Caroline's Wedding

by Edwidge Danticat

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Thomson Gale

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Thomson Gale

In the following essay, the critic gives an overview of Edwidge Danticat’s work.

Fiction writer Edwidge Danticat conjures the history of her native Haiti in award-winning short stories and novels. She is equally at home describing the immigrant experience—what she calls ‘‘dyaspora’’—and the reality of life in Haiti today. Danticat’s fiction ‘‘has been devoted to an unflinching examination of her native culture, both on its own terms and in terms of its intersections with American culture,’’ wrote an essayist in Contemporary Novelists. ‘‘Danticat’s work emphasizes in particular the heroism and endurance of Haitian women as they cope with a patriarchal culture that, in its unswerving devotion to tradition and family, both oppresses and enriches them.’’ Readers will find ‘‘massacres, rapes, [and] horrible nightmares in Danticat’s fiction,’’ wrote an essayist in the St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, ‘‘but above all these are the strength, hope, and joy of her poetic vision.’’

Danticat’s first novel, the loosely autobiographical Breath, Eyes, Memory, was a 1998 selection of the Oprah Winfrey Book Club, thus assuring its best-seller status. Other Danticat works have won warm praise as well, with some critics expressing surprise that such assured prose has come from an author so young. Antioch Review correspondent Grace A. Epstein praised Danticat for ‘‘the real courage . . . in excavating the romance of nationalism, identity, and home.’’ Time reporter Christopher John Farley likewise concluded that Danticat’s fiction ‘‘never turns purple, never spins wildly into the fantastic, always remains focused, with precise disciplined language, and in doing so, it uncovers moments of raw humanness.’’

Danticat was born in Haiti and lived there the first twelve years of her life. She came to the United States in 1981, joining her parents who had already begun to build a life for themselves in New York City. When she started attending junior high classes in Brooklyn, she had difficulty fitting in with her classmates because of her Haitian accent, clothing, and hairstyle. Danticat recalled for Garry Pierre-Pierre in the New York Times that she took refuge from the isolation she felt in writing about her native land. As an adolescent she began work on what would evolve into her first novel, the acclaimed Breath, Eyes, Memory. Danticat followed her debut with a collection of short stories, Krik? Krak!—a volume which became a finalist for that year’s National Book Award. According to Pierre- Pierre, the young author has been heralded as ‘‘‘the voice’ of Haitian-Americans,’’ but Danticat told him, ‘‘I think I have been assigned that role, but I don’t really see myself as the voice for the Haitian-American experience. There are many. I’m just one.’’

Danticat’s parents wanted her to pursue a career in medicine, and with the goal of becoming a nurse, she attended a specialized high school in New York City. But she abandoned this aim to devote herself to her writing. An earlier version of Breath, Eyes, Memory served as her master of fine arts thesis at Brown University, and the finished version was published shortly thereafter. Like Danticat herself, Sophie Caco—the novel’s protagonist—spent her first twelve years in Haiti, several in the care of an aunt, before coming wide-eyed to the United States. But there the similarities end. Sophie is the child of a single mother, conceived by rape. Though she rejoins her mother in the United States, it is too late to save the still traumatized older woman from self-destruction. Yet women’s ties to women are celebrated in the novel, and Sophie draws strength from her mother, her aunt, and herself in order to...

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escape her mother’s fate.

Breath, Eyes, Memory caused some controversy in the Haitian-American community. Some of Danticat’s fellow Haitians did not approve of her writing of the practice of ‘‘testing’’ in the novel. In the story, female virginity is highly prized by Sophie’s family, and Sophie’s aunt ‘‘tests’’ to see whether Sophie’s hymen is intact by inserting her fingers into the girl’s vagina. Haitian-American women, some of whom have never heard of or participated in this practice, felt that Danticat’s inclusion of it portrayed them as primitive and abusive. American critics, however, appreciated Breath, Eyes, Memory. Joan Philpott in Ms. described the book as ‘‘intensely lyrical.’’ Pierre-Pierre reported that reviewers ‘‘have praised Ms. Danticat’s vivid sense of place and her images of fear and pain.’’ Jim Gladstone concluded in the New York Times Book Review that the novel ‘‘achieves an emotional complexity that lifts it out of the realm of the potboiler and into that of poetry.’’ And Bob Shacochis, in his Washington Post Book World review, called the work ‘‘a novel that rewards a reader again and again with small but exquisite and unforgettable epiphanies.’’ Shacochis added, ‘‘You can actually see Danticat grow and mature, come into her own strength as a writer, throughout the course of this quiet, soul-penetrating story about four generations of women trying to hold on to one another in the Haitian diaspora.’’

Krik? Krak! takes its title from the practice of Haitian storytellers. Danticat told Deborah Gregory of Essence that storytelling is a favorite entertainment in Haiti, and a storyteller inquires of his or her audience, ‘‘Krik?’’ to ask if they are ready to listen. The group then replies with an enthusiastic, ‘‘Krak!’’ The tales in this collection include one about a man attempting to flee Haiti in a leaky boat, another about a prostitute who tells her son that the reason she dresses up every night is that she is expecting an angel to descend upon their house, and yet another explores the feelings of a childless housekeeper in a loveless marriage who finds an abandoned baby in the streets. The New York Times Book Review reviewer, Robert Houston, citing the fact that some of the stories in Krik? Krak! were written while Danticat was still an undergraduate at Barnard College, felt that these pieces were ‘‘out of place in a collection presumed to represent polished, mature work.’’ But Ms. contributor Jordana Hart felt that the tales in Krik? Krak! ‘‘are textured and deeply personal, as if the twenty-six-year-old Haitian-American author had spilled her own tears over each.’’ Even Houston conceded that readers ‘‘weary of stories that deal only with the minutiae of ‘relationships’ will rejoice that they have found work that is about something, and something that matters.’’

