Breath, Eyes, Memory weaves several threads of sexuality, body image, generational bonds and conflicts, the immigrant experience, and the desperate social and political situation in Haiti, to portray a young girl's coming of age and eventual emotional liberation. It was the first book by a Haitian woman to be published in English by a major publisher and to receive wide readership and attention, and because of this, some have seen Danticat as a voice for all Haitian Americans. Danticat has emphatically stressed in many interviews that this view is inaccurate and that she is one voice among many, telling a Random House interviewer, "My greatest hope is that mine becomes one voice in a giant chorus that is trying to understand and express artistically what it's like to be a Haitian immigrant in the United States.'' However, she is also aware that not everyone is as articulate as she, and also told the interviewer, ‘‘I hope to speak for the individuals who might identify with the stories I tell.’’
She told New York State Writers Institute Writers Online's Christine Atkins, ‘‘[I hope] that the extraordinary female story tellers I grew up with—the ones that have passed on—will choose to tell their story through my voice ... for those who have a voice must speak to the present and the past. For we may very well have to be Haiti's last surviving breath, eyes, and memory.’’
She also told Megan Rooney of the Brown Daily Herald, "All my conscious life I have wanted to write. I was persistent, I love writing. I wouldn't be stopped.’’
Although the book is not factually autobiographical, it is emotionally true to her own life. She told a Random House interviewer that one of the most important themes of the book is "migration, the separation of families, and how much that affects the parents and children who live through that experience.’’ Another is the political situation in Haiti—that ordinary people live in fear for their lives and property because of the lawless Tontons Macoutes, armed with Uzi rifles, who roam the countryside raping, pillaging, and killing at will. And a third, she noted, was the relationship between mothers and daughters.
The genesis of Breath, Eyes, Memory was Danticat's own childhood in Haiti, where she was raised by relatives because her parents had emigrated to the United States when she was very young.
When Danticat was twelve, she joined them in Brooklyn. She told Rooney, "It was a big culture shock. I didn't speak English. I was clueless in school. I was getting readjusted to being with my family. And all of this happened when I was on the verge of adolescence.’’
Sophie attends the Maranatha Bible Institute, a French-English bilingual school where most of the instruction is in French. Surprisingly, she dislikes the school because, as she says, "it was as if I had never left Haiti.'' Harassed by American students as a "Frenchie," accused of having ‘‘HBO—Haitian Body Odor,’’ and accused of carrying the deadly AIDS virus because of the high rates of the virus among Haitians, Sophie struggles to find a sense of home in Brooklyn, and to learn English. At first, the lone English words in her mother's Creole conversation stand out among others—words such as "TV," "building," or "feeling"—‘‘jump out of New York Creole conversations, like the last kernel in a cooling popcorn machine.’’ Gradually, she learns to read and speak English, although at first the words sound heavy and foreign, ‘‘like rocks falling in a stream.’’
Despite her new language, her mother keeps her sheltered, so that for...
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the next six years, she lives in a narrow world of school, home, and prayer. Martine, trying to keep her daughter traditionally pure and chaste despite the loose American society, forbids her to date until she is eighteen, and takes her to work with her. She has no American friends, no Haitian friends, and no knowledge of men. As she says, in a comment that says as much about relations between the races as it does about those between genders, ‘‘Men were as mysterious to me as white people, who in Haiti we had only known as missionaries.’’
Later, after her marriage to an African-American musician, she learns more about her new country, travels, and even attends a therapy group— something unheard of in Haiti. However, she is still pursued by the ghosts of her own and her mother's past in Haiti—the custom of virginity testing, and her mother's rape by a Macoute. Before she can become free and truly live her life fully as a Haitian American, she must come to terms with her Haitian heritage and past.
The experiences and daily lives of women in Haiti are largely unknown to most Americans, who are rarely educated about Haitian culture and history. According to Danticat, Haitian women's lives are defined by what Bob Corbett, in the Webster University website, called "the ten fingers of Haitian tradition.'' According to tradition, each finger on a woman's hand has a purpose: mothering, boiling, loving, baking, nursing, frying, healing, washing, ironing, and scrubbing. Sophie and Atie both struggle to find space for their own needs and wants in this list of services to others, with varying success. As Corbett noted, the novel is about "the struggle of three individuals to rise above the shaping of their history and to take control of their own lives. It's not a story of much success, but of people in motion.’’
As Danticat makes clear, a girl's virginity and chastity is highly prized in Haiti, where a young woman's conduct can affect the reputation of her entire family. Danticat told a Random House interviewer that the virginity testing described in the book is not unique to Haiti, and cited the apocryphal gospels, in which the Virgin Mary is similarly tested for virginity when it becomes apparent that she is pregnant. Danticat stressed the fact that none of the mothers in the book intended the testing to be abusive, but were doing what they believed was best for their daughters and their families, and because they wanted their daughters to go farther and do better in life than they had.
