starlady: a circular well of books (well of books)
Danticat, Edwidge. Brother, I'm Dying. New York: Knopf, 2007.

In this memoir Danticat tells the story of her uncle, who was like a father to her while her parents emigrated to New York City, and of her father, both of whom died within a few months of each other in 2004: her father from end-stage lung disease, her uncle at the hands of U.S. immigration officers' abuse and medical neglect after seeking temporary asylum from gang violence in his neighborhood of Bel Air in Port-au-Prince. The gang members were wrongly convinced that Danticat's uncle Joseph had given U.N. "peacekeepers" his authorization to use his church in their assault on the neighborhood.

It's a horrible story, and after the January earthquake it's impossible not to remember constantly while reading that Joseph's son, Danticat's cousin Maxo, was killed in the quake, and the neighborhood destroyed. But as much as the book is about their deaths, Danticat also writes eloquently about their lives, both in Haiti and in New York, apart and finally together: they are buried next to each other in Queens, since Danticat's Haitian family told them it was unsafe to repatriate Joseph's body for burial (the gangs wanted to behead his corpse). Having watched a parent die slowly in my own home, my heart went out to Danticat (who found out she was pregnant right after her father was given his terminal diagnosis, in an appallingly unprofessional manner) doing the same thing, and I wished uselessly that she and her family had been better able to accept her father's dying while he was doing it. But everyone's experiences with this (including my own) are ultimately personal, as [personal profile] jonquil pointed out in this post, which I really needed to hear without realizing it.

Anyway. I never used to like memoirs; I never used to like non-fiction, period. But I was missing out, and Danticat's book in particular is a wonderful example of what the genre can do.

McGuire, Seanan. A Local Habitation. New York: DAW Books, 2010.

I read and enjoyed the first book in the adventures of Toby Daye, Rosemary and Rue, last summer, but this book has many of the problems of a second novel: to wit, it doesn't move as fleetly, leaving me more time to realize all the ways in which Toby's non-conforming-conformity to urban fantasy stereotypes is grating. Also, I totally spotted the twist relating to Alex after about one chapter, and I passionately hate when I can out-observe the characters without the narration's complicity in keeping the wool over their eyes. At the same time Toby = Luddite is less amusing this time around, and I was rather thrown by the complete disappearance of her human baby-daddy and child from her thoughts. All the same, I'll probably keep reading, because I've been getting these out of the library.
starlady: ((say it isn't so))
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.


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