Danticat’s novel The Farming of Bones concerns a historical tragedy, the 1937 massacre of Haitian farm workers by soldiers of the Dominican Republic. In the course of less than a week, an estimated 12,000–15,000 Haitian workers in the Dominican Republic were slaughtered by the Dominican government or by private citizens in a classic case of ‘‘ethnic cleansing.’’ The Farming of Bones is narrated by a young Haitian woman,Amabelle Desir, who has grown up in the Dominican Republic after being orphaned. As the nightmare unfolds around her, Amabelle must flee for her life, separated from her lover, Sebastien. In the ensuing decades as she nurses her physical and psychological wounds, Amabelle serves as witness to the suffering of her countrymen and the guilt of her former Dominican employers. The massacre, Danticat told Mallay Charters in Publishers Weekly, is ‘‘a part of our history, as Haitians, but it’s also a part of the history of the world.Writing about it is an act of remembrance.’’

Dean Peerman wrote in Christian Century that ‘‘Breath, Eyes, Memory was an impressive debut, but The Farming of Bones is a richer work, haunting and heartwrenching.’’ In Nation, Zia Jaffrey praised Danticat for ‘‘blending history and fiction, imparting information, in the manner of nineteenth-century novelists, without seeming to.’’ Jaffrey added: ‘‘Danticat’s brilliance as a novelist is that she is able to put this event into a credible, human context.’’ Farley also felt that the author was able to endow a horrific episode with a breath of humanity. ‘‘Every chapter cuts deep, and you feel it,’’ he stated, continuing on to say that Amabelle’s ‘‘journey from servitude to slaughter is heartbreaking.’’ In Amerícas, Barbara Mujica concluded that Danticat has written ‘‘a gripping novel that exposes an aspect of Dominican-Haitian history rarely represented in Latin American fiction. In spite of the desolation and wretchedness of the people Danticat depicts, The Farming of Bones is an inspiring book. It is a hymn to human resilience, faith, and hope in the face of overwhelming adversity.’’ Jaffrey ended her review by concluding that the novel is ‘‘a beautifully conceived work, with monumental themes.’’

Behind the Mountains takes the form of a diary of teenage Haitian Celiane Esperance. Celiane is happy in her home in the mountains of Haiti, but she hasn’t seen her father since he left for the United States years before. She had intended to join him in New York, along with her mother and older brother, but visa applications are inexorably slow. After eight years, the visas are granted, and the family reunites in Brooklyn. After an initially joyful reunion, however, the family begins to slowly unravel. A child when her father left Haiti, Celiane is now a young woman with her own mind and will. Her brother, Moy, a nineteen-year-old artist, does not quietly slip back into the role of obedient child. Even more universal concerns, such as the freezing New York winters, difficulties at school, and the need to make a living, chip away at the family’s unity. Good intentions go awry in a book showcasing ‘‘friction among family members’’ exacerbated by ‘‘the separation and adjustment to a new country,’’ but especially by the inevitable maturation of younger family members and the unwillingness of parents to acknowledge it, wrote Diane S. Morton in School Library Journal. Hazel Rochman, writing in Booklist, praised the ‘‘simple, lyrical writing’’ Danticat demonstrates in the novel. ‘‘Danticat brings her formidable skill as a writer and her own firsthand knowledge of Haiti and immigrating to America to this heartfelt story told in the intimate diary format,’’ wrote Claire Rosser in Kliatt.

In addition to her own works, Danticat has also edited the fiction of others, including The Butterfly’s Way: From the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States. This work is a collection of stories, poems, and essays from Haitian writers living in America and Europe, many of whom are concerned with the feeling of displacement that is perhaps an inevitable consequence of emigration. Denolyn Carroll suggested in Black Issues Book Review that the pieces in The Butterfly’s Way ‘‘help paint a vivid picture of what it is like to live in two worlds.’’ Carroll also felt that the work adds ‘‘new dimensions of understanding of Haitian emigrant’s realities. This compilation is a source of enlightenment for us all.’’ Booklist contributor Donna Seaman found the book ‘‘a potent and piercing collection’’ that will help all Americans understand ‘‘the frustrations . . . of Haitians who are now outsiders both in Haiti and in their places of refuge.’’

After the Dance: A Walk through Carnival in Haiti is Danticat’s nonfiction account of her first encounter with Carnival, the boisterous, sometimes debauched, sometimes dangerous celebrations that rock Haiti every year. As a child, she did not have the opportunity to attend Carnival. Her family inevitably packed up and left for a remote area in the Haitian mountains each year to escape the celebrations, perpetuating an almost superstitious distrust of the event. At times, though, staying clear has been a good idea. During the regime of Haitian dictator François ‘‘Papa Doc’’ Duvalier, carnival-goers were ‘‘subject to beatings and arrest by Duvalier’s infamously unregulated militamen,’’ wrote Judith Wynn in the Boston Herald. Danticat therefore approaches her first experience of Carnival uneasily. Her trip, however, beginning a week before the actual event, immerses her in the rich culture and history of Haiti, the cultural importance behind Carnival, and the background of the celebration itself. Danticat’s ‘‘lively narrative’’ describes a country with a deep history, ‘‘influenced by Christianity, voodoo, Europeans, pirates, dictators, past slavery, and an uncertain economy,’’ wrote Linda M. Kaufmann in Library Journal. Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist, observed that ‘‘as in her fiction, Danticat writes about her odyssey with an admirable delicacy and meticulousness,’’ while a Publishers Weekly critic noted that the author ‘‘offers an enlightening look at the country—and Carnival—through the eyes of one of its finest writers.’’

The Dew Breaker is a work of mystery and violence. It is a collection of short stories (many previously unpublished) connected by the character of the Dew Breaker, a torturer whose nickname is based on the fact that he attacks in the dawn before the dew has disappeared in the light of day. The Dew Breaker ultimately moves from Haiti to Brooklyn, becomes a barber, and raises a loving family. In Danticat’s stories, the Dew Breaker reveals his secrets out of guilt, and his victims reveal their secrets, too, to ease the pain of their memories.Danticat’s ‘‘spare, lyrical prose is ever present,’’ wrote Marjorie Valbrun in the Black Issues Book Review, ‘‘in the gentle telling of stories that are soft to the ear even when pain and violence seem to scream fromthe pages.’’ ‘‘The text presents two levels of truth,’’ commented Robert McCormick in World Literature Today. In the course of reading, one comes to understand much, he hinted, but ‘‘what we don’t know . . . is just as important.’’

