By Joanne Hyppolite. Illustrated by Colin Bootman
Delacorte Press, New York, 1995. ISBN # 0-385-32093-0.
Hardbound, 122 pp. $13.95.
Reviewed by Bob Corbett, November, 1996
First generation Haitian-Americans struggle with the difficulties that immigrants of all places have suffered as long as people have immigrated from one place to another. The essence of the problem is that one's own family reflects values and a lifestyle of "home," where home is the culture from which they came. But the first generation born in the new location is often in a mixed world, bombarded at home with one way of life, challenged and offered something different in the "outside" world.
Joanne Hyppolite's youth novel, SETH AND SAMONA tackles this difficult problem with sensitivity, insight and engaging characters. Young Seth, an 11 year old fifth grader is Haitian-American. He's from the same household as his teenage sister, Chantal, who knows what the family wants and expects: that she grows up, go to college, gets a professional job like her mother (nurse), and marry "a nice Haitian man." The Michelin household is typically immigrant, and typically Haitian. Creole is an equal language, the food, values, family traditions, ways of interacting with one another are recognizably "Haitian" more than they are American. Seth, the youngest of three children, seems to be more pulled to the world of the U.S. than any other family member, yet his level of self-reflective consciousness is lower than his sister, Chatal, or his brother, Jean-Claude.
Samona Gemini, Seth's best friend, is an American black girl, classmate of Seth's, and from a family of artists, poets and political activists. She is a perfect foil for Seth, since not only does she challenge his Haitian upbringing, but she even challenges what he sees around him as "typical" American culture, and pushes Seth to begin the ultimate "American" experience, to consider the radical individualism of a self-chosen "self."
All of this is, of course, a bit heady for a book that is told by an 11 year old narrator and aimed at a junior high school audience, but Joanne Hyppolite pulls it off in an engaging story that this adult found a delightful read far beyond the requirements of just reading to write a review. Hyppolite has thought through the difficulties of growing up in the U.S., and particularly of struggling with the "immigrant's dilemma" of being caught between two dominant cultures, one inside the home and the other outside. It helps, I guess, that Hyppolite's biases seem so compatible with mine. Both the Haitian world of the Michelin family, and the radical and artistic consciousness in Samona's Gemini household, are each presented as more attractive and hopeful than the more standard American culture of everyday consumerism and commercialism.
The story itself is quite simple and basic, but I'd prefer not to tell much of it. Suffice it to say that Seth and Samona are best friends, but Seth doesn't quite know what to make of Samona's "otherness." We are treated to scenes of everydayness in their relationship and inside their own households. The central event which drives the story line is Samona's entering a junior beauty contest in Dorchester, a largely Haitian neighborhood of Boston.
Certainly any Haitian-America family facing these sorts of immigrant issues would be well advised to introduce the book to the pre-teens and teens of their household, and read it themselves in the bargain. Those of us not Haitian can be entertained and educated by this insider's look at the immigrant's dilemma.
The novel is enriched by Colin Bootman's realistic drawings which give us some great visual images to support Hyppolite's verbal images. At times I had to draw back and remind myself that these weren't photograph's, but idealized images which fit perfectly with the pictures I had formed from the text.
Joanne Hyppolite, a subscriber to this forum, is a Haitian born American, having come to the U.S. when she was four. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvannia and then got her master's degree from the University of California. She currently lives in Florida, where she hopes to teach. This is her first novel and it won the Angeli Prize from Delacorte Press.
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