Because this custom results in emotional harm, Sophie attends a sexual phobia therapy group so that she can heal. She describes her therapist as ‘‘a gorgeous black woman who was an initiated Santeria priestess.’’ When Rena, the therapist, hears that Sophie's mother Martine is pursued by nightmares of the rape that led to Sophie's birth, Rena suggests that if Martine is uncomfortable with the idea of therapy, she should have an exorcism. This openness to non-Western and non-American modes of healing marks the therapist/priestess as a bridge between the cultures, an integrator. Rena recommends rituals the members of the group can perform to release their fear and pain: burning slips of paper with the names of their abusers written on them, and releasing a green balloon to the sky. Danticat is realistic in depicting the mixed results of these rituals; Sophie feels better after burning her mother's name, but some time later sees the green balloon stuck in a tree—it has not traveled very far from home. However, Rena does offer some advice that ultimately does result in healing, saying about Martine's rape memories and Sophie's phobia of being with her husband:
Your mother never gave him a face. That's why he's a shadow. That's why he can control her ... You will never be able to connect with your husband until you say good-bye to your father.
She recommends that Martine undergo an exorcism, but Martine commits suicide before she can follow this advice. Sophie, however, ultimately does follow it, revisiting the scene of her mother's rape in the cane fields and experiencing a violent catharsis. Her grandmother and aunt watch, and in the end, acknowledge that she has been liberated from the burden she has carried for so long.
Reviewer Ann Folwell Stanford comments that the therapy section "barely escapes trendy cliche,’’ but in fact the therapist's use of ritual is highly appropriate for Sophie, whose whole life has been enriched by ritual, symbol, and story. This is a language that Sophie understands, since she was raised with stories of Erzulie and other Haitian deities, and since in Haiti even an ordinary bath has ritual elements: at her grandmother's house, they bathe in an outdoor shack using rainwater that has been steeped with healing herbs: ‘‘a potpourri of flesh healers: catnip, senna, sarsparilla, corrosol, the petals of blood red hibiscus, forget-me-nots, and daffodils.’’ Ritual is part of everyday life in many other ways, from the use of lanterns to mark the sex of a newborn child, the weekly Mass that people attend, and the endless stories of ancestors, deities, and folk heroes and heroines.
The book ends on a hopeful note. Sophie's baby, Brigitte Ife, is a symbol of the integration of her old and new lives and the potential healing in the generational line of women: the child is untouched, untroubled by nightmares, born in America. At the same time, she resembles Sophie's mother so closely that Grandma Ife, on seeing the girl, is astonished. '"Do you see my granddaughter?' she asked, tracing her thumb across Brigitte's chin. 'The tree has not split one mite. Isn't it a miracle that we can visit with all our kin, simply by looking at this face?'''
Danticat emphasizes this possibility later in the book, when Sophie says, ‘‘I looked back at my daughter, who was sleeping peacefully ... The fact that she could sleep meant that she had no nightmares, and maybe, would never become a frightened insomniac like my mother and me.’’ And again, when Sophie, after burning her mother's name in the therapy ritual, wisely realizes, "It was up to me to avoid my turn in the fire. It was up to me to make sure that my daughter never slept with ghosts, never lived with nightmares, and never had her name burnt in the fire.''
She will succeed in this, the reader knows, because at the end of the book, when she revisits the scene of the rape, she beats and pounds at the cane, as if she is possessed. The priest walks toward her, but Grandma Ife stops him, knowing that Sophie must do this. Ife and her aunt, Tante Atie, both call, "OM libere?’’—‘‘Are you free?’’—a phrase women traditionally use when one has dropped a heavy and dangerous load. Thus, they acknowledge her freedom from the burden that has oppressed her for so long. Before she can answer their question, Grandma Ife puts her fingers over Sophie's lips and tells her, ‘‘Now, you will know how to answer,’’ meaning that she is free, and knows it.
The events in the book are shaped by the political, social, and economic chaos in Haiti during the regimes of Jean Claude ‘‘Baby Doc’’ Duvalier and his successors. During Duvalier's regime, the illiteracy rate in Haiti was 90 percent and the population was oppressed by widespread poverty and disease. In addition, ordinary people lived in fear of the Tontons Macoutes, formerly the volunteer secret police and death squad of dictator Francois ‘‘Papa Doc’’ Duvalier. Named for a cannibalistic ogre, the Macoutes arbitrarily murdered, raped, and tortured anyone suspected of opposing the regime, or anyone they happened to run into. Sophie's birth is the result of a Macoute's rape of her mother, when Martine was sixteen-years-old, and throughout the book these figures of terror reappear, shooting students, killing a coal seller, appearing in the market and on a bus Sophie is riding. Sophie herself is a permanent reminder of the power of the Macoutes, since she does not resemble anyone in her family, and it is believed that she looks just like the rapist: a physical, daily reminder to Martine of the torture she went through.
In the Michigan Daily, Dean Bakopoulos wrote that "in her fledgling career, Danticat has definitely brought a new freshness and vividness to American fiction, a new voice that shows great promise of evolving even further.’’ Austin Chronicle writer Belinda Acosta described Danticat as a ‘‘gifted, compassionate young writer,'' and noted that one of the most remarkable aspects of Danticat's career is that she "consistently turns out work that is at turns compelling, beautiful, and breathtakingly painful.'' Christine Atkins remarked in New York State Writers Institute Writers Online that the book "traverses between cultures, negotiating an identity constructed in two sharply distinct worlds.’’ The emotional impact of the book was summed up by a Publishers Weekly reviewer, who wrote, ‘‘In simple, lyrical prose enriched by an elegiac tone ... she makes Sophie's confusion and guilt, her difficult assimilation ... [and her] emotional liberation palpably clear.''
