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Danticat, Edwidge. Breath, Eyes, Memory. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.
Danticat, Edwidge. After the Dance: A Walk through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti. New York: Crown Publishers, 2002.

Some people do disaster tourism. I do disaster reading.

These are both short books (I read each in a few hours), but masterfully crafted. Breath, Eyes, Memory is a brutally unsparing look at how violence is passed down through generations, while After the Dance is a celebration of a place and a cultural institution that have both been grievously damaged by the 12 January earthquake. Given the damage to Jacmel that the quake caused, the book now reads as an elegy.

Before I forget: Hear Edwidge Danticat on WHYY's Radio Times, 21 January. She smacks it to Pat Robertson and Daniel Brooks near the end of her segment, and I cheered in my car while listening.

I don't know what I was expecting from Breath, Eyes, Memory--well, okay, I do. I hated literary fiction when I was in middle school, and I cherished a special ire for the bildungsroman or coming-of-age story (I sort of still kind of do, in all honesty), and given that a lot of the contemporary literary fiction I was exposed to in middle and high schools fit that category, I formed irrational opinions about certain segments of the literary marketplace in the States. So I was expecting something along the lines of Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street--girl immigrates to America and grows up. That is not what this book is; though parts of the book take place in America, almost no attention is paid to the immigrant experience of the protagonist, Sophie. Instead, the core of the book is the relationships among the women in her family, and their relationships to Haiti, and what they have all of them done to each other: a legacy of sexual abuse and psychological damage (anyone who says PTSD isn't a hereditary condition, read this book) fraught with love. It's a painful, all too true story of how victims of abuse can themselves become abusers, and how love is no proof against doing harm to the people one loves. The brief scenes between Sophie and her mother Martine, and their respective lovers, are nauseating in this respect. I don't think there's a pithy way to summarize this book, but the experiences of these women are all too real for far too many women around the world, as well as hyperlocal and Haitian. It's almost certainly a reflection of my own ignorance of this literature that the middle sections of the book, when macoutes beat a vendor to death in the marketplace for no reason, reminded me of Julia Alvarez' In the Time of the Butterflies. That novel was explicitly political, while Danticat takes a more personal look at social ills.

In some ways I wish I'd read After the Dance second, since it offers a much more positive look at Haiti itself, the place and the people. The nature of Carnival, and the theory of masks, is discussed repeatedly throughout. Danticat makes Jacmel, and Haiti, seem like places that would well repay a visit; may it be so again in future.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-01-26 03:39 (UTC)
From: [identity profile] zahrawithaz.livejournal.com
Thank you so much for this piece. The only Danticat I've read is Farming the Bones, which made a very big impression, though its grimness has kept me away from her works since. This review makes me want to read both.

If you are interested in "disaster reading," I highly recommend Rebecca Solnit's A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, which is about disasters and the politics of the responses to them. It's very good, and very relevant to recent events in Haiti (and the US media coverage thereof). I'm still in the middle of it but hoping to do a post about it at some point.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-01-26 03:43 (UTC)
From: [identity profile] starlady38.livejournal.com
I have Brother, I'm Dying and her YA book on request from my library, and hope to read them soon. I definitely was glad that no one is going to make me reread Breath, Eyes, Memory, but I think it's unquestionably worth reading, and I'm glad I did.

I'll look forward to your post on that book. I think I've heard of it before; it sounds familiar, anyway.

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