Danticat, Edwidge (Vol. 136)
Edwidge Danticat 1969–-
Haitian-born American novelist and short story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Danticat's career through 1999. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 94.
Though relatively new to the literary scene, Danticat has been the recipient of positive critical and popular attention since the publication of her first book, Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994). Drawing her subject material from her native land, Haiti (which she refers to as a “rich landscape of memory”), Danticat generates lush prose that appeals to the senses. She was the winner of the Pushcart Short Story Prize and in 1995, a finalist for the National Book Award (for Krik? Krak!, 1995).
Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to Andre and Rose Danticat, Edwidge was separated from her parents at the age of four when they immigrated to the United States. She joined her family in 1981 in Brooklyn, New York, where she had difficulty fitting in with her schoolmates due to her style of dress, her accent, and her hairstyle. Though her parents wanted her to pursue a career in medicine, Danticat devoted herself to her writing, eventually earning a master of fine arts degree from Brown University in 1993. Recognized for her depictions of the Haitian experience both in Haiti and the United States, Danticat is described by Margaria Fichtner as a writer whose work “has much to say about what it is like to be young, black, Haitian, and female wandering in a world too often eager to regard all of those conditions as less than worthwhile.”
Breath, Eyes, Memory, told through the eyes of Sophie Caco, details the lives of four generations of Haitian women as they struggle against poverty, violence, and prejudice in Haiti and the United States. Drawing upon contemporary Haitian history, the novel portrays the country's upheavals at the hands of the Duvalier regime and its brutal secret police, the Tonton Macoutes. While the stories of Krik? Krak! employ a wide range of plot types and characters, each story is, as Ellen Kanner explained, “part of the same tale. Women lose who and what they love to poverty, to violence, to politics, to ideals.” The Farming of Bones (1998) is a fictionalized first-person account of the 1937 massacre of Haitians in the Dominican Republic. The novel is narrated by Amabelle Desir, a Haitian housemaid in the home of Senora Valencia, a Dominican whose soldier husband has killed a Haitian field laborer in a hit-and-run accident. While Amabelle and her lover, Sebastien, contemplate revenge, they must escape the genocide facing the country's Haitian minority.
Most commentators have found Danticat's works to be powerful fictions conveyed with sure-handed style. Breath, Eyes, Memory was praised by many critics for its lyrical language, which offsets and counterpoints the novel's often dire subject matter. Some reviewers of the novel suggested that Danticat did not display complete control of her material in the book, lavishing detailed descriptive passages on things and events that did not warrant them. Most, however, pointed out that this is a flaw common to many first novels. Krik? Krak! was lauded by critics for the diversity of narrative voices and literary styles presented in the stories. The collection brought Danticat praise for making serious subject matter readable and enjoyable through the skillful use of language. Critics noted that some of the stories reveal an overly self-conscious manipulation of form and structure, a false note of “preciousness” that detracts from their realism. Richard Eder, however, found that the “best of [the stories], using the island tradition of semi-magical folktale, or the witty, between-two-worlds voices of modern urban immigrants, are pure beguiling transformation.” The Farming of Bones generated predominantly positive reviews, with critics again praising Danticat's sensuous prose and depiction of Haitian life. Some, however, expressed disappointment when comparing The Farming of Bones with Danticat's earlier work. Michael Upchurch complimented Danticat's “considerable talents,” including her “descriptive prose,” but felt that the novel possesses “technical oddities … that detract from the power of Danticat's story,” and that “Danticat's storytelling was inhibited by the respect she has for the novel's historical sources.”
SOURCE: “Author Edwidge Danticat Writes about Being Young, Black, Haitian, and Female,” in Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, May 1, 1995.
[In the following interview, Fichtner and Danticat discuss biographical elements that have influenced Danticat's work, some of her early writing experiences, and her legacy.]
It is 9:30 a.m., and the voice on the phone from Brooklyn—a voice that at times seems to brim with loss and longing—shudders a bit and then creeps slowly from the shadows of weariness and sleep. “This is Edwidge,” it says with the softness of a half-stifled yawn. “Sorry.”
The name is indeed Edwidge. Edwidge Danticat. Say it this way: “Ed-WEEJ Dahn-tee-CAH.” Remember it well.
When Haitian-born Danticat slipped onto the U.S. literary scene last year with her transcultural, transgenerational first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, critics hailed the book's emotional complexity and its resonant portrayal of the burdens history, politics and culture impose upon the lives and hearts of women. Though set in Haiti and New York and focusing on the beguiling narrator Sophie Caco, who arrives in New York for a reunion with her long-absent mother, the novel also has much to say about what it is like to be young, black, Haitian and female wandering in a world too often eager to regard all of those conditions as less than worthwhile.