Source: Kelly Winters, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000. Winters is a freelance writer and has written for a wide variety of academic and educational publishers.
In Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory, Haitian women are represented through images drawn from folk traditions. The subtext of the story of three generations of the Caco family involves a careful subversion of Haitian tropes of identity. Danticat uses the symbol of the marassa, the cult of twins in vodou, to highlight the divisions that are created between women who have been brought up to deny their sexuality as well as each other. In invoking vodou traditions, she strives, moreover, to disassociate them from their prevalent use as tools of state control during the Duvalier years of terror. Danticat also makes use of the principles of palé and aki, a practice of code-switching particular to Haitian creole, to underscore the complex dimensions of Haitian women's survival in varied social contexts. Danticat thus engages the challenge of Haiti's cultural doubleness in order to emphasize the need to reformulate the traditional Caribbean novel genre to reflect the particularities of Haitian women's lives.
In Breath, Eyes, Memory, narrative acts ironically as a metaphor for the absence of writ social existence; in this way, the physical text becomes the manifestation of the social forces at work in Haiti over the span of three generations of Haitian women. It also provides a vital link to indigenous languages while using the vehicle of literary production to supply the context for female liberation. The Cacos of Danticat's novel are a family of women from the working classes who struggle both to maintain continuity from one generation to the next, and to reshape through education the fate of the younger generation, represented by the narrator and protagonist, Sophie. Throughout the novel, education, and, more specifically, literacy, are posited as the only means to salvation; ironically, access to literacy is connected to a life of exile, to a move from valley to city for the older generation within Haiti, from Haiti to the United States for the younger. Resisting this movement, the older generations, represented in part by Sophie's grandmother, cling to their sense of Haiti's ‘‘glory days,’’ an invisible African past that is textualized in the novel through the oral folk tales the older generations tell to the younger ones. It is through the thematization of secrecy that the damage resulting from generational disruption is unveiled. The language of the ancestors, which grows increasingly difficult to access, is the key to each woman's freedom.
Sophie is alienated from her natural mother by the latter's memory of the rape of which she is a product, an act that is duplicated by her mother who abuses her sexually in adolescence under the guise of protecting her from future harm. Martine, who wants to make sure that Sophie remains sexually "whole," persists in describing her acts of sexual abuse in terms of a spiritual "twinning" of souls. Presented as a ritual enacted between mother and daughter through the generations, the "testing" that scars Sophie for life is a product of the suppression of female sexuality and the codification of women's bodies as vessels for male gratification in marriage. The Cacos perpetuate this ritual, although none of the women in the family has ever married, in what Danticat terms a ‘‘virginity cult.’’
It is because she has internalized the ideology of female inferiority that Sophie's mother is capable of abusing her daughter. Taught to despise the female body for itself and to covet it only as a means by which to acquire a male mate, Sophie's mother commits incest against her daughter, rationalizing her behavior as necessary to her daughter's survival. Social worker and therapist E. Sue Blume notes in Secret Survivors that it is rarer for women to incest their children than it is for men. She writes: "Incest often manifests itself in a manner consistent with gender socialization: for a man, the abuse is generally overtly and directly sexual; for a woman, it may be more emotional, more focused on relationship and bonding, or perhaps manifested through care of the child's body, her primary domain.'' The incest motif overwhelmingly present in the literature by women of the African diaspora—in the works of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Joan Riley, Maya Angelou, to name the most notable—clearly demonstrates that Danticat's portrayal of incest between mother and daughter should not be taken as evidence that Haitian women are any more apt than other individuals to commit acts of incest against their daughters and that men are hapless bystanders to such abuse. Rather, Danticat demonstrates (as do the aforementioned women writers) through this aspect of her text the extent to which the subjugation of women has led to one mother's sexual oppression of her own daughter. The effect of this subjugation is that the mother believes that she is taking "care of the child's body'' when she is in fact subjecting it to very abuse from which she is hoping to save it.
After having been raised for most of her early life by her mother's sister, Tante Atie, in Haiti, Sophie is summoned to New York by her mother. The community rejoices at what appears to be a "natural" turn of events, the reclamation of a daughter by her mother. As grandmother Ifé says to Sophie: ‘‘You must never forget this ... Your mother is your first friend.'' Sophie, however, knows her mother only as an absence; she reacts to her dislocation by withdrawing from the world which until this time had seemed so familiar, so unchangeable. When she is told that she will have to leave Haiti for her mother's New York, she says: "I could not eat the bowl of food that Tante Atie laid in front of me. I only kept wishing that everyone would disappear.'' Only later do we learn that her inability to eat the bowl of food is symptomatic of what will become a cycle of bodily abuse; once she is in the United States—a place her mother describes to her as a sort of paradise—Sophie becomes bulimic.
For Sophie, the United States is not a garden of Eden; instead, it is a place in which she hungers for the comfort of her true mother, Tante Atie, whom she honors in a poem as a brilliant, delicate, yet nonetheless hardy, yellow daffodil. That image is connected to Erzulie who is the "Goddess of Love, the divinity of the dream ... [t]o Haitian women, the goddess ... signifies escape from a life in which women carry a greater share of work and suffering.’’ Thus Sophie recalls:
As a child, the mother I had imagined for myself was like Erzulie, the lavish Virgin Mother. She was the healer of all women and the desire of all men. She had gorgeous dresses in satin, silk, and lace, necklaces, pendants, earrings, bracelets, anklets, and lots and lots of French perfume. She never had to work for anything because the rainbow and the stars did her work for her. Even though she was far away, she was always with me. I could always count on her, like one counts on the sun coming out at dawn.
