"Caroline's Wedding," by Edwidge Danticat, is the last story in the collection Krik? Krak!, which was published in 1995. The story features the narrator and protagonist, Gracina (Grace) Azile, who, with her mother and sister Caroline, has immigrated to the United States from Haiti. It describes the cross-generational and cross-cultural conflicts triggered by Caroline's wedding to a non-Haitian man. Danticat introduces her readers to traditional stories, games, beliefs, and rituals from a culture that is little known or understood outside Haiti. In particular, the story explores the role of storytelling and tradition, and the relationship between mother and daughter, in creating social and family cohesion. Against the background of Haiti's violent history, the individual stories of the pain and suffering experienced by the different characters unfold and interlink. Although the focus is on Haiti's culture and history, many of the collection's themes, including memory, loss, dispossession, and the resilience of the human life and spirit in the face of extreme circumstances, have a broader relevance.
Edwidge Danticat was born on January 19, 1969, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to André Miracin (a cab driver) and Rose Souvenance (a textile worker) Danticat. When Edwidge was two years old, her father emigrated from Haiti to New York, to be
followed two years later by her mother. Remaining in Haiti, the young Danticat was raised by her aunt and uncle. During these years she was exposed to the Haitian tradition of storytelling. Danticat's aunts and grandmothers would call out, "Krik?" and she would reply, "Krak!" as a signal to the storyteller to begin. Her formal education in Haiti was in French, but at home Danticat spoke Haitian Creole.
Danticat joined her family in Brooklyn, New York, in 1981, at which time English became her third language. She attended junior high classes in Brooklyn but had difficulty fitting in with her peers. In her isolation, she turned to writing about the people of her native country.
Danticat's parents wanted her to pursue a career in medicine, and with the aim of becoming a nurse, she attended a specialized school in New York City. However, she soon abandoned this course and earned a degree in French literature from Barnard College, where she won the 1995 Woman of Achievement Award. She was awarded a Master of Fine Arts degree from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1993. Her thesis at Brown was her highly acclaimed first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994). In 1998, the television celebrity Oprah Winfrey picked the novel for her book club and introduced its author to a mass readership. Subsequently, Danticat published a collection of short stories, Krik? Krak! (1995), and the novels, The Farming of Bones (1998), Behind the Mountains (2002), and The Dew Breaker (2004). Danticat also edited a collection of writings by Haitian authors entitled The Butterfly's Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States (Soho Press, 2001).
Danticat gained critical acclaim for her portrayals of the Haitian experience both in Haiti and the United States and for her lyrical use of language. After completing her master's degree, she taught creative writing at New York University and the University of Miami. She also worked with filmmakers Patricia Benoit and Jonathan Demme on projects on Haitian art and documentaries about Haiti. As of 2006, Danticat lived in the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami and regularly returned to Haiti to visit friends and family.
Danticat's work has attracted many awards and award nominations. In 1994, her novel Breath, Eyes, Memory won fiction awards from the following magazines: Essence, Caribbean Writer, and Seventeen. In 1995, her short story collection Krik? Krak! was nominated for a National Book Award. In 1996, Granta magazine named Danticat one of its Best Young American Novelists. In the same year, a short story, "Between the Pool and the Gardenias," published three years earlier in Caribbean Writer, won a Pushcart Prize for short fiction. In 1999, Danticat's novel The Farming of Bones gained an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. The Dew Breaker was nominated for a 2004 National Book Critics Circle Award and a PEN/Faulkner Award in 2005.
When "Caroline's Wedding" opens, Grace Azile is leaving a Brooklyn courtroom, having just received her certificate of U.S. citizenship. When she calls her mother (Ma) to tell her the news, Ma advises her to hurry and get her passport, as that is what is truly American. Grace has to temporarily trade in the certificate at the post office to get a passport. She feels anxious without it, since when her mother was pregnant with her sister Caroline, she was arrested in a sweatshop raid and spent three days in an immigration jail.
Grace reaches home to find her mother preparing a pot of bone soup. Ma holds the traditional Haitian belief that bone soup has the magical power to separate lovers, so she has served it every night since Caroline announced her engagement. Ma disapproves of Eric because he is Bahamian and not Haitian.
Caroline was born without a left forearm. Ma thinks the cause was a drug that was injected into her by a prison doctor after the sweatshop immigration raid and that Caroline was lucky to have been born at all. Unlike Grace, Caroline was born in the United States.
Ma calls Grace into her bedroom. She is upset that Eric's courtship of Caroline is different from how she was courted by her daughters' father, which took place in Haiti and was formal. Grace and Caroline's father (Papa) is now dead.
One night, Caroline and Grace play a traditional Haitian free association game around the word, "lost." The game was taught to them by Ma, who learned it as a girl. Ma appears and asks them to go with her to a mass for a dead Haitian refugee woman. Grace goes, but Caroline does not. The Catholic Church they attend holds services tailored to the Haitian community. The priest reads out the names of refugees drowned at sea that week. Many are known to members of the congregation. He says a prayer for the dead woman, who gave birth to a baby on board the boat. The child died, and the mother threw the baby overboard and then jumped into the sea after it, drowning herself. Grace thinks of the Haitian belief that there are spots in the sea where Africans who jumped off the slave ships rest, where those who die at sea can choose to join their long-lost relations. The priest asks the congregation to remember those they have loved and lost. As screams erupt in the congregation, Ma suddenly gets up and leaves.
Caroline and Eric plan a civil ceremony. Ma wants Eric to bring his family to their house to court her favor and to have his father ask her blessing, according to the old Haitian custom. Caroline tells Grace that she dreamt of Papa the previous night. It is ten years since he died. After Papa's death, Ma told her daughters to wear red panties, in the belief that this would ward off his spirit so that he would not mistake the daughters for his wife and try to lie with them at night. For some time after he died, Caroline and Grace had the same dream: they try in vain to catch up with him as he walks through a deserted field. They disobeyed Ma and did not wear the red panties, as they wanted Papa's spirit to visit them.
Grace tells Caroline that the son of their Cuban neighbor, Mrs. Ruiz, was recently shot by the pilot of an airplane after trying to hijack the plane to go from Havana to Miami.
Grace recalls that when she and Caroline were younger, they used to wish that one day the rest of Caroline's arm would burst out of Ma's stomach and float back to her. Caroline likes to have her stub stroked, but no one does, out of fear of giving offense. Caroline says that if she were to cut the vein that throbs below the surface of her stub, she could bleed to death.
Grace dreams that she sees her father at a masked ball but cannot get close to him. By his side is Caroline. Grace screams in protest that they are leaving her out. When alive, he remembered everything about their life in Haiti and its traditions and beliefs.
Preparations are under way for Caroline's wedding, which is a month away. Though Ma does not want to attend, she pretends that this is the "real wedding" she wants for her daughter, so that Caroline does not resent her. However, she is not going to cook a wedding-night dinner, as is the custom. Grace decides to throw a wedding shower for Caroline. Ma disapproves because to her a shower seems like begging.
Ma, Caroline, and Grace go to Eric's house for dinner. Ma is as unenthusiastic about Eric's cooking as she is about him, and Grace thinks he should have hired a Haitian cook. To save Ma's feelings, Caroline goes home with her and Grace even though she would rather stay the night with Eric. Ma warns Caroline that people are known by their stories and that she should value herself and guard against being the subject of gossip. After Ma falls asleep, Caroline calls a cab and returns to Eric's place. Grace dreams of Papa: this time, she is on a cliff and he is leaning out of a helicopter trying to grab her hand to rescue her.
Grace was born when her parents were poor and living in a shantytown in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. They called her their "misery baby," and Ma thought she might die. Desperate to find a way to leave Haiti, Papa got a visa by taking vows in a false marriage with a widow who was leaving Haiti for the United States. A few years later, Papa divorced the woman and sent for Ma and Grace. While he was alive, this was a secret that Grace and Caroline were not supposed to know.
Caroline's wedding shower takes place. After the guests leave, Ma gives Caroline her present, a silk teddy. Privately, Grace tells Ma that she did not think such things were to her taste, but Ma replies that she cannot live in the United States for twenty-five years and not be affected by it. Ma fears that Caroline is marrying Eric because she thinks he is the only man who would marry her, but Grace suggests that he may love Caroline. Ma remarks that people's hearts are made of stone. Grace suspects that this is a result of her hurt feelings when Papa married the widow. Ma brings out a bag of Papa's letters that he wrote to her from the United States while she was still in Haiti. The letters address practical matters but never mention love.
The night before her wedding, Caroline tries to make Ma understand why she and Eric are getting married in a small civil ceremony: they do not wish to spend all their money on a big wedding. Eric has a friend who is a judge, and he will perform the ceremony in his office. Ma says that such a "mechanical" affair is typically American.
Caroline puts on her wedding dress for Ma and Grace to see. She is also wearing a new false arm. She has been having phantom pain in her arm such as amputees experience, and her doctor told her that the false arm may make it go away. When Ma points out that Caroline is not an amputee, she says she feels like one because of the pressure of the wedding. Ma says, "In that case, we all have phantom pain."
Caroline wakes on her wedding day looking ill, with a pain in her arm which makes her not want to get married. Ma says she was the same on the morning of her own wedding. Ma boils a traditional concoction with leaves, gives Caroline a bath, and rubs the leaves over Caroline's body. Ma tells Caroline that she is looking forward to visiting her in her new house.
Caroline, her family, and Eric arrive at Judge Perez's office for the ceremony. Grace cannot help but feel that Caroline is divorcing her family for a new allegiance. After the ceremony, Caroline feels better. At lunch, Grace toasts Caroline, saying that she will never be gone from the family and reflecting that this is something Ma might have said. Caroline and Grace bid each other a tearful farewell.
That night, Ma receives a bunch of red roses from Caroline. She keeps sniffing them and calls her daughter "Sweet, sweet Caroline." Grace dreams that she is sitting with her father beside a stream of rose-colored blood. As they look at the stars, Papa tells Grace that wherever she is, she can see them. He tries to play a question-and-answer game with Grace, asking her what landscapes they would paint if they were painters and what she would name a daughter. Grace does not know how to answer. He tells her that she has forgotten how to play the game. She wakes, for the first time frightened of the father who appears in her dreams. She asks her mother what she thought of the wedding. Ma tells Grace that when Papa left her in Haiti to move with the widow to the United States, she made a charm to keep his love but knew his feelings for her had changed. Then she shows Grace Papa's romantic, respectful proposal letter. She adds that Caroline's wedding was nice.
Grace's passport arrives. For the first time, she feels secure in the United States. She reflects that her whole family has paid dearly for this piece of paper. She visits Papa's grave to show him the passport.
