By Edwidge Danticat
Soho Press, Inc., 1995 853 Broadway, New York, NY. ISBN# 1-56947-02501. Hardbound, $20.00. To be released April 10, 1995
A review by Bob Corbett
"Children of the Sea," the opening story in this book of 9 short stories is an incredibly powerful piece. I recently read it aloud to a group of university students and there wasn't a dry eye in the room when I finished, including mine. Danticat captures the pain, love and longing of two young Haitians, a young woman stuck hiding with her family in the provinces, and her lover, a young man trying to escape Haiti on a small leaky overloaded boat. Each has pledged to the other that he or she will write daily to the other. The story moves along with the alternation of letters, like the counterpoint of a Gregorian chant in two voices.
The opening entry in the young man's journal sets the situation that he is in:
"They say behind the mountains are more mountains. Now I know it's true. I also know there are timeless waters, endless seas, and lots of people in this world whose names don't matter to anyone but themselves. I look up at the sky and I see you there. I see you crying like a crushed snail, the way you cried when I helped you pull out your first loose tooth. Yes, I did love you then. Somehow when I looked at you, I thought of fiery red ants. I wanted you to dig your finger nails into my skin and drain out all the blood.
"I don't know how long we'll be at sea. There are thirty-six other deserting souls on this little boat with me. White sheets with bright red spots float as our sail.
"When I got on board I thought I could still smell the semen and the innocence lost to those sheets. I look up there and I think of you and all those times you resisted. Sometimes I felt like you wanted to, but I knew you wanted me to respect you. You thought I was testing your will, but all I wanted was to be near you. Maybe it's like you've always said. I imagine too much. I am afraid I am going to start having nightmares once we get deep at sea. I really hate having the sun in my face all day long. If you see me again, I'll be so dark.
"Your father will probably marry you off now, since I am gone. Whatever you do, please don't marry a soldier. They're almost not human."
She recounts for him the horrors that Haiti drifted into in the post-coup period of torture and terror.
"They have this thing now that they do. If they come into a house and there is a son and mother there, they hold a gun to their heads. They make the son sleep with his mother. If it is a daughter and father, they do the same thing. some nights papa sleeps at his brother's, Uncle Pressoir's house. Uncle Pressoir sleeps at our house, just in case they come. That way papa will never be forced to lie down in bed with me. Instead, Uncle Pressoir would be forced to, but that would not be so bad. we know a girl who had a child by her father that way. That is what papa does not want to happen, even if he is killed."
This long first story is spell binding, incredibly sensitive and insightful. A long prose poem capturing the profound pathos of contemporary Haiti.
When I mentioned to two Haitian friends of mine that I was read a wonderful book entitled Krik? Krak!, they immediately laughed a big laugh, remembering that pat phrase which introduced a period of story telling. The male character in the first story experiences this same phrase and custom even in the midst of their dangerous ride on the high seas, a ride which we are led to believe they never survive. But the book's title is misleading. Yes, these certainly are Haitian stories. But usually what follows the Krik? Krak! formula are light stories, jokes, riddles and the like.
Danticat's book is anything but light. She explores powerful themes of human emotion and politics, and toward the end of this book of short stories, returns to the theme that she dealt with so extraordinarily in her first novel, BREATH, EYES, MEMORY, the theme of Haitians struggling in the United States to adjust to American culture while saving what they can of their Haitian ways.
The long last story, "Caroline's Wedding," is mainly about Caroline's mother, who left Haiti 25 years ago, but in another sense, never really left. She is distraught that Caroline is marrying a Bahamian, and not marrying in a church wedding. The story concentrates on the difficult process of letting her daughter go. In a final conversation the night before the wedding, Caroline's mother tries hard to understand her daughter, but it is more than she can do:
"Tell me, how do these outside-of-church weddings work?" Ma asked.
"Ma, I told you my reasons for getting married this way," Caroline said. "Eric and I don't want to spend all the money we have on one silly night that everybody else will enjoy except us. We would rather do it this way. We have all our papers ready. Eric has a friend who is a judge. He will perform the ceremony for us in his office."
"So much like America," Ma said, shaking her head.
In between the long opening and closing stories, are some shorter gems. An imaginative and symbolic story of a Haitian man who wanted to fly a hot air balloon, the macabre tale of a childless woman who finds a dead baby and claims it as her child, the touching story of a young prostitute who must concoct strange tales and rituals to keep her small son from knowing her line of work, among the others.
These stories are not even fully distinct tales. Characters from one will show up in another and so on. In the opening story, "Children of the Sea," the young man writes of a pregnant woman who gives birth to a still born child on the boat, and finally throws the baby overboard and jumps in after it. In the final story, "Caroline's Wedding," while her mother is attending a mass for Haitians who have died, they pray for this same woman and her child. And so it goes. As I mentioned earlier, with the closing theme of the Haitian/American experience of the last two stories, we even return to the themes of Danticat's early book.
This is a book not to be missed. Edwidge Danticat is a very talented young writer. She write with passion and compassion. She has special insights into the plight of Haitian women and situates her stories in a realistic understanding of both the nearly hopeless situation in Haiti today, and the difficulties of the immigrant experience. This book will be in the book stores in another month and would provide great reading out of doors on a park bench in the warming spring days.
Edwidge Danticat was born in Haiti and lived her first twelve years there. Living in the U.S. since that time, the 24 year old Danticat published her first work last year. This will be her second major book.
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