Study Guide

Edwidge Danticat

Edwidge Danticat Essay - Danticat, Edwidge (Vol. 94)

Danticat, Edwidge (Vol. 94)

Introduction

Edwidge Danticat 1969–

Haitian-born American novelist and short story writer.

Winner of a Pushcart Short Story Prize and a finalist for a National Book Award in 1995, Danticat has received positive critical attention for her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994), and her short story collection Krik? Krak! (1995).

Biographical Information

Born in Haiti, Danticat was separated from her parents at the age of four when they emigrated to the United States. In 1981 she joined her family in Brooklyn, New York. Recognized for her depictions of the Haitian experience both in Haiti and the United States, Danticat has been 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. Encompassing contemporary Haitian history, the novel portrays the country's recent upheavals at the hands of the Duvalier regime and its brutal secret police, the Tonton Macoutes. While the stories in Krik? Krak!—the title refers to a Haitian storytelling game in which one person's story is exchanged for another—employ a wide range of plot types and characters, each story is, as Ellen Kanner has explained, "part of the same tale. Women lose who and what they love to poverty, to violence, to politics, to ideals."

Critical Reception

Most commentators have found Danticat's works to be powerful fictions conveyed with sure-handed style. Breath, Eyes, Memory has been praised by many critics for its lyric language, which off-sets and counterpoints the novel's at times dire subject matter. Some reviewers of the novel suggested that Danticat did not display complete control of her material in this book, lavishing detailed descriptive passages on things and events that did not warrant them. But most point out that this is a flaw common to many first novels. Critics have lauded Krik? Krak! for the diversity of narrative voices and literary styles presented in the stories. Danticat is again praised for making potentially downbeat material readable and enjoyable through her skillful, lyrical use of language. Critics have noted that some of the stories reveal a too self-conscious manipulation of form and structure, a false note of "preciousness" that detracts from their realism. Most critics agree with Richard Eder, however, that the "best of [the stories], using the island tradition of a semi-magical folktale, or the witty, between-two-worlds voices of modern urban immigrants, are pure beguiling transformation."

Principal Works

Breath, Eyes, Memory (novel) 1994
Krik? Krak! (short stories) 1995

Criticism

Mary Mackay (review date Fall 1994)

SOURCE: "Living, Seeing, Remembering," in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. 10, No. 1, Fall, 1994, pp. 36, 38.

[In the following positive review of Breath, Eyes, Memory, Mackay praises Danticat for her "extraordinary optimism," "vivid characterization," and "allusive language."]

Edwidge Danticat dedicates her powerful first novel [Breath, Eyes, Memory] to "The brave women of Haiti … on this shore and other shores. We have stumbled but we will not fall." Such optimism is extraordinary, given the everyday adversity faced by the women whose stories are interwoven with that of Sophie, the narrator.

Grandmother Ifé, mother Martine, aunt Atie, and daughter Sophie (and later Sophie's daughter, Brigitte) are rooted as firmly in their native Haitian soil as they are bound to one another, despite the ocean, experiences, and years that separate them. The ties to Haiti, the women's certainty of meeting there at the "very end of each of our journeys," affords their only apparent security. "Somehow, early on, our song makers and tale weavers had decided that we were all daughters of this land," Danticat writes. Structurally, the book reflects the centrality of Haiti: the longest of its four sections takes place there, although covering only a few days in a novel that covers years.

The story begins in Haiti. Through Sophie's 12-year-old eyes, the island seems a paradise of bougainvillea, poincianas, and the unconditional love of Tante Atie. Then Martine, the mother Sophie knew only as a photograph, sends for her from New York City. It seems a mean place that has worn out her mother: "It was as though she had never stopped working in the cane fields after all." Sophie is haunted by the hardships of immigrant life, together with the ghosts from the past and the burdens of womanhood in a hostile world. She describes herself as a frightened insomniac, but somehow survives the test. Her older, jazz-musician husband, Joseph, one of the novel's few male characters and certainly the most loyal and gentle, gives her some strength. She copes...

