Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat

Brother Im DyingI first read Haitian author, Edwidge Danticat last summer, her novel Breath, Eyes, Memory (review linked below) about a young girl living with her Aunt in Haiti, while her mother lived in New York, a little like the life of the author herself, much of which is revealed in this non-fiction title, Brother, I’m Dying where we learn more about her life, though the primary focus is on her father Mira and in particular, her Uncle Joseph.

After having read a number of books in the Caribbean tradition recently, it is both unique and a gesture of deep reverence to read about the special connection between a daughter and her two fathers, for she sees both these men, and rightfully so, as her fathers.

The novel opens on the day of two discoveries, the author learns she is pregnant with her first child and hears that her father has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. The pulmonary disorder had required him to take medicine (containing codeine) resulting in his taxi licence being revoked. The medicine did nothing to alleviate his symptoms, worse it lost him his job and his dignity.

The chapters alternate between their present life in America and the author’s early life in Haiti, recounting the lives of the two brothers. We come to understand the lives they create from the choices they made, how they reinvent themselves, the obstacles they face, whether it’s family, work, the establishment, or navigating the political and legal demands of the countries they inhabit.

Mira leaves Haiti to create a better life in America for his family, a departure the author has no memory of, though her Uncle Joseph’s adopted daughter Marie Micheline shared stories with her, in a tradition common to people like her, anecdotes of poignant memories for those that have been left, to serve as reassurance that they were and are loved.

“Unfortunately I wasn’t told many stories like that. What I did often hear about was the future, an undetermined time when my father would send for my mother, Bob and me.”

Life was difficult for her mother and she often left the children with her brother-in-law to ensure the children had a decent meal. Then two years after her father left, when she was four and Bob was two, her mother’s visa was approved and she too departed, alone.

The two children became very attached to their Aunt and Uncle, while they waited out the nine long years before they too could make their eventual transition to join their parents in New York. Finally happening when Edwidge was twelve years old, it would be an even greater emotional challenge, not least because they had two younger brothers born in the US, one of whom believed he was the rightful, elder child of the family.

Back in Haiti, Joseph’s voice had begun to quiver, it worried him so he travelled to a hospital where US doctors were visiting, learning of a suspected tumour that would block his airways and suffocate him if not removed. It could be extracted in the US, but so too with it, would be his voice, reduced to a bare whisper, a death-knell for a pastor.

Almost like a miracle, on a subsequent visit for a check-up, he is shown a contraption he can use to amplify his whispers and allow people to hear him.

“My father took my uncle’s hand and led him to a lamp in a corner of the room, so he could better see the machine and its interaction with my uncle’s neck. This was their first two-sided conversation in many years and they both seemed to want to move it past the technicalities to a point of near normalcy.”

Edwidge Danticat

Edwidge Danticat

The one thing that remains constant throughout their long separation, is their love and respect for each other, as witnessed and shared through the eyes of their daughter and niece.

Edwidge Danticat writes in such an honest and compassionate way, you can’t help but become drawn into their story and feel concern at the various dramatic points that arise, willing things to turn out for the best – except that’s not what happens in real life – in reality, not everything will turn out as we will it to, but the memories will remain and the experiences contribute to forming the characters that we become.

It is a credit to the author to have chosen to share something of her life, her early childhood, without elevating herself as the main character of interest, it is both a story and a tribute to the extended family and the men who tried to lead them to live in safety.

The brothers chose different paths, one deciding to leave, the other to stay and though they were separated for 30 years their relationship remained strong, seeing each other as often as they could and keeping this strong connection between all the extended members of the family and their birth country.

As Cristina García, author of Dreaming in Cuba (one of my Top 5 Fiction Reads of 2015) put it:

“Edwidge Danticat’s moving tale of two remarkable brothers – her own father  and her beloved Uncle Joseph, separated for thirty years – is as compelling and richly told as her fiction. Politically charged and sadly unforgettable, their stories will lodge themselves in your heart.”

Breath Eyes Memory

A wonderful book, an honest portrayal of lives, where joy and struggle go hand in hand, where fear is never far from the front gate and sadness its companion, yet full of hope and spiritedness as an eighty-one-year old man refuses to let thugs take all that he has, and even though he risks his life, he will continue to pursue with righteousness, what is necessary in his own country to ensure justice. Which only serves to make what follows so immensely tragic.

A 5 star must read for me.