Anacaona, Golden Flower: Haiti, 1490 is a novel for the upper elementary and middle school grades, written in the form of a diary. Anacaona is a young princess of the Taíno people who comes of age in the time of Christopher Columbus. She weds a royal chieftain who lives nearby and undergoes military training to defend her island home. Booklist reviewer Gillian Engberg predicted that ‘‘readers will connect with Danticat’s immediate, poetic language, Anacaona’s finely drawn growing pains, and the powerful, graphic story.’’

‘‘In order to create full-fledged, three-dimensional characters, writers often draw on their encounters, observations, collages of images from the everyday world, both theirs and others,’’ Danticat remarked in a biographical essay in Contemporary Novelists. ‘‘We are like actors, filtering through our emotions what life must be like, or must have been like, for those we write about. Truly we imagine these lives, aggrandize, reduce, or embellish, however we often begin our journey with an emotion close to our gut, whether it be anger, curiosity, joy, or fear.’’

Source: Thomson Gale, ‘‘Edwidge Danticat,’’ in Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Claire Robinson

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Claire Robinson

Robinson has an M.A. in English. She is a writer, editor, and former teacher of English literature and creative writing. In the following essay, Robinson examines how continuity and community are sought in the Haitian diaspora in Edwidge Danticat’s “Caroline’s Wedding.”

The central event of “Caroline’s Wedding,” the marriage of a young woman from a family of Haitian immigrants living in the United States, acts as the focus for a number of cross-generational and cross-cultural conflicts. While these conflicts threaten to divide the Azile family, by extension, similar conflicts also affect the wider Haitian community, whose members find themselves separated from friends, family, and homeland due to the diaspora caused by Haiti’s historical instability. The story opens with Ma making bone soup, an old Haitian ritual that she hopes will separate Caroline from her fiancé, Eric. Ma disapproves of Eric because he is not Haitian and no one in her family has married outside before. In addition, Eric’s courtship of Caroline has been very different from her own husband’s courtship of her. It has been informal, has involved pre-marital sex, and has been lacking in the traditional romantic, respectful courtship rituals that she proudly remembers her husband following in seeking her own hand. Worst of all, Caroline’s marriage will take place not in a church, but in a judge’s office. Ma compares the two and finds Caroline’s arrangements disappointingly “mechanical” and typically American. The conflict is a typical clash of generations and cultures.

[CALLOUT]
The words of the song suggest that being partially outside one's own culture, as Haitian immigrants to the United States such as Grace necessarily are, enables one to understand it better.

However, throughout the course of the story, Ma slowly and reluctantly becomes used to the idea of Caroline’s marriage. It is suggested, though not made explicit, that she comes to an understanding that the old ways that she has championed for so long have their limitations. This conclusion is revealed through the slow unfolding of Ma’s own tragic story, which makes clear that any advantages that Ma’s marriage had over Caroline’s in terms of romance and ritual were outweighed by internal weaknesses and hostile circumstances. Ma’s happiness did not last. First poverty then Papa’s marriage of convenience to another woman and departure for the United States helped to destroy the fabric of the marriage. While Ma continued to love her husband, he appears to have ceased to love her. Ma never gets over the grief: “My heart has a store of painful marks . . . and that is one of them.”

It is open to question whether Ma’s admission of the truth about her marriage mellows her attitude toward Caroline’s, but the parallels suggest that this is the case. Ma’s marriage to Papa had all the traditional external formalities in place but was wrecked by betrayal, unrequited love, and grief. Caroline’s wedding to Eric lacks traditional ritual, but their relationship is one of mutual trust and caring, and they almost certainly know one another better than did Caroline’s parents before their wedding. The gap between Ma’s expectations of her marriage and the reality prompts her late in the story to ask Grace to destroy all traces of Papa’s courtship of her and their marriage after her death. Such an act would be the exact opposite of Ma’s usual determination to preserve the old ways and memories at all costs.

Caroline, for her part, also subtly changes in her attitude toward Ma’s traditional Haitian beliefs and practices during the course of the story. With her chemically straightened hair and non-Haitian fiancé, Caroline appears to have completely assimilated the ways of her adopted country, the United States. Her attitude toward Ma’s attachments to the old rituals, such as making bone soup and attending mass, varies from good-natured tolerance, engaging in small deceptions to save Ma’s feelings (such as going home after dinner at Eric’s but then secretly catching a cab back to Eric’s so that she can sleep with him without upsetting Ma), to plain irritation. It is clear that Caroline has no emotional attachment to Haiti’s traditional beliefs—certainly not as much as Grace. Grace was born in Haiti and retains a strong sense of tradition, yet she has just been delighted to receive her U.S. citizenship. She acts as a conduit and mediator between Ma and Caroline, explaining and justifying the ways of each to the other.

The turning point for Caroline begins when she feels ill just before her wedding. This part of Caroline’s journey is expressed through the symbolism of her missing forearm. When she appears in her wedding dress wearing a new false arm, she explains that she has been having phantom pain in her arm such as amputees experience, and a doctor told her that the false arm may make it go away. When Ma points out that she is not an amputee, Caroline replies that the pressure of the wedding is making her feel like one. Ma says, “In that case, we all have phantom pain.” As Caroline prepares to leave Ma’s home and marry the non-Haitian Eric, the pain in her arm symbolically suggests that she is more attached to her homeland and her home than she consciously realizes. Ma’s comment about phantom pain underlines the symbolism. She is referring to the sense of loss that refugees and dispossessed people feel. The false arm may symbolically indicate the myriad ways that people suffering loss try to compensate and feel whole again; getting married is one way; becoming a citizen of one’s adopted country is another.

