Haitian Writer Edwidge Danticat and the Caribbean's Extreme
By Anu Lakhan
Edwidge Danticat remembers all the women whose ghosts fill her past and her blood. Her memory is a vivid recording of Haitian women's history, with each of its multiple layers colouring the next. She recalls some of these women in "Krick?Krack!", her collection of nine short stories that was short listed for the 1997 National Book Award.
Some of the voices come directly from Haiti. Others remember the Haitian experience and traditions from the comfort of another culture. These women come from different backgrounds, but the stories they tell are similar, and have familiar undercurrents of logic. Survival in war-torn Haiti made them more than sisters, it made each woman all women. The experience of one became the experience of all, and it is this collective experience that formed their reservoir of knowledge.
That rich reservoir lets Danticat manipulate tradition to serve the needs of the first generation of American-raised Haitian women. Nurtured on an unlikely broth of democracy and superstition, fear and independence, Jesus and jeans, these young women risk invisibility and placelessness every day. Danticat finds that it is the shared identity of Haitian women that ultimately gives each her own.
Born in Haiti, Edwidge Danticat lived there until she joined her parents in America at twelve. Now 27, and a lecturer at New York University, she still lives in the Flatbush, New York house she moved into when she first arrived. A graduate of Barnard College with an MFA from Brown University, her thesis was her first novel "Breath, Eyes, Memory". Her second novel, "Krick?Krack!", was not only short listed for the National Book award but recommended by the august New York Times as one of thirty young artists to watch.
The collection of stories in "Krik Krak"reads like a tribute to the art of story telling and of telling stories like secrets. When her first book was published, she reflected on the importance of secrecy and subtlety in Haiti. There were things you could not talk about without risking your life, she told an interviewer. So Haitians learned to speak in code and metaphors, something Danticat refers to as "speaking under your breath".
"Krick?Krack!" continues in this tradition, but also speaks with an obviously emancipated voice as Danticat juxtaposes elaborate myths and vivid, gory descriptions. In her new home, she shows a fine understanding of the immigrant experience. This is a common theme in Caribbean literature since the 1950s, but Danticat finds originality in her sesitivity to the Haitian experience and her understanding of issues that affect all women. The French speaking Haitians might have a harder time of blending in the Metropole than their English speaking contemporaries. But it's not just the language that sets them apart, as Danticat's stories show. They come from a culture filled with mysticism and magic that has not been diluted by too much American television. So they are further removed from that reality than a Jamaican or Trinidadian immigrant.
The title "Krick?Krack!" is the age old invocation of the story teller that is common in the Caribbean. In these stories, Danticat exposes the hopes of Haitians condemned to prison, death or exile and the frustrations of those who continue to struggle in their ravaged communities. She speaks with the voices of the women who came before her, telling their stories to all who will come after.
Stories are the legacies women bequeath each other in a world that systematically denies them everything else. By telling stories they identify themselves and celebrate their history. The story tellers in Krick?Krack! are mothers, daughters, sisters: an inner city prostitute weaving fantasies to soothe her small son; a young woman discovering miracles and strength when her mother is imprisoned; an uptown New Yorker recollecting her mother's folk wisdom as she follows her through the streets of Manhattan.
There is nothing unusual about what she is doing. She is maintaining a tradition of women preparing each other for life and survival through stories and riddles and myths. The casual, conversational tone that carries through the narrative belies the meticulous attention to structure and sequence the author observes. The seduction of her style is its familiarity.
The stories in "Krick?Krack!" make a logical progression from place to place and moves through a variety of emotional states. The first story in the collection is "Children of the Sea". While it does not cover a long period of time, it witnesses the maturity of two young people. It spans the realm of possibilities in Haiti during civil unrest. There are two narrators: a girl who remains in Haiti but must flee her urban life for the comparative safety of an outlying, rural district; and a boy (the only male voice in the book) adrift in a tiny boat packed with other refugees destined for Miami. The use of twin narrators in this situation creates the uncertain bridge between the hope of America and the doomed life of Haiti.
It is a common war tale told in an unlikely form. The story is comprised of letters young couple write to each other that can never be sent or received. In essence, they are letters to themselves. Through these naive and audacious characters, Danticat captures with startling images, innocence and its demise, as well as the horror of leaving and the anguish of staying behind in a country at war.
It is not the only instance where she breaks successfully with convention. Two voices deliver "New York Day Women." As a young woman pursues her mother through busy Manhattan streets, she recollects familiar words as spoken by the older woman. The rest of the narrative is made up of her elaborate responses in this imagined conversation with her mother.
The stories are linked by a commonality of experience. All women in these stories have suffered and fought to survive. These fates unite them. The lessons that are passed from mother to daughter determine the shape and course of that experience. Danticat treats the mother figure with absolute respect , a propensity she transcends in the novel "Breath, Eyes, Memory." In stories like "Nineteen Thirty-seven" and "Caroline's Wedding" she fails to interrogate the diverse relationships that exist between mothers and their daughters. Instead, she chooses to show daughters who more or less appreciate, understand and accept the choices of their mothers.
There is magic in these tales, the magic of faith and belief. Through time, stories become legends and legends become myths, like those of women flying on wings of fire. All myth is rooted in some truth, no matter how far away. Danticat uses gruesome realities to fashion her myths and heroines.
A pattern in the fabric of the lives of Haitian women emerges vividly and almost immediately. Always, there is a claiming of identity in the facelessness of struggle in characters young and old. They are all connected, family to family and generation to generation because they remember each other through the pool of stories.
"Most of the women in your life had their heads down. . . It is not shame, however, that kept their heads down. They were singing, searching for meaning in the dust. And sometimes, they were talking to faces across the ages, faces like yours and mine."
Danticat's novel is committed to introducing the French Caribbean woman to the world. She has given voice to her specific concerns and shown them to be universal. Her 'immigrant' novel takes its place among the established works of Samuel Selvon, Vidia Naipaul and Jamaica Kincaid. It is helping us look at the roles we play and the way we play them on the world stage. Her Haitian experience is very different from common metropolitan assumptions about the Caribbean. This book offers an opportunity to see another side of ourselves.