Children of the Sea
Children of the Sea
Edwidge Danticat 1993
First published in the October, 1993, issue of Short Fiction by Women under the title “From the Ocean Floor,” “Children of the Sea” was also included in Edwidge Danticat’s 1995 short story collection Krik? Krak! The story of a young couple separated by political strife in Haiti, it received positive attention from critics as did the book, and the author quickly gained a reputation as one of the most promising writers in the United States. The tragic story, which concerns a doomed fate of a young couple, concerns many of the issues Danticat addresses in her other stories and in her novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, which was published in 1994.
A native of Haiti, Danticat writes almost exclusively about the country’s people, particularly its women, who during the 1980s suffered at the hands of a dictator, Papa Doc Duvalier, as well as from poverty and violence. The story was inspired by the author’s conversations with “boat people,” as the refugees are sometimes known, who had made their way to Providence, Massachusetts. “Children of the Sea” has been commended for the way in which it blends political concerns with the emotional lives of the characters, thereby putting a human face on the suffering that many Westerners have only read about in the newspapers. Written in the alternating viewpoints of the young man and woman, the reader experiences the situation from both characters’ perspectives. Through this technique, Danticat demonstrates the danger inherent in any choice a Haitian makes, whether it involves standing up to the government
and trying to gain political asylum in the United States, or complying with the regime’s demands even if it means betraying others through silence.
Brought up in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Edwidge Danticat has had firsthand experience with many of the harrowing events she relates in her stories. Danticat was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital city, on January 19, 1969. Four years later her parents immigrated to the United States, leaving their young daughter behind. She rejoined them in 1981, and the family settled in Brooklyn, New York. She felt somewhat like an outsider at school, and she took refuge in her isolation by writing about her homeland. As a teenager, she began writing the novel Breath, Eyes, Memory, which became her first published work in 1994.
Danticat’s parents wanted their daughter to become a nurse and sent her to a specialized high school in New York City, but by the time she graduated she had decided to concentrate on writing. She attended Barnard College in New York City, receiving her B.A. in 1990, and followed up with an M.F.A. in creative writing from Brown University in 1993. Breath, Eyes, Memory served as her master’s thesis and was received warmly by the critics. Krik? Krak!, the collection of short stories which includes “Children of the Sea” appeared in 1995 to similar acclaim. The collection was nominated for the National Book Award, and the author was named one of the best young American novelists by Granta magazine the following year.
In her short career, Danticat has been praised for her lyrical prose and has been compared to Alice Walker, the author of The Color Purple. Due to the fact that Danticat’s writing has thus far focused on the experiences of Haitians and Haitian-Americans, some have begun to see her as a spokesperson for that community. It is a role that makes the young author uncomfortable. As she told New York Times reporter Garry Pierre-Pierre, “I don’t really see myself as the voice for the Haitian-American experience. There are many. I’m just one.” Danticat lives in New York where she teaches creative writing at New York University.
The story opens with an unnamed narrator, a young Haitian revolutionary, thinking of his girlfriend. He is on a small boat that has set sail for Miami, Florida. He is going into exile because he is wanted by the Haitian government. These details are disclosed by the young woman, who is the second narrator of the story. While her lover has left the country, she remains behind with her mother and father. The man and woman tell their stories through a series of letters. Though they cannot mail these letters, they are writing to appease their loneliness while they are away from one another. When they are reunited, they will feel as if they have not been apart.
In Haiti the young man, a university student, was a member of a youth federation that protested the dictator and called for a new government. He fled the country when the secret police, known as the Tonton Macoutes, cracked down on his group. The other members have been killed by the army, and even more students were shot while demonstrating for the return of their friends’ bodies. One woman, Madan Roger, a neighbor of the young woman’s family, returned with only^the head of her son.
The young man speaks of the difficulties of life aboard the ship: the vomiting, the temperature changes, the lack of privacy, the shortage of food. He dreams that he has died and gone to heaven, only heaven is at the bottom of the sea. The young woman is also in heaven, but her father continues to keep them apart. The young woman’s father does not approve of their relationship, thinking that the young man was not good enough. Now that the young man is gone, the father is still afraid that his daughter’s connection with the revolutionaries will endanger their lives. One night soldiers beat Madan Roger in order to coerce her into naming her son’s associates. The young woman and her mother think the father should go to Madan Roger’s aid. But the father knows he can do nothing for his neighbor, and that it is impossible even to protect his own family. The father only wants to move to Ville Rose, which he thinks will be “civilization” compared to Port-au-Prince, a crowded and impoverished city.
On board the ship a young teenager named Celianne gives birth to a dead baby. The passengers gossip about her, saying her parents kicked her out for having an affair, but the truth is much worse. One night the secret police came to her house and forced her brother, a revolutionary, to have sex with their mother. The soldiers then raped Celianne and arrested her brother. She cut her face with a razor so no one would know who she was, and then she escaped on the boat. Because the boat is leaking, the passengers are forced to throw their belongings overboard but Celianne will not throw her baby into the water
In Ville Rose, the young woman’s family decides to be honest with each other. The young woman tells her father of her love for the young man. Her mother tells her that the Tonton Macoutes had intended to arrest her because of her involvement with a member of the youth federation. But when the father hears of the plan, he bribes them with all the money he has as well as the family’s house and land. The young woman does not know how to thank her father. On the radio, she hears her lover passed his university exams.
On board the ship everything is tossed overboard. Celianne throws her baby into the sea and then jumps in herself. The young man is forced to throw away his notebook. Before doing so, he writes the last page which contains his final thoughts. He knows he is about to join the “children of the sea,” those who have escaped slavery to live in a world away from the earth and sky, and away from all the violence. He knows that even in death he will always remember his girlfriend.
