Comments by Bob Corbett
Edwidge Danticat has put together a deeply revealing and touching book on Haiti and the disapora experience. Calling on 32 authors, many of them members and contributors to this mailing list, Danticat presents experiences around five central themes: childhood, migration, half/first generation, return, future.
What I like best about the book is that nearly all the pieces selected are autobiographical sketches of one sort or another. The first section, childhood, presents views which retell the author’s memories of his or her own childhood memories and come with the innocence and lack of clear understand that characterizes most childhood experience.
In the piece Bonne Annee, Jean-Pierre Benoit reports: “…with their crooked ruler the adults can no longer draw a straight line, but I can still connect the dots and see that they lead nowhere.” Another contributor reveals with a child’s bluntness the fact of Papa Doc’s death, “Unnaturally, he has died of natural causes.”
The childhood section is powerful in its ability to reveal the severe and frightening dislocation that exile causes the child, who often has only a vague notion of what is going on.
The Migration section was my least favorite since it contained the only pieces which were not autobiographical reflections. At least two of the pieces in this section were more typical political and social analysis, and while quite well-done pieces, just seemed totally out of place in a book in which most pieces were literary in nature.
In the section on the half/first generation folks, I found an especially fascinating ambivalence revealed in Francie Latour’s piece, “Made Outside.” She returns to Haiti as a journalist and accompanied by a non-Haitian white photographer. We see her being understood by people from two very different perspectives: “Beth Bergman, a white American photographer who works for the newspaper is also here. For Beth, who has never been to Haiti and understands little of its ways, I am an interpreter, a buffer, and a bridge. But to a passerby who eyes us as we make our first forays into the street, I am a traitor. I am the one who has ‘brought whites to photograph our trash and ask us how much it smells.’”
Latour asks perhaps the most central question of all to the diaspora Haitians:
“If I were ever put on trial by a committee for Haitian Authenticity, how would I defend myself?” I wonder how many diaspora Haitians on this e-mail list would answer such questions. Not easy.
In the introduction to the volume, Edwidge Danticat keeps with the general form of the book with autobiographical reflections of her own personal relationship with Jean Dominique. But along the way her autobiographical reflections do move some into the realm of social analysis and she raises the hard question of what is a refugee in relation to U.S. immigration policy. As we are all aware, the narrow definition of a political refugee versus an economic one has been a tremendous problem for Haitians seeking asylum in the U.S.
However, there is for me a much deeper puzzle that this volume raises. The political/economic refugee question is an easy one to shoot holes in. However, not at all so easy is the distinction between one in exile and one who gives up on one’s country and seeks a better life in another. This seems a very real distinction in ways of life, though often times it may not be so very clear in the mind of the immigrant. What is it to live in the Diaspora? Is it merely to have been born Haitian in Haiti of Haitian parents, or born in the U.S. of such parents, or it is more, is it to have some consciousness and awareness of Haiti, some sense of identification? I was very disappointed that the volume didn’t seem to acknowledge that there may even be a question here. It seems to take the stand: if you were Haitian born, or born of Haitians who have left Haiti to live in the United States, then you are in the Diapora. I am far from convinced that this makes sense for all.
My own great grandfather fled Ireland having killed the landlord’s son over a dispute about their only cow. No question Great grand Pa Jeremiah Corbett was in the Irish Diaspora the rest of his life. His own brother, John, who fled with him is not such an easy case. Just happy to be free of life in Ireland, he became joyously “American” and wanted nothing to do with Ireland. Of course he couldn’t fully escape his identification as “Irish,” but from all we know of him, it meant nothing to him. He viewed himself fully as an American.
The authors whom Danticat chose for this volume are clearly conscious members of a Diaspora as the book understands the term. The lives of these authors are dominated by their Haitianness and by Haiti. Even if they don’t aspire to return and live their lives in an improved or safer Haiti, the country is still a central fact of their own lives. But is this necessarily the mindset of all Haitians living in the U.S.? Have all really “fled” Haiti in some necessity or have some just “left,” wishing a better life and thinking it may be elsewhere? Is Danticat’s view of the Diaspora too open, too generous, too broad?
I find that question a fascinating one, but no matter where one positions oneself on it, the volume under consideration, THE BUTTERFLY’S WAY, is a marvelous work and I would strongly recommend it to all. One would have to have a heart of stone not to be deeply touched, even melted by these mainly autobiographical reports of each author’s personal responses to the huge variety of questions and problems which arise because of the ambiguous status of who one is – Haitian or American. Haitian American or African American and so on, so many puzzles and questions arise for individuals in this diaporan experience.
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