Saturday, December 13, 2008

The gifts that keep on giving

With the world economy imploding, newspapers would normally have nothing to distract worried readers except post-Dickensian seasonal miracles - the soup kitchen run by a reformed meth addict and soccer mom, the lost dog who hitched a ride home on a corporate jet. There appears to be an endless supply of such stories at this time of year, and an endless temptation for editors to run them.

But the recent news cycle has provided a better brand of consolation, one more suited to the exceptional times we're living through. Just five days ago the Governor of Illinois Rod Blagojevich was arrested by the FBI for blatant acts of political corruption only matched by the blatancy of his recorded phone conversations. (His wife's were no church picnic either.) Then yesterday came the news of former Nasdaq chairman Bernard Maddoff's unprecedented $50 billion Ponzi scheme, embroiling some of the country's and indeed the world's most prestigious investors, hedge funds and philanthropies. Whereas Blagojevich had been under investigation for years, Maddoff appears to have flown essentially under the official radar until the recent financial crisis made his historic fraud too hard to hide.

Homecoming puppies are adorable but when we're all hurting and confused nothing succeeds like schadenfreude. The stories of these two men provide precious journalistic theater in a time of troubles, holding a mirror up to our current economic and political disasters but reflecting them in a form everyone can enjoy (at least if you weren't investing with Maddoff). Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus - just don't ask how he funds his operations.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Casey chases a ball

The madcap trees
in Crocker Park
shake their tops
like Shirley
Maclaine -
redhaired, testy
indefatigable,
declaming
rebirth and
the cycle of life
against all falls

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Head of the year

Like the U.S. Congress, I'm on a break today for the Jewish holidays. A damp, overcast but still warmish morning with the scent of fall in the air. I am skipping all religious obligations except for tashlik, tossing stale bread to the gulls off the Marblehead end of Boston Harbor, followed by a celebratory buffet at a friend's house. Gluttony is obviously not a sin I plan to cast away today. Or sloth. Or lust for that matter. But pride, envy, anger and greed are good to go -- the last not something I'm prone to myself, but I'll throw it off vicariously on behalf of all the recently humbled derivative traders out there. (The traditional Catholic Seven Deadlies make a convenient shopping list for sinners, even if they don't map precisely to the more comprehensive, once a year Yom Kippur line up.)

Actually I will spare some anger for everyone, Democrat or Republican, who contributed to not passing the bailout package in the House of Representatives yesterday. And for the ugliness and arrogance and stupidity of John McCain's recent carping against Barack Obama on this subject. Though maybe I should take the longer view. One small bright side of the recent crisis amidst so many dark ones is that Democratic presidential candidates always do better in bad economic times. And McCain's posturing and erratic judgement appears to be eroding his support yet further, to judge by polls in the last few days. The more McCain inflates his own role in the Congressional deliberations, the more he blames the Democrats even while touting bipartisanship, the more he's likely to suffer as partisanship by both sides drags out the process and the pain. Happy thoughts!

I don't know if it's the mental image of being on a beach, reminding me of the opening scenes of the movie "Chariots of Fire," but this song from Blake's Milton--which has become a popular Anglican hymn--has been playing in my head for the last few minutes. So let's pause the Rosh Hashanah retrospection and move ahead to post visions of Yom Kippur (as expressed in Blake's crypto-gnostic, post-Christian imagery) of the year to come:
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire.
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.
That is to say, I will not cease starting tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The first thing I do when starting to write about Jean-Dominique Bauby's magnificent jewel of a book is to look up the French title (which didn't occur to me while reading it): Le scaphandre et le papillon. The translator's English is close enough, it seems, even capturing in its own way the rhythmic assonance of the original. But then, maybe not so much: my old Langenscheidt pocket French dictionary gives scaphandre as "diving suit" rather than diving bell, and scaphandrier as "deep-sea diver". A different image, of enclosure yes but also of a kind of monstrous mannikin, ringed with masks and tanks and tubes, deprived of normal sensation, like Bauby in his hospital bed in Berck-sur-Mer. Possibly more a sense of exploring the depths too, whatever the dangers and restrictions. I'll have to bug one of my native speaker friends for clarification.

Whatever the sense of the title, there's less of the cold, dark depths than you might imagine in this book, and much more of the butterfly, fluttering half deliberately half impulsively from memory to fancy to sharp, funny and moving observances of himself and the people and things around him. I think only a French writer could create a book like this from a condition, a history like this. Flipping through the narrow volume of short, evocatively or evasively titled chapters, it strikes me that that protean French prose genre the essai has itself come to the diver's rescue. Or rather it becomes the vehicle (submarine? helicopter?) by which he rescues himself, even while his efforts give a whole new meaning to the form.

I page though the book to find the exact wording of one image that had stuck in my mind, celebrating the letters Bauby receives in the hospital from friends, family and colleagues: "I hoard these letters like treasure. One day I hope to fasten them end to end in a half-mile streamer, to float in the wind like a banner raised to the glory of friendship." I remembered these being the last words in the chapter, which they were, except for this one line closing paragraph: "It will keep the vultures at bay". Interesting that I'd remembered the hopeful fancy not the black humor. There's an ever present, ever shifting mix of both moods in the communications Bauby crafted, as he describes, so carefully in his head before conveying them the world through a carefully orchestrated system of winks -- no stranger a mechanism when you come right down to it than tapping on laptop keys or incising wedge-shaped marks on wet clay.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Kayaking on the North Shore

A weekend itch, a hum, an expectation, when the weather obliges, and many weathers oblige. Though a schlep to start out of course. Haul the boat from the backyard, hose off the dirt thrown up the the rain, flip it onto the SUV rack, strap it down -- a 14 foot Walden Expedition, lobster red. Carry yourself and the kayak down to the sea. With an appetizing crunch push off from the sand. Then, miraculous reversal, the sea and the kayak are carrying you -- out past the splashing families, the boatyards, the bobbing floats beneath which real lobsters scuttle, shrewdly untempted (in my mind) by the locals' traps. Along the islets and shores of this rocky bay, dotted with seaside mansions old and new. I alternately dart and drift, the dripping double-bladed oar in its steady rotation, half push half pull, always reminding me of a dragonfly's wings, or resting comfortably athwart the cockpit, as the boat slides along under its own momentum or simply bobbed by the waves. A little outside the mouth of the bay the wind and the swells pick up and I paddle harder, with more consciousness of having to choose a direction -- northwest round the point to Salem, southeast across the harbor with its forest of masts, and the lighthouse in front of me. Further out, Great Misery island, where more intrepid paddlers in wetsuits habitually venture but I haven't attempted yet, probably never will. An hour and a half floating on the waves with my feet up and a modest, half imagined weekender's sense of the power and pull of the sea is quite enough adventure, right now.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Lehmannaide

I can't ignore the fall of Lehmann Brothers but can't quite grasp it either, or don't want to, so my mind skitters defensively to the company's human namesakes. Nicholas Lehmann, Julie's old Harvard classmate, now dean of the Columbia School of Journalism. Pronounced like 'lemon', not 'lee-mun'. He must be experiencing some onomastic angst of his own. And David Lehman - clever, glum American poet and prolific poetry editor. Glad today to be short one 'n' in his last name.

What's in a name? Or what's in a word, like 'reformer' or 'deregulation'? The presidential candidates are each trying to cash in on Wall Street's woes -- "John McCain casting himself as an outspoken populist outraged at corporate greed and Barack Obama hammering what he called a Republican-led climate of deregulation that McCain championed" (Boston Globe, 9/17). Personally, I worry that more people will embrace the faux-maverick "populist" who channels their visceral fear and resentment than the earnest liberal who asks his audience to pay mind to legislative and economic history.

Conclusion: did Nicholas Lehmann's immigrant ancestors think "lemon" was less Jewish sounding than the alternative?

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Frost at Midday

Massachusetts got as the locals like to say 'pounded' with snow Friday, starting after 6 a.m. and continuing through early morning Saturday. I worked from home in the third floor guest bedroom, converted into an impromptu office thanks to Comcast broadband and a wireless router. Through a narrow window I could watch the flakes swirling down and around the historic Marblehead rooftops - like a Longfellow poem, updated with telephone wires. Probably something like 10 inches, but cold light flakes and sunny weather made for a relatively painless cleanup Saturday. Today, Sunday, I have a different but equally New Englandy view from my desk in the downstairs family room. Looking out at the backyard, I see the odd succession of elongated holes - like a careful giant's footprints - that Casey made as she galumphed across the deep layer of white. Periodically the wind sends a clumpy dust of snow down from the big pine tree at the end of the yard, bringing to mind Robert Frost's jauntily glum ditty -

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And changed some part
Of a day I rued.