Sophie's mother can never be Erzulie, who is herself most often imaged as a mulatta of the upper classes, and whose power—defined as both erotic and sexual—is derived from these combined class and race distinctions. She nonetheless seeks Erzulie's elusive powers, attempting to transcend Haitian barriers of class, race, and color by exiling herself to the United States, where she appears to find love with Marc Chevalier, a lawyer and a member of the Haitian elite. ‘‘In Haiti,’’ she explains, ‘‘it would not be possible for someone like Marc to love someone like me. He is from a very upstanding family. His grandfather was a French man.’’ Marc idolizes Erzulie and decorates his home with small busts of her image; it would appear that Sophie's mother has begun to access Erzulie's world. Danticat, however, quickly undermines the association of the mother with Erzulie.
In The Faces of the Gods, Leslie Desmangles writes that"[i]n combination with Damballah, Ezili guarantees the flow of human generations,’’ and that ‘‘[s]he is believed to have given birth to the first human beings after Bondye [the supreme Being] created the world.’’ Erzulie, or, as Desmangles writes, Ezili, is the mother of us all, that is, of all Haitians, male and female; as such, she is all-powerful and all-controlling. Her power over men is legendary, as is her power over other vodou loas [gods]. She is often shown wearing a crown or a halo, "a symbol of her transcendent power and of her radiating beauty.’’ It is crucial to note that Erzulie's power is defined in terms of her relationships, primarily to male deities and human male subjects: she is concubine to all but subjugated to none; she is beyond containment. As much as she seeks to transcend temporality by emulating Erzulie, Sophie's mother is bound to self-negating mores of womanhood embedded in nineteenth-century ideals; for this reason, Sophie is the painful memory of what she perceives to be her failure as a woman.
Sophie's mother never comes to terms with the fact that the man who raped her in her late teens robbed her of her sexual autonomy; she perceives herself as "damaged," incapable, in fact, of being Erzulie, because she is no longer "virginal," or "chaste," a status the Caco women associate with social mobility. It is through marriage that freedom from poverty, and endless toil, can be achieved; marriage, however, is an institution that, historically, has been socially constructed in such a way as to benefit men and deny women their autonomy. Thus, Danticat's protagonist recalls the story of a man who bleeds his young wife to death in order to be able to produce the soiled, bloody sheets of their first marriage night: "At the grave site, her husband drank his blood-spotted goat milk and cried like a child.'' On the surface, it seems as if Sophie is being led away from such a tragic fate. In the United States, she will be freed from the constraints of class that attend marriage in Haiti; she will gain an education and no man will be able to reject her as one Mr. Augustin rejected her Tante Atie because of her illiteracy. That possibility, however, is as elusive as Erzulie's loyalties, for Sophie knows only what she is in the process of losing. As she leaves Haiti behind, she imagines the friend/twin she has never had: "Maybe if I had a really good friend my eyes would have clung to hers as we were driven away.’’ Sophie has no point of contact, no shared sight, with another human being who can complete for her her sense of self. Identity, Danticat appears to say, is inextricably linked with community, and the image of the twin, the true friend, is the vehicle for communal (re)identification.
Vodou and the Exploitation of Women's Sexuality In vodou culture, the marassas are endowed with the power of the gods. Twins are mystères (mysteries), who, since they can never be deciphered, must be held in high esteem and revered. As Alfred Métreaux writes: ‘‘Some even contend that the twins are more powerful than the loas. They are invoked and saluted at the beginning of the [vodou] ceremony, directly after Legba.’’ This is no small thing, for Legba is the sun god, the keeper of the gates; he is thus associated with Christ and, as the ‘‘guardian of universal and individual destiny,’’ with St. Peter as well. Twins are believed to ‘‘share a soul": "Should one die, the living twin must put aside a bit of all food he [sic] eats, or a small part of any gift given him [sic], for the other.’’ Sophie's inability to eat, then, can be understood as having been caused by her separation from the unknown twin, the best friend she wishes she had had in Haiti. On the other hand, because she has been deadened by her loss of family, Sophie can in some sense be regarded as the twin who has died. Her ‘‘living twin’’ on this reading would be the Haitian landscape to which she had last looked to for comfort in her departure from Haiti; it stores away its resources while awaiting her return. Sophie's mother, however, insists on figuring herself as her daughter's marassa. The image of her mother as her marassa only serves to terrorize Sophie and alienate her from her identity, which becomes both sexualized and demonized in its association (by the mother) with vodou.