Right after the young woman thanks her father for saving her life, a black butterfly tells her the news about the boat. She hears on the radio that the soldiers are killing more people in Port-au-Prince, and she realizes that she cannot stay safely in Ville Rose forever. She sits under the banyan tree, which her mother tells her is holy, surrounded by black butterflies. She knows that the boat that sank off the coast of the Bahamas was her lover’s. From where she sits the sea is hidden by the mountains, but she knows it will always be there, endless, like her love for him.
Celianne is a young woman of fifteen who is on the boat with the first narrator. She is pregnant, rarely eats, and “stares in space all the time and rubs her stomach.” Celianne has been raped and impregnated by the soldiers who had come to her house to arrest her brother. During the voyage she gives birth to a girl who is stillborn. The child’s silence underscores the symbolism of her mother’s silence, which indicates that spiritually, Celianne is already dead. When she throws the baby’s body into the sea, she jumps in after it and drowns.
The male narrator’s words are the first in the story. The reader never learns his name, but he reveals his circumstance to the reader through his writings. He is at sea after having fled his homeland, and he has left behind the woman he loves. As the story unfolds, more is learned about the young man from the other narrator in the story. He has left Haiti because he was a member of the “Radio Six,” a group of young people who opposed the Haitian government and broadcast anti-government radio programs. He spends the entire duration of the story on a leaky boat escaping from Haiti to Florida.
The young man’s story is incomplete. The reader never learns his fate because he is forced to throw his diary, which contains his half of the story, overboard. The second narrator, the woman he has left behind, learns that another boat of refugees has been lost at sea. This strongly suggests that he has drowned.
The second narrator is a young woman who lives with her family in Haiti. She has been romantically involved with the young man on the boat, and as the story progresses she comes to understand how much she loves him. Her feelings are repressed because to love him would be dangerous and arouse the opposition of her father. She reveals little else about herself, but her presence in Haiti allows the reader to witness the tragedy inflicted upon the Haitian people by the dictatorial government. The fact that she simply relates these horrors with little emotion or reflection indicates how oppressed the country’s people are. Many of them have been numbed into submission. Near the end of the story, however, the narrator tells her father that she loves the young man, proof that the political situation has failed to suppress the human spirit completely. “I think he should know this about me,” she writes, “that I have loved someone besides only my mother and father in my life.” This realization indicates her psychological growth. At the end of the story, after fleeing the city for the relative safety of Ville Rose she realizes that the young man she loves has died at sea in his attempt to escape.
The young woman’s father is primarily concerned with the safety of his family. While the Tontons Macoutes threaten the neighbors and his wife urges him to intervene, he forces her to remain quiet. When he finds that his daughter has audiotapes of her boyfriend’s anti-government radio programs, he loses his temper with her because he fears for her safety. He leads his family to Ville Rose, where they are safer than in the city. Although he is opposed to his daughter’s involvement with the young man, he respects the young man’s convictions. The father represents the actions and beliefs of the majority of the Haitian people. He wants to cause no trouble, not because he supports or believes in the government, but because he is afraid his family may be tortured or killed by the regime.
“Children of the Sea” follows two Haitian narrators in the tumultuous days following the coup that deposed President Aristide.
Topics for Further Study
- Find some other examples of epistolary novels and stories. Do you think diaries fit into this category? In “Children of the Sea” and other epistolary works, do you think the format heightens or detracts from the work’s meaning?
- Investigate the role that the United States has played in Haitian politics during the 1980s and 1990s. What has been the United States’s foreign policy regarding the country and what has been done to enforce it? Do you think the U.S. government has acted appropriately?
- Research what happens to refugees from Haiti and other Caribbean countries when they come to the United States. Where do many of them decide to live? Why do you suppose they choose to settle where they do?
Justice and Injustice
One of the most important themes in “Children of the Sea” is justice. From the reader’s perspective, the overwhelming injustice of the narrators’ situation is highlighted by the events the author chooses to recount in the story. A totalitarian dictator has made his country an unbearable place to live. People are killed for disagreeing, for speaking publicly, and for trying to protect their families. Even when the young man is forced to flee for his life on a boat, injustice prevails. His fellow passengers are so bent upon survival that for them, the only question of “justice” is whether they should throw the sick people off the boat to save themselves. The harsh conditions on the boat seem no better than the world they had left behind. The story’s emotional power stems from its unrelenting portrayal of injustice that the reader understands to be more or less real.
Injustice prevails back home for the female narrator as well. The soldiers of Haiti rampage through the country, taking revenge on all the people who had opposed their authority during the short-lived Aristide administration. What they perceive as justice, however, is violent revenge that is manifested in murder, rape, and incest. The young woman’s father, no matter how strong his convictions, realizes that he cannot do little to prevail over the soldiers’ sense of “justice,” thus adding to the plight of the people by failing to come to the aid of his neighbor. Injustice is so pervasive and overwhelming in the society, that most have stopped assessing it and can do no more than try to save themselves.
“Children of the Sea,” though in many ways a love story, is essentially an example of political writing. The characters’ situations are forced upon them by the political situation of their country. Even simple acts, like the woman’s parents having supported Aristide while he was in power, now put them in danger. In this way, Danticat uses storytelling to protest the injustice of a totalitarian regime. She wants readers to identify with her characters and be urged to feel outrage for the injustice they suffer. She also demonstrates how politics can become the most important factor in a person’s life: politics can separate you from the ones you love, they can determine where you live, how your parents act toward you, and whether you live or die.