If I were still a literature teacher I would set my students to pondering the fine blend of the playful and the stately in these short rhymed lines, particularly the concussion of 'mood' and 'rued'. Poor Frost - he couldn't even talk about being happy without thinking about regret. As a genuine countryman, however, he was more careful about projecting his moods onto the natural landscape than Coleridge, in 'Frost at Midnight':

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud--and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
’Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,
Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.
Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
Making it a companionable form,
Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit
By its own moods interprets, every where
Echo or mirror seeking of itself,
And makes a toy of Thought.

Sitting inside by fire is obviously more conducive to pathetic fallacy than tromping around in the woods. But Coleridge too discovers a change of mood in his own internalized landscape, blessing the sleeping manchild next to him - as only a citified English Romantic poet can do - with the promise of a daily heaven on earth:

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

What a turn of phrase - 'the secret ministry of frost'. Enough to give you chills, sitting warmly indoors on a sunny weekend morning. I love Robert Frost but I'm more temperamentally aligned with Coleridge, leaving aside his addictive penchant. Still I'll have to face crusty New England nature a little more directly when I start jogging next week. Nothing secret about the ministry of frost on the roads of the North Shore in February.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

iPlod

It's the lead up to Valentine's Day, which means both my usual drivetime companions, WGBH and WBUR, are in the middle of romantically themed pledge drives, offering flowers and chocolate in exchange for a year of guilt-free listening. (You can tell in an instant, and with a sinking heart, it's not Morning Edition.) So I was doubly happy I had downloaded a new audiobook this morning, for what turned into an hour and a half commute. Chekhov short stories, narrated by Kenneth Branagh. Couldn't even remember putting it in my Audible.com wish list, but there it was, five minutes before hitting the road - I needed only three to download the file and sync it with my iPod. Reading and writing in the digital commuter age: the subject of another blog.

If Chekhov had written the tale of my commute, my whimsical self- satisfaction would have been quickly and not so whimsically cut short: I would've forgot myself and rammed a surly marine mechanic in his pickup. Or I would have had to stop to watch someone's aging mother inch her way across the street to 'Our Lady of the Sea' church - putting me in mind of my own mother or my own age. Or I would have simply ignored a sky painted the color of hope as I passed Swampscott harbor. But modern life is not so well-constructed or so true - the sky and the people kept to themselves, and I was able to lose myself in Chekhov's sly, tender and rollicking Russian panoply all the way to Cambridge. The one unexpected twist in the trip, a utility truck fixing a street light near the airport, which backed up traffic to Wonderland, only prolonged the enjoyment. God bless your pointy little beard, Anton Pavlovich!

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Return of the non-native

What better time to come back to the blogosphere than in the wake of Super Tuesday and Mitt Romney's withdrawal from the Republican runoff. A time of hope - or at least relief that Mitt's plastic smile will be off the networks and front pages for a while, except perhaps briefly at the grand old party's convention. A soul-searching op-ed piece in the Boston Globe today explored the ambivalence many successful Mormons apparently feel to exposing their religion in public. Romney's experience will probably not help his coreligionists resolve their doubts anytime soon.

Our dog Casey lying in the sun reminds me of John McCain. She is a nine year old Glen of Imaal terrier - in dog years the presumed nominee's junior by almost a decade. But they share the same shaggy eyebrows and truculent, mercurial temperament. Inside the house she is mostly interested in trolling for table scraps, rolling over for belly rubs and digging for badgers under the couch. Outside, when not chasing tennis balls, she sits on the steps barking furiously at any alien dog that passes our gate, or sometimes - to all appearances - at nothing at all. It's her job to patrol the borders and keep the homeland and her family safe. She would definitely stay in Iraq for 100 years, if necessary.

On Super Tuesday Julie and I were riveted to the widescreen TV in the family room, expertly critiquing the talking heads and the production values on CNN, MSNBC and PBS. Today's events in Washington State, Nebraska and Louisiana flew somewhat below my radar. I was more absorbed with with the struggle to choose a new car (Prius..? Matrix..? Jeez, I don't even need a Democratic party bumper sticker...) and another moody Keira Knightly performance at the Danvers Hollywood Hits, this time in the sad, dark, slightly over wrought "Atonement". But at 9 pm I caught up with my Google homepage, which trumpeted the news that Obama won with a margin of nearly 70% in both western states - Louisiana had not yet been called.

This earned approval from the three teenagers in the house, one of whom voted for the first time in Tuesday's primary. They like pretty much all their friends are Obama supporters. Although they may not know much about his platforms he is "the man" - so transparently cool and connected that he might as well be the only candidate in the race.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Telling Stories, Speaking Silences: Edwidge Danticat's Haiti