In the United States, when Sophie has her first love affair, clandestine and innocent, with an older man, Joseph, her mother suspects her of ill-doing; this is the occasion for Sophie's first "test." Characteristically, Sophie prays to the "Virgin Mother'' Mary/Erzulie while her mother tells her a story about the marassas, "two inseparable lovers ... the same person duplicated in two.’’ At first, the story seems to be a warning to Sophie to resist her desire for sexual union with a man. Her mother says: ‘‘When you love someone, you want him to be closer to you than your marassa. Closer than your shadow. You want him to be your soul. The more you are alike, the easier this becomes.'' In the story, then, the union betwen man and woman is presented as a bond that can only be a pale imitation of the union between the marassa, who are described as reflections of oneself: ‘‘When one looked in the mirror, the other walked behind the glass to mimic her.’’ The story, as does the testing, ends chillingly as Sophie's mother tells her:
The love between a mother and daughter is deeper than the sea. You would leave me for an old man who you didn't know the year before. You and I we could be like marassas. You are giving up a lifetime with me. Do you understand? There are secrets you cannot keep.
Secrecy is central to the image of Haiti created by Danticat, suggesting that holding on to a sense of renewed options is a narrow, almost non-existent possibility. Secrecy, in the above passage, refers to Sophie's inability to keep her body to herself: it is positioned as her mother's reflection and is consequently not her own. But the truly unkeepable secret is the act of abuse itself, which Sophie attempts to exorcise through the only thing she feels she can still control: food.
Sophie's bulimia is a manifestation of her sexual abuse. As E. Sue Blume explains, eating disorders are manifestations of the ways in which women who have been abused attempt to regain control over their bodies; ironically, these attempts at regaining control perpetuate the cycle of abuse. Blume writes: ‘‘Most men can achieve mastery in the real world, but many women can exercise total control only over their own bodies. Additionally, rigid social expectations define women through their appearance. Body size relates to power, sexuality, attention, self-worth, social status and the after-effects of incest.’’ Unlike anorexics, who try to rid their bodies of the sex characteristics they feel (consciously or unconsciously) have led to their victimization, bulimics attempt to maintain the sex characteristics they feel they must possess in order to achieve a "perfection'' which will put a stop to their abuse. Sophie becomes the prototypical sexual abuse survivor described by Blume as she attempts to control her body—which remains the only socially sanctioned site for her rebellion—precisely because it has fallen beyond her control. She binges and purges in an effort to cleanse herself of her violation.
Sophie's eating disorder will not, however, erase the abuse she has suffered. Through the "testing,’’ Sophie loses her mother a second time and instead of becoming her twin becomes her victim. She clings to an elusive image of perfection, of Erzulie, which neither she nor her mother can attain. Like Nadine Magloire's protagonist Claudine in Le mal de vivre, Sophie cannot reclaim her identity because her Haitiennité demands that she deny her desires as well as her need for sexual autonomy. This implicit denial of self, as I will demonstrate below, leads Danticat to reject those cultural markers most associated with Haitian Afrocentricity, such as vodou and matriarchal family structure, because they signify oppression rather than liberation; this is not to say that, in so doing, she abandons what those markers represent. Rather, Danticat shows that in order to reclaim the landscape of the female body and of Haiti, both must be redefined. Thus, the novel introduces at its start a set of seeming dichotomies that will be reshaped and reimaged as the plot advances: mother versus daughter, food versus starvation, language versus silence, ritual versus violation, marassa versus life partner. Each of these seeming dualities reflect the rigid sex roles Haitian women are taught to desire, even though they defy those social sanctions through their very acts of daily survival.
As Ira P. Lowenthal points out in his essay ‘‘Labor, Sexuality and the Conjugal Contract,’’ Haitian women of the rural working classes appear to have some power equity due to the fact that many are market women (handling booths at the market, money, trade) while their male counterparts work the fields. Lowenthal writes: ‘‘men make gardens for someone and that someone is invariably a woman ... she is a socially recognized spouse of the man. The control of produce, then, as opposed to production itself, falls to women—as men's gardens mature.'' Lowenthal points out that this seeming inversion of sex roles does not guarantee women's economic autonomy. Instead, it suggests a potential that is never realized because male and female sex roles are maintained in such a way as to prevent an equal division of labor. Women continue to have to sustain the home even as they manage the commerce: "domestic labor is overwelmingly the responsibility of women and ... [w]hen men cry out, as they sometimes do—especially when actually faced with the unsavory prospect—that they 'can't live without a woman' ... it is to these basic domestic services provided by women that they primarily refer.’’ Put more bluntly, in Haiti, as in other parts of the Caribbean, even though a quasi-matriarchal system seems to be in place, it is one ‘‘that represses women": "women are stuck running the household, and if they are tough and strong it is because their children would starve if they weren't.’’ The Caco women thus represent the sort of matriarchal family formation that has been celebrated in many Caribbean women's writings (most notably in Audre Lorde's Zami and Michelle Cliff's Abeng, both semi-autobiographical novels), but which, in most Haitian contexts, is one born both out of necessity and out of the legacy of African social formations where quasi-matriarchal societies did indeed flourish and empower women.
In the Caribbean context, where identity resides at the crossroads of creolization or métissage, matriarchal society is a product of a disrupted society (or societies). Sexuality takes on a striking importance in a repressive matriarchal society for it is the ultimate site of women's subjugation and is, by extension, the site of possible empowerment. As Lo wen thal explains,
[f]emale sexuality is here revealed to be a woman's most important economic resource comparable in terms of its value to a relatively large tract of land. Indeed, when discussing their relations with men, adult women are likely to refer to their own genitals as interèm (my assets), lajan-m (my money), or manmanlajan-m (my capital), in addition to tèm (my land). The underlying notion here is of a resource that can be made to work to produce wealth, like land or capital, or that can be exchanged for desired goods and services, like money.