Violence and Cruelty
The cruelty and vengeance of the military government of Haiti forms the backdrop of “Children of the Sea.” The Tonton Macoutes, the private army of the Duvalier regime that specialized in torture, public terror, and oppression, run wild in the streets after Aristide, the democratically elected president of Haiti, is forced out in a military coup. Aristide supporters are hunted down and killed, and members of a protest group known as the “Youth Federation” are particularly in danger, though they have committed no violent acts themselves. However, no one is safe, as the second narrator informs us when she discusses the soldiers’ violent practices and the bodies that lie in the streets. The soldiers rape Celianne, a cruel act that begets more violence when Celianne disfigures herself, then again when she commits suicide. On the boat, the cruelty that has forced the refugees to flee again manifests itself when they consider getting rid of the weaker people on the boat. Violence results in more violence, Danticat shows. By comparing the refugees, soon to drown, to the African slaves hundreds of years ago, themselves forced from their homeland through violence and cruelty, Danticat connects the horrific acts of the past to those of the present. Like the sea, which is “endless,” and like the young woman’s love for the drowned man, violence is shown also to be timeless.
Related to the themes of violence and politics is the issue of human rights. The Western concept of human rights includes the right to free speech, to organize, to believe in democracy and religion, and not to live in fear from the government, among other things. The list of rights violated by the Tonton Macoutes in “Children of the Sea” encompasses almost every conceivable outrage. Their repression results in a culture of fear and powerlessness among the Haitians, where even the young woman’s declaration of love for a political activist is in itself a political act. The Haitian people’s right to protest, to be safe in their own homes, and to speak freely has been eliminated in the face of the Tonton Macoutes’ cruelty. Less apparent in the story, but providing an ominous undertone, is the realization that had the boat actually reached Miami, the refugees most likely would not have been granted political asylum by the United States, an act that some would also consider a violation of human rights.
Point of View and Narration
“Children of the Sea” is narrated in the first person by two distinct voices. The first belongs to a young man who is fleeing Haiti on a leaky boat. The second voice is that of the man’s lover, a young woman who remains in Haiti with her family. The story is written in the form of letters from each of the characters to the other, a style known as “epistolary,” which is derived from the ancient Greek word meaning “message” or “letter.” To underscore the danger of their respective situations, neither of the characters refers to each other by name. To do so would jeopardize their lives even more. Through their letters, which cannot be mailed, the reader learns of the characters’ deepest thoughts, the ones they are afraid to voice.
The characters’ personalities are revealed by how they write and what they choose to write about. The man on the boat is primarily concerned with his current predicament and writes about the people around him and the experience of being at sea. The woman, conversely, remains in Port-au-Prince and tends to reminisce about the past more, since her situation is not as dire. Through her memories, the reader learns many of the background details of the story. The difference in their personalities is shown by the way each of them discusses their relationship. The young man speaks naturally about their intimacy; the woman is more shy and hesitating. This difference may also represent the cultural attitudes of their country.
The two settings in the story, the middle of the sea and the island of Haiti, underscore the conflict in the story—that a couple in love has been separated by political upheaval. Across this distance there is no connection between the two main characters. Their separation has been absolute, though they try to bridge the gap with letters. But even these letters will never be read by the other person. Thus, the distance between the two lovers heightens the feeling of pathos (a sense of suffering) that permeates the story.
“Children of the Sea” relies on a number of symbols for its narrative power; most notably is the sea itself. The man dreams of the sea as heaven. When the people of the boat drown, they join the hundreds of other slaves who have died and become “children of the sea.” They are martyrs of a sort, and in the Christian tradition martyrs—those who die for their beliefs—go to heaven.
Another symbol is Celianne’s stillborn baby. Conceived by violence it is born dead, symbolizing that fact that cruelty does not beget life. The baby could also represent the crushed Aristide democracy, which was quelled by the military coup almost from the moment it began. In another symbolic interpretation, the dead child could also be said to represent the young couple’s doomed relationship. Their love has forged an alliance between them, but political strife has torn them apart, effectively aborting their chance for happiness together. In an instance of foreshadowing, Celianne drowns herself when forced to abandon her dead child. This hints at the impending tragedy in which the rest of the passengers will drown. Again, this action symbolizes that the violence inflicted upon Celianne by the Tonton Macoutes has not only resulted in the death of her child, but also her own death. Not only does cruelty not beget life, Danticat demonstrates, it frequently begets more cruelty.
At the end of the story the woman sits under a banyan tree, itself a symbol of holiness, and is surrounded by butterflies. Though they are black, a color that frequently represents death, the butterflies may also represent a bittersweet hope of eventual freedom. Love is endless, the young woman realizes, like the sea. But the sea, like love, is hidden from view by the mountains. She and others, symbolically then, will need to move mountains to see heaven—the sea—with their own eyes. The woman at this point, after publicly declaring her love for the man to her parents, represents the country’s best hope for the restoration of justice.
Haiti: The Early Years
Although Danticat had been living in the United States for fourteen years by the time “Children of the Sea” was first published, the story draws upon her experience of having spent her early years in Haiti. With generations of experience in poverty, dictatorship, and oppression, Haiti’s population knows hardship well. “Children of the Sea” takes place in the turbulent mid-1980s, when the longstanding Duvalier dictatorship was toppled, and people’s brief hopes for democracy were dashed by the military government which succeeded the dictator.