(The entire section is 877 words.)

Garry Pierre-Pierre (essay date 26 January 1995)

SOURCE: "Haitian Tales, Flatbush Scenes," in The New York Times, January 26, 1995, pp. C1, C8.

[In the following essay, based on discussions with Danticat, Pierre-Pierre examines her past in Haiti and her present life as a Haitian-American living in Brooklyn.]

It was the kind of dark, cold New York winter day that sundrenched people from the Caribbean dread. But Edwidge Danticat, a 25-year-old Haitian-American novelist who immigrated to Brooklyn a little more than a dozen years ago, would not let it dampen her spirits.

"You want some coffee, tea?" she said in a soft melodic voice, as if the liquids would warm the day. "The tea is cannelle."

So Ms. Danticat (her name is pronounced ed-WEEDJ dahn-tee-CAH), the author of Breath, Eyes, Memory, her first novel, which was published by Soho Press last spring and received respectful reviews, set small flowered, ceramic cups on a coffee table. She settled into a plastic-covered velour chair in the beige-carpeted living room of her parents' attached brick home in East Flatbush and explained that the cannelles, or cinnamon sticks, had been bought just blocks away, from Haitian street vendors.

"It's wonderful," she said, pouring the steamy light brown liquid into the cup. "It's like 'infusion' tea. Haitians think of tea as a cure-all."

While much is written about the troubled, mountainous island nation, Ms. Danticat's debut novel is probably the first to chronicle the Haitian-American experience. In the last decade, the number of Haitian-Americans has grown to more than a million; their communities are centered in New York and Miami.

The book is about four generations of Haitian women who struggle to overcome poverty, powerlessness and abuse. The story is told through the point of view of Sophie Caco, a teen-ager who, after spending years with her aunt in rural Haiti, is reunited with her mother in Brooklyn. Sophie feels compelled to return to Haiti after she learns that her birth resulted from her mother's rape there.

Critics have praised Ms. Danticat's vivid sense of place and her images of fear and pain, which have been compared to Alice Walker's.

The New York Times Book Review said the book "achieves an emotional complexity that lifts it out of the realm of the potboiler and into that of poetry."

Ms. Danticat has dared to probe into some of the most painful and hidden Haitian traditions, including "testing," a mostly rural practice in which a mother inserts her fingers in her daughter's vagina to ascertain that she is still a virgin.

"Haitian men, they insist that their women are virgins and have their 10 fingers," Sophie's aunt says after Sophie is tested, explaining to her the virtues of virginity and the reasons for testing.

Sitting in her living room, Ms. Danticat said that among Haitian-American women, "there is a great deal of rage toward the book." At readings across the country, she said, some of the strongest opposition comes from middle-class Haitian-American women who consider themselves modern and liberated. They are ashamed of things like testing, she said, and some, raised in cities, are shocked to learn that it is exists.

"I think a lot of people see Haiti as the good guys against the bad guys," she said. "It is so much more complex than that."

Ms. Danticat insisted that the story is not about herself, although she too was raised for several years by an aunt in Port-au-Prince after her parents—her father, André, is a cabdriver, and her mother, Rose, is a factory worker—left for Brooklyn in search of a new and better life. She said the most autobiographical aspect of the book is the heroine's emotional reaction to coming to America. Like Sophie, Ms. Danticat said it left her feeling severed from her roots.

"The first time was when my mother left, when I was 4," Ms. Danticat said. "I remember vividly being yanked from her as she was getting on the plane. The second time was coming here. My uncle had a laryngectomy. At that time I was the only person who could read his lips and understand what he was saying. Without me he would have had no voice."

Ms. Danticat began working on what became her first novel soon after she arrived in Brooklyn, in 1981. Taunted at school for her Creole lilt and her not-so-hip wardrobe and coiffure, she found solace in her writing. Even her dimpled and expansive smile faded as she recalled the painful memories of those early years in...