Ma rescues Caroline from her pain. She takes care of her, gives her a bath, and revives her with a traditional Haitian herbal treatment. What is more, Ma knows exactly what Caroline needs because she felt the same on her wedding day. In giving herself up to Ma’s care, Caroline is brought to surrender to and honor the accumulated wisdom of countless generations of Haitian women. It is evident that Ma’s attitude towards Caroline’s marriage has thawed when she tells Caroline that she is eager to be a guest in her new house, the first overture she has made towards the couple in their new life together. The episode shows the relationship between mother and daughter to be unique and irreplaceable. It emphasizes the continuity that will overcome their physical separation through Caroline’s marriage. Each comes to understand and accept the other. Danticat’s use of Haitian ritual and tradition underlines this point. At the beginning of the story, Ma employs an old Haitian ritual—the making and serving of bone soup—against Caroline, to try to separate her from Eric. But at the story’s end, she turns to the healing ritual of the herbal bath to calm and support her daughter before her marriage.

Traditions such as these enable Haitians everywhere to reconnect with lost loved ones, culture, and homeland through times of suffering and diaspora. But keeping those traditions alive depends upon memory. In Laura Jamison’s review for the San Francisco Examiner of Krik? Krak!, “The Exquisite Tales of Edwidge Danticat,” Danticat is quoted as saying, “In Haiti, memories are important. They give you hope for the future if present circumstances are not very good.” Memory is a major theme of “Caroline’s Wedding.” It is also one of Grace’s chief preoccupations. Grace finds that preserving the memory of Haitian traditions is not easy in the face of modern life in a very different country. She becomes upset when her father, in a dream on the night after Caroline’s wedding, accuses her of having forgotten how to play the question-and-answer game. He asks her, “What kinds of legends will your daughters be told? What sort of charms will you give them to ward off evil?” For the first time, she feels afraid of him. She feels disturbed at her loss of the traditions that he kept alive in his perfect memory and of the safeguard that they offer against fear and insecurity. She intuitively knows the importance of such games in maintaining her cultural identity and her closeness to her family members, both dead and alive. Finally, she is driven by this experience to seek from Ma what she has lost.

In the Haitian tradition, Ma answers Grace’s question by asking another. She asks Grace, “Why is it that when you lose something, it is always in the last place that you look for it?” On one level, this is Ma’s wry reference to what she sees as her daughters’ neglect of the old Haitian ways that she espouses; in their new lives in the United States, she has become the last person they consult. On a deeper level, it is a profound statement about the paradox of memory, summed up in the old Haitian proverb that provides the answer to Ma’s question. Grace knows the answer to this question well: “Because . . . once you remember, you always stop looking.” While memory keeps alive the history and culture of Haiti, a feat performed to perfection by Papa, once one has remembered, one ceases to seek. The absolute success of memory means the end of seeking, which ultimately means the loss of living history and culture. This paradox is summed up in the Haitian song that is playing on the radio immediately after Grace’s dream in which she fails to answer her father’s questions about the traditions of the country:

Beloved Haiti, there is no place like you.
I had to leave you before I could understand you.

The words of the song suggest that being partially outside one’s own culture, as Haitian immigrants to the United States such as Grace necessarily are, enables one to understand it better.

Source: Claire Robinson, Critical Essay on “Caroline’s Wedding,” in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale2007.

Rocio G. Davis

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Rocio G. Davis

In the following essay, Davis explores Danticat’s particular use of the short story cycle in Krik? Krak!, which reflects the oral narrative and, through this narration, articulates ‘‘the process toward ethnic self-identification.’’

Only when ethnic literature liberates its sources of meaning from hegemonic impositions and begins to inform theory and subvert traditional signifying strategies can it begin to reconfigure cultural interpretation. As though responding to this challenge, ethnic fiction demonstrates a proliferation of the short story cycle, a form until now most clearly defined within the Euro-American literary tradition, that many ethnic writers have adapted for the formulation of their processes of subjectivity. Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place, Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, and Louise Erdich’s Love Medicine emblematize how ethnic writers appropriate the specifics of this narrative genre to engage with the dynamics of meaning. This article will explore the short story cycle as a vehicle for the development of ethnic literature by analyzing Haitian-American Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak! to show how the drama of identity and community is mediated through a genre that is linked to the oral narrative, itself a way of fostering imaginative communities and developing identities.

The dynamics of the short story cycle make it appropriate for the quest for a definition of the cultural pluralism that incorporates immigrant legacies while adapting to the practices of the culture in which these works are created. A cycle may be defined as ‘‘a set of stories linked to each other in such a way as to maintain a balance between the individuality of each of the stories and the necessities of the larger unit’’ (Ingram 15). The term ‘‘short story cycle’’ implies a structural scheme for the working out of an idea, characters, or themes, even a circular disposition in which the constituent narratives are simultaneously independent and interdependent. The challenge of each cycle is twofold: the collection must assert the individuality and independence of each of the component parts while creating a necessary interdependence that emphasizes the wholeness and unity of the work. Consistency of theme and an evolution from one story to the next are among the classic requirements of the form, with recurrence and development as the integrated movements that effect final cohesion (Ingram 20).

The essential characteristics of the short story cycle abound in the literatures of the world: Homer’s Odyssey, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, the Indian Panchatantra, the Arabian A Thousand and One Nights, and Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur reflect the fundamental separation and cohesion of the form as defined by twentieth-century critics. Cycles figure prominently in twentieth-century American literature: Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time and Raymond Carver’s Cathedral, among others, have constituted and popularized the form within the ‘‘mainstream’’ canon. By appropriating and transforming this narrative genre as established and defined by ‘‘mainstream’’ writers and critics, Danticat, like other ethnic writers, intervenes in the dominant Euro-American literary tradition. A text such as Krik? Krak! challenges hegemonic discourse on several levels, as the author exploits the advantages of the established structure and theme to present her version of the immigrant story, blending cultural traditions and codes for innovative literary representation.