Haiti shares a large island in the Caribbean Sea with the Dominican Republic. In 1492, Christopher Columbus landed on this island, which he named Hispaniola, and found what he believed was an earthly paradise. In the seventeeth century, the French and the Spanish divided the island between them. Spain received the eastern half, which later became the Dominican Republic, and France took the western half. The French landowners used many Africans as slaves on their plantations, which produced sugar, indigo, coffee, and cotton. In the 1790s, a black ex-slave named Toussaint Louverture led a revolution, and by 1801 the country had gained its independence and was the world’s first black republic.
Papa Doc and the Tonton Macoutes
However, for the next two centuries the country suffered from extreme poverty and misrule, and it was even occupied by United States Marines for twenty years in the early twentieth century. In 1957 a man named Francois Duvalier took power and ruled for fourteen years. Duvalier was known as
Compare & Contrast
- 1980s: Before the fall of communism, the United States largely bases its foreign policy on a country’s relationship with the Soviet Union. Especially in Latin America, the U.S. government supports corrupt dictatorships in Guatemala, Chile, and the Dominican Republic, simply because they are not communist.
1990s: Communism is no longer viewed as a threat to Western-style democracy, and American foreign policy reflects this shift. Dictators like Manuel Noriega of Panama are deposed because of their involvement in drug trafficking, and democratically elected leaders like Aristide are restored to power.
- Haiti in the 1980s: The country’s infant mortality rate is 124 per thousand.
United States in the 1980s: The country’s infant mortality rate is 31 per thousand.
- Haiti in the 1980s: The average life expectancy is 48 years.
United States in the 1980s: The average life expectancy is 72 years.
“Papa Doc” because he had practiced medicine before going into politics. He was a brutal ruler who jailed or killed his opponents and stole money from ordinary Haitians and from the international aid funds that gave money to the country. The United States government supported Duvalier because he was not a communist.
Papa Doc had his own private army called the Tonton Macoutes, whose responsibility was to keep an eye on dissenters. The name comes from the Creole term meaning “Uncle Knapsack.” Creole, a combination of French and African dialects, is the language spoken by the people of Haiti. “Uncle Knapsack” refers to a monster in Haitian folklore who steals children from their parents and hides them in his knapsack. The Tonton Macoutes wanted the people of Haiti to fear them, so they chose a name that would inspire horror in anyone familiar with the folk tale. There was good reason to fear the Tonton Macoutes, for they would often kill people or burn their houses for no reason other than to remind people that they were in charge.
Baby Doc and Revolution
After Papa Doc died in 1971, his son Jean-Claude (known as Baby Doc) assumed power. Baby Doc maintained control over the country and continued to live the rich and lavish lifestyle to which his family and friends had been accustomed. While the people of Haiti starved, Jean-Claude and his wife entertained lavishly and spent much time out of the country on vacations in Europe or the United States. Those who protested the unequal distribution of wealth were killed by the Tonton Macoutes. As a result of Haiti’s poverty and violence, many Haitians began to leave the country and look for a better life in the Bahamas, Jamaica, or the United States.
In 1985, however, things began to fall apart for Duvalier. During a student demonstration in the impoverished city of Gonaives, the Tonton Macoutes shot into the crowd, killing four teenagers. This angered the people greatly, and demonstrations soon began all across the country. Radio stations, some affiliated with the Catholic Church and some illegal, broadcast anti-government programs. As Duvalier intensified the repression, the United States withdrew its support. Duvalier fled to France in January, 1986, and the army assumed power. The Haitian people were ecstatic.
The army officers who took over, though, were less than the embodiment of democracy. Many of them had been close to Duvalier and were more interested in assuming power themselves than in improving conditions in the country. The Tonton Macoutes were officially disbanded, but many of them continued to terrorize the country. Thousands of Haitians began to leave the country, fleeing to Miami on small boats. Many of these refugees died at sea.
Aristide and the Refugees
In 1990 the country was again racked by anti-government demonstrations, and the military government was forced to hold elections. Jean-Ber-trand Aristide, a priest who had worked extensively with Haiti’s poor, was elected president. However, he only served eight months before the military overthrew him and forced him to flee to the United States.
The Haitian exodus, temporarily stemmed by public enthusiasm for Aristide, returned in full force. The United States told Haiti that all refugees would be “repatriated,” or sent back to Haiti, but the desperate people continued to come. Many people felt that America’s refusal to accept Haitian refugees was hypocritical. They held that the United States welcomed refugees from Cuba because they were being saved from communism. Conditions in Haiti were just as bad or worse than in Cuba, the Haitians claimed, and they should be granted political amnesty as well, or they would surely die.
After much public pressure, President Clinton sent troops to Haiti in 1994 to restore President Aristide to office. The military leaders who ran Haiti left the country and Aristide returned in October. Although Haiti continues to be the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, there is much hope among Haitians that real democracy will soon improve their lives. Outside of Haiti, too, the question of justice is raised. In addition to the repression in their country, Haitian refugees are not welcomed in any country. The United States, well-known as a haven for refuge-seekers, turns the Haitians back at sea while they welcome Cubans. In the Bahamas, a woman tells the first narrator in “Children of the Sea,” “they treat Haitians like dogs. To them, we are not human. . . even though we had the same African fathers who probably crossed these same seas together.”
The collection Krik? Krak!, in which “Children of the Sea” appeared, garnered impressive reviews by critics. The title of the book comes from the Haitian tradition of the storyteller who asks the audience “Krik?” to see if anyone wants to hear a story. The reply, “Krak!” indicates that audience’s enthusiasm and willingness to listen. In many reviews, “Children of the Sea” has been singled out as one of Danticat’s most poignant and effective stories. Like most of her work, it concerns the lives of ordinary Haitians and bears witness to the tragedies she witnessed firsthand as a child living in the country. Danticat tells Renee Shea in Poets and Writers that the story is about the “need to be remembered.” Some of the refugees Danticat had spoken with following their arrival in the United States, particularly the women, “feared that no one would know they had been alive, no one would speak of them” had they drowned in the sea during their voyage.
