Oral Narrative as Short Story Cycle: Forging Community in Edwidge Danticat's Krik? Krak!

Article excerpt

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 (74). …