The short story cycle looks back to oral traditions of narrative while embodying signs of modernity. One of its most salient features is its attempt to emulate the act of storytelling, the effort of a speaker to establish solidarity with an implied audience by recounting a series of tales linked by their content or by the conditions in which they are related. The experience of the oral narrative, of telling and listening to stories, has been a vital part of the development of the body of thought and tradition that has formed culture and united diverse peoples. As Walter Ong argues, in its physical constitution as sound, the spoken word manifests human beings to each other as persons and forms them into close-knit groups: when a speaker is addressing an audience, the members of the audience normally become a unity, with themselves and with the speaker. Much of the vividness of the oral narrative comes precisely from the fact that it resists writing, preserving the spoken word as always ‘‘an event, a movement in time, completely lacking in the thing-like repose of the written or printed word’’ (Ong 74).

Sarah Hardy’s comparison of the short story and the oral narrative is, I believe, equally applicable to the story cycle: ‘‘A single theme or episode . . . pulls in the direction of its own self-contained narrative line, towards other similar and parallel stories, and towards certain patterns of language or a particular set of symbols. . . . In other words, the presence of an audience is vital to the completion and validity of the short-story [cycle] form just as it is in an oral setting.’’ The title of Danticat’s cycle sets it clearly within the oral narrative. She invites the reader not merely to read the book but to participate in a traditional Haitian storytelling ritual. ‘‘Krik? Krak! is call-response but it’s also this feeling that you’re not merely an observer—you’re part of the story. Someone says, ‘Krik?’ and as loudly as you can you say ‘Krak!’ You urge the person to tell the story by your enthusiasm to hear it’’ (Shea 12).

In the stories, Danticat examines the lives of ordinary Haitians: those struggling to survive under the cruel Duvalier regime and others who have left the country, highlighting the distance between people’s dreams and the distressing reality of their lives. As Ethan Casey points out: ‘‘Writers will spend precious time accounting for what has happened, it is true; the literary challenge is to write about Haiti in the vocabulary of human tragedy and human survival.’’ As such, the book becomes a literary response to the Haitian situation and a feeling description of the immigration of the 1980s. Importantly, Danticat’s presentation of the theme of storytelling through the technique of storytelling locates her writing within what Jay Clayton has called the ‘‘narrative turn’’ in recent ethnic fiction, which stresses the political dimensions of form, making the pragmatics of traditional narrative a theme in the fiction. Through technical experimentation with the story cycle, Danticat heightens the power of narrative, elucidating the significance of the oral mode to her characters by positioning the theme within a genre that engages it on different levels. Importantly, the blending of the performative dimension of storytelling in form and content allows Danticat to expand the reach of her art by making the text dramatize as well as signify.

In a note distributed by her publisher, Danticat defines the challenge she set herself: ‘‘I look to the past—to Haiti—hoping that the extraordinary female story tellers I grew up with—the ones that have passed on—will choose to tell their stories through my voice. For those of us who have a voice must speak to the present and the past’’ (qtd. in Casey 525–26). Danticat’s narrative presents the voices and visions of women, usually mothers and daughters, whose personal tragedies impel them to form community in the midst of oppression and exile. Because the practice of breaking silence has become one of the shaping myths in the writings of ethnic women, storytelling in the cycle becomes both a medium of self-inscription and subjectivity and an instrument for dialogue. The telling of stories heals past experiences of loss and separation; it also forges bonds between women by preserving tradition and female identity as it converts stories of oppression into parables of self-affirmation and individual empowerment. The manner in which Danticat links the stories with the processes of self-inscription by the different women becomes a metaphor for the negotiation of the characters’ strategies of survival.

The profoundly oral character of Haitian culture is illustrated on both textual and contextual levels in Krik? Krak!. The epigraph to the cycle, a quote from Sal Scalora from ‘‘White Darkness/Black Dreamings,’’ discloses the purpose of the old tradition: ‘‘We tell the stories so that the young ones will know what came before them. They ask Krik? We say Krak! Our stories are kept in our hearts.’’ Seven of the nine stories are told in the first person, with two of them written as monologues, and the rest alternating two voices in the narration. The epilogue, ‘‘Women Like Us,’’ is written in the second person, a technique with rich connotations in a contemporary text inspired by the oral tradition. The art of storytelling figures importantly in several of the tales. The game of ‘‘Krik? Krak!’’ is played in the first story as a way for the refugees on the boat to wile away the fearful hours. In ‘‘Wall of Fire Rising,’’ the inhabitants of the town who watched a state-sponsored newscast every evening ‘‘stayed at the site long after this gendarme had gone and told stories to one another beneath the big blank screen.’’ The night woman whispers her mountain stories in her son’s ear, ‘‘stories of the ghost women and the stars in their hair. I tell him of the deadly snakes lying at one end of the rainbow and the hat full of gold lying at the other. I tell him that if I cross a stream of glass-clear hibiscus, I can make myself a goddess.’’ ‘‘We know people by their stories’’, one of the characters declares, signalling how storytelling, which educates people in imaginative history and community values, provides an organic link between the past and the lives of the people in the present.

Other stories present verbal games that serve both as entertainment and strategy for identification and survival. Among the rituals that unite the women in the stories is the verbal code established in times of trial which was used to signal belonging. When Josephine meets a woman who claims to be part of the group who went on pilgrimages to the Massacre River, she questions her in the secret way because ‘‘if she were really from the river, she would know. . . all the things that my mother had said to the sun as we sat with our hands dipped in the water, questioning each other, making up codes and disciplines by which we would always know who the other daughters of the river were.’’ This question-and-answer ritual is kept alive by Gracina and Caroline in Brooklyn: ‘‘We sat facing each other in the dark, playing a free-association game that Ma had taught us when we were girls. . . . Ma too had learned this game when she was a girl. Her mother belonged to a secret women’s society in Ville Rose, where the women had to question each other before entering one another’s houses.’’ This game, played in the United States, carries within it memories of the lost country and links to those who have died. Gracina will be charged, in a dream, with remembering the lost past through the paradigm of the game: ‘‘If we were painters, which landscapes would we paint? . . . When you become mothers, how will you name your sons? . . . What kind of lullabies do we sing to our children at night?Where do you bury your dead? . . . What kind of legends will your daughters be told?’’ The commission, which emphasizes the power of the word, implies that the daughters must be similarly creative and constructive. The words and the hidden meanings in their mothers’ verbal games form a significant starting point from which they can develop their own voice and autonomy because a space is created within the inherited contest in which their own representation is possible. Drawing from a rich source of oral traditions, as well as from their own experience and imagination, the daughters can then construct and claim their own subjectivity. . . .