(Talk at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, Cambridge, MA, June 5, 2006)
Introduction
Thank you all for coming. My talk today is about the acclaimed Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat, particularly her 1995 story collection, Krik? Krak!, and her latest novel, The Dew Breaker, published in 2004. When this lecture was just a proposal I told the Cambridge Center the title would be “Beauty, Terror and Transformation in Edwidge Danticat”. My eventual title -- “Telling stories, speaking silences: Edwidge Danticat’s Haiti” -- is less dramatic but truer to Danticat's motives as a writer. I should say at the outset that I’m not here as an expert on Edwidge Danticat or Haitian literature in general but only as someone drawn to her work by its moral and psychological power and by the sheer beauty of her writing.
The Cambridge Center asked me to give this talk to introduce a course I’m offering next fall, on “World Fiction in English” – stories, that is, originally written in English but by writers outside the traditional geographic and cultural borders of American or British fiction. This fearfully broad label encompasses some of the most important and original writing in English today. It includes writers as diverse as the Afghan novelist Khaled Hosseini, author of the best-selling The Kite Runner; the young Nigerian novelist, Helen Oyeyemi, who tells the haunting, lyrical drama of a mixed-raced child in The Icarus Girl; and Jhumpa Lahiri, whose stories speak for several generations of Indians and Indian-Americans, facing the conflicts of modernity here and in the Indian subcontinent. Such writers bring us news not just of the world outside our borders, but of the many worlds within it, and of a globalized realm where geographic borders increasingly matter less than issues of class, race, family, and ethnic and religious identity -- and of course, issues of language. Most of all they take us into their unique personal worlds as artists, offering in abundance the gifts of mind and heart and imagination we expect from all great fiction.
Danticat stands as an exemplary member of this unclassifiable class of writers. The child of parents who left Haiti soon after the fall of the dictator Papa Doc in 1971, she was raised by relatives and came to the U.S. when she was 12, speaking Haitian Creole and French but little English. Growing up in the Haitian community in Brooklyn, Danticat began writing in English as a high school journalist, and went on to study French in college. Of her own linguistic evolution as a “Haitan-American” author Danticat writes:
I came to English at a time when I was not adept enough at French to write creatively in French and did not know how to write in Creole because it had not been taught to me in school, so my writing in English was as much an act of personal translation as it was an act of creative collaboration with the new place I was in. [“Author Q & A: Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat”, http://www.randomhouse.com]
Literary success came early to the young émigré. Her first novel, Eyes, Breath, Memory, published in 1994 when she was only 25, became a best seller when it was chosen for Oprah’s Book Club. The novel tells a wrenching, darkly beautiful tale of a Haitian girl caught between her rural Haitian roots and the American dyaspora community where she has come to live. This book was followed in 1995 by Krik? Krak! – a collection of stories that opens with a Haitian exile’s death at sea and ends with a Haitian-American wedding in New York. Danticat’s next book, The Farming of Bones, explored the notorious 1937 massacre of Haitian migrant workers in the Dominican Republic. It won the American Book Award in 1998. In 2004, she published what is widely regarded as her most powerful book, The Dew Breaker, a collection of subtly interconnected stories that explore the brutal legacy of Haiti’s Duvalier era, in the person of one of its escaped torturers.
Writing in an “Epilogue” to Krik? Krak!, as if speaking to her younger self, Danticat reflects on the sources of her storytelling:
You remember thinking while braiding your hair that you look a lot like your mother and her mother before her. It was their whispers that pushed you, their murmurs over pots sizzling in your head. A thousand women urging you to speak through the blunt tip of your pencil. Kitchen poets, you call them. Ghosts like burnished branches on a flame tree. These women, they asked for your voice so they could tell your mother in your place that yes, women like you do speak, even if they speak a tongue that is hard to understand. [Krik? Krak!, 222]
Family and memory, good ghosts and grim ones, displacement and a sense of place – these are themes that pervade Danticat’s fiction and are among the elements of her work I want to discuss today. Most of all I hope to do justice to her unique and powerful voice as an artist, even as she has tried to channel the voices of her countrymen – and especially her countrywomen.
Before discussing Danticat’s work, I will start with a brief history lesson, to help set the writer and her fiction in a "real world" context. Danticat herself has written, “What I do is neither sociology, nor anthropology, nor history” [“Author Q & A: Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat”, http://www.randomhouse.com]. But she does not shy away from the complex history of her community, both its beauties and its darker currents. The inextricable mixture of dark and light in Haitian life is, in fact, in many ways the driving theme of Danticat’s fiction. The world’s first black republic, founded in 1804 after a long and bloody revolt of slaves against their French masters, Haiti’s history is a long effort, sometime successful, sometimes not, of political and social self-realization. A country formed of powerfully mingled African and European traditions, rich in literature, art and music, it has also been riven by poverty and political violence. These are in part a product of extreme social divisions within the country, in part of outside political and economic forces. For much of this century Haiti was in fact ruled by the U.S., which remained in effective control of the economy until 1947. A period of military dictatorship ended in 1954 with the election of Francois Duvalier, or “Papa Doc”, as president – later to be named “President for Life”. His 17 year reign is commonly regarded as one of the most oppressive and corrupt dictatorships of modern times – enforced by his feared police, the Tonton Macoutes, named after a voodoo boogeyman.
Many educated upper and middle class Haitians fled Duvalier’s rule and their country in the 1960s, most of them coming to the United States. They were followed in the 1970s and 1980s by a larger emigration of lower middle class and poor Haitians, from both the cities and the countryside. This was the start of the dyaspora community, now numbering half a million souls in the U.S., that fostered the young Danticat, and has provided the backdrop for so much of her writing.
The unsettled character of Haitian history has ensured ever new rounds of immigrants and ever evolving relationships between the dyaspora community and the mother country. Under the rule of Papa Doc’s son, “Baby Doc”, from 1971 to 1986 some of the most vicious aspects of the father’s rule were moderated, but corruption and repression were still the law of the land and the economy and civic life continued to decline. It was at this time that Danticat’s father and mother finally left the country, as did a steady flood of desperate émigrés trying to reach the U.S. by boat. The 1970s and 1980s saw tens of thousands of “boat people” arriving in American waters, many of them forced by the U.S. Coast Guard to turn back. An unknown number perished at sea.
Political oppression and economic and social disorder in Haiti finally led to rebellion, and in 1986 Baby Doc was forced into exile by his own army. In The Dew Breaker, Danticat describes how an excited populace celebrated what felt like the dawn of a free and democratic Haiti, while taking their own gruesome revenge on those who had terrorized them. The mixture of carnival celebration and violence is seen through the eyes of a fatherless adolescent boy – now a grown man living in New York, and sharing his memories with his own unborn son.
There was a different feel to our neighborhood for sure. People were walking around dazed, exchanging bits of information they were gathering from the radio and television and from one another. […] Some of the men were wearing red bandannas around their heads and swinging sticks and tree branches while pouring rum and beer on one another. Others were dancing and performing somersaults but stopping occasionally to yell slogans or phrases they had held too long in their chests: “We are free” or “We will never be prisoners again.” […] From the radio reports that were being broadcast at the loudest possible volume from every house, I gathered that the homes of former government officials and the abandoned mansions of he president and his wife were being ransacked. […] There was a stench of kerosene and burning tires wafting through the air. It was only a matter of time before the rubber smell would be replaced by that of flesh. [The Dew Breaker, 148-9]
That violence breeds violence, that dislocation on one level breeds dislocation on another, is one of the most persistent themes of Danticat’s fiction. What is wonderful and characteristic about her story telling, however, are the individual human victories that she rescues from the heart of mass political violence. The middle-aged New Yorker remembers his best friend, one of the rebels, braving the mobs to find his own father, a member of the hated Tonton Macoutes. He never does – but his love and daring help the younger boy come to terms with the contradictions of his father’s identity, and to fashion a memory of manhood and courage that he can consecrate to his unborn son.
The end of Baby Doc's reign didn’t end Haiti’s troubles. When the Roman Catholic priest Jean Bertrande Aristide came to power with the support of Haiti’s poor and dispossessed, his radical populism all too inevitably inspired the hostility of Haiti’s elites and the Haitian military. The overthrow of Aristide in 1991 began another period of crisis and instability – and another wave of boat people, close to 40,000 of whom were interdicted at sea by the U.S. coast guard and forcibly returned to Haiti. This exodus, perhaps the most vivid image many Americans have of Haiti, is commemorated in one of Danticat’s most powerful stories, the “Children of the Sea”. In 1994, a very Haitian mixture of internal political strife and external economic and political pressure brought the new dictatorship to an end, and a wave of popular support again brought Aristide into power. Unfortunately, ongoing political violence, corruption and economic problems lead to political deadlock and to another rebellion in 2004, driving Aristide once more into exile. Against this challenging backdrop, the successful Haitian presidential elections this February, which brought the populist party of Réné Preval into power and some stability back to the country, are a sign of promise – though deeply rooted social inequalities and both internal and external economic and political issues remain.
As a novelist, Danticat has less to say directly about this most recent decade of Haitian history. The lesson of her fiction, however, is not that these events are unimportant, but that Haitian history is cyclical – that the same stories recur in different times and different places, as one haunted generation becomes the ghost that haunts another. Speaking in Krik? Krak! to the ghost of her younger self, Danticat writes of how urgently these stories possessed her growing up in Haiti and in Brooklyn.
You thought that if you didn’t tell the stories, the sky would fall on your head. […] This fragile sky has terrified you your whole life. Silence terrifies you more than the pounding of a million pieces of steel chopping away at your flesh. Sometimes, you dream of hearing only the beating of your own heart, but this has never been the case. 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. [Krik? Krak!, 223-4]
I’d like finally to turn to those stories, beginning with the collection Krik? Krak!, published in 1995 when Danticat was 26. The opening story, “Children of the Sea”, was originally written in the early 1990s, a time when a military junta had crushed the hopes of Aristide’s reforms and sent a flood of boat people fleeing Haiti for the United States. The story is told as a dialogue, an exchange of letters written but never sent, between two separated lovers – a boy on a leaky, overcrowded boat, a young rebel fleeing the new generation of Tonton Macoutes; a girl still in Haiti, hiding both from an angry father and from the same ruthless police, but learning her own forms of rebellion and self-realization. Stark as its picture of the raw misery and hopelessness of the time, “Children of the Sea” is above all a romance – both a personal love story and a poignant parable of Danticat’s passion and transforming hope for her people.
Separated by a waste of ocean and a waste of history, the lovers speak in very different voices, but with a sense of intimacy that is only reinforced by the distance between them. We hear the boy first:
They say behind the mountains are more mountains. Now I know it’s true. I also know there are timeless waves, endless seas, and lots of people in this world whose names don’t matter to anyone but themselves. I look up at the sky and I see you there. I see you crying like a crushed snail, the way you cried when I helped you pull out your first loose tooth. Yes, I did love you then. Somehow when I looked at you, I though of fiery red ants. I wanted you to dig your fingernails into my skin and drain out all the blood. [Krik? Krak!, 3]
In the voice of the young activist it is love that seems to matter most – not Haitian politics, not even the prospect of death at sea. The very sails of the boat remind him of the “lost innocence” of the bedsheets where the two of them, little more than children, first made love. Trapped in a very different way back in Haiti, it is the naïve young girl for whom politics now have a greater importance, though at first as a passive witness rather than as a participant. Sounding barely older than the child who lost a tooth, she writes:
haiti est comme tu l’as laissé. yes, just as you left it. bullets day and night. same hole. same everything. i’m tired of the whole mess. i get so cross and irritable. i pass the whole time by chasing roaches around the house. i pound my heel on their heads. they make me so mad. everything makes me mad. […] all the other youth federation members have disappeared. no one has heard from them. i think they may all be in prison. maybe they’re all dead. […] i don’t sketch butterflies anymore because i don’t even like seeing the sun. besides, manman says that butterflies can bring news. the bright ones bring happy news and the black ones warn us of deaths. we have our whole lives ahead of us. you used to say that, remember? but then again things were so very different then. [Krik? Krak!, 4-5]
Against this background – and in defiance of all odds – the remainder of the story enacts the lovers’ parallel journeys not only towards freedom but towards reunion. Even as they grow physically farther apart, their struggles bring them closer to their truest and bravest selves, and thus to each other. On the boat, the voice of the boy begins to contemplate death with a new clarity and resolve:
I am more comfortable now with the idea of dying. Not that I have completely accepted it, but I know that it might happen. Don’t be mistaken. I really do not want to be a martyr. I know I am no good to anybody dead, but if that’s what’s coming, I know I cannot just scream at it and tell it to go away. […]