Joanne Omang in Washington Post Book World calls the story “virtually flawless” and states that “All the island’s troubles are braided seemlessly into these letters.” Likewise, Kimberly Hebert calls it Krik? Krak!’s “most powerful story” in a review for Quarterly Black Review. Shea writes in Belles Lettres that the story is “stunning in the power of both the tale and language.” She elaborates that Danticat changed the title to emphasize the Middle Passage of the slave ships and quotes the author: “That journey from Haiti in the 1980s is like a new middle passage. . . . I often think that if my ancestors are at the bottom of the sea, then I too am a part of that.”
Rena Korb has a master’s degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers. In the following essay, she discusses the imagery in “Children of the Sea.”
At the age of twenty-six, young for a writer, Edwidge Danticat has many honors credited to her name. Aside from publishing two books, the novel Breath, Eyes, Memory and a collection of short stories, Krik? Krak!, she has also received much critical acknowledgment. Her novel earned her recognition by the New York Times as one of the “thirty young artists to watch,” and it was nominated for a National Book Award in 1995. Krik? Krak! drew as many rave reviews; Publishers Weekly
writes that it “confirm[s] Danticat’s reputation as a remarkably gifted writer.”
Danticat, who emigrated from Haiti to the United States when she was twelve years old, writes about life in her country and its people. The Haiti that emerges from Danticat’s fiction is the one in which she grew up, a country under the rule of dictators Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude, known as “Baby Doc.” The Duvaliers governed Haiti by dint of oppression and cruelty. Their brutal secret police—the Tonton Macoutes—committed many atrocities against the Haitian people. The Duvalier regime was not overthrown until 1986, but the political situation suffered upheaval until well into the 1990s.
Haitian writers from the mid-1940s on have often found themselves, like Danticat, far from home. Given the restrictive and violent dictatorship that has controlled Haiti and its people, many Haitian writers have not been allowed to express themselves freely in their own country. Danticat, even though she lives in the United States, has stated that she doubted not only her ability to write, but she also had the feeling that it might be a dangerous profession. A strong part of the culture, however, is its tradition of storytelling. The title of Danticat’s collection bears witness to her rich heritage of storytelling and is explained in the epigram: “We tell the stories so that the young ones will know what came before them. They say Krik? We say Krak! Our stories are kept in our hearts.”
Danticat follows in another tradition: that of writers from other cultures living in the United States who give voice to the sorrows and the joys that have shaped their experiences. The works of Jamaica Kincaid, who was born in Antigua, highlight the anger that West Africans feel about their past enslavement. Toni Morrison, though born in the United States, explores the issue of oppression through the institution of slavery. Perhaps most similar to Danticat’s writings are those of Julia Alvarez, whose family fled from the Trujillo dictatorship and the Dominican Republic. Alvarez, like Danticat, revisits her homeland in her work and describes the horrors of living under a regime of terror and examines how the bonds of family are perhaps strengthened by such circumstances.
Some of the power of Danticat’s fiction lies in its shocking subject matter; she often depicts violent death, incest, rape, and extreme poverty. Danticat fills her stories with characters who exist within a painful external world. Like Haitian writers who
What Do I Read Next?
- Breath, Eyes, Memory(1994), Danticat’s novel about four generations of Haitian women as they struggle in their homeland and in the United States. Told through the eyes of Sophie Caco, the novel has been commended for its lyrical prose which counterpoints its dire subject matter.
- How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents(1991) by Julia Alvarez, a native of the Dominican Republic. Four young sisters arrive in the United States from the Dominican Republic and become increasingly Americanized as they grow up. Now adults, each one comes to term with her heritage and learns to integrate it with her identity.
- Reef(1995) by Romesh Gunesekera, a coming-of-age novel also praised for its lyricism despite its stark political backdrop. A poor houseboy on the island of Ceylon, soon to become Sri Lanka, learns to appreciate the simplicity of life.
- Brown Girl, Brownstones(1959) by Paule Marshall, an author whose influence Danticat has praised. A girl whose parents are from Barbados struggles amidst the poverty of Brooklyn to find her identity.
- The Comedians by Graham Greene, a novel about the Duvalier regime and its attack dogs, the Tonton Macoutes, which was banned in Haiti immediately upon publication.
have come before her, Danticat battles against the despair of the past and the pain of exile while also describing a culture in which people learn, love, and laugh. Despite growing up in a society which often seeks to silence women, Danticat has found her voice. She has found a way to tell the stories of her country’s men and women and in a modern voice that brings attention to the problems of the past.
“Children of the Sea,” the first story in the collection Krik? Krak!, tells of young lovers separated by the political situation. He is a revolutionary who has been forced to flee Haiti on a small, rickety boat or risk his life at the hands of Duvalier’s secret police. The young woman he wants to marry remains with her family in Haiti where she continues to witness the ever-present horrors. The hero of the story, who is never given a name, epitomizes the choice that so many Haitians have faced over the years: exile or imprisonment. The heroine, also nameless, exemplifies the people who stay behind but must pay the price of silence.
