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...
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