While making bone soup, Ma reports to Grace that she has told Caroline that she will keep her bed for whenever she wants to use it, a turnaround from her previous stance that she would get rid of the bed the day Caroline got married. Grace drops a bone into the soup, and the splash leaves a red mark on her hand. Grace asks Ma the questions Papa asked her in her dream. Ma says that as the older woman, the first question belongs to her. She asks Grace one of the questions from traditional Haitian question-and-answer games, one that Papa often asked Grace: why, when you lose something, is it in the last place you look? Grace knows the answer: because once you remember, you stop looking.
Eric is Caroline's fiancé, whom she meets while working as a teacher in a school where he is a janitor. He is originally from the Bahamas, and Ma disapproves of him because he is not Haitian. Eric has a learning disability and is slow of speech. Though Ma calls him a "retard," Grace knows that he has a good heart and sincerely cares for Caroline.
Caroline is the younger daughter of Hermine and Carl Azile and the sister of Grace. She was born in the United States and has most assimilated the ways of her adopted country. Caroline was born with a missing forearm, due to a drug that was injected into her pregnant mother after a sweatshop raid. Caroline's wedding to Eric is the incident that incites the cross-cultural and cross-generational conflict between her and Ma. Caroline avoids direct confrontation with Ma, reacting to Ma's hostility to her marriage with a mixture of long-suffering tolerance, irritation, and small deceptions, such as pretending to sleep at home before her wedding when she is really sleeping with Eric. Caroline and her mother achieve reconciliation when Caroline feels ill before her wedding. Ma gives her a bath and rubs her body with a traditional Haitian herbal concoction, which revives her. The episode involves Caroline surrendering to her mother's love and wisdom, something that she has resisted previously. Caroline acknowledges the connection made by sending her mother a bunch of red roses, which carries the symbolism of the color red (used in the story variously to suggest Haiti, the violence and suffering of Haiti's past, and life itself) and the symbolism of Sor Rose, the mythological founder of Haiti.
Grace, whose full name is Gracina, is the protagonist and narrator. She is the eldest daughter of Hermine and Carl Azile (known in the story as Ma and Papa) and the sister of Caroline. While Grace was born in Haiti, at the story's opening, she has just obtained U.S. citizenship. In the cross-cultural and cross-generational conflict between Ma and Caroline, Grace acts as a mediator, since she remains connected to her native culture (Haiti) and her adopted culture (the United States). She has a strong sense of the importance of Haitian tradition and becomes disturbed when she can no longer answer the ritualistic questions asked by her father in her dream. She seeks, and finds, the answers by asking Ma, an episode that affirms the central role of the mother-daughter relationship in sustaining cultural identity and community.
Hermine Azile, called Ma, is Grace and Caroline's mother and the widow of Carl Azile (known as Papa). She is strongly attached to Haiti and its traditions and expects her daughters to feel the same way. Initially, she seems never to have left her native land, as she makes no concessions to her adopted country, the United States. Her own harrowing story emerges over the course of the short story: she was separated from her husband when he immigrated to the United States by entering into a false marriage with a widow. While she waited until she could join her husband, she witnessed his falling out of love with her and never recovers from this grief. In addition, after she finally arrived in the United States and was pregnant with Caroline, she worked in an illegal New York sweatshop, which was raided. She was then injected by a prison doctor with a drug that she believes caused Caroline to be born without a forearm.
Ma rules her family with a tyrannical attitude and is intolerant of Caroline's adoption of American ways. She uses old Haitian voodoo ritual, the making of bone soup, against her daughter, in the belief that it has the power to separate Caroline from her fiancé. She criticizes Eric's informal courtship of Caroline and their plans for a civil wedding, which she dismisses as "mechanical" as well as typically American. She is rude about Eric because he is not Haitian. During the course of the story, however, she begins to make small concessions to Caroline's status as a young American Haitian, buying her a very un-Haitian silk teddy for her wedding present and, most significantly, telling Caroline that she looks forward to being a guest in her and Eric's house. The turning point comes when Caroline feels ill before her wedding and Ma is able to use her knowledge of a traditional herbal cure to revive her. Caroline's acceptance of the old Haitian ways softens Ma's attitude, reawakens the love between mother and daughter, and heals their relationship.
Carl Azile, called Papa, is father to Grace and Caroline and the husband of Ma. He has been dead for twelve years when the story begins but remains a vivid character in the story, appearing in dreams to Grace and Caroline. In the dreams that are recounted earlier in the story, he is an elusive figure, and Grace is always attempting in vain to connect with him. Because he has a perfect memory for the traditional stories, games, and rituals of Haiti, in the cross-cultural conflict of the story, he represents the old ways of Haiti. Grace finally connects with him in a dream that she has on the night of Caroline's wedding, but he is disappointed, and she is disturbed, when she fails to give the right answers to the ritualistic questions he asks. For the first time, she feels afraid of him, which symbolically suggests that she fears losing connection with her roots in Haiti.
Papa suffered, just as his wife and countless other Haitian refugees did. He left his wife and family in Haiti in order to immigrate to the United States through a false marriage. Later, he divorced the woman and arranged for his family to join him. By this time, he seems to have ceased to love his real wife (Ma). He died of untreated prostate cancer, which suggests that he could not afford health care.
Judge Perez, a friend of Eric, performs the marriage ceremony in his office for Eric and Caroline.
Mrs. Ruiz is a Cuban neighbor of the Aziles who attends Caroline's wedding shower. Her son has recently been shot by an airplane pilot while trying to hijack the airplane from Havana, Cuba, to Miami.
Cross-Generational and Cross-Cultural Conflicts
"Caroline's Wedding" explores the conflicts set off in the Aziles, a family of Haitian immigrants to the United States, when one of the daughters, Caroline, decides to marry a non-Haitian man. The Aziles embody a situation common to many immigrant families to the United States at the time the story was written. The older generation (Ma and Papa) clings tenaciously to the culture of the home country, Haiti, and find American ways strange; the younger daughter, Caroline, who was born in the United States, has been completely assimilated by her adopted country; and the older daughter, Grace, who was born in Haiti but has lived for many years in the United States, embodies elements of both cultures and acts as an intermediary between Ma and Caroline.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Research the flow of refugees from Haiti in the 1970s and 1980s. Write a report on the reasons for their flight, where they settled, and how they fared in their adopted countries. You may confine your research to one region if you wish.
- Interview one or more refugees from Haiti or another troubled country. Compile a presentation in writing, on film, on CD, or on audiotape, on their experiences before, during, and after their flight.
- Research the history of Haiti and write an essay or give a class presentation on some of the problems faced by that country in the past and the present. Include in your report some possible solutions suggested by informed sources, whether implemented or theoretical.
- Research the phenomenon of Haitian refugees seeking to come to the United States in (1) the 1950s and (2) the 1970s-1980s. What are the similarities and differences between the two flights? Consider such factors as socioeconomic group(s) affected; reasons for leaving; mode of travel and fate while traveling; and fate in adopted countries.
- Study the folklore and voodoo religion of Haiti. Create a factual report or a play, a short story, a film, CD, dance, poem, or painting based on your findings.
Diaspora and Discontinuity
Haiti has been afflicted with political unrest and violence that have led to waves of refugees fleeing to the United States, among other countries. "Caroline's Wedding," in common with many of the Krik? Krak! stories, examines this phenomenon. Grace accompanies Ma to a service for a Haitian woman and her baby who died on their way by boat to the United States. Grace's own family, too, escaped poverty by immigrating to the United States. The price paid for greater security and freedom is, however, often severe, and the story shows the terrible effects of diaspora (dispersion of people from a single region into far-ranging locations). Grace's father had to take vows in a false marriage to gain entry to the United States. Her mother, left behind in Haiti until he divorced the woman and sent for her, had to watch from afar as he fell out of love with her. When she first arrived in the United States, she was imprisoned after a sweatshop raid and injected with a drug that she believed caused her daughter Caroline to be born without a forearm. When Grace receives her certificate of U.S. citizenship, she remarks that her entire family has "paid dearly for this piece of paper." Indeed, she says, "It had cost my parents' marriage, my mother's spirit, my sister's arm."
Traditional Stories, Games, and Rituals
Krik? Krak! takes its title from a Haitian storytelling tradition. In Haiti, which has experienced high levels of illiteracy, the oral tradition of storytelling is beloved. It is customary for the person who has a story to tell to ask a potential audience, "Krik?" If they want to hear the story, they shout back, "Krak!" Then the storyteller begins. As a collection of stories, Krik? Krak! implicitly engages the reader in this ritual.
In addition, a major theme of "Caroline's Wedding" concerns how the broken continuities wrought by the Haitian diaspora are countered by traditional stories, games, beliefs, and rituals. These stories create a cultural identity and a sense of community between individual Haitians and different generations of Haitians. When a person has lost family or relatives, those people live on in their stories. In "Caroline's Wedding," Danticat particularly emphasizes the central role of women in passing these traditions from mother to daughter. Tension arises in the story between Ma, who wants the old traditions to continue, and Caroline, who seems to be turning her back on those traditions by paying them scant attention and by marrying a non-Haitian.
Memory and Loss
In keeping with the themes of diaspora and of a dispossessed people, the concept of loss is emphasized throughout the story. Loss is highlighted in the traditional free-association game that Caroline and Grace play with the word "lost," in which Grace describes herself as "the lost child of the night," whose mother and father are also lost.
Many of the characters have lost people, places, and things that were cherished by them. Ma has lost her homeland and has twice lost her husband, first to a marriage of convenience and then to death; she fears that she will lose Caroline through her marriage to a non-Haitian; Caroline and Grace have lost their father; Papa lost his mother to typhoid fever; Caroline lost her forearm; members of the congregation at the mass for the drowned Haitian realize that they have lost friends and relatives as the names of dead refugees are read out; the Cuban Mrs. Ruiz lost her son; and the Bahamian Eric has lost his family. Grace's dreams about her father are characterized by unsuccessful attempts to catch up with him, be rescued by him, or get close to him. Only in the final dream that Grace recounts does she succeed in interacting with her father, only to be rebuked by him for forgetting (losing) the old Haitian traditions.
Violence and Suffering
The violence of the history of Haiti and the suffering of its people is not explicitly shown, but it is suggested as being ever-present just below the surface of life, just as Caroline's vein throbs just below the surface of her stub: As she says, a slice through the vein would make her bleed to death. Grace is Ma and Papa's "misery baby" because of the poverty her parents suffer in their Haitian shantytown; the sweatshop raid and subsequent imprisonment in which Ma is caught up is her terrifying introduction to her adopted country, the United States. Her being injected with a drug that may have harmed the unborn Caroline is a violation comparable to rape. Haitians are not the only people who suffer such violent episodes: the son of the Cuban Mrs. Ruiz is shot when he tries to hijack an airplane from Cuba to Miami (possibly in an attempt to escape from Cuba).
