When Breath, Eyes, Memory was published in 1994, Edwidge Danticat was hailed by Publishers Weekly as "a distinctive new voice with a sensitive insight into Haitian culture." Although there are some similarities between Sophie's story and Danticat's own life, the work is largely fiction, informed by Danticat's own experience. The book was the culmination of many years of writing, beginning in Danticat's adolescence, when she wrote a story about coming to America to be with her mother; this story was the seed for the later, much longer work.
Danticat continued work on the novel during her pursuit of a Master of Fine Arts degree in writing at Brown University, where she was given a full scholarship. Written as her master's thesis, the unfinished book was eagerly awaited by Soho Press, which offered Danticat a $5,000 advance for it.
Not everyone in the Haitian community approved of the book. In the book, Sophie's mother Martine "tests" her to see if she is still a virgin by putting a finger into Sophie's vagina. Although virginity is highly regarded in Haitian culture, most Haitian-Americans no longer follow this practice, and some felt that Danticat's depiction of it made Haitians seem backward and sexually abusive. Danticat is aware that many people see her as a spokesperson for Haitians, but disagrees with the notion: she is just one person, writing about her own experience, and there are many other voices.