There are a lot of Protestants on this boat. A lot of them see themselves as Job or the Children of Israel. I think some of them are hoping something will plunge down from the sky and part the sea for us. They say the Lord gives and the Lord takes away. I have never been given very much. What was there to take away? [Krik? Krak!, 6-7]
Again it is the voice of the girl not the student radical that brings us back to Haitian political realities – with a young girl’s immediacy of emotion, dawning on her with the same intensity as love.
if only i could kill them. if i knew some good wanga magic, i would wipe them off the face of the earth. a group of students got shot in front of fort dimanche prison today. […] they want the bodies turned over to the families. this afternoon, the army finally did give some bodies back. they told the families to collect them at the rooms for indigents at the morgue. our neighbor madam roger came home with her son’s head and not much else. honest to god, it was just his head. […] i will never go outside again. not even in the yard to breathe the air. they are always watching you, like vultures. at night i can’t sleep. i count the bullets in the dark. i keep wondering if it is true, did you really get out? […] i will keep writing like we promised to do. i hate it, but i will keep writing to you. you keep writing too, okay? and when we see each other again, it will seem like we lost no time. [Krik? Krak!, 7-8]
Back on the boat, misery progresses to misery, mountain beyond mountain. Yet the boy remains strangely reflective, even whimsical, his viewpoint reduced to the narrow space of the vessel, as if charged with a whole world:
We spent most of yesterday telling stories. Someone says, Krik? You answer, Krak! And they say, I have many stories I could tell you, and then they go on and tell these stories to you, but mostly to themselves. Sometimes it feels like we have been at sea longer than the many years that I have been on this earth. The sun comes up and goes down. That is how you know it has been a whole day. I feel like we are sailing for Africa. Maybe we will go to Guinin, to live with the spirits, to be with everyone who has come and has died before us. […] At times I wonder if there is really land on the other side of the sea. Maybe the sea is endless, like my love for you. [Krik? Krak!, 14-5]
The almost mythical progress of life on the boat, dread as it is, is mocked by the continuing horrors of the girl’s Haiti: brutality, terror, and families living apart so fathers cannot be forced to rape their daughters. A neighbor, Madame Roger, whose son has already fallen victim to the new Tonton Macoutes, is herself beaten to death as the girl and her family listen helplessly in an outhouse.
manman whispers, we cannot just stay here and let them kill her. manman starts moving like she is going out the door. papa grabs her neck and pins her to the latrine wall. tomorrow we are going to ville rose, he says. you will not spoil that for the family. […] you will not get us killed. going out there will be like trying to raise the dead. she is not dead yet, manman says, maybe we can help her. […] they are beating her, pounding on her until you don’t hear anything else. manman tells papa, you cannot let them kill somebody just because you are afraid. papa says, oh yes, you can let them kill somebody because you are afraid. they are the law. it is their right. we are just being good citizens, following the law of the land. it has happened before all over this country and tonight it will happen again and there is nothing we can do. [Krik? Krak!, 16-7]
It’s a difficult scene, and Danticat does nothing to make it easier for the reader. We can readily identify with the pain and anger of the mother, and just as readily see the father as a selfish, grasping coward, almost a passive collaborator, the kind of victim who internalizes the viewpoint of the oppressor. But it is hard to mistake his bitter, satiric fury here, even as he lets the horror proceed. Indeed he understands what is happening in a deeper way than his wife, though her reaction is more immediate – as perhaps is the daughter’s. Only later in the story do we learn that he has sacrificed his entire life and livelihood to buy off the police and save his daughter’s life – a price to him worth more than another’s death and even her hatred. Again and again in her writing, Danticat seeks to dramatize the complex choices faced by the victims, the perpetrators and the witnesses of violence alike – and it is sometimes not easy to determine who is who. On the boat, the boy finds himself in a strangely similar situation: a baby is being born to one of the castaways, and yet he moves away, afraid of his own reaction:
I have moved to the other side of the boat so I will not have to look inside Célianne. […] I am scared to think of what would happen if we had to choose among ourselves who would stay on the boat and who would die. Given the choice to make a decision like that, we would all act like vultures, including me. [Krik? Krak!, 18]
Hope returns for a moment as the baby is born – but born without crying, and we start to think, born dead or dead soon after. And in the girl’s Haiti, a hopeful rumor of Aristide’s return is only the occasion for more fears and more cynicism.
it is not going to turn out well […] manman now says. people are just too hopeful, and sometimes hope is the biggest weapon of all to use against us. people will believe anything. they will claim to see the christ return and march on the cross backwards if there is enough hope. [Krik? Krak!, 18-9]
Meanwhile the boat continues to slowly sink – every spare weight being thrown out, even (soon) the boy’s notebook. Yet his voice reaches out from this elemental setting not with despair, but with a strange mixture of love, wistfulness and grim humor:
I know your father might never approve of me. I was going to try to win him over. He would have to cut out my heart to keep me from loving you. I hope you are writing like you promised. Jésus, Marie, Joseph! Everyone smells so bad. They get into arguments and they say to one another, “It is only my misfortune that would lump me together with an indigent like you.” Think of it. They are fighting about being superior when we all might drown like straw. [Krik? Krak!, 21]
The worst horror comes at us from the recent Haitian past: Célianne, we learn, conceived her baby after being raped by the police. She hypnotically repeats the story over and over, clinging fiercely to the little corpse, refusing to throw it overboard.
Towards the end of “Children of the Sea”, the strange counterpoint of the alternating love letters finally begins to tear itself apart. The girl’s mother explains how the father sold everything he owned – his house and his own father’s land – to bribe the police not to arrest the girl for political activities:
it is something you can never forget, the sacrifice he has made. i cannot bring myself to say thank you. now he is more than my father, he is a man who gave everything he had to save my life. [Krik? Krak!, 24]
In a bittersweet moment, she hears on the radio the news she and her lover hoped would win over the girl’s father: the boy has passed his university exams.
In the boat, the young mother Célianne, the same age as the girl in Haiti, throws her child overboard and then drowns herself. Even in this moment of desperation, however, Danticat finds a shadow of redemption. Célianne's act can be seen as much as a statement of love and acceptance as desperation. The rest of the passengers are not much farther away from drowning. In his last letter, as he tosses his book into the sea, the boy also throws all his passion for the girl and for his lost country into a new myth – a very Haitian myth, mixing African gods and Christian ritual.
I must throw my book out now. It goes down to them, Célianne and her daughter and all those children of the sea who might soon be claiming me.
I go to them now as though it was always meant to be, as though the very day that my mother birthed me, she had chosen me to live the life eternal, among the children of the deep blue sea, those who have escaped the chains of slavery to form a world beneath the heavens and the blood-drenched earth where you live.
Perhaps I was chosen from the beginning of time to live there with Agwé at the bottom of the sea. Maybe this is why I dreamed of the starfish and the mermaids having the Catholic Mass under the sea. Maybe this was my invitation to go. In any case, I know that my memory of you will live even there as I too become a child of the sea. [Krik? Krak!, 27-8]
Death in this myth becomes a return to childhood – but also a consecration of freedom. The boy’s myth of freedom is the ultimate gift he bestows on his lover, who is leaving childhood but will unlike him live into adulthood. She finally not only forgives but thanks her father – a fragile but powerful act of acceptance amidst the news of continued violence. She can’t escape this violence, any more than she can escape the black butterflies of bad news that bring word of her boyfriend’s death. But they also bring echoes of the boy’s earlier words in her closing ones:
today i said thank you. i said thank you, papa, because you saved my life. he groaned and just touched my shoulder, moving his hand quickly away like a butterfly. and then there it was, the black butterfly floating around us. i began to run and run so it wouldn’t land on me, but it had already carried its news. […] tonight i listened to manman’s transistor under the banyan tree. all I hear from the radio is more killing in port-au-prince. […] i don’t know what is going to happen, but i cannot see staying here forever. i am writing to you from the bottom of the banyan tree. manman says that banyan trees are holy and sometimes if we call the gods from beneath them, they will hear our voices clearer. […] last night on the radio, i heard that another boat sank off the coast of the bahamas. i can’t think about you being in there in the waves. my hair shivers. from here, i cannot even see the sea. behind these mountains there are more mountains and more black butterflies still and a sea that is endless like my love for you. [Krik? Krak!, 28-9, emphasis added]
It is an ending that is hard to read without a spine chill and without feeling the need to weep yourself. Danticat’s words combine a young writer’s romance and idealism and an old one’s sense of history’s bitter inevitability. It’s also hard to read the ending of this story without thinking of Danticat’s own love not for a boy but for her distant and troubled native country, separated from her by the gulf of the dyaspora. And yet Danticat is not writing allegory here. To see these children as symbols would be to compromise the fragile yet resilient humanity that is essence of the story. It is the lovers themselves who so poignantly and powerfully shape the symbolism of their own story, as they reach out for meaning in a world trying to destroy it. The reader can only return the favor – which is perhaps what makes the lovers despite everything victorious.
I’ve quoted a lot from “Children of the Sea” in order to give you a flavor of Danticat’s prose and way of telling a story, but this is only one piece in a rich and varied collection, though also a beautifully cohesive one. Themes and images replay and transform themselves across the Haitian landscape of Danticat’s stories, as in a musical counterpoint at once harmonious and discordant: poignant, hopeful, macabre, utterly cruel and profoundly touching stories of aspiration and loss; stories where the past haunts the present in devastating but eerily heroic ways; stories above all of the risks and transforming power of relationships, between lovers, between husbands and wives, sisters and brothers, and most of all between parents and children.
In the second story in Krik? Krak!, entitled “Nineteen Thirty-Seven”, a daughter visits a wretched local prison to see her aging mother, who has been arrested by a superstitious police for the crime of witchcraft, for “flying” by magic. Though she succumbs to a cruel beating at the hands of the police, the mother leaves her daughter a legacy of true magic and courage in the memory of her literal flight to freedom in 1937 from the Dominican Republic, escaping the slaughter of 20,000 Haitian migrant workers by the dictator Trujillo. In “Between the Pool and the Gardenias”, a childless maid in a rich Haitian household adopts the body of an abandoned baby girl, and somehow creates a whole lifetime of love in the few days she is able to keep it – a lifetime she willingly exchanges for the almost certain charge of infanticide. In the story “A Wall of Fire Rising” a young boy defies the poverty of his life by taking part in a school play, struggling to learn the half understood words of a long dead Haitian revolutionary. The play never goes on, but the words become the boy’s way to mourn to the strange, crazed death of his father, who has taken his own macabre flight to freedom – leaping from the carriage of a stolen hot air balloon. Finally, in “Night Women”, a prostitute, hating the night but dependent on it, weaves an enchanted world of goddesses, ghosts, and angels around the young son who shares her house, opening a brief space for love and a more innocent vision of life.
Describing these stories in brief, you might think Danticat was trying to give Edgar Allen Poe a run for his money. Yet as we saw in “Children of the Sea”, even the grimmest moments in her stories are intended for something more than creepy dramatic effect. Not all the young artist’s efforts work equally well, to be sure: sometimes her marginal, traumatized protagonists can seem close to caricature, the plots contrived, the mixture of conflicting elements too strained and deliberate. What saves even Danticat’s most extravagant stories is the uncanny immediacy and almost revelatory power of the emotions they evoke, whatever road the writer has taken to get there. We can see this vividly in one of the richest and most powerful stories in Krik? Krak!, “The Missing Peace”, where a young peasant girl, orphaned at birth, befriends a visiting Haitian journalist trying to find her dead mother, a victim of the dictatorship’s violence. The girl confronts the older woman’s passionate idealism with an orphan’s mixture of tough realism and need for love. Finally she saves them both from death, thanks to her schoolyard flirtation with a local solder, hardly more than a child himself. Danticat’s Haitian countryside is both a beautiful and a terrible world, commonplace and strange, innocent and horribly experienced – a world where a girl can chase butterflies, walk daily past a mass grave, and face down a soldier who spares her thanks to nothing more noble than shy boyish lust. It is a world where an older woman helps an orphaned girl win back the memory of her mother and her identity, and the girl not just saves the journalist’s life but teaches the older woman how to live it, and how to confront her grief for her own mother’s death.
Not all the stories in Krik? Krak! are so difficult or so darkly wrought, particularly those that are set in the United States. The last story in the book, “Caroline’s Wedding”, takes place in modern Brooklyn, as the older daughter in a family of three – two daughters and their widowed mother – prepares to leave home for marriage. The story’s fifty pages compress a novel’s worth of generational tension, ethnic identity crises, life tragedy and domestic comedy, all told with a humor, sensitivity and sly art that place it squarely in the canon of American second generation fiction, from Philip Roth to Jhumpa Lahiri. What makes this story most distinctly Danticat’s is the presence of a fourth character, the girl’s father – a long dead victim of Haiti’s political violence, who haunts his daughters’ dreams but is somehow the most loving and down to earth presence in the story. He comes as a bearer of folk tales and wise folk riddles, the dark humor of an oppressed people, where symbol and memory live together. As the younger daughter, who narrates the story, says:
These were our bedtime stories. Tales that haunted our parents and made them laugh at the same time. We never understood them until we were fully grown and they became our only inheritance. [Krik? Krak!, 180]
The girls’ dreams also embody a wish to cling too much to childhood and a lost Haitian past, something their mother is guilty of as well. Families being what they are, this common nostalgia becomes a source of tension between the generations rather than a bond. Ironically, it is through the very force of conventional Haitian “family values” that mother and daughters finally reconcile their differences, when the mother helps her older daughter get over pre-wedding jitters by sharing the story of her own courtship and wedding. Through this renewed intimacy between mother and daughters, the haunting father is exorcised from the daughters’ dreams. And yet we can still feel his presence and his earthy wisdom in the voice of the living, loving mother. A marriage can take place, the story can end, and life go on, as the mother stands in the Brooklyn kitchen with her younger, unmarried daughter stirring a pot of peasant “bone soup”. They have become the “kitchen poets” as Danticat calls the women of Haiti, retelling the old stories of Haitian life that feed the writer’s own fiction.