The story is in the epistolary style, which means that it is written as a series of letters between the two main characters. Though they cannot send these letters, their telling of stories in the “Krik? Krak!” method lessens the pain of separation for them. “When we see each other again, it will seem like we lost no time,” one of them writes. Expressing their stories through writing rather than speaking also symbolizes their political oppression, since their separation is caused by their inability to speak freely in Haiti. The exchange of ideas must be secretive. The Haitians understand this and break their code of silence only when secrecy loses its power to affect change. The mother tells her daughter “sometimes you have to choose between your father and the man you love” after the young man has gone into exile. Conversely, Madan Roger holds on to her secret and never reveals the names of her dead son’s associates to the secret police. The young woman, while not hiding her relationship with the young man, does not tell her father of their love until the issue has become moot. Even when she does speak the truth, her father does not acknowledge the secret: “he looked me straight in the eye and said nothing to me. . . papa just turned his face away like he was rejecting my very birth.” The young man is the only person who cannot keep his thoughts to himself. His involvement with a revolutionary group, “the Radio Six,” provided him with a forum where “we could talk about what we wanted from government,
“Given the restrictive and violent dictatorship that has controlled Haiti and its people, many Haitian writers have not been allowed to express themselves freely in their own country,”
what we wanted for the future of our country.” Though he escaped from Haiti, he will die because of his boldness.
The young woman’s father is the person who best understands the importance of secrecy. He wants his daughter to get rid of her radio show tapes because they would incriminate her. When Madan Roger is attacked by the secret police, he refuses to go to her aid because he knows he cannot protect anyone. While he is presented as a man too willing to submit to the injustices of Duvalier’s regime—“you can let them kill somebody because you are afraid, they are the law. it is their right,” he says—he does have a reason for being so paralyzed. The mother tells the daughter that the Tonton Macoutes were “going to peg [her] as a member of the youth federation and then take [her] away.” To save his daughter’s life, the father bribed them with the family’s money, home, and property. Her lover, unable to keep secrets, sacrifices himself to his beliefs. But her father, who keeps even this a secret, “gave everything he had” to save someone else. While the father is willing to find a way to live in Haiti, the young man, though he does not “want to be a martyr,” cannot keep his feelings to himself. The young woman is torn by the polar opposites the two men represent. At first she feels frustration at her lack of self-determination and her separation from her lover; then she takes out this frustration on her father instead of on the true culprit, Duvalier. After she learns of her lover’s death, however, she gets ready to take on a more active role in her future as she acknowledges “i don’t know what’s going to happen, but i cannot see staying here forever.”
A young pregnant girl traveling on the same boat as the revolutionary further represents the dilemma of secrecy. The other passengers speculate that Celianne was thrown out by her parents for having an affair, but the truth is far worse. Her baby is the result of being raped by the Tonton Macoutes. Immediately afterward, Celianne “cut her face with a razor so that no one would know who she was”; her desire to keep her secret is so strong that she is even willing to destroy her identity. Like the young woman’s father, Celianne keeps silent about her experiences, allowing the people of Haiti to cast blame on her rather than on the oppressive regime. But unlike the young man, she did nothing to bring her fate upon herself; even though she was innocent, she pays the cost of keeping her secret with her life. The only alternatives for Haitians, represented by Celianne and the revolutionary, both can lead to death. In the face of such options, it makes more sense to give up the secrets in hopes of creating a society in which such secrets will no longer exist.
As the lives of Haitians play themselves out against this backdrop of secrecy, it is fitting that the hidden world of the sea becomes the only place where the lovers can be together, at least spiritually. For the young man, the sea increasingly welcomes him. While he had first imagined he was “going to start having nightmares once we get deep at sea,” he instead dreams of dying and going to heaven and heaven is at the bottom of the sea. By the time the ship is about to sink, however, he knows he will “live life eternal, among the children of the deep blue sea, those who have escaped the chains of slavery.” With these words he draws the link between Haitians under Duvalier’s regime and the Africans who were forced from their homeland centuries ago. His speeches have hinted at this connection—“Yes, I am finally an African” because the sun has darkened his skin, the passengers go to the bathroom “the same way they did on those slave ships years ago”—but only when he has finally given himself to the idea of death does he accept that he has been “chosen” for this destiny because it is the only way to escape oppression. The sea is a vast, open space, and though it is far away from the young woman, they both know the sea is “endless like my love for you.”
Source: Rena Korb, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.
Hart comments on the influence of Haiti on Danticat’s fiction, mentioning “Children of the Sea.”
More than anything else, the storytelling of the young Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat has given the world honest and loving portraits of Haitian people, both on the island and in the United States. She has smashed the numbing stereotypes created by a barrage of media accounts of Haitian poverty, misery and death.
Danticat’s debut novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, garnered international acclaim last year. In her new book, a collection of nine short stories called Krik? Krak!, she draws on her experience growing up in dictatorial Haiti as well as stories of Creole culture and myth.
Danticat, 26, a teller of stories in the truest sense, takes us heart-pounding into a breathtaking Haiti, whose culture and people are so often diminished, even disfigured, in the writings of those who do not know and love the island.
Of course, Danticat cannot avoid placing her tales within the brutal world of the tonton macoutes, Haiti’s former thuggish soldiers, and the oppressive political system that until recently pushed tens of thousands of Haitians to flee the island by vessel—often only to meet their death or internment in a Florida camp.
It is the details of everyday life, however, the depth of her characters and Danticat’s own love and respect for her culture that make her stories at once disturbing yet beguiling.
Like her first novel, these stories are mostly told from the perspective of women: her mother, whom she follows unseen along a New York City street only to find out she is a ’day woman,’ a nanny caring for a white child; a young wife deeply in love with her husband, who kills himself by jumping out of a hot-air balloon because he’s despondent that he cannot raise his family out of poverty.