Paradoxically the violence and suffering endured by the Haitian people in their scattering also brings them together as they share their stories. At the mass for the drowned Haitian woman and her baby, members of the congregation scream as they recognize people among the list of names of the refugees who have drowned at sea in just that week. This graphically confirms Ma's assertion that "all Haitians know each other" and shows how the community is held together through pain and suffering as well as love.
Short Story Cycle
In her epilogue to Krik? Krak!, Danticat likens the act of writing to braiding the hair, in that it is a matter of bringing unity to a number of unruly strands. The book is a short story cycle, in which each story can be read in isolation, but it also links to other stories in the collection. In "Caroline's Wedding," Grace accompanies Ma to a mass for a drowned Haitian woman and her baby; this is the same woman whose story is told in the first story in the collection, "Children of the Sea." The effect of this linkage is to emphasize the power of storytelling to establish identity and recreate community for people who have suffered diaspora. This is confirmed by two of Ma's remarks: "all Haitians know each other," and "We know people by their stories." Ma's own story, of her broken marriage and violent pregnancy with Caroline, emerges during the course of the short story. It helps to define who she is and why she acts as she does. In a lifetime of discontinuity, she understandably wishes everything to continue as it was in Haiti.
Caroline's missing forearm, as well as being a believable element of the story on a literal level, also carries a weighty poetic symbolism. Caroline's forearm fails to develop as a result of an act of violence and medical malpractice (Ma is injected with a drug when imprisoned after a New York sweatshop raid). Thus the missing arm is a kind of war wound, a scar gained during a time of danger. Because Ma stresses that the unborn Caroline could have died as a result of the drug, the episode suggests a major group of themes of the entire short story cycle, having to do with aborted or violent pregnancies and infanticide. This theme in turn, as Jana Evans Braziel points out in her essay, "Défilée's Diasporic Daughters: Revolutionary Narratives of Ayiti (Haiti), Nanchon (Nation), and Dyaspora (Diaspora) in Edwidge Danticat's Krik? Krak!" symbolically enacts the arrested or aborted development that Haiti has suffered during its many periods of unrest.
Caroline's arm also represents the homeland from which Caroline has been cut off by her parents' flight to the United States. This is especially true because Caroline is the only member of the family to be born in the United States. Grace remarks that "Caroline liked to have her stub stroked … Yet it was the only part of her that people were afraid of." This circumstance reflects the dilemma experienced by many people who have lost a place or person they loved. There may be times when they want to remember the loved one and talk about the person, but other people steer clear of the subject because they do not wish to give offense or because they feel uncomfortable discussing it. Thus, the bereaved person is isolated by grief and pain. In the case of the Haitian people, including Caroline, the suffering and persecutions of the past both isolate them from society in general (when Grace receives her passport, she says, "It was like being in a war zone and finally receiving a weapon of my own") and brings them closer to one another (as in the mass at the church). When Grace and Caroline were younger, they fantasized that one day the rest of Caroline's arm would burst out of Ma's stomach and float back to her and she would be complete. Symbolically, this dream reflects the longing for wholeness felt by the dispossessed person.
Another symbol is that of Sor Rose. According to Haitian folklore, Sor Rose was the black African slave woman who was raped by her French master and gave birth to the nation of Haiti. Danticat scatters references to the color, name, or object called "rose" and to literal or symbolic rape throughout the stories in Krik? Krak! These references suggest, as Jana Evans Braziel posits in her essay, "Défilée's Diasporic Daughters," that Danticat is consciously invoking the Sor Rose story. The refugee woman from the first story in Krik? Krak!, "Children of the Sea," who is remembered in the mass that Ma and Grace attend in "Caroline's Wedding," was raped by a soldier, gave birth on the boat to the United States, and when the baby died, she threw it into the sea, then jumped overboard after it, drowning herself. In "Caroline's Wedding," Ma is injected, while a captive, with a drug that caused a birth defect in Caroline. This may be seen as a violation akin to rape, a forced invasion of someone's body. The violence of this symbolic rape breeds death: the unborn Caroline could have died, and the adult Caroline is conscious that it would only take a slice to the vein that throbs below the surface of her stub to make her bleed to death. In the violent story of Haiti, the symbolism suggests, death is ever-present, just beneath the thin surface of life.
Grace's dream that she and her father are sitting beside "a stream of rose-colored blood" is probably another reference to Sor Rose. This interpretation is confirmed by Grace's remark that the stream of blood is beautiful, at which Papa's face begins to glow. Papa's purpose in the dream is to reconnect Grace with her roots by engaging her in the question-and-answer game, in which he asks her what traditions she will pass on to her children. While sitting by the stream of blood, they gaze at the stars, and Papa tells her, "If you close your eyes really tight, wherever you are, you will see these stars." The symbolic implication is that shared stories, by which suffering (a river of blood) is transfigured through the art of the storyteller, unify the scattered Haitian people.
The word "rose" also appears in the story when Caroline sends a bunch of red roses to Ma. This gesture comes after Ma has revived an ill and despondent Caroline just before her wedding, using a traditional Haitian treatment that involves giving her a bath and rubbing boiled leaves over her body. Before this incident, Caroline shows little interest in Ma's traditional Haitian attitudes and beliefs. But for the first time, she surrenders to Ma and is rejuvenated. The gift of roses is Caroline's recognition and honoring of the wisdom and loving care conveyed by the rituals and customs that Ma has preserved.
The Color Red
Red is the color of blood and therefore of lifeblood, but it is also the color of violence, danger, and potentially, death. In "Caroline's Wedding," red is used symbolically to suggest the violence, bloodshed, and suffering of Haiti's history, and, ultimately, the land of Haiti itself. Ma has a red port-wine mark on her neck, which she believes stems from unsatisfied cravings during pregnancy, a reference to the hunger she suffered in Haiti. Ma tells her daughters to wear red panties after their father dies, as according to Haitian tradition, the color has the power to keep away the spirit of her dead husband. Caroline's awareness of the possibility of her bleeding to death from a sliced vein links with Grace's dream on the night of her sister's wedding.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
1970s: Before 1971, waves of Haitian refugees flee to the United States and other industrialized countries as a result of Dr. François Duvalier's ("Papa Doc") regime of persecution. Many are middle-class and educated. After his death in 1971, the waves of refugees increase. Most refugees in this second group are poor people, fleeing the miserable conditions under the corrupt regime of François Duvalier's son, Jean-Claude Duvalier ("Baby Doc").
1990s: After Haiti's president Jean-Bertrand Aristide is deposed in a coup in 1990, the Organization of American States, the United Nations, and the U.S. government begin to impose sanctions on Haiti. The number of Haitian refugees grows as poverty intensifies under the sanctions. Sanctions are in place from 1990 until 1994, when Aristide is reinstated as president.
Today: According to the United Nations, in 2005, due to continuing political instability around the election, there is a steep increase in asylum seekers from Haiti to industrialized countries. As of 2006, Haiti remains one of the poorest countries in the world.
1970s: The term, boat people, refers to refugees, including those from Haiti, who risk their lives on unsafe, overcrowded boats to escape oppression or poverty in their home countries. During the 1970s and 1980s, between 50,000 and 80,000 boat people arrive without authorization in Florida. An unknown number drown at sea.
1990s: In 1990, the flow of Haitian boat people temporarily stops following the presidential election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. By late 1991, however, following Aristide's deposition in a military coup, the flow of Haitian boat people resumes. Between 1991 and 1994, thousands of Haitians flee the country, mostly by boat. Some who flee are accorded refugee status and are resettled in the United States, but others are repatriated.
Today: After the military regime is removed in 1994, numbers of Haitian boat people decline. As of 2006, the Haitian diaspora in the United States continues to grow, fueled by the arrival of friends and relatives of the Haitian immigrant population and by internal growth, as second- and third-generations are born into Haitian-American families. The Haitian government begins to try to attract members of the Haitian diaspora to Haiti, especially as investors.
The red symbolism recurs in the final scene. Grace, disturbed by her failure to remember how to play the ancient game with Papa in her dream, goes to Ma for help. As she drops a bone into Ma's bone soup, the splash creates a red mark on her hand. It is a fitting time for Grace to receive the blood-like mark of her homeland on her body, as she is about to learn from Ma the lesson that escaped her under Papa's interrogation.
Violence and Political Unrest in Haiti
Haiti's history is one of violence and political unrest, and its population has been subjected to many occupations and enslavements. Haiti is situated in the western part of an island called Hispaniola; the eastern part is called the Dominican Republic. Hispaniola was inhabited by the Taino and Arawak peoples (classed as indigenous peoples of the Americas) when in 1492, the explorer Christopher Colombus landed and claimed the island for Spain. The Spanish enslaved the indigenous people and imported African slaves to mine for gold. In the 1600s, French, Dutch, and British pirates established bases in Haiti. In 1664, France claimed control of the western part of the island, calling it Saint-Domingue. The colony prospered, growing sugar and coffee. The population was divided into ruling white Europeans, free black people, and black slaves. The majority of slaves were African-born, since harsh conditions meant that the Haitian-born slaves were unable to increase their population.
Inspired by the French Revolution, in 1790 and 1791, free and enslaved black people revolted against the French rulers of Saint-Domingue. Three black leaders of the revolution emerged: Toussaint L'Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Christophe. Finally, the revolutionary forces defeated the French, and in 1804, the nation declared its independence. It was named Haiti after the old Arawak name for the island, Ayiti. Dessalines became the first emperor of Haiti but was murdered in 1806, setting a pattern of violent fates for Haitian leaders, which was only broken in the 1990s. Throughout the nineteenth century, Haiti was ruled by a succession of presidents, whose periods of office ended prematurely through coups and revolutions.
In 1915, Haiti was invaded by the United States and remained under its military occupation for nineteen years. The invasion was prompted by fears that a popular revolution against Haitian dictator Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam threatened the business interests of the United States and a suspicion that Haiti was too closely aligned with Germany during World War I. An unsuccessful yet popular revolt against the U.S. occupation led to the deaths of around two thousand Haitians. Thereafter, a certain order was established. However, opposition to the occupation grew among the Haitian population, prompted by the perceived racial prejudice of the occupiers. Particularly hated were the forced-labor gangs, in which roads and other infrastructure were constructed under the direction of the U.S. military. Escapees could be shot, and the gangs were seen as another form of slavery.
