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 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...
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