Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1730
Edwidge Danticat is well known for a prolific body of both fiction and nonfiction that has drawn critical acclaim. In Brother, I’m Dying, she recounts an acutely personal story of her family’s struggles both with the politically challenging and poverty-ridden context of modern Haiti and with the land of immigrant promise in the United States. This is a story of pain and passion, of family devotion and government oppression. Ultimately, it is a story of hope.
The book opens with the dual disclosure that Edwidge is pregnant with her first child and that her father, Mira, is suffering from a well-advanced pulmonary fibrosis. His cough and weight loss signal a bleak prognosis. Two years before, her father had urged her not to leave New York for Miami. His rationale was that Edwidge should not move away from her family, an important support system. Mira knows the absence of family support only too well. As a young man, he had traveled alone to the United States to start a new life, leaving his wife and two small children in Haiti to be cared for by family members. It is only later that the young writer realizes that Mira’s concern is less about her need for family than about his as yet unshared knowledge that he is dying.
When she is four and still living in Haiti, Edwidge is placed in the care of her Uncle Joseph and Aunt Denise. Her mother had finally been allowed to join her father in New York. Sadly, because of restrictive immigration rules, the young couple is unable to take their two small children with them. In the manner of many cultures, Edwidge and her baby brother, Bob, are welcomed into the household of relatives. Joseph is the pastor of a small Baptist church, built in part with his own hands. Denise is his lifelong love. The extended family lives in a modest salmon-colored housethe color ubiquitous inside and outbuilt on the site of an ancient battle for independence between the indigenous people and the occupying French. It is a home of family syncretism and political ferment. Bedrooms, family tribulations, and modest celebrations are shared by anyone sheltered there at any one time. Food prepared by Aunt Denise and homemade liquor are offered to political activists who are forced to bring their own chairs to crowded meetings in this welcoming home.
Only in his mid-fifties, Joseph is diagnosed with throat cancer. He finds it difficult to preach to his congregation. With a tumor-impaired voice, he announces to Mira, “Brother, I’m dying.”After a difficult journey to consult doctors in Haiti who can do little for him, Joseph travels to the United States to have the tumor removed. A radical laryngectomy is necessary, leaving him dependent on an artificial voice box in order to speak. Rather than take the easier and perhaps more sensible road and remain in the United States close to family and good medical care, he returns to Haiti to continue his ministry. Young Edwidge, at this time still part of Joseph’s household, becomes his interpreter. On one of her trips with him to a local bank, the teller asks Joseph if the young girl with him is his daughter: “Ta fille?” (“Your daughter?”) Uncle Joseph realizes that she is indeed his daughter. He responds to the teller with “the same blissful nod he used to indicate agreement when something was suddenly clear to him. He smiled broadly, while patting [Edwidge’s] tightly plaited hair.”
Eventually, Edwidge and Bob are able to join their parents in America. It is an awkward transition, since neither know their biological parents nearly as well as they know their custodial parents. To make matters more complicated, two siblings whom Edwidge and Bob did not even know existed have joined the family. Food and humor smooth the transition as the older children from Haiti take up residence in New York.
While the story of Mira’s illness and anticipated death is the first to be introduced in the queue of tragic tales, it is Joseph’s story that most grips the reader. Still, even the account of the suffering connected with the pastor’s journey while seeking treatment for his throat tumor pales in contrast to what happens to him on his final trip to the United States. His beloved city of Bel Air is overrun with uncontrolled thugs, in a long line of political oppressors who disrupt the lives of the ordinary Haitian populace. People are slaughtered, Joseph’s church is destroyed, and even his clothing and family possessions are looted. It is made clear that his life is in jeopardy. Friends smuggle him away from the danger.
With only his Bible, his papers, and some money, he takes the advice of friends and travels to the United States. When he arrives in Florida, still shaken from all that he has just experienced in Haiti, he meets immigration authorities. A fund-raising trip to America had already been planned, but given the conditions in Haiti he concludes reluctantly that it is time to leave the country permanently. He is eighty-one, his wife is dead, and many of his relatives live in New York. There is little left for him in his native land. The reader is reduced to a sense of horror and impotent anger as the author describes what happens to this vulnerable old man as he enters the United States. He has lost nearly everything but his dignity. As he moves through the immigration process, his hands grasp only hope and his passport and visa. It is too late for fund-raising for a destroyed church; he asks for asylum.