On different levels, ethnic short story cycles may project a desire to come to terms with a past that is both personal and collective: this type of fiction often explores the ethnic character and history of a community as a reflection of a personal odyssey of displacement, and search for self and community. More specifically, the two principal thematic constituents of the ethnic story cycle are the presentation of identity and community as separate entities and the notion of an identity within a community, again, a common theme of ethnic fiction. In Danticat’s case, the textual tension arises from the presentation of women who struggle to establish and preserve the bonds of the Haitian community in the United States through powerful links with the mother country. Her stories, centering on the politics and the people of Haiti and Haitian immigrants to the United States, illustrate the numerous and varied connective strands that serve to draw the individuals of the short story cycle into a single community. The passage from appreciation of individual stories to the whole presented in the cycle marks the shift from the individual to community, setting the individual against the social group to which he or she belongs. The connections that are established will therefore yield what J. Gerald Kennedy has called the ‘‘defining experience’’ of the short story cycle: a vision of community accumulated by the reader’s discernment of meanings and parallels inherent in the composite scheme. This movement, witnessed in other cycles by women such as Tan’s The Joy Luck Club and Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place, constitutes the collective protagonist, the community, as the central character of the cycle.

The individual stories in Krik? Krak! present versions of life in and away from Haiti that create a composite portrait of the Haitian and her world. Although the stories are independent and written in different styles, they inform and enrich one another. In ‘‘Caroline’s Wedding,’’ the protagonist and her mother attend a funeral service for those who died at sea in the first story. The seaside town of Ville Rose figures in the lives of many of the female characters: the young woman and her parents in ‘‘Children of the Sea’’ seek refuge there when she is being sought by the police; this town is also the setting of the stories ‘‘The Missing Peace,’’ ‘‘Night Women,’’ and ‘‘Seeing Things Simply.’’ More importantly, a common ancestry links the women in the diverse stories. The main character of ‘‘Between the Pool and the Gardenias’’ is the goddaughter of Lili from ‘‘A Wall of Fire Rising’’ and the granddaughter of Défílé, imprisoned for witchcraft in ‘‘1937.’’ As Renée Shea signals, these details serve to show that the many narrators come to understand their connections and their place primarily ‘‘through the bonds of women.’’

The presentation of women and their relationships, specifically that of mothers and daughters, is pivotal to Danticat’s narrative. In this sense, she reflects the same concerns as another emblematic mother-daughter short story cycle, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. Both complex ensembles of stories told by mothers and daughters are innovative variations of the traditional mother-daughter plot, which focuses on the daughter’s perspective and the foregrounding of the voices of mothers as well as daughters (Heung 599). The women in both cycles are primarily responsible for the perpetuation of culture and bonds with the lost homeland. The mothers play major roles in the daughters’ lives and growth, a role that provides the daughters with models for self-affirmation. Although the mothers all have different names and individual stories, they seem interchangeable in that their role as mother supersedes all others. The discrete identities of the women are woven into a collectivized interchangeability through the cycle’s juxtapositions of characters and motifs. Through the narrative interweaving of time frames and voices, both Danticat and Tan unite generations of women within a relational network that links grandmothers, mothers, daughters, aunts, and sisters. For these women, however, ‘‘mutual nurturance does not rise from biological connections alone; rather, it is an act affirming consciously chosen allegiances’’ (Heung 612–13).

In stories where the mother/daughter bond is broken by the mother’s death, this loss is viewed as devastating and must be compensated for by the daughter’s taking the place of the mother or finding mother substitutes. Josephine, in ‘‘1937,’’ is taught early in life the importance of a mother and need to belong to a history of women: ‘‘Manman had taken my hand and pushed it into the river, no further than my wrist. . . . With our hands in the water, Manman spoke to the sun. ‘Here is my child, Josephine. We were saved from the tomb of this river when she was still in my womb. You spared us both, her and me, from this river where I lost my mother.’’’ She joins the yearly All Saint’s Day pilgrimage to Massacre River with the women who had lost their mothers there:

My mother would hold my hand tightly as we walked toward the water. We were all daughters of that river, which had taken our mothers from us. Our mothers were the ashes and we were the light. Our mothers were the embers and we were the sparks. Our mothers were the flames and we were the blaze . . . The river was the place where it had all begun. ‘‘At least I gave birth to my daughter on the night that my mother was taken from me,’’ she would say. ‘‘At least you came out at the right moment to take my mother’s place.’’

The narrator of ‘‘Between the Pool and the Gardenias’’ reiterates the idea of the loss of a mother and importance of the link with past generations: ‘‘For no matter how much distance death tried to put between us, my mother would often come to visit me . . . There were many nights when I saw some old women leaning over my bed. ‘That there is Marie,’ my mother would say. ‘She is now the last one of us left.’’’As exemplified in this story, Danticat locates subjectivity in the maternal and employs it as a axis between the past and the present.

Other daughters feel the need to complete the work their mothers had left undone. Emilie, in ‘‘The Missing Peace,’’ comes to Ville Rose to search for her mother, a journalist who disappeared while on assignment in the area. Part of her pursuit involves an attempt to bond with her lost mother by fulfilling one of her dreams: ‘‘I am going to sew [the small pieces of cloth] onto that purple blanket. . . . All her life, my mother’s wanted to sew some old things together into that piece of purple cloth.’’Her search parallels that of Lamort, named because her mother died when she was born: ‘‘‘They say a girl becomes a woman when she loses her mother,’ [Emilie] said. ‘You, child, were born a woman.’’’ An epiphany comes for both women as they are forced to face and accept the loss of their mothers: ‘‘I became a woman last night. . . . I lost my mother and all my other dreams’’, Emilie says. Lamort will take her mother’s name, Marie Magdaléne, as her rightful heritage. Though these stories reflect loss and a sense of a lack of affiliation, the overwhelming movement is toward reconciliation and pertinence, confirming the necessity and the possibility of seeking connection even after death.