After World War I, the U.S. occupation of Haiti was increasingly questioned both within the United States and internationally. An incident in which U.S. Marines killed ten Haitian peasants who were marching to protest economic conditions helped to prompt the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces in 1934. For the next fifty years, Haiti was ruled by a series of dictators supported by the United States. The first waves of Haitian refugees to the United States coincided with the 1957 installment of Dr. François Duvalier ("Papa Doc") as president after an election that many believed was manipulated by the army. Duvalier maintained power through his secret police, the Volunteers for National Security, nicknamed the Tonton Macoutes. The Tonton Macoutes terrorized the population with torture, killings, and extortion. They murdered hundreds of Duvalier's opponents and sometimes hanged their corpses in public view as a warning to would-be rebels.
Upon Duvalier's death in 1971, his son Jean-Claude Duvalier ("Baby Doc") took over the presidency. His regime became known for corruption, and much of the population sank into poverty. These people formed another wave of refugees who fled to the United States in the 1970s and early 1980s. In "Caroline's Wedding," Grace and Caroline's parents belong to this wave of refugees. With the election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1990, the flow of refugees briefly stopped, only to resume shortly afterwards when Aristide was deposed in a coup. Aristide returned to office in 2001 but was again deposed in 2004.
René Préval was elected president in 1996 and was remarkable for the fact that he left office after serving a complete term (he was again
elected president in 2006). All previous presidents had died in office, been assassinated or deposed, overstayed their prescribed term, or been installed by a foreign power.
The country's history of forced occupations and enslavements, violent depositions or murders of its leaders, and aborted development is symbolically suggested in "Caroline's Wedding" and other stories in the cycle by references to rape, violent and aborted pregnancies, and infanticide.
In "Caroline's Wedding," Ma's beliefs are a mixture of Catholicism (she goes to mass) and voodoo (she invokes the magical powers of charms and bone soup), which as of 2006 remained the dominant religion in Haiti. Voodoo is a polytheistic religion that includes a belief that objects can be imbued with magical properties that can be used to affect the outcome of events. It is based on a variety of African religions, with elements of Catholicism superimposed.
Voodoo has long been viewed with fear and contempt by many white colonials, but its development was partly a reaction to the suppression by white Europeans of the religious beliefs and practices of African slaves. Rather than abandon their old faiths, the slaves created a new faith, which helped them endure the hardships of their lives and at the same time to avoid persecution by their owners.
When Danticat's short story collection Krik? Krak! was published in 1995, it cemented the reputation that Danticat had begun to build with her earlier debut novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994). The collection was nominated for a National Book Award and was warmly received by critics, who welcomed Danticat's humanizing of Haiti, a country that had been largely ignored by writers and artists and that had mainly been the subject of news reports focusing on political upheaval and violence. In her Boston Globe review, "Danticat's Stories Pulse with Haitian Heartbeat," Jordana Hart praises Danticat's "honest and loving portraits of Haitian people" which have "smashed the numbing stereotypes created by a barrage of media accounts of Haitian poverty, misery and death."
In an interview with Danticat for Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, Margaria Fichtner makes comments on Danticat's novel Breath, Eyes, Memory that could easily be applied to Krik? Krak! Fichtner notes the novel's emotional complexity and its portrayal of the burdens of history, politics, and culture upon the lives and hearts of women, adding that it has "much to say about what it is like to be young, black, Haitian and female wandering in a world too often eager to regard all of those conditions as less than worthwhile." Fichtner calls Krik? Krak! "a collection of interrelated stories celebrating Haitian home life, tradition and myth and the ennobled lives of people who have lost everything but a rich will to survive."
In his review of Krik? Krak! for World Literature Today, Hal Wylie singles out "Caroline's Wedding" for particular praise, on the grounds that this story is "the most penetrating in exploring the psychology of assimilation." Wylie notes that the Haitian stories featured within the story help the characters "in finding the essential values of life—the foundation for a character able to resist life's traumas." The story of Caroline's wedding, he writes, "shows the relationship of family stories to the larger social rituals, also important in people's finding their way in the urban labyrinth."
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Stories by Danticat that can be read alone yet connect with "Caroline's Wedding" and that deal with Haitian and Haitian American themes are collected in Krik? Krak! (1995).
- Danticat's debut novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994), explores the theme of Haitian immigrants to the United States, who struggle to adjust to their adopted culture without losing touch with the old Haitian ways.
- A number of interviews with Danticat about her work are collected at www.haitiglobalvillage.com/sd-marassa1-cd/d-conversations.htm (accessed October 18, 2006).
- The Butterfly's Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States (2001), edited by Edwidge Danticat, is a collection of autobiographical literary essays and poems, alongside some pieces of social and political analysis, written by thirty-two Haitian exiles. Themes include migration, childhood, cross-generational differences, return to the homeland, and the future.
- Amy Tan's novel The Joy Luck Club (1989) focuses on mother-daughter relationships in families exiled from their native country—in this case, China. The novel is divided into short vignettes, which are rather like short stories.
- The Oxford Book of Caribbean Short Stories (2002), edited by Stewart Brown and John Wickham, is a collection of fifty-one short stories by twentieth-century Caribbean-born writers, including Gabriel García Maárquez, V. S. Naipaul, Patrick Chamoiseau, Juan Bosch, and Alicia McKenzie, as well as Danticat.
- Charles Arthur's Haiti in Focus: A Guide to the People, Politics, and Culture (2002) provides an accessible introduction to Haiti's history, politics, economy, society, people, culture, and environment, and includes tips on what to see for those traveling to Haiti.
In her review entitled "Stories Resound with Haiti's Tragedy, Spirit," for the San Francisco Chronicle, Wendy Sheanin also notes the "legacy of pain" carried by each member of Grace's family. Against this legacy, Sheanin writes, the stories demonstrate "the healing and affirming power of storytelling," in the sense that stories "provide spiritual sustenance, whether they are told to escape harsh reality or to pass the time on board a doomed refugee boat or to fantasize about a better life." Sheanin draws attention to the story cycle structure, whereby the interrelatedness of stories reinforces the sense of community among the scattered Haitian exiles. She praises Danticat's "honesty, coupled with her wit and subtlety," which combine to yield "powerful stories that remain with us long after we close the book."
Robinson has an M.A. in English. She is a writer, editor, and former teacher of English literature and creative writing. In the following essay, Robinson examines how continuity and community are sought in the Haitian diaspora in Edwidge Danticat's "Caroline's Wedding."
The central event of "Caroline's Wedding," the marriage of a young woman from a family of Haitian immigrants living in the United States, acts as the focus for a number of cross-generational and cross-cultural conflicts. While these conflicts threaten to divide the Azile family, by extension, similar conflicts also affect the wider Haitian community, whose members find themselves separated from friends, family, and homeland due to the diaspora caused by Haiti's historical instability. The story opens with Ma making bone soup, an old Haitian ritual that she hopes will separate Caroline from her fiancé, Eric. Ma disapproves of Eric because he is not Haitian and no one in her family has married outside before. In addition, Eric's courtship of Caroline has been very different from her own husband's courtship of her. It has been informal, has involved pre-marital sex, and has been lacking in the traditional romantic, respectful courtship rituals that she proudly remembers her husband following in seeking her own hand. Worst of all, Caroline's marriage will take place not in a church, but in a judge's office. Ma compares the two and finds Caroline's arrangements disappointingly "mechanical" and typically American. The conflict is a typical clash of generations and cultures.
However, throughout the course of the story, Ma slowly and reluctantly becomes used to the idea of Caroline's marriage. It is suggested, though not made explicit, that she comes to an understanding that the old ways that she has championed for so long have their limitations. This conclusion is revealed through the slow unfolding of Ma's own tragic story, which makes clear that any advantages that Ma's marriage had over Caroline's in terms of romance and ritual were outweighed by internal weaknesses and hostile circumstances. Ma's happiness did not last. First poverty then Papa's marriage of convenience to another woman and departure for the United States helped to destroy the fabric of the marriage. While Ma continued to love her husband, he appears to have ceased to love her. Ma never gets over the grief: "My heart has a store of painful marks … and that is one of them."
It is open to question whether Ma's admission of the truth about her marriage mellows her attitude toward Caroline's, but the parallels suggest that this is the case. Ma's marriage to Papa had all the traditional external formalities in place but was wrecked by betrayal, unrequited love, and grief. Caroline's wedding to Eric lacks traditional ritual, but their relationship is one of mutual trust and caring, and they almost certainly know one another better than did Caroline's parents before their wedding. The gap between Ma's expectations of her marriage and the reality prompts her late in the story to ask Grace to destroy all traces of Papa's courtship of her and their marriage after her death. Such an act would be the exact opposite of Ma's usual determination to preserve the old ways and memories at all costs.
Caroline, for her part, also subtly changes in her attitude toward Ma's traditional Haitian beliefs and practices during the course of the story. With her chemically straightened hair and non-Haitian fiancé, Caroline appears to have completely assimilated the ways of her adopted country, the United States. Her attitude toward Ma's attachments to the old rituals, such as making bone soup and attending mass, varies from good-natured tolerance, engaging in small deceptions to save Ma's feelings (such as going home after dinner at Eric's but then secretly catching a cab back to Eric's so that she can sleep with him without upsetting Ma), to plain irritation. It is clear that Caroline has no emotional attachment to Haiti's traditional beliefs—certainly not as much as Grace. Grace was born in Haiti and retains a strong sense of tradition, yet she has just been delighted to receive her U.S. citizenship. She acts as a conduit and mediator between Ma and Caroline, explaining and justifying the ways of each to the other.
The turning point for Caroline begins when she feels ill just before her wedding. This part of Caroline's journey is expressed through the symbolism of her missing forearm. When she appears in her wedding dress wearing a new false arm, she explains that she has been having phantom pain in her arm such as amputees experience, and a doctor told her that the false arm may make it go away. When Ma points out that she is not an amputee, Caroline replies that the pressure of the wedding is making her feel like one. Ma says, "In that case, we all have phantom pain." As Caroline prepares to leave Ma's home and marry the non-Haitian Eric, the pain in her arm symbolically suggests that she is more attached to her homeland and her home than she consciously realizes. Ma's comment about phantom pain underlines the symbolism. She is referring to the sense of loss that refugees and dispossessed people feel. The false arm may symbolically indicate the myriad ways that people suffering loss try to compensate and feel whole again; getting married is one way; becoming a citizen of one's adopted country is another.