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SOURCE: “The Dangerous Job of Edwidge Danticat: An Interview,” in Callaloo, Vol. 19, No. 2, January 17, 1996, pp. 382–89.
[In the following interview, Shea and Danticat discuss various aspects of Danticat's work, including mother-daughter relationships and imagery.]
[Shea:] Mothers and daughters are a central theme in your work, certainly in Breath, Eyes, Memory and in many of the short stories. This bond seems to be the very essence of women's lives, yet it is rarely a happy one. In Breath, Eyes, Memory, Ifé has a troubled relationship with both of her daughters, Martine and Atie, as does Martine with Sophie. Only in “Caroline's Wedding” does there seem to be any peace—at least with a living mother. Are you suggesting that this most intense and defining of relationships is bound to be, at best, an uneasy one?
[Danticat:] Not at all. It's a complicated relationship even in ordinary relationships. Add to that separation, which, for me, is as strong a theme as the mother-daughter relationship. Sometimes it's forced separation, other times separation due to the problems that have to do with dictatorship; sometimes, it's abrupt separations, like death, often violent death. For me, the most fascinating thing is the absence and then recovery from that absence. People who grew up without their mothers for one reason or another and then find themselves...
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SOURCE: “Léspoua fè viv: Female Identity and the Politics of Textual Sexuality in Nadine Magloire's Le mal de vivre and Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory,” in Framing Silence: Revolutionary Novels by Haitian Women, Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, NJ, 1997.
[In the following essay, Chancy examines the manner in which both Magloire and Danticat demonstrate the extent to which Haitian women have been rendered “invisible in a society itself typified through their sexualization and denigration.”]
Moon marked and touched by sun my magic is unwritten but when the sea turns back it will leave my shape behind.
—Audre Lorde, “A Woman Speaks”
Je viendrais à ce pays mien et je lui dirais: “Embrassez-moi sans crainte. … Et si je ne sais que parler, c'est pour vous que je parlerai.”
[I would come back to this land of mine and say to it: “Embrace me without fear. … If all I can do is speak, at least I shall speak for you.”]
—Aimé Césaire, Cahier d'un retour au pays natal
Je n'ai plus le goût de vivre.
[I no longer have any desire to live.]
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SOURCE: A review of The Farming of Bones, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 245, No. 23, June 8, 1998.
[The following review offers a positive assessment of The Farming of Bones.]
The almost dreamlike pace of Danticat's second novel (Breath, Eyes, Memory, 1994) and the measured narration by the protagonist, Amabelle Desir, at first give no indication that this [novel, The Farming of Bones,] will be a story of furious violence and nearly unbearable loss. The setting, the Dominican Republic in 1937, when dictator Trujillo was beginning his policy of genocide, is a clue, however, to the events that Amabelle relates. She and her lover, Sebastien Onius, are Haitians who have crossed the border. Amabelle is a servant to a patrician family, while Sebastien endures the brutal conditions of work in the cane fields. The lovers each have poignant memories of parental deaths, and other deaths enter the narrative early, subtly presaging the slaughter that is to come. Haitians in the DR, always regarded as foreigners, are “an orphaned people, a group of vwayaje, wayfarers.” When a military-led assault against them does erupt, it is a surprise, however, and as Amabelle barely survives a massacre by soldiers and an equally bloodthirsty civilian population, the narrative acquires the unflinching clarity of a documentary. In addition to illuminating a shameful, little known chapter of history, Danticat...
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SOURCE: “No Room for the Living,” in New York Times Book Review, September 27, 1998.
[In the following review, Upchurch offers a mixed assessment of The Farming of Bones.]
Hallucinatory vigor and a sense of mission—these are what, in her best moments, the Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat brings to her sobering novel about “two different peoples trying to share one tiny piece of land.”
The setting is the border country of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola and the year is 1937, a place and time when the longstanding hostility between the Dominican Republic and its neighbor, Haiti, is about to erupt into bloodshed, carefully orchestrated by the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo Molina. But Amabelle Desir, the Haitian housemaid who is the novel's narrator, gives little credence to the rumors of imminent violence. Instead, her focus is on the worries of her immediate household.