Occasions in which communication between mother and child is obstructed result in confusion and unnecessary hurt. Two stories that mirror each other present the mother leading a secret life that her offspring does not know about. ‘‘Night Women,’’ set in Haiti, is a mother’s monologue as she gazes at her sleeping son. ‘‘There are two kinds of women: day women and night women. I am stuck between the day and night in a golden amber bronze’’, she says. Corollary to this, the story entitled ‘‘New York Day Women’’ has a daughter watching, unobserved, as her mother makes her way from her home in Brooklyn to Madison Avenue where in Central Park she cares for a young child while his Yuppie mother goes jogging: ‘‘This mother of mine, she stops at another hot-dog vendor and buys a frankfurter that she eats on the street. I never knew that she ate frankfurters . . . Day women come out when nobody expects them.’’ Both stories emphasize the different worlds that mothers and children inhabit while linking the mothers. Furthermore, issues of race and class oppression suggested in both stories serve as factors that complicate maternal relationships because they lead the mothers to find ways of surviving or of asserting independence that they cannot, or will not, share with their children. The second story also suggests that the rift between mother and daughter may be brought about by attitudes towards immigration. Exile, which implies the loss of an original place, banishes belonging to memory and often causes dissociation from both the old ways and the new home. The process of diasporic self-formation is presented here through the growing distance between mother and daughter who struggle to define new identities and decide what to keep and what to relinquish.

This theme recurs in ‘‘Caroline’s Wedding,’’ where conflict centers on the American-born daughter’s impending marriage with a Bahamanian and her mother’s reactions to it. Gracina, the daughter born in Haiti, tries to serve as buffer between the two points of view. She understands her mother’s dreams: ‘‘Ma wanted Eric to officially come and ask her permission to marry her daughter. She wanted him to bring his family to our house and have his father ask her blessing. She wanted Eric to kiss up to her, escort her around, buy her gifts, and shower her with compliments. Ma wanted a full-blown church wedding. She wanted Eric to be Haitian.’’ For Caroline, the old country’s rules do not determine her obligations nor her mother’s authority. The traditional role of a Haitian mother has been greatly curtailed in America, and the mother has had to learn to deal with daughters whose way of life is American: ‘‘When we were children, whenever we rejected symbols of Haitian culture, Ma used to excuse us with great embarrassment and say, ‘You know, they are American.’Why didn’t we like the thick fatty pig skin that she would deep-fry so long that it tasted like rubber. We were Americans and we had no taste buds. A double tragedy.’’ ‘‘In Haiti, you own your children and they find it natural’’, their mother would say, which explains her sense of loss at what she considers abandonment by her younger daughter. The relationships between the mother and daughters in this Haitian American family underline some of the cross-generational and cross-cultural conflicts typical of ethnic texts. At the end of the story, the relationship will rest on the daughters’ recognition of the value of the mother’s establishment of community that provides them with the resources they need to survive on their own.

There is an obsessive need to find and establish familial and historical connections with other Haitians. Because ‘‘Ma says all Haitians know each other’’, the community in America survives. The immigrants experience continued and profound nostalgia for the lost home though their children chaff at the extent of this loyalty: ‘‘Twenty years we have been saving all kinds of things for the relatives in Haiti. I need a place in the garage for an exercise bike.’’ The song ‘‘Beloved Haiti, there is no place like you, I had to leave you before I could understand you’’ is sung by the refugees in the first story and listened to on the radio in the last.

In consequence, history also becomes a protagonist in Krik? Krak! as stories set in Haiti directly or indirectly involve historical events. ‘‘1937,’’ for instance, centers on the Dominican Republic’s dictator Rafael Trujillo’s massacre of Haitians at the river separating Haiti from the Dominican Republic. Furthermore, Danticat has commented that the original title of the first story was ‘‘From the Ocean Floor’’ but that she decided to change it to ‘‘Children of the Sea’’ to emphasize the link to the Middle Passage. ‘‘It’s a very powerful image—from the ocean floor,’’ she explains. ‘‘No one knows how many people were lost on The Middle Passage. There are no records or graves—and the ocean floor is where our fossils are. The journey from Haiti in the 1980s is like a new middle passage. Not to romanticize it, but the comforting thing about death is that somehow all these people will meet. I often think that if my ancestors are at the bottom of the sea, then I too am a part of that. So we are all children of the sea’’ (Shea 12). Gracina, in ‘‘Caroline’s Wedding,’’ reflects on this ancient belief that links Haitians: ‘‘There are people in Ville Rose, the village where my mother is from in Haiti, who believe that there are special spots in the sea where lost Africans who jumped off the slave ships still rest, that those who died at sea have been chosen to make that journey in order to be reunited with their long-lost relations.’’ The death of the people in the refugee boat in the first story will establish historical links, forging a community of Haitians that includes not only those alive in the present time but also those lost in the past.

Though the stories in Krik? Krak! have a continuity derived from recurrent themes and motifs, they are more profoundly linked by a spiritual vision where the bonds between women are imperative for survival. The most vivid metaphor for interconnections, echoes, and blending appears with Danticat’s image of braids in the final section, ‘‘Epilogue: Women Like Us,’’ a meditative finale to the nine stories. ‘‘When you write,’’ she says, ‘‘it’s like braiding your hair. Taking a handful of coarse unruly strands and attempting to bring them unity.’’ Danticat uses this ritualistic image to illustrate the inseparable strands of history and the need for community:

Your mother, she introduced you to the first echoes of the tongue that you now speak when at the end of the day she would braid your hair while you sat between her legs, scrubbing the kitchen pots. . . . When she was done, she would ask you to name each braid after those nine hundred and ninety-nine women who were boiling in your blood, and since you had written them down and memorized them, the names would come rolling off your tongue. And this was your testament to the way that these women lived and died and lived again.