Ma rescues Caroline from her pain. She takes care of her, gives her a bath, and revives her with a traditional Haitian herbal treatment. What is more, Ma knows exactly what Caroline needs because she felt the same on her wedding day. In giving herself up to Ma's care, Caroline is brought to surrender to and honor the accumulated wisdom of countless generations of Haitian women. It is evident that Ma's attitude towards Caroline's marriage has thawed when she tells Caroline that she is eager to be a guest in her new house, the first overture she has made towards the couple in their new life together. The episode shows the relationship between mother and daughter to be unique and irreplaceable. It emphasizes the continuity that will overcome their physical separation through Caroline's marriage. Each comes to understand and accept the other. Danticat's use of Haitian ritual and tradition underlines this point. At the beginning of the story, Ma employs an old Haitian ritual—the making and serving of bone soup—against Caroline, to try to separate her from Eric. But at the story's end, she turns to the healing ritual of the herbal bath to calm and support her daughter before her marriage.
Traditions such as these enable Haitians everywhere to reconnect with lost loved ones, culture, and homeland through times of suffering and diaspora. But keeping those traditions alive depends upon memory. In Laura Jamison's review for the San Francisco Examiner of Krik? Krak!, "The Exquisite Tales of Edwidge Danticat," Danticat is quoted as saying, "In Haiti, memories are important. They give you hope for the future if present circumstances are not very good." Memory is a major theme of "Caroline's Wedding." It is also one of Grace's chief preoccupations. Grace finds that preserving the memory of Haitian traditions is not easy in the face of modern life in a very different country. She becomes upset when her father, in a dream on the night after Caroline's wedding, accuses her of having forgotten how to play the question-and-answer game. He asks her, "What kinds of legends will your daughters be told? What sort of charms will you give them to ward off evil?" For the first time, she feels afraid of him. She feels disturbed at her loss of the traditions that he kept alive in his perfect memory and of the safeguard that they offer against fear and insecurity. She intuitively knows the importance of such games in maintaining her cultural identity and her closeness to her family members, both dead and alive. Finally, she is driven by this experience to seek from Ma what she has lost.
In the Haitian tradition, Ma answers Grace's question by asking another. She asks Grace, "Why is it that when you lose something, it is always in the last place that you look for it?" On one level, this is Ma's wry reference to what she sees as her daughters' neglect of the old Haitian ways that she espouses; in their new lives in the United States, she has become the last person they consult. On a deeper level, it is a profound statement about the paradox of memory, summed up in the old Haitian proverb that provides the answer to Ma's question. Grace knows the answer to this question well: "Because … once you remember, you always stop looking." While memory keeps alive the history and culture of Haiti, a feat performed to perfection by Papa, once one has remembered, one ceases to seek. The absolute success of memory means the end of seeking, which ultimately means the loss of living history and culture. This paradox is summed up in the Haitian song that is playing on the radio immediately after Grace's dream in which she fails to answer her father's questions about the traditions of the country:
Beloved Haiti, there is no place like you. I had to leave you before I could understand you.
The words of the song suggest that being partially outside one's own culture, as Haitian immigrants to the United States such as Grace necessarily are, enables one to understand it better.
Source: Claire Robinson, Critical Essay on "Caroline's Wedding," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale 2007.
In the following essay, the critic gives an overview of Edwidge Danticat's work.
Fiction writer Edwidge Danticat conjures the history of her native Haiti in award-winning short stories and novels. She is equally at home describing the immigrant experience—what she calls "dyaspora"—and the reality of life in Haiti today. Danticat's fiction "has been devoted to an unflinching examination of her native culture, both on its own terms and in terms of its intersections with American culture," wrote an essayist in Contemporary Novelists. "Danticat's work emphasizes in particular the heroism and endurance of Haitian women as they cope with a patriarchal culture that, in its unswerving devotion to tradition and family, both oppresses and enriches them." Readers will find "massacres, rapes, [and] horrible nightmares in Danticat's fiction," wrote an essayist in the St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, "but above all these are the strength, hope, and joy of her poetic vision."
Danticat's first novel, the loosely autobiographical Breath, Eyes, Memory, was a 1998 selection of the Oprah Winfrey Book Club, thus assuring its best-seller status. Other Danticat works have won warm praise as well, with some critics expressing surprise that such assured prose has come from an author so young. Antioch Review correspondent Grace A. Epstein praised Danticat for "the real courage … in excavating the romance of nationalism, identity, and home." Time reporter Christopher John Farley likewise concluded that Danticat's fiction "never turns purple, never spins wildly into the fantastic, always remains focused, with precise disciplined language, and in doing so, it uncovers moments of raw humanness."
Danticat was born in Haiti and lived there the first twelve years of her life. She came to the United States in 1981, joining her parents who had already begun to build a life for themselves in New York City. When she started attending junior high classes in Brooklyn, she had difficulty fitting in with her classmates because of her Haitian accent, clothing, and hairstyle. Danticat recalled for Garry Pierre-Pierre in the New York Times that she took refuge from the isolation she felt in writing about her native land. As an adolescent she began work on what would evolve into her first novel, the acclaimed Breath, Eyes, Memory. Danticat followed her debut with a collection of short stories, Krik? Krak!—a volume which became a finalist for that year's National Book Award. According to Pierre-Pierre, the young author has been heralded as "‘the voice’ of Haitian-Americans," but Danticat told him, "I think I have been assigned that role, but I don't really see myself as the voice for the Haitian-American experience. There are many. I'm just one."
Danticat's parents wanted her to pursue a career in medicine, and with the goal of becoming a nurse, she attended a specialized high school in New York City. But she abandoned this aim to devote herself to her writing. An earlier version of Breath, Eyes, Memory served as her master of fine arts thesis at Brown University, and the finished version was published shortly thereafter. Like Danticat herself, Sophie Caco—the novel's protagonist—spent her first twelve years in Haiti, several in the care of an aunt, before coming wide-eyed to the United States. But there the similarities end. Sophie is the child of a single mother, conceived by rape. Though she rejoins her mother in the United States, it is too late to save the still-traumatized older woman from self-destruction. Yet women's ties to women are celebrated in the novel, and Sophie draws strength from her mother, her aunt, and herself in order to escape her mother's fate.
Breath, Eyes, Memory caused some controversy in the Haitian-American community. Some of Danticat's fellow Haitians did not approve of her writing of the practice of "testing" in the novel. In the story, female virginity is highly prized by Sophie's family, and Sophie's aunt "tests" to see whether Sophie's hymen is intact by inserting her fingers into the girl's vagina. Haitian-American women, some of whom have never heard of or participated in this practice, felt that Danticat's inclusion of it portrayed them as primitive and abusive. American critics, however, appreciated Breath, Eyes, Memory. Joan Philpott in Ms. described the book as "intensely lyrical." Pierre-Pierre reported that reviewers "have praised Ms. Danticat's vivid sense of place and her images of fear and pain." Jim Gladstone concluded in the New York Times Book Review that the novel "achieves an emotional complexity that lifts it out of the realm of the potboiler and into that of poetry." And Bob Shacochis, in his Washington Post Book World review, called the work "a novel that rewards a reader again and again with small but exquisite and unforgettable epiphanies." Shacochis added, "You can actually see Danticat grow and mature, come into her own strength as a writer, throughout the course of this quiet, soul penetrating story about four generations of women trying to hold on to one another in the Haitian diaspora."
Krik? Krak! takes its title from the practice of Haitian storytellers. Danticat told Deborah Gregory of Essence that storytelling is a favorite entertainment in Haiti, and a storyteller inquires of his or her audience, "Krik?" to ask if they are ready to listen. The group then replies with an enthusiastic, "Krak!" The tales in this collection include one about a man attempting to flee Haiti in a leaky boat, another about a prostitute who tells her son that the reason she dresses up every night is that she is expecting an angel to descend upon their house, and yet another explores the feelings of a childless housekeeper in a loveless marriage who finds an abandoned baby in the streets. The New York Times Book Review reviewer, Robert Houston, citing the fact that some of the stories in Krik? Krak! were written while Danticat was still an undergraduate at Barnard College, felt that these pieces were "out of place in a collection presumed to represent polished, mature work." But Ms. contributor Jordana Hart felt that the tales in Krik? Krak! "are textured and deeply personal, as if the twenty-six-year-old Haitian-American author had spilled her own tears over each." Even Houston conceded that readers "weary of stories that deal only with the minutiae of ‘relationships’ will rejoice that they have found work that is about something, and something that matters."
Danticat's novel The Farming of Bones concerns a historical tragedy, the 1937 massacre of Haitian farm workers by soldiers of the Dominican Republic. In the course of less than a week, an estimated 12,000-15,000 Haitian workers in the Dominican Republic were slaughtered by the Dominican government or by private citizens in a classic case of "ethnic cleansing." The Farming of Bones is narrated by a young Haitian woman, Amabelle Desir, who has grown up in the Dominican Republic after being orphaned. As the nightmare unfolds around her, Amabelle must flee for her life, separated from her lover, Sebastien. In the ensuing decades as she nurses her physical and psychological wounds, Amabelle serves as witness to the suffering of her countrymen and the guilt of her former Dominican employers. The massacre, Danticat told Mallay Charters in Publishers Weekly, is "a part of our history, as Haitians, but it's also a part of the history of the world. Writing about it is an act of remembrance."
Dean Peerman wrote in Christian Century that "Breath, Eyes, Memory was an impressive debut, but The Farming of Bones is a richer work, haunting and heartwrenching." In Nation, Zia Jaffrey praised Danticat for "blending history and fiction, imparting information, in the manner of nineteenth-century novelists, without seeming to." Jaffrey added: "Danticat's brilliance as a novelist is that she is able to put this event into a credible, human context." Farley also felt that the author was able to endow a horrific episode with a breath of humanity. "Every chapter cuts deep, and you feel it," he stated, continuing on to say that Amabelle's "journey from servitude to slaughter is heartbreaking." In Amerícas, Barbara Mujica concluded that Danticat has written "a gripping novel that exposes an aspect of Dominican-Haitian history rarely represented in Latin American fiction. In spite of the desolation and wretchedness of the people Danticat depicts, The Farming of Bones is an inspiring book. It is a hymn to human resilience, faith, and hope in the face of overwhelming adversity." Jaffrey ended her review by concluding that the novel is "a beautifully conceived work, with monumental themes."
Behind the Mountains takes the form of a diary of teenage Haitian Celiane Esperance. Celiane is happy in her home in the mountains of Haiti, but she hasn't seen her father since he left for the United States years before. She had intended to join him in New York, along with her mother and older brother, but visa applications are inexorably slow. After eight years, the visas are granted, and the family reunites in Brooklyn. After an initially joyful reunion, however, the family begins to slowly unravel. A child when her father left Haiti, Celiane is now a young woman with her own mind and will. Her brother, Moy, a nineteen-year-old artist, does not quietly slip back into the role of obedient child. Even more universal concerns, such as the freezing New York winters, difficulties at school, and the need to make a living, chip away at the family's unity. Good intentions go awry in a book showcasing "friction among family members" exacerbated by "the separation and adjustment to a new country," but especially by the inevitable maturation of younger family members and the unwillingness of parents to acknowledge it, wrote Diane S. Morton in School Library Journal. Hazel Rochman, writing in Booklist, praised the "simple, lyrical writing" Danticat demonstrates in the novel. "Danticat brings her formidable skill as a writer and her own firsthand knowledge of Haiti and immigrating to America to this heartfelt story told in the intimate diary format," wrote Claire Rosser in Kliatt.
