Academic journal article ARIEL

Empathetic Engagement in Danticat's Brother, I'm Dying

Academic journal article ARIEL

Empathetic Engagement in Danticat's Brother, I'm Dying

Article excerpt

Abstract: In 2004 while fleeing upheaval in Haiti, 81 year-old Joseph Dantica died while being detained by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. In seeking temporary asylum, Dantica became subject to regulations that can be assumed to have precipitated his death. This article discusses Edwidge Danticat's Brother, I'm Dying, a memoir in which Danticat negotiates how best to establish her uncle's grievability as a subject. Using Judith Butler's Precarious Life and Frames of War as theoretical touchpoints, this article explores Danticat's manipulation of narrative form as an interrogation of the efficacy of emotional appeals. In viewing Danticat's narrative choices as her way to manage sites for empathetic engagement, this article questions the complexities and limits of affective citizenship.

Keywords: Danticat; Brother, I'm Dying, migration; grievable subject; empathetic engagement; affective citizenship; narrative perspective


In a siren, the individual muscles of a life collapsing, as waves, stuttering on some harm, your fingers may flutter in the viscera of an utter stranger I wake up to it, open as doorways, Breathless as a coming hour, and undone (Brand 63)

Having already achieved immense success with her fiction, Edwidge Danticat has recently turned more and more towards autobiographical non-fiction. In particular, After the Dance: A Walk through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti (2002), Brother, I'm Dying (2007), and Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (2010) are all focussed on expressing Danticat's own experiences and that of her family. Although she suggests that she is "going to ease back into fiction slowly again" (Shea 192)--and she has begun to do so with, for instance, her recent childrens book Eight Days (2010) and her recent novel Claire of the Sea Light (2013)--her shift towards the autobiographical has allowed Danticat a venue for further exploring the ethics involved in remembering and representing past traumatic events, a theme common throughout her body of work. In Create Dangerously, Danticat asserts, "Grappling with memory is, I believe, one of many complicated Haitian obsessions" (63). In Danticat's work, this "grappling with memory" has been witnessed in the narrative of a daughter's need to come to terms with her mother's abuse in Breath, Eyes, Memory, in the re-telling of the 1937 massacre of Haitians in The Farming of Bones, and in the compilation of accounts of a former Tonton Macoute in The Dew Breaker. In Danticat's negotiation of the processes and limits of memory, to "grapple with" becomes an especially apt description, bearing as it does references to both physical and mental sparring. As much as "grappling" is " [t]o grip as in wrestling; to seize with hands and arms" ("Grapple," Def. 8b) and "[t]o encounter hand to hand; to battle or struggle with" ("Grapple," Def. 8c), it is also "[t]o try to overcome (a difficulty, etc.); to try to accomplish, ...; to try to deal with (a question, etc.); to try to solve (a problem, etc.)" ("Grapple," Def. 8e). As such, "grappling with memory" can be both to struggle against someone--the forces by which memory has been quashed--and to struggle against oneself.

In Danticat's recent turn towards the autobiographical, particularly in Brother, I'm Dying, this need to "grapple" becomes more personal, her struggle with memory and the ethics of commemoration more dire. Brother, I'm DyingttWs a story of the collision of three life-altering events: her father's terminal illness, the upcoming birth of her first child, and her uncle's unexpected, tragic, and by most accounts wrongful death while in the custody of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Caught in 2004 at a moment post-9/11 when the United States perceived its borders to be threateningly porous, Danticat's uncle found his simple request for temporary asylum precipitating his death. In assuming this three-part focus, Brother, I'm Dying requires Danticat to take on multiple positions as life writer. …

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