Almost a decade stands between the publication of Krik? Krak! and The Dew Breaker, which came out in 2004. The novel that Danticat wrote between them, The Farming of Bones, published in 1998, tries to explore and bring to light a part of Haitian history only alluded to in the earlier collection. This is the 1937 massacre – indeed the ethnic cleansing – of Haitian migrant workers in the Dominican Republic by the dictator Rafael Trujillo. The Dew Breaker returns to the events of a later time, during and after the brutal and corrupt reign of a native dictator, “Papa Doc” Duvalier. The book’s title is Danticat’s rendering of a Haitian Creole expression, choukèt laroze, “stomper” or “breaker” of the dew, referring to regional magnates and police chiefs, those who arrive at dawn to arrest their victims, literally “breaking the dew” on the grass. This book is woven around the life of one of those brutal police chiefs – who along with some of his victims has escaped Haiti and joined the dyaspora community. Here he has become a successful, if reclusive, owner of a barbershop, as well as a husband and a father.
The Dew Breaker has created some controversy, not just over the novel’s subject but over whether it is a novel at all. The torturer’s story is told not as a coherent narrative but through a collection of short stories, disparate in time, style, and perspective, many of which appear to have no relation to the dew breaker or his family. Danticat has written that:
I wanted the book to open up, as you read it, that is, with each new character, each new situation, I wanted to add layers upon layers to the central figure, the dew breaker. I wanted the reader to be introduced to the dew breaker from different angles, and for those who love him, and even for him, to see himself from various perspectives. [“Author Q & A: The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat.” www.randomhouse.com]
It’s only slowly that we begin see the stories and characters interweave and cycle back on themselves and tell a larger story, though a story that remains fragmented, in a way that reflects the shattered past and uncertain future underlying it.
In addition to the dew breaker himself, the novel’s main characters include his daughter, his wife, and finally his victims, direct and indirect, dead and alive, some in the United States and some still in Haiti. Like all of Danticat’s books, The Dew Breaker is an exploration of the power of memory, of the interpenetration of past and present, and the compromises and self-reinventions people make with regard to the past and themselves. In this most recent work, the author show us these tensions in their most chilling and difficult form, through a protagonist who is both a product of Haiti’s political violence and one of its exemplary perpetrators. What is most chilling is how the dew breaker’s story entangles the rest of the book’s actors – not just as witnesses to one man’s evil, or as that man’s victims, but as perpetuators in their own way of a legacy of violence, trauma and deception that implicates all of them.
Despite the book’s slow pace of revelation, The Dew Breaker isn’t a mystery in the familiar sense: we learn about the quiet barber’s past in the very first story, “The Book of the Dead”, and from his own mouth. The title of this story invokes the treatise read by ancient Egyptians to guide them through the trials of the afterlife, where sins and virtues are weighed as souls pass into eternity. It is told in the voice of the dew breaker’s daughter, a school art teacher and aspiring sculptor, who is traveling with her father from New York to Florida to deliver her latest work – a sculpture of her father himself – to a wealthy Haitian collector. The father who accompanies her is a mild-mannered, distant man, his most distinguishing feature a long, disfiguring scar on his face he received in prison – as a prisoner, his daughter always understood. Shortly after they reach Florida and settle into their hotel, the father disappears for an entire day, along with the sculpture. Waiting anxiously for him to return, the daughter’s thoughts reach back over their life and her father’s possible death.
My father loves museums. When he’s not working at his barbershop, he’s often at the Brooklyn Museum. The Ancient Egyptian rooms are his favorites.
“The Egyptians, they was like us,” he likes to say. The Egyptians worshipped their gods in many forms, fought among themselves, and were often ruled by foreigners. The pharaohs were like the dictators he had fled, and their queens were as beautiful as Gabrielle Fonteneau. But what he admires most about the Ancient Egyptians is the way they mourn their dead.
“They know how to grieve,” he’d say, marveling at the mummification process that went on for weeks but resulted in corpses that survived thousands of years.
My whole adult life, I have struggled to find the proper manner of sculpting my father, a quiet and distant man, who only came alive while standing with me most of the Saturday mornings of my childhood, mesmerized by the golden masks, the shawabtis, and the schist tablets, Isis, Nefertiti, and Osiris, the jackal-headed ruler of the underworld.
The sun is setting and my mother has called more than a dozen times when my father finally appears in the hotel room doorway. He looks like a much younger man and appears calm and rested, as if bronzed after a long day at the beach. [The Dew Breaker, 12-3]
The young artist has spent a frantic day of searching, fearing the worst for the father whom she has always seen as a victim of Haiti’s violence – someone she and her mother had to indulge and protect. When he finally returns, as if from the dead but also reborn, it is to tell her he has thrown her statue of him in the lake, unrecoverable. Through a haze of anger and her own long repressed doubts about her family’s reclusive life, the daughter finally learns the truth, or at least the father’s version of it:
“Ka, I don’t deserve a statue,” he says again, this time much more slowly, “not a whole one, at least. You see, Ka, your father was the hunter, he was not the prey. [The Dew Breaker, 20]
His terrible scar, we now learn, came not from a torturer but from someone the dew breaker himself tortured:
“This man who cut my face,” he continues, “I shot and killed him, like I killed many people.” [The Dew Breaker, 22]
From here daughter’s narrative moves in a kind of horrified slow motion, as another kind of statue breaks down – her complex idealization of her father and indeed her family’s entire life. What did her mother know? she wonders. What burdens of concealment had this man’s wife taken up? How had her mother implicated both of them, wife and innocent child, in the crimes and lies of the father?
And just so I will be absolutely certain of what I’d heard, I ask my father, “And those nightmares that you were always having, what were they?”
“Of what I, your father,” he says, “did to others.” [The Dew Breaker, 22]
As we soon learn, and as we may be horribly unsurprised to know, the mother does already know the truth – and is all too ready to share with her daughter her own long-crafted defenses. “Manman, how do you love him?” the daughter asks on the phone from her hotel. “What he told you he want to tell you for a long time,” her mother says. “You, his good angel”. His good angel, his “Ka” – in other words, both the daughter’s name and the name the Egyptians gave to the protective spirits who guided the souls of the dead.
“I don’t know, Ka.” My mother is whispering now, as though there’s a chance she might also be overheard by my father. “You and me, we save him. When I meet him, it made him stop hurt the people. This is how I see it. He’s a seed thrown in rock. You, me, we make him take root.” [The Dew Breaker, 25]
The wife’s banalities are almost painful to hear – only later will we see how literally true they are.
Shockingly but somehow inevitably the routines of daily life and social obligations take over. Even as she struggles to face an almost incomprehensible reality, the daughter begins to accept and reinforce what has been, after all, the unwitting pattern of her entire life. She survives a humiliating lunch with the collector – a light-skinned, upper class Haitian actress, whose stunning collection of Haitian art both idealizes Haiti and ironically confirms her place among the agents of oppression and deception. As they drive start the long drive home the daughter confesses to herself the sad family legacy of many children of terror, regardless of which side they were on.
I had always thought that my father's only ordeal was that he'd left his country and moved to a place where everything from the climate to the language was so unlike his own, a place where he never quite seemed to fit in, never appeared to belong. The only thing I can grasp now, as I drive way beyond the speed limit down yet another highway, is why the unfamiliar might have been so comforting, rather than distressing, to my father. And why he has never wanted the person he was, is, permanently documented in any way. He taught himself to appreciate the enormous weight of permanent markers by learning about the Ancient Egyptians. He had gotten to know them, through their crypts and monuments, in a way that he wanted no one to know him, no one except my mother and me, we, who are now his kas, his good angels, his masks against his own face. [The Dew Breaker, 33-4]
