The Genesis, Recurring Themes, and Critical Reception of Breath, Eyes, Memory

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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.’’

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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 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...

(The entire section contains 8989 words.)

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Critical Overview