interviews as well as the author's participation in voodoo rituals, the book includes over eighty color photographs.
Girard argues in this survey of 200 years of Haitian history, that Haitians themselves must take some responsibility for their country's continuing poverty.
Greene, Graham, The Comedians, Vintage Books, 2005.
Set in Haiti and the Dominican Republic during the time of Papa Doc Duvalier's rule, this novel was first published in 1966. Not surprisingly, it paints a dark portrait of life in Haiti, so much so that Papa Doc himself was moved to denounce Greene as a liar.