The masks against his face, we begin to see, the mother and daughter also hold against their own.
Other Stories in The Dew Breaker
Of all Danticat’s works, The Dew Breaker is perhaps the darkest and most sorrowful – not just in the brutal actions of the "dew breaker" but in how the violence and the moral compromises of one man's story implicate everyone in the book, villains and victims alike. In Krik? Krak! it was possible to see all the stories ending in a kind of victory. Flawed as the characters might be, broken as their lives were, their stories leave us with moments of beauty and love, struggle and growth, triumph and reconnection, even if only in dreams or in death or at the cost of madness. By contrast, almost no one in The Dew Breaker’s stories seems immune from self-deception and complicity in violence, if only to themselves. The dew breaker – we never in fact learn his name – is only the most extreme example.
The Dew Breaker has little room for any kind of heroism. In its place, the book gives us a shock of recognition, we might even call it revelation – not the revelation of truth, but of truth’s terrible price. The stories that follow “The Book of the Dead” initially seem disconnected from the central narrative. But we recognize a strangely similar pattern in the very next story, “Seven”, where a newly reunited immigrant couple must deal with the burden of their own compromises and infidelities. Reunited after seven years, they learn to accept each other only by burying a part of their private pasts. In a spooky surprise, we eventually learn they are renting a room in the dew breaker’s house. In “Water Child”, a reclusive Haitian nurse struggles to come to terms with her shame and isolation after losing an illegitimate child, finding her deepest sense of connection with one of her patients, a voiceless victim of throat cancer. Each subsequent story brings us both a step closer to the dew breaker’s history and a step further into the larger landscape of Haitian life. In “The Book of Miracles”, we see his small family – father, mother and adult daughter – on their way to Christmas mass in New York city. Told from the mother’s perspective, we glimpse her guilt and her evasions beneath the obsessive pursuit of an ideal Christmas and a desperate love of tabloid miracle stories. Her sad struggle is further undermined by the father and daughter’s cynical partnership in mocking the gaudy seasonal decorations.
Later stories bring us closer to contemporary Haiti and the dew breaker’s Haitian past. In “Night Talkers”, a young Haitian-American travels back to his native countryside to find his aging aunt, his only relative. The aunt saved him when he was a child from a fire that killed his parents, a fire we learn was set by the dew breaker. The young man has made a long, exhausting journey to tell his aunt he has discovered his parents’ murderer living in New York. In fact, he has become one of the dew breaker’s tenants. The tight web of Haitian history and the Haitian dyaspora binds Danticat’s narratives with a network of coincidences that are not really coincidences. The aunt dies in her sleep before learning the full story, but only after she, a “night talker”, replays the horrors of the fire in a waking dream. In the next story, “The Bridal Seamstress”, we meet another survivor of violence, a retired dressmaker, famous in her little Brooklyn community. She has escaped to New York to sew wedding dresses for the daughters of well-off Haitian Americans, yet is pursued everywhere by visions of her Haitian torturer, perhaps the dew breaker, perhaps one of many others. As you might expect from Danticat, ghosts haunt every chapter of the book.
“The Dew Breaker
In this world of brutality and survival, coincidence and intention, evasion and revelation, the most extreme contradictions are left to the last story, which bears the same title as the book. It is a long, strange tale, at once shocking and moving, that brings us into the dark heart of Duvalier’s torture chambers. Here we also meet the light in that heart – a Protestant radio preacher who dares to mock the dictator and preach freedom to his flock. While he is a hero, indeed a saint to his followers, Danticat shows us a more complex reality – a man too in love with the vision of his own martyrdom and driven by private guilt for a beloved wife’s death. He lives alone, his only close relative an epileptic step sister – a devotee of miracles and spirits, whose private obsessions parody her brother’s theology of liberation.
In this story we finally meet the younger dew breaker, in all his swaggering glory. Here too Danticat show us not a symbol, not a Kafkaesque icon of evil, but something more essentially human and thus more frightening. The dew breaker we meet is a corrupt visionary, almost an entrepreneur of torture. Climbing the social ladder of dictatorship, he is haunted by a broken family and jaded by his own power; he is now ready to flee his country. His final triumph, the arrest and detention of the popular preacher, turns out to be the dew breaker’s greatest failure. Told by his superiors to release the man of god, the dew breaker instead kills him in a fit of rage. The preacher of peace, seeking martyrdom but terrified of the prospect of torture, also comes to a very different end than he imagined. There is no opening of the heavens, no freedom for his people. But before he dies he tears the face of the dew breaker with a broken piece of wood – dooming at least one torturer to a scarred life of lies.
That could be the end of the story, but Danticat has one more awful twist in store. Racing wounded from his own prison, the dew breaker crashes into the preacher’s half-crazed epileptic sister, who is running towards the prison in a futile effort to save her brother. She takes the wounded, bleeding dew breaker for another victim of the Macoutes. He readily embraces the role, desperate for her help but also for her pity. In a bizarre way, the victim and his killer are indeed now soul mates. Abandoning hope of entering the prison, the sister accepts her brother’s murderer as a substitute for her lost brother. The pair flee Haiti together in a kind of brutal haze, bound by their intersecting needs and their intersecting denials. Of course they finally wed and have a daughter – a school teacher and a sculptor. The end of the book belongs to Anne, the dew breaker’s wife, and the story of the strange life and even stranger love that brought her a marriage, a new identity and a child – Ka, the good angel. The child learns very late that she has born the burden of a conspiracy of silence, a life of looking the other way. Yet one thing she doesn’t learn, and one thing the husband and wife cannot confess even to each other, though they know it in their secret hearts: that the dew breaker’s last victim was also Anne’s preacher brother.
Unlike so many of the mother-daughter pairs we meet in Danticat’s writings, this mother does not reconnect with her child, any more than she was able to find her brother. At the close of The Dew Breaker, back where the book began, Anne clings to the phone after her daughter hangs up, listening to the recorded message: “Please hang up and try again”. Let me read one more passage, the last words of the novel.
She wished she had someone with her now, to get her past the silence that would follow the trying again. She was no longer used to this particular type of loneliness, this feeling that you could be alive or dead and no one would know. […]
There was no way to escape this dread anymore, this pendulum between regret and forgiveness, this fright that the most important relationships of her life were always on the verge of being severed or lost, that the people closest to her were always disappearing. The spirits had long since stopped coming through her body via her mysterious spells, which she now knew had a longish name with a series of nearly redundant syllables. These spirits, they’d left her for good the morning that the news was broadcast on the radio that her brother had set his body on fire in the prison yard at dawn, leaving behind no corpse to bury, no trace of himself at all. [The Dew Breaker, 242]
It is almost impossible to unravel the wonder and the terror of this final lie, and how it has shaped the life of Anne and her husband and daughter. It is the most destructive lie of all, perhaps – the beautiful lie that we are afraid to challenge. But the spirits know and so do we as readers – though for a moment, this image of holy sacrifice compels us as well. Danticat’s ability to bring us to moments like this, tearing our hearts and minds but also moving them with poignancy and terrible beauty, is what marks her essential achievement as a writer and her importance as a voice bearing witness for generations of Haiti’s voiceless.