The persona in the epilogue pays tribute to what she calls ‘‘Kitchen Poets,’’ those voices ‘‘urging you to speak through the blunt tip of your pencil.’’ The storytelling tradition, essential for the transmission of lives and cultures, strengthens the connections between women:

With every step you take, there is an army of women watching over you. We are never any farther than the sweat on your brows or the dust on your toes . . . you have never been able to escape the pounding of a thousand other hearts that have outlived yours by thousands of years. And over the years when you have needed us, you have always cried ‘Krik?’ and we have answered ‘Krak!’ and it has shown us that you have not forgotten us.

The use of the second-person narrator implicates the reader/listener, inviting her to participate in the storytelling act, commisioning her, as with many of the characters, with the task of telling, of participating in the process of creating and preserving community though narrative.

Considering the urgency and implications of the identity politics within which Danticat works and her awareness of the dynamics of the culturally diverse audience of her story, her innovative use of narrative perspective in the concluding section of her cycle further challenges the construct of a monolithic ‘‘you.’’ Ethnic writers who use the second-person address are aware that ‘‘assumptions that white middle and upper class audiences bring to the act of reading are thus foregrounded and exposed—particularly the insidious assumption that they are, ‘naturally,’ the universal you addressed by the text’’ (Richardson 323–24). Opening up a possibility for the narratee, the second-person point of view also opens up a possibility for the reader. The use of the narrative ‘‘you’’ becomes one of the more interesting facets of literary theory and criticism because, while in standard fiction the protagonist/ narratee is quite distinct from the actual or implied reader, this mode of narration often collapses this distinction because the ‘‘you’’ could refer to the reader as well.

Danticat’s epilogue to her short story cycle forces the reader to face the experience of cultural betweenness and choices in the manner that implicates most directly, pulling her into the drama and suggesting that this is, more than just a Haitian-American story and dilemma, everyone’s as well. Although the oral community figured in Krik? Krak! is clearly distinct from the mass readership in the US and European markets, Danticat, by identifying and contesting the assumed ‘‘you,’’ generates a widening of discursive space, where more and more diverse voices may be heard and similarly plural subjectivities may be addressed. This concluding strategy is Danticat’s tour de force, the final touch to the integration of theme and technique, as she weaves the formal strands of oral narrative and story cycle with the contextual telling of women’s lives, expanding the reach of the stories and drawing more people into the experience.

This short story cycle, as a discourse on ethnic self-definition has recollections or personal experiences of Haiti as an important aspect of the creation of self. The questions the characters ask themselves are answered through narratives that, in reflecting the form of the oral narrative, articulate almost epic tales of survivors. Edwidge Danticat has turned to roots— family, community, and ethnicity—as a source of personal identity and creative expression. The manner in which she, like other ethnic writers, has appropriated the short story cycle as a metaphor for the fragmentation and multiplicity of ethnic lives is itself an articulation of the process towards ethnic self-identification. The subsequent narrative, in turning to past forms of narration and reflecting a tendency towards a hybrid form, provides enriching glimpses of societies in the process of transformation and growth. The vivid dream and aspiration that remains at the end of the book is succinctly proclaimed by Josephine: ‘‘I raised my head toward the sun thinking, one day I may just see my mother there. ‘Let her flight be joyful,’ I said to Jacqueline. ‘And mine and yours too.’’’

Source: Rocio G. Davis, ‘‘Oral Narrative as Short Story Cycle: Forging Community in Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak!,’’ in MELUS, Vol. 26, No. 2, Summer 2001,pp. 65–80.

Hal Wylie

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Hal Wylie

In the following review, Danticat’s collection Krik? Krak! is praised as ‘‘well told and dramatic.’’Wylie also notes that the author’s work places particular focus on ‘‘parental stories’’ passed on to instill ‘‘essential values.’’

Edwidge Danticat is a major new talent who combines her Haitian heritage with her first-class American education to produce stories that transcend the quest for Haitian identity to scrutinize the modern world. Born in Haiti in 1969, she spent her first twelve years in the new Haiti of violence and horror, before moving to New York City. The emotions of her childhood made her a published writer by age fourteen, and seem to have sharpened her vision.

Danticat is not the first Haitian to write in English, but she is the first to gain attention. Her hybrid nature reflects the no-longer-isolated Haiti that has emerged as a pivotal crossroads of the Third World, with large diasporas of Haitians living in New York, Canada, and France. Danticat is representative of the new immigrant literatures. Her characters are haunted by their mixed culture but often are able to transcend the problem and find ways to cope. Perhaps this is true because the lines of communication between mothers and daughters (and other relatives) remain open, even when major conflicts emerge. Danticat and her daughter protagonists are good at exploring their heritage, tradition, and current situation to locate central values.

Krik? Krak! consists of nine stories, the last almost a novella. The first five are more fictional, more sensational, and sketch in the major aspects of Haiti’s social situation today: the boat people, the misery and violence, the Macoutes. They are well told and dramatic. However, I prefer the last four, which are more autobiographical. Here the author’s power of transforming small everyday realities into ‘‘story,’’ are most clearly visible; the directly observed seems more universal, the stories more gripping.

The last story ‘‘Caroline’s Wedding,’’ is the longest and best. Recalling the family drama of Danticat’s 1994 novel Breath, Eyes, Memory, (see WLT 69:2, p. 417), it is the most penetrating in exploring the psychology of assimilation. There are two daughters here, both resisting the domination of a tyrannical mother. The protagonist watches her sister break away while moderating the trauma. Caroline was born without a left forearm, an existential reality that increases the impact and credibility of the story as it is woven into the frame of cross-references. She likes to have her stub stroked, even though almost everybody is afraid of it. Her mother tells its story (she has lots of stories, which explain and justify reality): pregnant, she was arrested in a sweatshop raid and given a shot to tranquilize her in prison.

In all her works, Danticat focuses on the way parental stories pass on a heritage and mold the child’s character.

Source: Hal Wylie, Review of Krik? Krak!, in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 1, Winter 1996, p. 224.

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