In addition to her own works, Danticat has also edited the fiction of others, including The Butterfly's Way: From the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States. This work is a collection of stories, poems, and essays from Haitian writers living in America and Europe, many of whom are concerned with the feeling of displacement that is perhaps an inevitable consequence of emigration. Denolyn Carroll suggested in Black Issues Book Review that the pieces in The Butterfly's Way "help paint a vivid picture of what it is like to live in two worlds." Carroll also felt that the work adds "new dimensions of understanding of Haitian emigrant's realities. This compilation is a source of enlightenment for us all." Booklist contributor Donna Seaman found the book "a potent and piercing collection" that will help all Americans understand "the frustrations … of Haitians who are now outsiders both in Haiti and in their places of refuge."
After the Dance: A Walk through Carnival in Haiti is Danticat's nonfiction account of her first encounter with Carnival, the boisterous, sometimes debauched, sometimes dangerous celebrations that rock Haiti every year. As a child, she did not have the opportunity to attend Carnival. Her family inevitably packed up and left for a remote area in the Haitian mountains each year to escape the celebrations, perpetuating an almost superstitious distrust of the event. At times, though, staying clear has been a good idea. During the regime of Haitian dictator François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, carnival-goers were "subject to beatings and arrest by Duvalier's infamously unregulated militamen," wrote Judith Wynn in the Boston Herald. Danticat therefore approaches her first experience of Carnival uneasily. Her trip, however, beginning a week before the actual event, immerses her in the rich culture and history of Haiti, the cultural importance behind Carnival, and the background of the celebration itself. Danticat's "lively narrative" describes a country with a deep history, "influenced by Christianity, voodoo, Europeans, pirates, dictators, past slavery, and an uncertain economy," wrote Linda M. Kaufmann in Library Journal. Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist, observed that "as in her fiction, Danticat writes about her odyssey with an admirable delicacy and meticulousness," while a Publishers Weekly critic noted that the author "offers an enlightening look at the country—and Carnival—through the eyes of one of its finest writers."
The Dew Breaker is a work of mystery and violence. It is a collection of short stories (many previously unpublished) connected by the character of the Dew Breaker, a torturer whose nickname is based on the fact that he attacks in the dawn before the dew has disappeared in the light of day. The Dew Breaker ultimately moves from Haiti to Brooklyn, becomes a barber, and raises a loving family. In Danticat's stories, the Dew Breaker reveals his secrets out of guilt, and his victims reveal their secrets, too, to ease the pain of their memories. Danticat's "spare, lyrical prose is ever present," wrote Marjorie Valbrun in the Black Issues Book Review, "in the gentle telling of stories that are soft to the ear even when pain and violence seem to scream from the pages." "The text presents two levels of truth," commented Robert McCormick in World Literature Today. In the course of reading, one comes to understand much, he hinted, but "what we don't know … is just as important."
Anacaona, Golden Flower: Haiti, 1490 is a novel for the upper elementary and middle school grades, written in the form of a diary. Anacaona is a young princess of the Taíno people who comes of age in the time of Christopher Columbus. She weds a royal chieftain who lives nearby and undergoes military training to defend her island home. Booklist reviewer Gillian Engberg predicted that "readers will connect with Danticat's immediate, poetic language, Anacaona's finely drawn growing pains, and the powerful, graphic story."
"In order to create full-fledged, three-dimensional characters, writers often draw on their encounters, observations, collages of images from the everyday world, both theirs and others," Danticat remarked in a biographical essay in Contemporary Novelists. "We are like actors, filtering through our emotions what life must be like, or must have been like, for those we write about. Truly we imagine these lives, aggrandize, reduce, or embellish, however we often begin our journey with an emotion close to our gut, whether it be anger, curiosity, joy, or fear."
Source: Thomson Gale, "Edwidge Danticat," in Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2005.
Rocio G. Davis
In the following essay, Davis explores Danticat's particular use of the short story cycle in Krik? Krak!, which reflects the oral narrative and, through this narration, articulates "the process toward ethnic self-identification."
Only when ethnic literature liberates its sources of meaning from hegemonic impositions and begins to inform theory and subvert traditional signifying strategies can it begin to reconfigure cultural interpretation. As though responding to this challenge, ethnic fiction demonstrates a proliferation of the short story cycle, a form until now most clearly defined within the Euro-American literary tradition, that many ethnic writers have adapted for the formulation of their processes of subjectivity. Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place, Julia Alvarez's How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, and Louise Erdich's Love Medicine emblematize how ethnic writers appropriate the specifics of this narrative genre to engage with the dynamics of meaning. This article will explore the short story cycle as a vehicle for the development of ethnic literature by analyzing Haitian-American Edwidge Danticat's Krik? Krak! to show how the drama of identity and community is mediated through a genre that is linked to the oral narrative, itself a way of fostering imaginative communities and developing identities.
The dynamics of the short story cycle make it appropriate for the quest for a definition of the cultural pluralism that incorporates immigrant legacies while adapting to the practices of the culture in which these works are created. A cycle may be defined as "a set of stories linked to each other in such a way as to maintain a balance between the individuality of each of the stories and the necessities of the larger unit" (Ingram 15). The term "short story cycle" implies a structural scheme for the working out of an idea, characters, or themes, even a circular disposition in which the constituent narratives are simultaneously independent and interdependent. The challenge of each cycle is twofold: the collection must assert the individuality and independence of each of the component parts while creating a necessary interdependence that emphasizes the wholeness and unity of the work. Consistency of theme and an evolution from one story to the next are among the classic requirements of the form, with recurrence and development as the integrated movements that effect final cohesion (Ingram 20).
The essential characteristics of the short story cycle abound in the literatures of the world: Homer's Odyssey, Ovid's Metamorphoses, Boccaccio's Decameron, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, the Indian Panchatantra, the Arabian A Thousand and One Nights, and Mallory's Morte d'Arthur reflect the fundamental separation and cohesion of the form as defined by twentieth-century critics. Cycles figure prominently in twentieth-century American literature: Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time and Raymond Carver's Cathedral, among others, have constituted and popularized the form within the "mainstream" canon. By appropriating and transforming this narrative genre as established and defined by "mainstream" writers and critics, Danticat, like other ethnic writers, intervenes in the dominant Euro-American literary tradition. A text such as Krik? Krak! challenges hegemonic discourse on several levels, as the author exploits the advantages of the established structure and theme to present her version of the immigrant story, blending cultural traditions and codes for innovative literary representation.
The short story cycle looks back to oral traditions of narrative while embodying signs of modernity. One of its most salient features is its attempt to emulate the act of storytelling, the effort of a speaker to establish solidarity with an implied audience by recounting a series of tales linked by their content or by the conditions in which they are related. The experience of the oral narrative, of telling and listening to stories, has been a vital part of the development of the body of thought and tradition that has formed culture and united diverse peoples. As Walter Ong argues, in its physical constitution as sound, the spoken word manifests human beings to each other as persons and forms them into close-knit groups: when a speaker is addressing an audience, the members of the audience normally become a unity, with themselves and with the speaker. Much of the vividness of the oral narrative comes precisely from the fact that it resists writing, preserving the spoken word as always "an event, a movement in time, completely lacking in the thing-like repose of the written or printed word" (Ong 74).
Sarah Hardy's comparison of the short story and the oral narrative is, I believe, equally applicable to the story cycle: "A single theme or episode … pulls in the direction of its own self-contained narrative line, towards other similar and parallel stories, and towards certain patterns of language or a particular set of symbols…. In other words, the presence of an audience is vital to the completion and validity of the short-story [cycle] form just as it is in an oral setting." The title of Danticat's cycle sets it clearly within the oral narrative. She invites the reader not merely to read the book but to participate in a traditional Haitian storytelling ritual. "Krik? Krak! is call-response but it's also this feeling that you're not merely an observer—you're part of the story. Someone says, ‘Krik?’ and as loudly as you can you say ‘Krak!’ You urge the person to tell the story by your enthusiasm to hear it" (Shea 12).
In the stories, Danticat examines the lives of ordinary Haitians: those struggling to survive under the cruel Duvalier regime and others who have left the country, highlighting the distance between people's dreams and the distressing reality of their lives. As Ethan Casey points out: "Writers will spend precious time accounting for what has happened, it is true; the literary challenge is to write about Haiti in the vocabulary of human tragedy and human survival." As such, the book becomes a literary response to the Haitian situation and a feeling description of the immigration of the 1980s. Importantly, Danticat's presentation of the theme of storytelling through the technique of storytelling locates her writing within what Jay Clayton has called the "narrative turn" in recent ethnic fiction, which stresses the political dimensions of form, making the pragmatics of traditional narrative a theme in the fiction. Through technical experimentation with the story cycle, Danticat heightens the power of narrative, elucidating the significance of the oral mode to her characters by positioning the theme within a genre that engages it on different levels. Importantly, the blending of the performative dimension of storytelling in form and content allows Danticat to expand the reach of her art by making the text dramatize as well as signify.
In a note distributed by her publisher, Danticat defines the challenge she set herself: "I look to the past—to Haiti—hoping that the extraordinary female story tellers I grew up with—the ones that have passed on—will choose to tell their stories through my voice. For those of us who have a voice must speak to the present and the past" (qtd. in Casey 525-26). Danticat's narrative presents the voices and visions of women, usually mothers and daughters, whose personal tragedies impel them to form community in the midst of oppression and exile. Because the practice of breaking silence has become one of the shaping myths in the writings of ethnic women, storytelling in the cycle becomes both a medium of self-inscription and subjectivity and an instrument for dialogue. The telling of stories heals past experiences of loss and separation; it also forges bonds between women by preserving tradition and female identity as it converts stories of oppression into parables of self-affirmation and individual empowerment. The manner in which Danticat links the stories with the processes of self-inscription by the different women becomes a metaphor for the negotiation of the characters' strategies of survival.