Works Cited
Edwidge Danticat. Breath, Eyes, Memory. New York, NY: Random House, Inc., 1994. [Originally published by Soho Press, Inc., 1994]
____________. Krik? Krak!. New York, NY: Random House, Inc., 1996. [Originally published by Soho Press, Inc., 1995]
____________. The Farming of Bones. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1999. [Originally published by Soho Press, Inc.,1998]
____________. The Dew Breaker. New York, NY: Random House, Inc., 2004. [Originally published by Alfred A Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., 2004]
____________. “Author Q & A. Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat.” New York, NY: Random House, Inc. [http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780375705045&view=auqa] (May 15, 2006).
____________. “Author Q & A. The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat.” New York, NY: Random House, Inc. [http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9781400034291&view=auga] (May 15, 2006).
Khaled Hosseini. The Kite Runner. New York, NY: Riverhead, 2003
Jhumpa Lahiri. The Interpreter of Maladies. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999.
____________. The Namesake. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company (Mariner Books), 2003.
Helen Oyeyemi. The Icarus Girl. New York, NY: Random House, Inc., 2005.

Monday, May 01, 2006

A modest defense of plagiarism

A response to “A Star is Shorn”, the Boston Globe’s editorial on Kaavya Viswanathan, 4/30/06)

Shakespeare did it. Dante did it. Chaucer did it too – in spades. I know, I wrote my Harvard doctoral dissertation on him. Finding your own artistic voice by pilfering from beloved predecessors has been the bread and butter of writers since before there were writers. It's only in the last 200 years or so that "originality" and "authenticity" have become the most prized words on jacket copy. Now that Kaavya Viswanathan's novel has been removed from bookstore shelves, it's a hard to do a critical "source study" of how she may have creatively rewritten and recontextualized the words of writer Megan McCafferty. But the examples quoted in newspapers don't look that much different from what the author of The Canterbury Tales did when he turned Canto 33 of Dante's Inferno into part of "The Monk's Tale".

Of course, Chaucer didn't have a profit-hungry publisher and book packager crafting his stories into commercially viable chick lit, while at the same time touting the "freshness of the voice" (to quote a publicity letter cited by Ann Hulbert in Slate). As the Globe and commentators like Hulbert have pointed out, both publisher and packager share some blame for the pressures that led Viswanathan to echo thirty or more passages from one of her favorite novelists. Yet we as readers are at fault as well, demanding books that are "fresh" and "innovative" but also sound just like the other books we like – as long as it's not in a way that's legally actionable. While contestants on American Idol can aspire to be "original" artists by copying famous songs and singers, fiction writers and more importantly fiction publishers must keep the reality of literary imitation a guilty secret.

It's been suggested that Viswanathan's handlers subtly changed her original ideas to make her story more saleable. But we should not take the alleged plagiarism itself as a betrayal of artistic integrity. Ironically, it may be that in echoing and transforming words that inspired to become a creative writer, Viswanathan has most authentically proved herself to be one. She and her handlers just forgot the rest of the modern equation – being creative in covering your tracks.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

The “Man of Letters” in Dante's Purgatorio, Canto XII - Three Translations

[Draft of contribution to Electronic Bulletin of Dante Society of North America]

Canto XII of Purgatorio inhabits the terrace of the Proud, where Dante the Pilgrim purges what might be Dante the Poet’s chief sin. Like the rest of Purgatorio, the events of this Canto interweave outer symbolic spectacle and inner spiritual drama. The center of the spectacle in Canto XII is a striking series of images hewn into the very stones of the Purgatorial mount, combining Classical and Biblical stories in a powerful symbolic narrative of superbia – Pride – the first of the seven cardinal sins. Dante famously uses an acrostic, a popular device of medieval Latin and vernacular poetry, to link these images of pride together so as to spell out V-O-M, short for uomo – “Man” in Italian – embodying in the most literal way the stories’ moral symbolism and this most characteristically human of sins. I will look here at Dante’s study of pride in Canto XII and how his acrostic of Man is rendered in English verse by three translators – Ciardi, Mandelbaum and Esolin.

Since we are in Purgatory, of course, sin punished is also sin transcended and redeemed. Dante’s Purgatorial symbolism shows us how the aspirations of human pride parody and corrupt the deepest and most truly human of aspirations – for God. In Dante’s late medieval Christian theology, such aspirations lead from the grave of the earthly Man, Adam, to the perfected and redeemed Man embodied in the risen Christ, whose story pervades the Easter-time setting of Purgatorio.

The Canto opens with Dante and the shade of Oderisi of Gubbio plodding side by side, “like oxen at the plow.” Virgil, always a step ahead of his companion, psychologically at least, abruptly tells Dante to lift up his head and move forward. The “sweet teacher” now tells his pupil, in Esolin’s pointed rendering, to:

“Come and leave the man 4

For here it's well that each should speed his boat

With wings and oars as quickly as he can.”