Further Links:

Edwidge Danticat, my review of Breath, Eyes, Memory

Cristina García, my review of Dreaming in Cuban

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Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

Breath Eyes MemoryNarrated from the point of view of the grand-daughter Sophie Caco, who we meet while she is living with her unmarried Aunt, Tante Atie in a village in Haiti, we enter the difficult world of being female and being raised by women, in an environment where an innocent life, a contented child can turn into a tormented adult, ravaged by recurring dreams and nightmares.

“I know old people, they have great knowledge. I have been taught  never to contradict our elders. I am the oldest child. My place is here. I am supposed to march at the head of the old woman’s coffin. I am supposed to lead her funeral procession. But even if lightning should strike me now, I will say this: I am tired. I woke up one morning and I was old myself.”

Maryse Condé’s novel Victoire: My Mother’s Mother, a book that recounts the facts as she could gather them on the life of her grandmother, helps us understand the importance of memory in the context of a historical narrative of people’s lives. I find her comments important in relation to Edwidge Danticat’s work which also harvests the ‘rich landscape of memory’.

In an interview with Megan Doll, responding to a question about how she went about researching the life of a woman who had died before she was born:

“…people will tell you that in places like the Caribbean, West Africa and so on, we have two distinct elements. We have history which is written in books about the white people — how they came to Guadeloupe, how they colonized Guadeloupe, how they became the masters of Guadeloupe — and you have memory, which is the actual facts of the people of Guadeloupe and Martinique — the way they lived, the way they suffered, the way they enjoyed life. We are trained to rely more on our memories and the memories of people around us than on books. So I interviewed people, I asked questions to everybody who knew her or knew my mother or my father. It took me about three years to write Victoire. I wanted to find the history of my immediate family but at the same time the history of Guadeloupe – a period of time that I didn’t know, which was not too distant, after all, but was distant in terms of the behaviour of the people of Guadeloupe.”

Edwidge Danticat’s novel is a tale that encompasses four generations of women, where stories are passed on, secrets are sent away and a lantern observed in the distance will tell us whether a boy or girl has been born.

“There is always a place where women live near trees that, blowing in the wind, sound like music. These women tell stories to their children both to frighten and delight them. These women, they are fluttering lanterns on the hills, fireflies in the night, the faces that loom over you and recreate the same unspeakable acts that they themselves lived through. There is always a place where nightmares are passed on  through generations like heirlooms. Where women like cardinal birds return to look at their own faces in stagnant bodies of water.”

Sophie’s mother lives in New York, she knows little about her and relates to her Aunt more as a mother figure, she doesn’t know why her mother lives far away, nor is she curious about it, but when she turns twelve her mother sends a plane ticket, it is time for her to join her.

Her mother is a care worker and initially takes her with her to work, until school begins. She presses on her daughter the importance of education, the only escape, opportunity for a girl child to have choices. Sophie witnesses her mother’s violent nightmares, a fear she can not assuage, she learns the reason for her mother’s disturbing state of mind and discovers the ways mother’s ‘test’ their daughters.

Edwidge Danticat

Edwidge Danticat

Despite a protected adolescence, Sophie falls in love, she concocts a lie to put her mother off, but suffers the torment of suspicion and decides to rebel against it.

Eventually she returns to her Aunt and grandmother, to the familiar, the women who have known her from birth, to try to make sense of things.

It is a compelling story of a family, their traditions and superstitions, their aspirations and fears, the things they accept and those they run from. It also touches on the sadness and dissociation of the immigrant from their culture and roots, that in order to attain their desire, it is necessary to give up much of their identity.

“It is really hard for the new-generation girls,” she began. “You will have to choose between the really old-fashioned Haitians and the new-generation Haitians. The old-fashioned ones are not exactly prize fruits. They make you cook plantains and rice and beans and never let you feed them lasagna. The problem with the new generation is that a lot of them have lost their sense of obligation to the family’s honour. Rather than become doctors and engineers, they want to drive taxicabs to make quick cash.”

A simple read and an extraordinary book, the lives of these characters seep into the reader, these generations of women raising their daughters alone, living with their demons of the past, trying to ensure nothing of their own suffering passes on to the next generation.

Edwidge Danticat was born in Haiti in 1969, raised by her Aunt and joined her parents in America when she was twelve. Breath, Eyes, Memory was her first novel, she has written many award-winning short stories and novels including The Farming of Bones, The Dew Breaker and her most recent Claire of the Sea Light.