Lowenthal insists, however, that, just as women wield full control over the goods balanced precariously in weaved baskets upon their heads for sale at market, they have full control of the ways in which their bodies are exchanged or marketed. Yet, if women did, in point of fact, have full control over their bodies and their sexuality, one would expect that they would be endowed with power in whatever social strata in which they were born; this, of course, is not the case. Thus, when women attempt to control their sexual interactions with men, they do so precisely because social and sexual power is taken out of their hands from birth: theirs is an unrelenting struggle.
Danticat' s very carefully exposes this truism as one would expose a frame of film to light. The result is not often clear or pleasing to the eye, but it reveals part of what has been obscured by inadequate representations of the difficulties faced by women in Haiti and elsewhere. Haitian women are not immune to what Catharine MacKinnon has called the ‘‘body count [of] women's collective experience in America,’’ by which girls are taught to suppress their own ambitions in order to fulfill the sexual needs of men. As Danticat shows, even in a family in which men do not "exist," the threat of sexual violence and subjugation remains a reality too immediate to be ignored.
Learning the Mother Tongue In many ways, the novel's true heroine is Tante Atie who gains a sense of self and identity only as she grows older. Rejected by a suitor, Augustin, because of her illiteracy, Atie's social role becomes that of caretaker to her aging mother, Ifé. Nonetheless, Atie rebels against her position in the family, and when she has to give up her role as Sophie's surrogate mother-figure, she begins to construct for herself a new life. Her life is reactivated through her being taught to read and write by a market woman, Louise, with whom she develops a strong love relationship. Although both Atie and Ifé have worked diligently to give Sophie and her mother the means to escape the endless cycle of work, poverty, and exploitation, Ifé strongly resents Atie's new-found independence at the same time that she covets it. Through Atie, Danticat presents literacy as a metaphor for the fulfillment of identity and yet she also demonstrates that freedom for the Haitian woman cannot be achieved solely through education; she must also be able to control the passage of her body through a society that rejects her presence and demonizes her sexuality.
Atie defies social convention by severing her relationship to her mother (whom it is supposed she will take care of as she ages since Atie is yet ‘‘single’’) in order to have a primary relationship with Louise. Her relationship with Louise is, in fact, subtly coded as a lesbian love relationship. Although there is the merest hint that the two are not sexually involved, suggested through numerous scenes in which Louise leaves at sundown and in which the two only come together at daylight, theirs is undoubtedly an erotic relationship. They embody the power of the erotic as theorized by Audre Lorde who writes:
The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experience it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.
This reflects Atie's experience with Louise as she grows in her "sense of self,’’ escaping the strict confines of her role as dutiful daughter and becoming more literate in her own (woman's) language. Access, through education, to both the past and to the future provides an increasingly empowering double-sightedness imaged through the twinning of these two women. Louise's descriptions of her relationship with Atie imply as much. She says: "We are like milk and coffee, lips and tongue. We are two fingers on the same hand. Two eyes on the same head.’’ In the end, these two women are the true marassas of the novel. Danticat deftly and subtly inverts the linguistic terms with which relationships between women can be described in the Haitian context in a manner akin to that involved in palé andaki (as described more fully below), the process of code switching within creole (the equivalent, perhaps, to what Zora Neale Hurston has defined as "specifyin''' in Black English). Through this code switching, Danticat appears to reject the identifiable markers of vodou and to reformulate them in terms which are inclusive of its origins but that also encapsulate the exigencies of working-class and impoverished women. Creole is the mother tongue that links these two women to their Haitian identity, and, thus, to each other, through the process of literacy. Through creole, that literacy retains its oral roots.
Why should literacy be linked so explicitly to Haitian women's process of self-actualization? The languages in which we speak, write, and communicate are signifiers of the societies and/or cultures we live in. Haitians, male and female, have, since Haiti's tragic beginnings, been made to feel as if our ways of speaking are deficient. Creole, to this day, is often referred to as a "bastard" tongue, ‘‘denigrated as a lesser language of French,’’ even though it has certainly always been the "dominant'' language of the country despite efforts to enforce French as the language of the polished, accomplished, upper classes. For the last several decades, creole has been taught in the schools and used as the common language of the untutored in various literacy programs. It is a living language that is continuously changing; it accurately reflects a culture that is constantly in flux both socially and politically.
Cultural sociologist Ulrich Fleischmann notes in his article, ‘‘Language, Literacy, and Underdevelopment,’’ that in rural Haiti, where the older Caco women live, creole culture distinguishes itself from those "recognized'' in Western contexts in that it "cannot be considered as culturally integrated ... for each member is in some way aware that his [sic] culture seen from a socially more elevated position appears as a 'lower variant' of the dominant culture.’’ Haitians are acutely aware of the ways in which linguistic creolization is perceived to be a deviation, but they are also ardently opposed to assimilating.
Fleishmann describes oral creole as follows:
[T]hough a nationwide intelligible form of Creole speech exists, there is a continuous change and generation of meanings in the narrow local context. Therefore, Creole speech can take on double and even multiple meanings. The information it conveys can vary considerable according to the social context. The diligent use of contradictory explicit and implicit references, for instance, is a highly esteemed art which Haitians call palé andaki.
