Academic journal article ARIEL

Ways of Listening: Hearing Danticat's Calls to Multiple Audiences in the Dew Breaker

Academic journal article ARIEL

Ways of Listening: Hearing Danticat's Calls to Multiple Audiences in the Dew Breaker

Article excerpt

This essay argues that in The Dew Breaker, Edwidge Danticat constitutes her audiences as multiple in order to initiate decolonized relations across differently positioned groups of readers. She stresses the importance of equal and reciprocal relations among communities while emphasizing the problems with idiopathic empathy. As a short story cycle, The Dew Breaker suggests that the dialogic relations among its stories and among the different perspectives that focalize them might prompt similar relations among its audiences, undercutting the centrality of Western readers. The Dew Breaker assigns different cultural tasks to its different readerships: it encourages agency and community building for Haitians in and out of dyaspora; it calls on non-Haitian African-Americans to recognize overlapping experiences with Haitian immigrants as a tentative basis for common struggle; and it calls on Western readers to recognize the interpretive agency of other communities and the effects of US governmentality.

Keywords: postcolonial trauma theory, decolonization, plural readerships, US governmentality

I. Introduction

The penultimate story of Edwidge Danticat's The Dew Breaker, "The Funeral Singer," features three women from different classes and regions of Haiti who might never have interacted in their home country: the wife of an artist, the niece of a brothel keeper, and the daughter of a fisherman. Yet in "The Funeral Singer" the women are drawn to one another as equals in dyaspora in New York City. (1) Because Danticat's style gives symbolic resonance to realist detail, she suggests the women's relationship through the stains left by their glasses on the table over which they talk: they comprise three "circles touching and overlapping" (Dew Breaker 172). The different but overlapping circles suggest a model for relations among Haitians in dyaspora. As the women, who met in an English class, gather to study, talk, and drink, they gradually come to bear witness to one another's stories of loss. Circles that maintain their differences even as they overlap also provide a model for differently positioned readerships, which I argue The Dew Breaker consciously addresses. The book gives these different readerships overlapping but distinct cultural work to perform if they are to dismantle persistent colonial relations. With its fragmented form and many narratives, The Dew Breaker invites differently positioned readerships to foreground different narratives, to urgently seek different connections with the text and with one another, and to treat differently the text's dissociations.

Before turning to the specific readerships Danticat addresses, I discuss relevant aspects of postcolonial theory, which often sorts groups of readers, authors, and texts between the Global South and the West. Danticat's text, however, also requires a more nuanced differentiation of audiences in light of their specific histories because it challenges each readership in a way that is keyed to its historical experience or position. I highlight The Dew Breakers calls to three implied readerships: the extended Haitian community; the older, established African-American community; and the large community of dominant, mainly white, readers in the United States. I include Haitians and members of its dyaspora in a single group because The Dew Breakers Haitian voices speak across national borders. (2) I define the text's implied African-American readership as people of African descent whose families were in the US before the 1965 Immigration Act, which facilitated Afro-Caribbean immigration. (3) I characterize the dominant US readership somewhat more ideologically, drawing on Danticat's observations about "average Americans" in a 2007 Callaloo interview: "I think 'average' Americans, who are... 'average' in quotation marks... have proven that when they are informed and motivated they change things" ("Dyasporic" 31).

The dominant US readership, then, is politically empowered enough to affect laws and policies but often remains insufficiently informed or motivated to so. …

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