Danticat tells a couple of her best stories in two voices. The first one, “Children of the Sea,” is told by a young woman and also by a politically active young man, her would-be lover, who is fleeing Haiti with 36 other “deserting souls” in a rickety boat. He writes to her about the experience in a journal:
Once you have been at sea a couple of days, it smells like every fish you have ever eaten, every crab you have ever caught, every jelly fish that has ever bitten your leg. I am so tired of the smell. I am also tired of the way people on this boat are starting to stink. The pregnant girl, Celianne, I don’t know how she takes it. She stares into space all the time and rubs her stomach.
With such detail, Danticat manages to place us in the midst of this terrifying voyage—the middle passage to the United States we have read about so often in news accounts—as the boat takes on water and the people are forced to throw even their most cherished belongings overboard to lighten the load. Celianne clutches her still-born infant to her chest, he says, refusing to give her up to the sea god, Agwe.
In “New York Day Women,” Danticat recounts with humor the intergenerational and cultural gaps that have developed between the older Haitian mother and her Americanized daughter, Suzette. The account is set off in unusual paragraphs, some only a sentence and statement long, as Suzette recalls her mother’s quirks.
“My mother. . . sews lace collars on my company Softball T-shirts when she does my laundry,” Suzette recounts.
“Why, you can’t look like a lady when you play softball?“—obviously a retort from her mother.
In “Nineteen Thirty-Seven,” a story wrapped in haunting folklore about winged women who escape a Dominican massacre, a girl visits her mother in a Port-au-Prince prison, jailed for life for being a “lougarou, witch, criminal.” The mother has been wrongly accused of killing a child with witchcraft.
Before the prisoners go to sleep, the guards force them to throw cups of cold water on one another so that their bodies cannot generate enough heat to grow “those wings of flames, fly away in the middle of the night, slip into the slumber of innocent children and steal their breath.”
In the storytelling tradition of Haiti, the children ask “Krik?” urging the stories to begin, and the elders reply “Krak!” and tell the fables “so that the young ones will know what came before them.” This is very much what Danticat, as a child and now as a writer, has done.
Source: Jordana Hart, “Danticat’s Stories Pulse with Haitian Heartbeat,” in The Boston Globe, July 19, 1995, p. 70.
Edwidge Danticat with Renee H. Shea
In the following interview, Danticat discusses the stories in her collection Krik! Krak!, including “Children of the Sea.”
This epigraph sets the stage and tone for the nine stories of the heart by Haitian-born Edwidge Danticat in her recent collection entitled Krik? Krak! In these tales of the politics and people of Haiti, past and present, on their island home and in newly formed immigrant communities, she lures us not simply to read but to participate in the tradition of Krik? Krak! that she remembers from childhood:
“Krik? Krak! is call-response but also it’s this feeling that you’re not merely an observer—you’re part of the story. Someone says, ’Krik?’ and as loud as you can you say, ’Krak!’ You urge the person to tell the story by your enthusiasm to hear it.”
So compelling are these stories, filled with the myth and poetry of Haiti, that as one ends, it is hard not to call out a resounding, “Krak!” to keep the momentum of Danticat’s storytelling going.
Taken individually, several stories are stunning in the power of both the tale and language. “Children of the Sea” is told as a dialogue between two young lovers—one on a boat bound for Miami, the other reporting from Haiti on the horrors wrought by the TonTon Macoutes. The young man reports the desperate life of himself and the “thirty-six other deserting souls on this little boat” and the story-within-the-story of Celianne. Pregnant after a gang rape by the TonTon Macoutes, Celianne fled her accusing family, and when she gives birth aboard the boat to a still-born child, she refuses to give it up. Finally forced to throw the baby overboard, she follows by jumping into the sea. The young woman’s story of her family’s struggle in Haiti, the increasing violence, and the lengths her father finally goes to protect her are counterpoint. The nightmarish reality of the TonTon Macoutes is challenged by the fierce love of the two young people; the unnamed he wonders, “Maybe the sea is endless. Like my love for you,” and she exclaims, “i love you until my hair shivers at the thought of anything happening to you.” The vividness of their “letters” belies the reality that only we can hear both voices. Will he survive? Will she? Will their written records?
What will survive is memory, a collective spirit that the young man speculates may be “life eternal, among the children of the deep blue sea, those who have escaped the chains of slavery to form a world beneath the heavens and the blood-drenched earth where you live.” Danticat changed the original title of this story, “From the Ocean Floor,” to “Children of the Sea” to emphasize the link to the Middle Passage:
“It’s a very powerful image—from the ocean floor. 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. That 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 part of that. So we are all children of the sea. There are no museums, no graves, really no place to visit—there’s a timelessness about it”. . .
“It’s so important for people to read things that somehow mirror their own experience. I remember when I was in junior high school and read Paule Marshall. Brown Girl, Brownstones was the first book that was similar to what we were going through. My father always had a desire to own property. He wanted to buy a house. We had to have something concrete, a piece of the country, a piece of the land—like the people in this novel: they wanted to have a brownstone. I had three brothers, and I’m the only girl. In most of my adolescence, that was okay, but I had to be in the kitchen with my mother, learning how to cook. Marshall’s essay on ’kitchen poets’ describes something very similar to when my mother’s sisters would come over—their talking, the way they said things, their faces. It was so beautiful! I used to resent being in the kitchen with them because I wanted to be with the boys, but then I read Marshall’s essay. She talks about doing her homework on the kitchen table while the women were talking about home, what was happening there, what they’re doing—and just sort of soaking it in. She called it ’kitchen poetry.’ After reading that, I didn’t resent so much being in the kitchen. I felt like part of a sisterhood, and I remember feeling then that I didn’t necessarily have to rebel.”. . .
