Breath, Eyes, Memory

by Edwidge Danticat

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How does Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat represent exile and migration?

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Sofia, who lives in Haiti and New York, is one member of a family of migrants. When Sophie was young, her mother, Martine, left Haiti for New York, where she settled and worked, and Sofia remained in Haiti, living first with her grandmother and then with her aunt. By the time she is a teenager, she barely knows her mother, who does not come to visit. Then her mother sends for her, and she moves to New York to live with her—a person she considers little more than a stranger.

Sophie must get used to life in New York but cannot get comfortable there. Part of her understands that her mother had lived in New York alone and far from family, enduring a self-imposed exile, while saving enough money to bring Sophie to her. But Sophie feels doubly exiled. While back in Haiti, she had felt that her mother did not want her around, and she had grown very close to her aunt. She experienced the separation from her mother as a kind of exile in her own homeland, an exile of the heart through estrangement. After moving to the United States, however, she understands more fully the matter of physical separation from home, as she misses not only her aunt and grandmother but the Haitian smells, sounds, and foods she grew up with.

After some years pass, Sophie becomes estranged from Martine once again after several vehement disagreements over Sophie’s personal life, and especially her ownership of her body as related to sexual matters. Now a mother herself, Sophie takes her daughter to Haiti to meet her relatives. Uncertain about her future as a possible returning migrant, she realizes that the condition of exile is not as much of a physical state as she had believed. The internal, emotional exile is reactivated as she struggles to reconnect with the Haiti of her childhood. Ultimately, however, it is Sophie who can adjust and Martine who cannot. Sophie’s final adjustment in the novel is to her mother’s death and burial, as she understands Martine as another fragile, mortal person rather than the larger-than-life imagined mother/hero who had loomed so large.

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Discuss the representation of exile and migration in Breath, Eyes, and Memory. Be sure to relate your response to the novel's political context (Duvalier's Haiti) and to address the predicament of the novel's three protagonists, the Caco women: Sophie, Martine, and Tante Atie.

Breath, Eyes, and Memory is the story of the protagonist Sophie Caco, a girl living with her aunt Atie in Haiti. Sophie's mother Martine has migrated to New York in search of a better life. When Sophie's mother sends a plane ticket for Sophie to join her in New York everyone around her is happy for her, but Sophie is not happy to leave. At the airport, there is a riot protesting the corrupt government of President Duvalier and the staff rush Sophie onto the plane with a hysterical boy whose father has just been killed by the protesters. His father had been an official in the corrupt government. Sophie's apprehension at leaving her home is presented by the author against a backdrop of the poverty and corruption. These troubles have prompted Martine and Sophie's exile and migration.

In New York, Martine reveals to Sophie that she was raped by a stranger when she was sixteen in the cane fields of Haiti and that Sophie is the child of that rape. At dinner with her mother's Haitian boyfriend Sophie feels she is a product of her mother's past and feels further alienated because she doesn't look like other members of the family. Migration alone cannot solve Sophie's main struggle with her own identity. Sophie goes to school and eventually finds male companionship with a musician next door who is forthright and kind to her. Her mother, carrying on a practice that she had received from her own mother, begins to check Sophie regularly to see if she is still a virgin. Sophie becomes depressed. She feels caught between the new world of her life in New York and the old customs of her Haitian mother and the baggage of her mother's past. Sophie decides to ensure she will not pass the test although she is not sleeping with any man and Martine kicks her out of the house.

She goes to her friend Joseph but eventually leaves him to return to Haiti. The conditions there have not improved and Atie has turned to alcohol in the chaotic conditions where government Macoutes patrol the markets and murder people at will. Sophie has not spoken with Martine for two years but Martine's mother arranges a reconciliation. Sophie's child looks like the family so perhaps the curse that Sophie has felt from her mother's past might be drawing to a close. Back in New York Martine is pregnant by her boyfriend but begins having nightmares of the rape. She believes the baby is talking to her with the rapist's voice and ends the pregnancy and her life by stabbing herself.

At the funeral in Haiti Sophie runs from the side of her mother's grave into the cane fields (where her mother had been raped). The story has come full circle yet Sophie now feels free for the first time. It turns out that whether or not Sophie stays in Haiti or goes to America she will have to struggle to come to terms with her own identity as a woman, a lover, and a mother. It is perhaps significant that her resolution comes about on her native soil in Haiti.

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