Amabelle's Dominican mistress, Senora Valencia, is still recovering after giving birth to twins, then quickly losing one of them to crib death. In addition, a field laborer from a nearby sugar cane plantation has been killed in a hit-and-run accident, and the Senora's soldier husband is the culprit. As Amabelle and her Haitian lover, Sebastien Onius (who witnessed the killing), are drawn into the funeral arrangements for the dead man, they must consider the matter of avenging his...
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SOURCE: A review of The Farming of Bones, in Nation, Vol. 267, No. 16, November 16, 1998, p. 62.
[In the following review, Jaffrey offers a positive assessment of The Farming of Bones.]
With Hurricane Georges devastating the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and the beating of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima by members of the NYPD a recent memory, Edwidge Danticat's new novel, The Farming of Bones, feels particularly timely. Its subject is the overnight massacre, in 1937, of between 15,000 and 18,000 Haitians, at the secret instructions of Gen. Rafael Trujillo Molina, the military dictator who ruled the Dominican Republic for thirty-one years. But because the large themes of trauma and collective memory are in the hand of a gifted fiction writer, the novel cannot be summarized by casual reference to genocidal fact. Indeed, some of the most interesting writers today—Toni Morrison in Paradise, Caryl Phillips in Cambridge—are blending history and fiction, imparting information, in the manner of nineteenth-century novelists, without seeming to.
The Farming of Bones opens with a fragment of intimacy, offset in bold, between the as-yet-unnamed narrator, Amabelle, and a young man named Sebastien Onius. The short sequence feels almost modern, Kundera-esque, except that its diction, with its lack of contractions, indicates that the novel is set in the historical past....
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SOURCE: A review of The Farming of Bones, in Progressive, December, 1998, p. 44.
[In the following review, Rothschild offers a positive assessment of The Farming of Bones.]
This year, I failed to conserve much time for the rambles of fiction and poetry. But one novel I highly recommend is Edwidge Danticat's The Farming of Bones (Soho Press, 1998). Set in the Dominican Republic in 1937 during the regime of General Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, the book is told through the voice of Amabelle, a Haitian servant who falls in love with a Haitian sugarcane worker on the plantation.
Danticat's writing is lush. “I can smell his sweat, which is as thick as sugarcane juice when he's worked too much,” Amabelle narrates. “I can still feel his lips, the eggplant-violet gums that taste of greasy goat milk boiled to candied sweetness with mustard-colored potatoes.”
This is a doomed love story, dashed upon the shoals of dictatorship. Danticat has Amabelle recount Trujillo's massacre of more than 12,000 Haitians that year, a massacre that her lover did not survive and that she only barely does.
Amabelle's harrowing account of her escape and the stories of other survivors mark the second half of the novel. Amid the horror, Danticat inserts evidence of how people cling to the life raft of memory.
Amabelle meets a man who “had been...
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SOURCE: A review of The Farming of Bones, in World Literature Today, Vol. 73, No. 2, Spring, 1999, p. 373.
[In the following review, Brice-Finch offers a positive assessment of The Farming of Bones.]
Readers of Caribbean literature are no strangers to the harsh conditions of the cane field, particularly in the French Antilles during the early twentieth century. Joseph Zobel in La Rue Cases-Negres (1950; Eng. Black Shack Alley) and Simone Schwarz-Bart in Pluie et vent sur Telumee Miracle (1972; Eng. The Bridge of the Beyond) graphically related the degradation that workers endured to eke out a subsistence living. However, it is the second novel by Edwidge Danticat, The Farming of Bones, which is the focus of another aspect of the history of cane workers, the massacre of Haitians in the Dominican Republic in 1937.
Due to a growing xenophobia under the rule of Generalissimo Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, the Dominicans were told:
Our motherland is Spain; theirs is darkest Africa, you understand? They once came here only to cut sugarcane, but now there are more of them than there will ever be cane to cut, you understand? Our problem is one of dominion. …Those of us who love our country are taking measures to keep it our own.
Thus, a wave of genocide which decimates the...
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Houston, Robert. “Expecting Angels.” New York Times Book Review (23 April 1995).
Review of Krik? Krak!
Smolowe, Jill. Review of The Farming of Bones. People Weekly 50, No. 11 (28 September 1998): 51.
Brief review of The Farming of Bones.
Van Boven, Sarah. “Massacre River.” Newsweek CXXXII, No. 10 (7 September 1998): 69.
Review of The Farming of Bones.
Additional coverage of Danticat's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 29; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 152; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 73; Major 20th-Century Writers, Vol. 1; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 1; and St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers.
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