The profoundly oral character of Haitian culture is illustrated on both textual and contextual levels in Krik? Krak!. The epigraph to the cycle, a quote from Sal Scalora from "White Darkness/Black Dreamings," discloses the purpose of the old tradition: "We tell the stories so that the young ones will know what came before them. They ask Krik? We say Krak! Our stories are kept in our hearts." Seven of the nine stories are told in the first person, with two of them written as monologues, and the rest alternating two voices in the narration. The epilogue, "Women Like Us," is written in the second person, a technique with rich connotations in a contemporary text inspired by the oral tradition. The art of storytelling figures importantly in several of the tales. The game of "Krik? Krak!" is played in the first story as a way for the refugees on the boat to wile away the fearful hours. In "Wall of Fire Rising," the inhabitants of the town who watched a state-sponsored newscast every evening "stayed at the site long after this gendarme had gone and told stories to one another beneath the big blank screen." The night woman whispers her mountain stories in her son's ear, "stories of the ghost women and the stars in their hair. I tell him of the deadly snakes lying at one end of the rainbow and the hat full of gold lying at the other. I tell him that if I cross a stream of glass-clear hibiscus, I can make myself a goddess." "We know people by their stories", one of the characters declares, signalling how storytelling, which educates people in imaginative history and community values, provides an organic link between the past and the lives of the people in the present.
Other stories present verbal games that serve both as entertainment and strategy for identification and survival. Among the rituals that unite the women in the stories is the verbal code established in times of trial which was used to signal belonging. When Josephine meets a woman who claims to be part of the group who went on pilgrimages to the Massacre River, she questions her in the secret way because "if she were really from the river, she would know … all the things that my mother had said to the sun as we sat with our hands dipped in the water, questioning each other, making up codes and disciplines by which we would always know who the other daughters of the river were." This question-and-answer ritual is kept alive by Gracina and Caroline in Brooklyn: "We sat facing each other in the dark, playing a free-association game that Ma had taught us when we were girls…. Ma too had learned this game when she was a girl. Her mother belonged to a secret women's society in Ville Rose, where the women had to question each other before entering one another's houses." This game, played in the United States, carries within it memories of the lost country and links to those who have died. Gracina will be charged, in a dream, with remembering the lost past through the paradigm of the game: "If we were painters, which landscapes would we paint?… When you become mothers, how will you name your sons?… What kind of lullabies do we sing to our children at night? Where do you bury your dead?… What kind of legends will your daughters be told?" The commission, which emphasizes the power of the word, implies that the daughters must be similarly creative and constructive. The words and the hidden meanings in their mothers' verbal games form a significant starting point from which they can develop their own voice and autonomy because a space is created within the inherited contest in which their own representation is possible. Drawing from a rich source of oral traditions, as well as from their own experience and imagination, the daughters can then construct and claim their own subjectivity….
On different levels, ethnic short story cycles may project a desire to come to terms with a past that is both personal and collective: this type of fiction often explores the ethnic character and history of a community as a reflection of a personal odyssey of displacement, and search for self and community. More specifically, the two principal thematic constituents of the ethnic story cycle are the presentation of identity and community as separate entities and the notion of an identity within a community, again, a common theme of ethnic fiction. In Danticat's case, the textual tension arises from the presentation of women who struggle to establish and preserve the bonds of the Haitian community in the United States through powerful links with the mother country. Her stories, centering on the politics and the people of Haiti and Haitian immigrants to the United States, illustrate the numerous and varied connective strands that serve to draw the individuals of the short story cycle into a single community. The passage from appreciation of individual stories to the whole presented in the cycle marks the shift from the individual to community, setting the individual against the social group to which he or she belongs. The connections that are established will therefore yield what J. Gerald Kennedy has called the "defining experience" of the short story cycle: a vision of community accumulated by the reader's discernment of meanings and parallels inherent in the composite scheme. This movement, witnessed in other cycles by women such as Tan's The Joy Luck Club and Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place, constitutes the collective protagonist, the community, as the central character of the cycle.
The individual stories in Krik? Krak! present versions of life in and away from Haiti that create a composite portrait of the Haitian and her world. Although the stories are independent and written in different styles, they inform and enrich one another. In "Caroline's Wedding," the protagonist and her mother attend a funeral service for those who died at sea in the first story. The seaside town of Ville Rose figures in the lives of many of the female characters: the young woman and her parents in "Children of the Sea" seek refuge there when she is being sought by the police; this town is also the setting of the stories "The Missing Peace," "Night Women," and "Seeing Things Simply." More importantly, a common ancestry links the women in the diverse stories. The main character of "Between the Pool and the Gardenias" is the goddaughter of Lili from "A Wall of Fire Rising" and the granddaughter of Défílé, imprisoned for witchcraft in "1937." As Renée Shea signals, these details serve to show that the many narrators come to understand their connections and their place primarily "through the bonds of women."
The presentation of women and their relationships, specifically that of mothers and daughters, is pivotal to Danticat's narrative. In this sense, she reflects the same concerns as another emblematic mother-daughter short story cycle, Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. Both complex ensembles of stories told by mothers and daughters are innovative variations of the traditional mother-daughter plot, which focuses on the daughter's perspective and the foregrounding of the voices of mothers as well as daughters (Heung 599). The women in both cycles are primarily responsible for the perpetuation of culture and bonds with the lost homeland. The mothers play major roles in the daughters' lives and growth, a role that provides the daughters with models for self-affirmation. Although the mothers all have different names and individual stories, they seem interchangeable in that their role as mother supersedes all others. The discrete identities of the women are woven into a collectivized interchangeability through the cycle's juxtapositions of characters and motifs. Through the narrative interweaving of time frames and voices, both Danticat and Tan unite generations of women within a relational network that links grandmothers, mothers, daughters, aunts, and sisters. For these women, however, "mutual nurturance does not rise from biological connections alone; rather, it is an act affirming consciously chosen allegiances" (Heung 612-13).
In stories where the mother/daughter bond is broken by the mother's death, this loss is viewed as devastating and must be compensated for by the daughter's taking the place of the mother or finding mother substitutes. Josephine, in "1937," is taught early in life the importance of a mother and need to belong to a history of women: "Manman had taken my hand and pushed it into the river, no further than my wrist…. With our hands in the water, Manman spoke to the sun. ‘Here is my child, Josephine. We were saved from the tomb of this river when she was still in my womb. You spared us both, her and me, from this river where I lost my mother.’" She joins the yearly All Saint's Day pilgrimage to Massacre River with the women who had lost their mothers there:
My mother would hold my hand tightly as we walked toward the water. We were all daughters of that river, which had taken our mothers from us. Our mothers were the ashes and we were the light. Our mothers were the embers and we were the sparks. Our mothers were the flames and we were the blaze … The river was the place where it had all begun. "At least I gave birth to my daughter on the night that my mother was taken from me," she would say. "At least you came out at the right moment to take my mother's place."
The narrator of "Between the Pool and the Gardenias" reiterates the idea of the loss of a mother and importance of the link with past generations: "For no matter how much distance death tried to put between us, my mother would often come to visit me … There were many nights when I saw some old women leaning over my bed. ‘That there is Marie,’ my mother would say. ‘She is now the last one of us left.’" As exemplified in this story, Danticat locates subjectivity in the maternal and employs it as a axis between the past and the present.
Other daughters feel the need to complete the work their mothers had left undone. Emilie, in "The Missing Peace," comes to Ville Rose to search for her mother, a journalist who disappeared while on assignment in the area. Part of her pursuit involves an attempt to bond with her lost mother by fulfilling one of her dreams: "I am going to sew [the small pieces of cloth] onto that purple blanket…. All her life, my mother's wanted to sew some old things together into that piece of purple cloth." Her search parallels that of Lamort, named because her mother died when she was born: "‘They say a girl becomes a woman when she loses her mother,’ [Emilie] said. ‘You, child, were born a woman.’" An epiphany comes for both women as they are forced to face and accept the loss of their mothers: "I became a woman last night…. I lost my mother and all my other dreams", Emilie says. Lamort will take her mother's name, Marie Magdalène, as her rightful heritage. Though these stories reflect loss and a sense of a lack of affiliation, the overwhelming movement is toward reconciliation and pertinence, confirming the necessity and the possibility of seeking connection even after death.
Occasions in which communication between mother and child is obstructed result in confusion and unnecessary hurt. Two stories that mirror each other present the mother leading a secret life that her offspring does not know about. "Night Women," set in Haiti, is a mother's monologue as she gazes at her sleeping son. "There are two kinds of women: day women and night women. I am stuck between the day and night in a golden amber bronze", she says. Corollary to this, the story entitled "New York Day Women" has a daughter watching, unobserved, as her mother makes her way from her home in Brooklyn to Madison Avenue where in Central Park she cares for a young child while his Yuppie mother goes jogging: "This mother of mine, she stops at another hot-dog vendor and buys a frankfurter that she eats on the street. I never knew that she ate frankfurters … Day women come out when nobody expects them." Both stories emphasize the different worlds that mothers and children inhabit while linking the mothers. Furthermore, issues of race and class oppression suggested in both stories serve as factors that complicate maternal relationships because they lead the mothers to find ways of surviving or of asserting independence that they cannot, or will not, share with their children. The second story also suggests that the rift between mother and daughter may be brought about by attitudes towards immigration. Exile, which implies the loss of an original place, banishes belonging to memory and often causes dissociation from both the old ways and the new home. The process of diasporic self-formation is presented here through the growing distance between mother and daughter who struggle to define new identities and decide what to keep and what to relinquish.
This theme recurs in "Caroline's Wedding," where conflict centers on the American-born daughter's impending marriage with a Bahamanian and her mother's reactions to it. Gracina, the daughter born in Haiti, tries to serve as buffer between the two points of view. She understands her mother's dreams: "Ma wanted Eric to officially come and ask her permission to marry her daughter. She wanted him to bring his family to our house and have his father ask her blessing. She wanted Eric to kiss up to her, escort her around, buy her gifts, and shower her with compliments. Ma wanted a full-blown church wedding. She wanted Eric to be Haitian." For Caroline, the old country's rules do not determine her obligations nor her mother's authority. The traditional role of a Haitian mother has been greatly curtailed in America, and the mother has had to learn to deal with daughters whose way of life is American: "When we were children, whenever we rejected symbols of Haitian culture, Ma used to excuse us with great embarrassment and say, ‘You know, they are American.’ Why didn't we like the thick fatty pig skin that she would deep-fry so long that it tasted like rubber. We were Americans and we had no taste buds. A double tragedy." "In Haiti, you own your children and they find it natural", their mother would say, which explains her sense of loss at what she considers abandonment by her younger daughter. The relationships between the mother and daughters in this Haitian American family underline some of the cross-generational and cross-cultural conflicts typical of ethnic texts. At the end of the story, the relationship will rest on the daughters' recognition of the value of the mother's establishment of community that provides them with the resources they need to survive on their own.