In effect, Danticat's novel is speaking andaki to those who are open to the possibilities of cultural doubleness. A little more than halfway through the text, readers are made aware that they have been reading in another language. When Sophie's mother comes to Haiti to reclaim her daughter for a second time, Ifé and Atie complain about their use of English. ‘‘Oh that cling-clang talk,’’ says Ife, "It sounds like glass breaking.’’ What should, in effect, be broken in the reader's mind is the illusion that s/he has been reading an English text; the narrative reveals itself to be a masquerade, and the unevenness that is palpable in the passages of dialogue between the Caco women (between those who have stayed in Haiti and those who have emigrated) can be seen as evidence that the text is in fact a creole one.
Danticat's Atie becomes the translator of the camouflaged text, a translator to rival the Dahomean god Eshu, the trickster figure who has become the focus of some phallocentric, Afrocentric criticism, such as in Henry Louis Gates' The Signifying Monkey. Like the poeticized women of Dahomey in Audre Lorde's poetry collection, The Black Unicorn, Atie embodies a marginalized ancient African woman-identified culture in which ‘‘[b]earing two drums on my head I speak/whatever language is needed/to sharpen the knives of my tongue.'' Atie's language is one of covert resistance as she appropriates the French language through creole translations when she learns to read and write and as she appropriates the image of the marassa to constitute her own Haitian female identity.
As she becomes literate, Atie creates a new language in order to write down her thoughts in her notebook; Louise ‘‘calls them poems.’’ At times, Atie reads to the family from her notebook; one of her most significant creations is an adaptation of a French poem, which remains unidentified in the novel, given to her by Louise. Her poem serves a dual function—one can assume, first, that it is in creole, and secondly, it tells the same story as that of the young husband who kills his young bride because he wants to prove her virginity, or purity, to the community. The important difference, of course, is that the story is now told in Atie's voice:
She speaks in silent voices, my love. Like the cardinal bird, kissing its own image. Li palé vwa mwin, Flapping wings, fallen change Broken bottles, whistling snakes And boom bang drums. She speaks in silent voices, my love. I drink her blood with milk And when the pleasure peaks, my love leaves.
The line Danticat leaves untranslated suggests the interconnectedness of like spirits: she speaks my voice, thus, she is my voice. And since Atie's tongue is creole, it can never be entirely translated, nor does her love attempt that transmutation. The last two lines of the poem echo the traditional tale except that Atie has taken the place of the male hero; she occupies his position but is not male-identified.
This latter distinction leads us to the key element of Atie and Louise's relationship: the partings that figure so prominently in the text are metaphors for the non-acceptance of their union in their community, which denies that women can choose one another as their primary sources of emotional and erotic support. This societal rejection is verbalized by Atie's mother, Ifé, who continously opposes the relationship, saying ‘‘Louise causes trouble’’ and ‘‘the gods will punish me for Atie's ways.’’ But Atie defies her mother and the community: "After her reading, she and Louise strolled into the night, like silhouettes on a picture postcard’’ (135). And after Louise hears that one of her fellow market workers has been killed, Danticat chooses to reveal the women's closeness in an overtly erotic image: "Their faces were so close that their lips could meet if they both turned at the same time.’’ Their lips "could meet'' but do not; what keeps the women from "turning" at the same time is the overt misogyny of Haitian society that Danticat exposes in the shattering of Martine (Sophie's mother) and Sophie's own life; their lives are kept out of view, and silenced. The many departures that occur in the novel symbolize, like the last line of Atie's poem, these women's stifled desires. Their partings culminate in Louise's emigration to the United States; she leaves without saying goodbye to Atie, an event that surprises Sophie. Atie, however, speaks the same language as Louise: there is no need for the articulation of goodbyes, for she knows already the loss she is about to experience: "I will miss her like my own second skin.'' For Atie and Louise, options are few. They are denied all but each other, but cannot live for and with each other in Haitian society and expect to survive the consequences of that transgressive choice.
In the end, Nadine Magloire's Le mal de vivre and Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory resist the romanticization of the Caribbean, and of Haiti specifically, as a culture within which the infinite play of meaning, of subjectivity, can be achieved through the recognition of cultural creolization and/or métissage. Magloire reveals the novel genre as inadequate for the textual representation of Haitian women's lives at the same time that she convincingly represents the social and psychological mores that prevent her protagonist from being able to express her own identity. Claudine occupies a position at the crossroads of cultures but is not enabled by that positionality; hybridity, then, can only become a useful force if it is used in the service of disrupting rather than maintaining social and class privilege. Magloire's novel reveals that Claudine's inability to survive is ultimately a function of her being a woman in Haiti; as a woman, she is denied most privileges, and it is for this reason that she clings so fiercely to those privileges that class alone can provide. Similarly, Danticat's Sophie is caught between her memories of happiness in Haiti among women immobilized by their illiteracy and her exile to the alienating U.S. landscape, which will alleviate the oppressions that attend female existence in Haiti. Danticat's use of andaki strategies of doubling within the novel form also underscores the need to reformulate the traditional Caribbean novel genre. It is up to us, as readers, to realize that both Magloire's and Danticat's heroines lose ‘‘le goût de vivre’’ because Haitian/North American culture has relegated them to the margins of a text they cannot forcibly rewrite. In that resounding silence, in the absence of textual representations of identity that reflect a vision of hope, we should hear the "cri du coeur [cry of the heart]’’ of all Haitian women whose bodies are subject to endless commodification in art, in literature, in everyday domestic life. If we fail to do so, then perhaps not even their shapes upon the sea shores will be left behind; their magic will remain as yet unwritten.
