A Homeward Journey: Edwidge Danticat's Fictional Landscapes, Mindscapes, Genescapes, and Signscapes in Breath, Eyes, Memory
Samway, Patrick S. J., The Mississippi Quarterly
A NUMBER or SUMMERS AGO, WHILE ACTING as the summer replacement pastor of Sen Elen, the Catholic parish in Carice, Haiti, a town hidden in the mountains about an hour's drive from Ouanaminthe in the country's northeast sector, I read the series of small booklets used in all the schools to teach the history of Haitian literature. In a country where paper is scarce, these booklets preserve Haiti's valuable literary heritage, including snippets of works in French and Creole, as well as a mixture of the two languages--now professionally anthologized by Jean-Claude Bajeux in his bilingual Mosochwazi Pawol Ki Ekri an Kreyol Ayisyen. (1) As I witnessed on numerous occasions, Haitian students memorize some pertinent facts concerning an author's biography in order to be able to cite the author's major literary work, having usually read at most a page or two of it. As Bajeux notes, "Non ta bezwen yon bon diksyone lang kreyol la, pou l ta di nou ki kote tout pawol kreyol la yo soti. Non ta bezwen tou yo ranmase nan tout peyi a tout kont k ap sikile, ki nan memwa yon paket moun men ki poko mete sou papye" (p. iii). (2) In a country where approximately ninety percent of the population speak and comprehend only Creole, it is not surprising that contemporary Haitian writers, whether they write in Creole, as does Maude Heurtelou, or in French, as do Gary Victor and Margaret Papillon, look to their indigenous linguistic and cultural roots, unlike many of their predecessors who imitated, decade after decade, French belles lettres. Curiously, American fiction and nonfiction writers, from George Washington Cable (The Creoles of Louisiana ) to James Weldon Johnson in his essays on Haiti in The Nation (1920) (3) to William Faulkner (Absalom, Absalom! ) to Zora Neal Hurston (Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica ) to Madison Smartt Bell (All Souls' Rising ), have looked to Haiti for source material. Somewhere in between lies Edwidge Danticat, a naturalized American citizen of Haitian descent who moved to Brooklyn at age twelve and who went on to earn degrees at both Hunter College (B.A.) and Brown University (M.F.A.) (4)
Though Danticat feels comfortable living in Brooklyn, as she once told me, Haiti is both her "country" and her "home." (5) The simple, disarming plot of Breath, Eyes, Memory, three of whose protagonists travel between Brooklyn and Haiti, belies an intricate and, at times, backlooping depiction of the distaff side of the Caco family, a proper name that aptly refers to both a flamboyant red bird and Haitian revolutionary heroes. Since the protagonist, Sophie Caco, shares one essential fact with Danticat herself--both left Haiti at age twelve to travel to Brooklyn--the assumption is that the novel is a roman-A-clef. In a radically unprecedented way, Danticat addresses Sophie directly in the novel's "Afterword," acknowledging that Sophie's story is hers alone and should be read that way to emphasize the singularity of Sophie's experience, along with its own peculiarities, inconsistencies, and voice. At the same time, she implies an autobiographical kinship, something not uncharacteristic of first novels, if only from a retrospective point of view, when she states that both she and Sophie have been through the journey together.
Like Thoreau performing a phrenological analysis of Walden Pond, discovering that this small parcel of earth not only reflects but actually embodies the transcendental depths of the heavens above--suggestive in its own way of Wessex or Yoknapatawpha--so too Danticat's homeland contains all the essential elements that nurture life. Above all, through the confluence of apparently ordinary situations, like the rivulets feeding Walden Pond, which, in turn, resemble the veins of a leaf or the veins of a human hand, Danticat has created an intricate pattern of sign-images, some of which focus on birth, growth, testing, love, death, that at times bifurcate or trifurcate, leading to other sign-images--all of which emanate from personal sources but lead to unlimited possibilities and beyond that to more heart-wrenching limited probabilities and so create a progressive type of semiotics concerning the open-endedness of language. …