There is an obsessive need to find and establish familial and historical connections with other Haitians. Because "Ma says all Haitians know each other", the community in America survives. The immigrants experience continued and profound nostalgia for the lost home though their children chaff at the extent of this loyalty: "Twenty years we have been saving all kinds of things for the relatives in Haiti. I need a place in the garage for an exercise bike." The song "Beloved Haiti, there is no place like you, I had to leave you before I could understand you" is sung by the refugees in the first story and listened to on the radio in the last.
In consequence, history also becomes a protagonist in Krik? Krak! as stories set in Haiti directly or indirectly involve historical events. "1937," for instance, centers on the Dominican Republic's dictator Rafael Trujillo's massacre of Haitians at the river separating Haiti from the Dominican Republic. Furthermore, Danticat has commented that the original title of the first story was "From the Ocean Floor" but that she decided to change it to "Children of the Sea" to emphasize the link to the Middle Passage. "It's a very powerful image—from the ocean floor," she explains. "No one knows how many people were lost on The Middle Passage. There are no records or graves—and the ocean floor is where our fossils are. The journey from Haiti in the 1980s is like a new middle passage. Not to romanticize it, but the comforting thing about death is that somehow all these people will meet. I often think that if my ancestors are at the bottom of the sea, then I too am a part of that. So we are all children of the sea" (Shea 12). Gracina, in "Caroline's Wedding," reflects on this ancient belief that links Haitians: "There are people in Ville Rose, the village where my mother is from in Haiti, who believe that there are special spots in the sea where lost Africans who jumped off the slave ships still rest, that those who died at sea have been chosen to make that journey in order to be reunited with their long-lost relations." The death of the people in the refugee boat in the first story will establish historical links, forging a community of Haitians that includes not only those alive in the present time but also those lost in the past.
Though the stories in Krik? Krak! have a continuity derived from recurrent themes and motifs, they are more profoundly linked by a spiritual vision where the bonds between women are imperative for survival. The most vivid metaphor for interconnections, echoes, and blending appears with Danticat's image of braids in the final section, "Epilogue: Women Like Us," a meditative finale to the nine stories. "When you write," she says, "it's like braiding your hair. Taking a handful of coarse unruly strands and attempting to bring them unity." Danticat uses this ritualistic image to illustrate the inseparable strands of history and the need for community:
Your mother, she introduced you to the first echoes of the tongue that you now speak when at the end of the day she would braid your hair while you sat between her legs, scrubbing the kitchen pots…. When she was done, she would ask you to name each braid after those nine hundred and ninety-nine women who were boiling in your blood, and since you had written them down and memorized them, the names would come rolling off your tongue. And this was your testament to the way that these women lived and died and lived again.
The persona in the epilogue pays tribute to what she calls "Kitchen Poets," those voices "urging you to speak through the blunt tip of your pencil." The storytelling tradition, essential for the transmission of lives and cultures, strengthens the connections between women:
With every step you take, there is an army of women watching over you. We are never any farther than the sweat on your brows or the dust on your toes … you have never been able to escape the pounding of a thousand other hearts that have outlived yours by thousands of years. And over the years when you have needed us, you have always cried ‘Krik?’ and we have answered ‘Krak!’ and it has shown us that you have not forgotten us.
The use of the second-person narrator implicates the reader/listener, inviting her to participate in the storytelling act, commisioning her, as with many of the characters, with the task of telling, of participating in the process of creating and preserving community though narrative.
Considering the urgency and implications of the identity politics within which Danticat works and her awareness of the dynamics of the culturally diverse audience of her story, her innovative use of narrative perspective in the concluding section of her cycle further challenges the construct of a monolithic "you." Ethnic writers who use the second-person address are aware that "assumptions that white middle and upper class audiences bring to the act of reading are thus foregrounded and exposed—particularly the insidious assumption that they are, ‘naturally,’ the universal you addressed by the text" (Richardson 323-24). Opening up a possibility for the narratee, the second-person point of view also opens up a possibility for the reader. The use of the narrative "you" becomes one of the more interesting facets of literary theory and criticism because, while in standard fiction the protagonist/narratee is quite distinct from the actual or implied reader, this mode of narration often collapses this distinction because the "you" could refer to the reader as well.
Danticat's epilogue to her short story cycle forces the reader to face the experience of cultural betweenness and choices in the manner that implicates most directly, pulling her into the drama and suggesting that this is, more than just a Haitian-American story and dilemma, everyone's as well. Although the oral community figured in Krik? Krak! is clearly distinct from the mass readership in the US and European markets, Danticat, by identifying and contesting the assumed "you," generates a widening of discursive space, where more and more diverse voices may be heard and similarly plural subjectivities may be addressed. This concluding strategy is Danticat's tour de force, the final touch to the integration of theme and technique, as she weaves the formal strands of oral narrative and story cycle with the contextual telling of women's lives, expanding the reach of the stories and drawing more people into the experience.
This short story cycle, as a discourse on ethnic self-definition has recollections or personal experiences of Haiti as an important aspect of the creation of self. The questions the characters ask themselves are answered through narratives that, in reflecting the form of the oral narrative, articulate almost epic tales of survivors. Edwidge Danticat has turned to roots—family, community, and ethnicity—as a source of personal identity and creative expression. The manner in which she, like other ethnic writers, has appropriated the short story cycle as a metaphor for the fragmentation and multiplicity of ethnic lives is itself an articulation of the process towards ethnic self-identification. The subsequent narrative, in turning to past forms of narration and reflecting a tendency towards a hybrid form, provides enriching glimpses of societies in the process of transformation and growth. The vivid dream and aspiration that remains at the end of the book is succinctly proclaimed by Josephine: "I raised my head toward the sun thinking, one day I may just see my mother there. ‘Let her flight be joyful,’ I said to Jacqueline. ‘And mine and yours too.’"
Source: Rocio G. Davis, "Oral Narrative as Short Story Cycle: Forging Community in Edwidge Danticat's Krik? Krak!," in MELUS, Vol. 26, No. 2, Summer 2001, pp. 65-80.
In the following review, Danticat's collection Krik? Krak! is praised as "well told and dramatic." Wylie also notes that the author's work places particular focus on "parental stories" passed on to instill "essential values."
Edwidge Danticat is a major new talent who combines her Haitian heritage with her first-class American education to produce stories that transcend the quest for Haitian identity to scrutinize the modern world. Born in Haiti in 1969, she spent her first twelve years in the new Haiti of violence and horror, before moving to New York City. The emotions of her childhood made her a published writer by age fourteen, and seem to have sharpened her vision.
Danticat is not the first Haitian to write in English, but she is the first to gain attention. Her hybrid nature reflects the no-longer-isolated Haiti that has emerged as a pivotal crossroads of the Third World, with large diasporas of Haitians living in New York, Canada, and France. Danticat is representative of the new immigrant literatures. Her characters are haunted by their mixed culture but often are able to transcend the problem and find ways to cope. Perhaps this is true because the lines of communication between mothers and daughters (and other relatives) remain open, even when major conflicts emerge. Danticat and her daughter protagonists are good at exploring their heritage, tradition, and current situation to locate central values.
Krik? Krak! consists of nine stories, the last almost a novella. The first five are more fictional, more sensational, and sketch in the major aspects of Haiti's social situation today: the boat people, the misery and violence, the Macoutes. They are well told and dramatic. However, I prefer the last four, which are more autobiographical. Here the author's power of transforming small everyday realities into "story," are most clearly visible; the directly observed seems more universal, the stories more gripping.
The last story "Caroline's Wedding," is the longest and best. Recalling the family drama of Danticat's 1994 novel Breath, Eyes, Memory, (see WLT 69:2, p. 417), it is the most penetrating in exploring the psychology of assimilation. There are two daughters here, both resisting the domination of a tyrannical mother. The protagonist watches her sister break away while moderating the trauma. Caroline was born without a left forearm, an existential reality that increases the impact and credibility of the story as it is woven into the frame of cross-references. She likes to have her stub stroked, even though almost everybody is afraid of it. Her mother tells its story (she has lots of stories, which explain and justify reality): pregnant, she was arrested in a sweatshop raid and given a shot to tranquilize her in prison.
In all her works, Danticat focuses on the way parental stories pass on a heritage and mold the child's character.
Source: Hal Wylie, Review of Krik? Krak!, in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 1, Winter 1996, p. 224.
Danticat, Edwidge, "Caroline's Wedding," in Krik? Krak!, Soho Press, 1995, reprint, Vintage Press, 1996, pp. 155-216.
Eder, Richard, "Off the Island," in New York Times, March 21, 2004, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9507E0D6123EF9 (accessed October 20, 2006).
Fichtner, Margaria, "Author Edwidge Danticat Writes about Being Young, Black, Haitian, and Female," in Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, May 1, 1995.
Hart, Jordana, "Danticat's Stories Pulse with Haitian Heartbeat," in Boston Globe, July 19, 1995, "Living" section, p. 70.
Jamison, Laura, "The Exquisite Tales of Edwidge Danticat," in San Francisco Examiner, July 19, 1995, p. C.
Sheanin, Wendy, "Stories Resound with Haiti's Tragedy, Spirit," in San Francisco Chronicle, May 28, 1995, p. RV-4.
Wylie, Hal, "Haiti," in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 1, Winter 1996, pp. 224, 225.
Aristide, Jean-Bertrand, In the Parish of the Poor: Writings from Haiti, translated by Amy Wilentz, Orbis Books, 1990.
In this book, Aristide, a former president of Haiti, gives his view of the problems in Haiti and their possible solutions. The book has been used in classrooms to provoke discussions on social justice. It includes some of Aristide's sermons (he was once a Roman Catholic priest).
Chin, Pat, Gregory Dunkel, and Sara Flounders, Haiti: A Slave Revolution: 200 Years after 1804, International Action Center, 2004.
Haiti's slave revolution and its resistance to occupation and dictatorship are recounted through the art, poems, and essays collected in this anthology. Topics include Haiti's impact on the United States, the effects of U.S. embargoes against the country, and reasons given for occupation.
Farmer, Paul, The Uses of Haiti, Common Courage Press, 2005.
This book is an impassioned critique of U.S. policy in Haiti by a physician and anthropologist who at the time of publication had worked for twenty-five years in the country. Farmer traces the history of injustices in Haiti, from the eighteenth-century slave economy to the 1915 invasion by the U.S. Marines, and the subsequent U.S. support of dictators such as "Papa Doc" Duvalier.
Metraux, Alfred, Voodoo in Haiti, Pantheon, 1989.
Metraux describes the lives and rituals of the Haitian voodoo priests and investigates the origin and development of the religion.
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