Study Guide

Edwidge Danticat

Edwidge Danticat Essay - Danticat, Edwidge (Vol. 136)

Danticat, Edwidge (Vol. 136)

Introduction

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).

Biographical Information

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.”

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

Breath, Eyes, Memory (novel) 1994

Krik? Krak! (short stories) 1995

The Farming of Bones (novel) 1998

Criticism

Edwidge Danticat with Margaria Fichtner (interview date 1 May 1995)

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.

And although it is premature to bestow upon Danticat the mantle of literary spokeswoman for the whole Haitian diaspora, last November, when Danticat returned to Haiti for the first time, she was among those invited to the palace by newly reinstalled President Aristide. She had been close once before. One Christmas years ago, Danticat and her cousins were almost trampled when the radio announced that Michele Duvalier was handing out free toys at the palace, and now here she was inside it, “a place my kind of poor people would never go.”

Also in November, the New York Times Magazine tucked the 26-year-old author among 30 young U.S. artists “most likely to (gulp!) change the culture for the next 30 years.”

And now, Breath, Eyes, Memory has been reissued as a Vintage paperback. And Soho, its original publisher, has just released Danticat's Krik? Krak!, a collection of interrelated stories celebrating Haitian home life, tradition and myth and the ennobled lives of people who have lost everything but a rich will to survive.

Still, she says, “I think my parents had two fears about my writing. One is that there's such repression in Haiti that it's dangerous to be a writer. When my father left to come here, most of the writers he knew were in prison. And then, I'm from a poor family in Haiti. There are certain luxuries we weren't used to people having, like painting all day or writing all day. But suddenly, there it was for me: the possibility of writing. ‘But would you be writing for 25 years and not earning money, and would you be doing something else?’ ‘Would writing be a hobby?’ That's always for my parents been very important. … They're...

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Edwidge Danticat with Renee H. Shea (interview date 17 January 1996)

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...

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Myriam J. A. Chancy (essay date 1997)

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...

(The entire section is 7698 words.)

Publishers Weekly (review date 8 June 1998)

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...

(The entire section is 296 words.)

Michael Upchurch (review date 27 September 1998)

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...

(The entire section is 897 words.)

Zia Jaffrey (review date 16 November 1998)

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...

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Matthew Rothschild (review date December 1998)

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...

(The entire section is 406 words.)

Jacqueline Brice-Finch (review date Spring 1999)

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...

(The entire section is 564 words.)