Source: Myriam J. A. Chancy, ‘‘Lespoua fe 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, 1997, pp. 120-33.
Edwidge Danticat dedicates her powerful first novel 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 Ife, 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 through a resilient melange of love, ties to home, and therapy. And when she returns to Haiti as an adult, she senses a sinister edge to the place, represented by the Tonton Macoutes (militiamen), the boat people, and her Tante Atie's bitterness.
"There is always a place where nightmares are passed on through generations like heirlooms,’’ writes Danticat. In this book, one of those places is "testing," part of a ‘‘virginity cult, our mothers' obsession with keeping us pure and chaste,’’ in which the mother probes her daughter's vagina (sometime violently) to see if she is still whole. She also listens to her daughter peeing to see if the sound suggests a deflowered, widened passage. Even rape has one positive result: the end of "testing" by an otherwise trusted mother. The invasiveness, pain, and humiliation turn daughter against mother generation after generation, Atie against Ife, Sophie against Martine.
But there is reconciliation, too. As mothers and daughters, the women are bound in love as in hate. A mother may inflict on her daughter the same pain that drove her from her own mother. Why? "I did it because my mother had done it to me. I have no greater excuse.’’ The book is a plea to end these divisive rituals. Mothers indeed long to break the cycle of pain, asking pointedly from beyond the grave, '‘‘Ou libere?' Are you free, my daughter?’’
Suffering inflicted by a well-intentioned mother is all the more treacherous in a world where the birth of a girl child is marked by ‘‘no lamps, no candles, no more light.’’ Danticat leaves the reader with no illusions as to why the welcome is so dark. As well as "testing," the women in this family endure rape, unwanted pregnancy, and violence that lead to mental illness, nightmares, sexual phobias, bulimia, and self-mutilation. Breast cancer seems almost benign in this context; being unmarried and childless does not.
Sophie wants and seems to be the hope for breaking with painful tradition. Returning to Haiti with her mother's body for burial, she reaches an important understanding: the testing was painful for Martine, too. Doing what she had to do as a Haitian woman, ‘‘My mother was as brave as stars at dawn.'' Sophie breaks free as she madly attacks the sugar cane in the midst of which her father had raped and impregnated her mother. We sense that Sophie—and Brigitte—are finally safe.
Despite all the suffering ('‘‘Can one really die of chagrin?' I asked Tante Atie.’’), Danticat writes with a light and lyrical touch. Her characterization is vivid, her allusive language richly unembellished. Color (literal as well as linguistic) carries the reader from the daffodil yellow associated with Haiti and Sophie's early days in New York, to the more ominous red with which her mother surrounds herself in interior decoration as in death. Occasionally Danticat devotes too many details to a banal incident or action, but this is a minor criticism for a first novel.
In a personal essay, Danticat calls Haiti a "rich landscape of memory.’’ But she is afraid that female storytellers like herself may be Haiti's last surviving breath, eyes, and memory. In this compelling novel, the reader experiences the Haiti that Danticat fears will be lost.
Source: Mary Mackay, ‘‘Breath, Eyes, Memory,’’ (book review) in Belles Lettres, Vol. 10, No. 1, Fall, 1994, p. 36.
A distinctive new voice with a sensitive insight into Haitian culture distinguishes this graceful debut novel about a young girl's coming-of-age under difficult circumstances. ‘‘I come from a place where breath, eyes and memory are one, a place where you carry your past like the hair on your head,’’ says narrator Sophie Caco, ruminating on the chains of duty and love that bind the courageous women in her family. The burden of being a woman in Haiti, where purity and chastity are a matter of family honor, and where ‘‘nightmares are passed on through generations like heirlooms,’’ is Danticat's theme. Born after her mother Martine was raped, Sophie is raised by her Tante Atie in a small town in Haiti. At 12 she joins Martine in New York, while Atie returns to her native village to care for indomitable Grandmother Ife. Neither Sophie nor Martine can escape the weight of the past, resulting in a pattern of insomnia, bulimia, sexual trauma and mental anguish that afflicts both of them and leads inexorably to tragedy. Though her tale is permeated with a haunting sadness, Danticat also imbues it with color and magic, beautifully evoking the pace and character of Creole life, the feel of both village and farm communities, where the omnipresent Tontons Macoute mean daily terror, where voudon rituals and superstitions still dominate even as illiterate inhabitants utilize such 20th-century conveniences as cassettes to correspond with emigres in America. In simple, lyrical prose enriched by an elegiac tone and piquant observations, she makes Sophie's confusion and guilt, her difficult assimilation into American culture and her eventual emotional liberation palpably clear. As mothers and daughters, the women are bound in love as in hate. A mother may inflict on her daughter the same pain that drove her from her own mother. Why? 'I did it because my mother had done it to me. I have no greater excuse.'’’
Source: Mary MacKay, ‘‘Breath, Eyes, Memory,’’ (book review) in Publisher's Weekly, Vol. 241, No. 4, January 24, 1994, p. 39.