Instead, Virgil urges him to:

“Come, turn your eyes and look upon the road. 13

It will be well for you to soothe the way,

Seeing the bed on which you plant your soles.”

It’s a strange bed, and a strange kind of soothing. But Virgil is not being ironic: this is the paradoxical truth of Purgatory, where struggle soothes and painful truths brings rest. The tragedy of all of human history now unrolls before Dante, from the fall of Satan to the fall of Troy: the history not just of men but Man. Each of the first four tercets begins with Vedea (“I saw”); each of the second four start with the interjection O; each of the third four with Mostrava (“It showed”). Together those capital letters spell out VOM, or UOM, short for uomo, “man.” The last tercet repeats the pattern of the previous twelve, its first line beginning with Vedea, its second with O, and its third with Mostrava.

The significance of having the word UOM or “Man” woven into very verbal fabric of a narrative on human pride is profound. While to modern tastes acrostics may seem a mechanical device, they are found in the most serious medieval poetry, providing both a source of structural invention and a hidden key to unlock a work’s meaning. The word “Man” running through these tercets is like a half-obscured title on a statue, declaring: This is where man’s pride can lead. But also (since we are in Purgatory): This is an aspect of fallen man that must be overcome for true, spiritual humanity to appear. As Pontius Pilate says of the mocked and scourged Jesus in his crown of thorns: Ecce Homo – “Behold the Man”.

Like Dante’s other symbolic uses of poetic technique, such as his terza rima, this acrostic has posed a challenge to translators, and most have avoided rendering it directly. John Ciardi (in his 1957 version) was the first English translator to attempt this – deftly transposing Dante’s U-O-M to the three letter English equivalent, M-A-N. Here’s his version of the opening tercet in the series, describing the fall of Lucifer.

Mark there, on one side, him who had been given 25

A nobler form than any other creature.

He plunged like lightning from the peak of Heaven.

For comparison, here is Singleton’s 1973 prose translation:

I saw, on the one side, him who was created nobler than any other creature fall as lightning from heaven.”

Dante’s first person past tense, “I saw” or vedea, is rendered by Ciardi as the imperative verb “Mark”. Dante’s three O’s become three “Ah”s (“Ah mad Arachne!”), and “it showed” or Mostrava, becomes “Now see” (“Now see Alcmaeon, there on the hard pavement”).

Ciardi’s syntactic shift from the first person past of “I saw” to the imperative of “Mark” is not just a random grammatical choice. It radically changes how we relate to the poetry. Instead of our viewing the scene through the narrator’s eyes, the narrator – sounding more like Virgil than Dante – commands us to note the image and the lesson it bears. Ciardi might well cite Dante’s own freedom in rendering Virgil and other Latin poets as a model for his bold gesture here. But while his changed wording lends dramatic immediacy, Ciardi sacrifices a haunting quality of the original -- the sense that Dante is not just looking at a picture, but watching the events of history unroll before his eyes.

Dante’s sequence of images ends powerfully with a tercet that incorporates all three letters and all three words of the acrostic, describing the greatest historical example of human pride, the fall of Troy:

Mark Troy there in its ashes overthrown. 61

Ah Ilion! how lovely and how lost!

Now see your hollow shell upon that stone.

Ciardi the poet is at engagingly work here, but his lyricism obscures the blunt mixture of sorrow and divine contempt in the original Italian. To quote Singleton’s prose version again:

I saw Troy in ashes and in caverns: O Ilion, how cast down and vile it showed you—the sculpture of which is there discerned!

Allan Mandelbaum, a more recent translator (1983) is also a poet like Ciardi, and also works inventively to preserve some of Dante’s poetic structure. His approach focuses less on the rigid Italian rhyme scheme and more on Dante’s play of formal and vernacular diction and line to line syntactic flow. Mandelbaum for his part doesn’t try to reproduce Dante’s acrostic in Canto XII, translating the tercets more literally with “I saw”, “O”, and “It showed”. Looking again at the first and the last tercets in Dante’s parade of Pride, we can see how – while lacking some of Ciardi’s music – he better approximates Dante’s stately sentence flow from line to line of verse

I saw, to one side of the path, one who 25

had been created nobler than all other

beings, falling lightning-like from Heaven.

The description of the fall of Troy’s cleverly captures Dante’s play of near rhyme and alliteration and the dramatic inversion of regular word order:

I saw Troy turned to caverns and to ashes; 61

O Ilium, your effigy in stone-

it showed you there so squalid, so cast down!

Mandelbaum shows us proud Troy transformed into a city of “caverns and ashes” – a reality almost as stony and dead as its sculpted image. No acrostic UOM here, but the symbolic image of MAN that underlies Dante’s use of this device – man cast down, but able to rise from his own grave – is more powerfully evident than in Ciardi’s version, as is the dramatic trajectory of Dante’s wording: the personal “I saw” , followed by the empathic “O”, and ending with the stark, objective “It showed.”

The Purgatorio’s most recent translator, Esolin, returns to Ciardi’s formalism while preserving some of the rhythmic fidelity of Mandelbaum. He also renders the acrostic with M-A-N, though with a slight change of wording, translating Vedea again as “Mark…”, the exclamatory O as “Alas” (vs. Ciardi’s “Ah”), and the Mostrava lines starting with “Now…” but with more varied phrasing than Ciardi’s. As Esolin notes in his “Introduction”, he avoids Ciardi’s strict rhyme scheme, favoring rhyme or near rhyme only when available without too much strain – such as in the opening tercet of this passage:

Mark, on this side, the one whom the Most High 25

Created as the noblest of his creatures—

And see him fall like lightning from the sky.

Having embraced the imperative mood in the first line, he continues it in the final one (“see him fall like lightning from the sky”), preserving the sense of history passing before our eyes that Ciardi lost. Here, as in many other instances, Esolin does better than either predecessor in conveying not just the literal sense but the poetry and the pathos of Dante’s stony anthology of sin.

He is not always so felicitous, however. In his rendering of the fall of Troy, Esolin pushes the balance between a translator’s ingenuity and risk of distorting Dante’s original meaning:

Mark Troy, in gutted palaces and ash. 61

Alas, Ilion, the signs for all to see

Now show you for a thing of scorn, and trash!

Vivid though it is, the image of “gutted palaces” is symbolically less powerful than the hellish “caverns” evoked by Dante. Esolin’s Troy – a “thing of scorn, and trash” – seems as much a Victorian fallen woman as a humbled city, showing a tone of moral contempt interesting to contrast with Ciardi’s equally Victorian but more sentimental “lovely and lost”. Readers can decide for themselves which image better renders the sense of Dante’s “cast down and vile” (basso e vile) – or whether Mandelbaum’s “squalid and cast down” better splits the difference between Esolin’s scorn and Ciardi’s regret.

Ultimately, of course, both translators and readers of Dante are in the same boat as Dante himself, as he tries to convey in human language the more than human realities of spiritual life. Whether reading in English or in Italian, we have to lift our vision to grasp symbols and meanings that are beyond any “master of pen or stylus”, as Dante describes this walk of sculpted images. Even in Dante’s Italian, the acrostic of UOM is partially hidden, a kind of riddle that has to be glimpsed and deciphered by the attentive reader. In the Commedia, one must always look beyond the images of the otherworld, even beyond their function as metaphor, to grasp their real significance – as the poet now goes on to illustrate. The Canto ends the way it began, with Virgil telling Dante to turn away from the sights of sin, and “lift up your head./ The time is past for walking so intent” (77). Compared to the start, Dante is now more able to see and understand for himself, but his mind and vision are not yet completely free:

More of the mountain had we gone about 73

and far more of the sun’s race was now spent

than could my mind believe, all bound in thought,

Feeling humbled, but unexpectedly rewarded for his piety, Dante looks up to see an angel rushing towards him and his companion – rather their having to move towards it. Virgil tells Dante:

“With reverence dress your face and bearing now, 82

that he may please to let us climb beyond—

and think, this day may never dawn again”

We might say that what Virgil asks Dante to present, in his own “face and bearing”, is the authentic image of a humbled, redeemed humanity – not Man in history as we’ve seen sculpted on stone, or the title MAN inscribed in a poet’s ingenious acrostic, but mere man facing himself and the prospect of salvation. Which is not to say the Purgatorio is beyond wordplay even here. We see this vividly at the end of the Canto, when the same angel beats its wings over Dante’s forehead, removing the first of the seven P’s (for peccati, “sins”) that both scar and adorn the poet’s face, like another crown of thorns. Dante, it turns out, is nothing less than a living acrostic himself.