Unbelievably, the authorities do not immediately allow him to pass. Joseph is detained, awaiting determination of his status and the efficacy of his request for sanctuary. His medicines are taken from him; his son, Maxo, who has traveled with him and who at one time had lived in the United States, is likewise detained and separated from the elderly man. Joseph, who has worked a lifetime for peace, who has brought dignity to anyone who needed him, is treated with less care than a stray dog. At the hearing to determine whether he should be granted asylum, deprived of his medicines and of adequate food, he turns violently ill, vomits in the court, and becomes unconscious. The medic who comes to examine him accuses him of faking the condition. Joseph is placed in the prison ward of a hospital, likely shackled, and soon dies. Using official documents, Danticat, who has been prevented from being at his side during the ordeal, describes in horrible detail the lacunae in his medical care and the perfidy in the records of the immigration interviews. The reader is spellbound, if profoundly offended and grieved, by the account of treatment Joseph receives in the United States.
Mira’s final days are much more humane. He is cared for at home. As death knocks gently at the sickroom door, the dying man asks for some food. His deteriorating body is well beyond hunger, but unexpectedly he says he would like some rice. He eats a small amount and then passes the plate to his daughter. “You have some,” he insists. The concerned daughter urges that he eat more. Then it becomes clear that nourishment of the body is not the issue. What the dying Mira craves is the companionship: someone to share food with him. While he is well cared for, during his illness family members have brought meals to him in his sickroom. Inadvertently, he has been denied the pleasure of eating with others, and Mira soon dies. The author describes the paramedics’ attempts to resuscitate the frail body. Danticat tells of the police officer standing by, whose job it was to determine that this death was natural and not caused by foul play. Such is the ironic contrast to the final hours of Uncle Joseph.
Edwidge Danticat is both the author and the anchor of the book. The story of the two brothers, their fraternal bond, and the parallels of their medical decline are held together by the common thread of the observing but never detached daughter of them both. Young Edwidge accompanies Uncle Joseph as he learns to deal with the loss of his voice. At the end, the adult Edwidge is the vocal witness to the ignominious story of his tragic death. With her father, she is caregiver and family support. Eventually, both slip from her life.
The theme of dying permeates the text. The atrocities of power that infest the changing governments in Haiti become real not only in the suffering of her uncle but also in the violent death of Edwidge’s cousin Madeline, a clinic nurse. Madeline has been a consistent member of the family in the salmon-colored house, the “adopted” daughter of Joseph and Denise. Her extended story is one of the many poignant narratives that the author sprinkles throughout the text.
The book’s ending leaves the faint odor of hope in the reader’s nostrils. The baby announced in the first chapter, a girl named Mira, is brought to the bedside of her dying grandfather. He is so weak that he can barely hold her, yet he rallies briefly to get out of bed to have a photograph taken of the two Miras. The frail man clutches this tiny promise of hope. It is unfortunate that this photograph, which embodies the pain and the possibility that the book narrates, is not included in the family pictures that decorate the book’s cover.
Danticat’s style is compelling. The fact that English is not her first language does not intrude in the well-written text. While this is her story as well, the spotlight focuses largely on other family members. Nowhere does the book descend into self-pity or self-absorption.
Although one can find some moments of hope and genuine joy, this is not a happy story. Its vivid descriptions of injustice and personal tragedy will haunt the reader long after the book has been closed. The powerful descriptions leap from the pages of the book to insert themselves into the fiber of the reader. How can such inhumanity linger in a modern world, not only in the scarred primitive hills of Haiti but also in the enlightened state singularly founded in freedom?
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 31
Booklist 103, no. 21 (July 1, 2007): 20.
Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 13 (July 1, 2007): 644.
Library Journal 132, no. 13 (August 1, 2007): 86-87.
The New York Times Book Review 156 (September 9, 2007): 1-10.
Publishers Weekly 254, no. 28 (July 16, 2007): 155-156.
World Literature Today 82, no. 1 (January/February, 2007): 74.