Taken together, the stories in Krik? Krak! have a continuity derived from recurrent themes and motifs, yet they are more profoundly bound by a spiritual vision where “the warm sea air” and “the laughter of children” coexist with the painful history of slavery and more recent violence:
“My idea was to have a progression. The first story would be ’1937’ and the last, historically, ’Caroline’s Wedding.’ We also go from Haiti to the New York stories. My editor and I chose them with that idea in mind. Just naturally from writing the stories over several years, some of the characters recurred, so that came together too. But we ended up with a different order because my editor thought that “Children of the Sea’ is a story that’s easy to get into; also, it has ’krik? krak!’ in it, which introduces the idea of why to write the stories. The book was put together with the idea of the stories flowing together and complementing one another.”
Such interconnections, resonances, echoes, and blending are best described by Danticat’s own image of braids in the final selection, “Epilogue: Women Like Us,” a poetic coda to the nine stories:
“When you write, it’s like braiding your hair. Taking a handful of coarse unruly strands and attempting to bring them unity. Your fingers have still not perfected the task. Some of the braids are long, others are short. Some are thick, others are thin. Some are heavy. Others are light. Like the diverse women in your family. Those whose fables and metaphors, whose similes and soliloquies, whose diction and je ne sais quoi daily slip into your survival soup, by way of their fingers.”
Recurring characters are one connection: 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 Defile, the alleged lougarou in “1937.” When asked if not knowing Haitian myths and folklore makes it difficult to appreciate her work, Danticat calls on yet another connection in response:
“I think more of the depths of emotion. The stories deal with humanity and what we all go through. Different people will walk away learning different things; there’ll be differences even among people from Haiti.”
Generations of women strengthen these connections. Even death cannot break the line, as she writes in the Epilogue: “The women in your family have never lost touch with one another. Death is a path we all take to meet on the other side. What goddesses have joined, let no one cast asunder. 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.”
An image that recurs throughout Danticat’s work is the butterfly as symbol of both continuing life and transformation. In “Dream of the Butterflies,” a poetic vignette published in The Caribbean Writer in 1991, violence is juxtaposed with tenderness, danger with safety, and, finally, sheer hatred with pure love. She sees the redemptive butterfly as suggesting that hope triumphs even in the face of terrible loss:
“There aren’t that many legends in Haiti about butterflies, but I’m fascinated by the idea of transformation. I think in some ways we all think we could go from a caterpillar to a butterfly—that whole metamorphosis is a metaphor for life, especially a life of poverty or struggle because you hope
“In Krik? Krak!, Danticat serves a ’survival soup’ of characters struggling to find a place of peace, a sliver of happiness, a glimmer of a brighter future amid terrorism and political chaos.”
that this is temporary and that one way or another, you’ll get wings. It’s the Christian ideal we grew up with that people are willing to suffer very much if that means one day they’ll get their wings and fly. Haiti has such beautiful butterflies in all different colors.”
The most uncanny connections seem to assert themselves in the life of this author who bears witness:
“The year I wrote ’Children of the Sea’ there were so many boating accidents; whole families would be wiped out. One woman I had read about was Marie Micheline, whose mother and daughter were on the boat with her. They all died.”
Danticat dedicated the original publication of this story as follows: “In ancestral kinship, I offer this piece to Marie Micheline Marole, her daughters, and her granddaughters—three generations of women lost at sea.” Coincidentally—or maybe not—another “Marie Micheline” played a key role in Danticat’s life:
“My cousin Marie Micheline taught me to read. I started school when I was three, and she would read to me when I came home. In 1987, when I was in France, there was a shooting outside her house—where her children were. She had a seizure and died. Since I was away from her, my parents didn’t tell me right away. They were afraid I might have a reaction. But around that same time, I was having nightmares; somehow I knew.
“Marie Micheline was very dear to me. When I read about this woman who drowned, I was so struck that they had the same name.”
In Krik? Krak!, Danticat serves a “survival soup” of characters struggling to find a place of peace, a sliver of happiness, a glimmer of a brighter future amid terrorism and political chaos. Ultimately, it is in these stories that they find a moment of grace, stories that Danticat believes give people “a sense of the things that I have inherited.” It’s a rich inheritance—and one, we can be thankful, she generously shares.
Source: Edwidge Danticat with Renee H. Shea, an interview in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. 10, No. 3, Summer, 1995, pp. 12-15.
Hebert, Kimberly. “A Testament to Survival,” in Quarterly Black Review, June, 1995, p. 6.
Omang, Joanne. A review of Krik? Krak! in Washington Post Book World, May 14, 1995, p. 4.
Pierre-Pierre, Garry. An interview in The New York Times, January 26, 1995, pp. C1, C8.
Shea, Renee H. “Traveling Worlds with Edwidge Danticat,” in Poets and Writers, Vol. 25, No. 1, January-February, 1997, pp. 42-51.
Ferguson, James. Papa Doc, Baby Doc. Haiti and the
Duvaliers. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987.
A good brief overview of Haitian history, concentrating on the Duvalier years (1957-1985).
Perusse, Roland I. Haitian Democracy Restored 1991-1995.
Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1995.
A detailed play-by-play account of the events following Aristide’s election in 1990, leading up to the restoration of his government in 1995.
Danticat, Edwidge, and Renee H. Shea.“The Dangerous Job of Edwidge Danticat,” in Callaloo, Vol. 19, no. 2, Spring, pp. 382-89.
Focuses on Danticat’s first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory. The author talks about some of the ideas behind her fiction, particularly the concept of “mother” as It refers to a language and a person’s homeland.
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