(The entire section is 1895 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 30 March 1995)

SOURCE: "A Haitian Fantasy and Exile," in Newsday, March 30, 1995, pp. B2, B25.

[In the following favorable review of Krik? Krak!, Eder describes some of Danticat's stories as "pure beguiling transformation."]

"Beyond the mountains there are mountains" goes one of the Haitian proverbs that work their tutelary spirit through Edwidge Danticat's stories. The Creole sayings of that misfortunate island keep it in one particular sense from being utterly bereft. For Haitians to hurl those six laconic words at the harshness that forbids them passage is to acknowledge it and lift it at the same time. Haiti's proverbs, like Chekhov's plays, light up what rises when men...

(The entire section is 862 words.)

Joanne Omang (review date 14 May 1995)

SOURCE: A review of Krik? Krak! in Book World-The Washington Post, May 14, 1995, p. 4.

[In the following review of Krik? Krak!, Omang observes that "Danticat seems to be overflowing with the strength and insight of generations of Haitian women."]

In Haitian-American Edwidge Danticat, modern Haiti may have found its voice. "When you write," she says in an epilogue, "it's like braiding your hair," and into these nine short stories she has woven the sad with the funny, the unspeakable with the glorious, the wild horror and deep love that is Haiti today.

Only 26, Danticat seems to be overflowing with the strength and insight of generations...

(The entire section is 411 words.)

Paul Moses (essay date 21 May 1995)

SOURCE: "Haitian Dream, Brooklyn Memory," in Newsday, May 21, 1995, p. A52.

[In the following essay, Moses provides an overview of Danticat's life and career.]

Novelist Edwidge Danticat remembers that when she went to junior high school in Crown Heights, it was hard to be proud of being Haitian.

The newcomers took separate classes taught in Creole. When they gathered with other students, they were met with taunts that Haitians had AIDS. "There were a lot of fights with blood, because when teased, the students would react," Danticat remembers.

But childhood memories have served Danticat well, helping to inspire her in writing two...

(The entire section is 1051 words.)

Kimberly Hébert (review date June 1995)

SOURCE: "A Testament to Survival," in Quarterly Black Review, June, 1995, p. 6.

[In the following review, Hébert applauds Krik? Krak! for its stories about Haitians and their lives in Haiti, but notes that Danticat never fully examines the complicated relationship between Haitian-Americans and America.]

And over the years when you have needed us, you have always cried "Krik?" and we have answered "Krak!" and it has shown us that you have not forgotten us.

Edwidge Danticat's powerful collection of short stories, Krik? Krak! is a complicated, yet connected, chorus of Haitian voices affirming survival. Each one explores how memories of...

(The entire section is 1024 words.)

Jordana Hart (review date 19 July 1995)

SOURCE: "Danticat's Stories Pulse with Haitian Heartbeat," in The Boston Globe, July 19, 1995, p. 70.

[In the following review, Hart commends Danticat for providing "honest and loving portraits of Haitian people, both on the island and in the United States."]

More than anything else, the storytelling of the young Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat has given the world honest and loving portraits of Haitian people, both on the island and in the United States. She has smashed the numbing stereotypes created by a barrage of media accounts of Haitian poverty, misery and death.

Danticat's debut novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, garnered...

(The entire section is 770 words.)

Edwidge Danticat with Renée H. Shea (interview date Summer 1995)

SOURCE: An interview in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. 10, No. 3, Summer, 1995, pp. 12-15.

[In the following interview, Danticat discusses the stories included in Krik? Krak!]

This epigraph sets the stage and tone for the nine stories of the heart by Haitian-born Edwidge Danticat in her recent collection entitled Krik? Krak! In these tales of the politics and people of Haiti, past and present, on their island home and in newly formed immigrant communities, she lures us not simply to read but to participate in the tradition of Krik? Krak! that she remembers from childhood:

"Krik? Krak! is call-response but also it's this...

(The entire section is 3120 words.)