Black Count – Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss

Mention the name Alexandre Dumas and many will associate it with the classic stories as well-known now through their film adaptations, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, The Black Tulip and La Reine Margot (Marguerite de Valois) as they are through the novels.

In France the novelist referred to as Alexandre Père Dumas, had a son Alexandre, also a well-known playwright. Less is known about the novelist’s father General Alexandre ‘Alex’ Dumas, born in 1762, the son of Marie Cessette Dumas, a black slave from Saint-Domingue (modern-day Haiti) and a French nobleman Alexandre Antoine Davy, the Marquis de Pailleterie, who was from a family of provincial aristocrats with a more impressive coat of arms and title than fortune to their name.

Tom Reiss has researched the life of General Alex Dumas and takes us from the French sugar plantations of Saint-Domingue to the battlefields of the French revolution and to a dark dungeon on an island in the Mediterranean, in recapturing the spirit of this extraordinary man, living in an unforgettable era, that we are all the better off for being reminded of.

Antoine was the eldest of three brothers, required to go out in the world and seek their fortunes, which they initially pursue in the army before Antoine followed his brother Charles to Saint-Domingue. At the time the world’s largest sugar exporter, it generated vast wealth using slave labour, as depicted so vividly by Isabelle Allende in her excellent novel Beneath the Sea.

Charles married into money and established himself as a planter so Antoine joined him, though without the same work ethic or ambition, content to live off his brother, until an altercation caused him to flee with a couple of slaves and his slave mistress. The brothers never saw each other again and the family lost track of the eldest brother believing him to be dead. As the eldest, Antoine was heir to the title and the ancestral estate of Bielleville, however it was passed to a nephew in the belief of his demise, until his sudden and unexpected return to France.

Antoine had fled across the mountains to Jérémie, a coffee plantation area where he settled with a woman named Marie-Cessette and had four children with, including a son born on March 25, 1762 whom they named Thomas-Alexandre.

Bielleville, the family estate

He eventually returned to France, and learning of the death of his parents attempted to claim his title which had passed to the nephew, Comte Léon de Maulde, who employed a detective to investigate the returning heir’s mysterious island interlude and return.

Chauvinault then reported on Antoine’s having bought, in the late 1750’s, the beautiful black woman named Marie-Cessette, for whom he’d paid that “exorbitant price” – implying some unusual interest in her. Before Antoine’s return to France, Chauvinault reported, he had sold three of his children, as well as Marie-Cessette herself.

The detective also brought the interesting news that Antoine’s fourth child, a boy who was said to be his favourite, had not been sold along with the others. This boy was “a young mulatto who, it is said, was sold at Port-au-Prince,” Chauvinaluth wrote, “conditionally, with the right of redemption, to Captain Langlois, for 800 livres.”

On arrival in France Antoine sends for his son and thus begins a different life for the adolescent Alex Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie. His father pawned the family estate and moved them to the rich and fast growing Saint-Germain-en-Laye, on the western side of Paris. Dumas received a superior education, expensive clothes, training in fine manners, riding, baroque dancing and duelling among other equally refined activities. After a falling out with his father, he enlisted as a horseman in the service of the queen just as the French revolution was gaining ascendancy, which resulted in him being promoted through the ranks rapidly, rising to command entire divisions.

Up until the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, nothing seemed to phase Dumas, he was respected by all, he was fair, he introduced many improvements in the armies beneath him and challenged any wrongdoings of others, whilst keeping his head – not so easy during the reign of terror.

General Alex Dumas

Alex Dumas was a consummate warrior but also a man of great conviction and moral courage. He was renowned for his strength, his swordsmanship, his bravery, and his knack for pulling victory out of the toughest situations. But he was known, too, for his profane back talk and his problems with authority.

Alexandre Pere Dumas, Novelist

He was the inspiration behind the hero of his son’s novel ‘The Count of Monte Cristo‘, the story of the young sailor Edmond Dantes who, on the verge of a promising career and life, is locked away without witness or trial in the dungeon of the island fortress Château d’If.

An island dungeon is where Alex Dumas, finds himself after the failed French invasion of Egypt, when he is almost shipwrecked on his return, the ship limping into the south of Italy, which in the meantime has become an enemy of France and sadly Dumas’ influence with Bonaparte has diminished and he is all but forgotten.

Les Fers brisés, Paris

The story is rich in detail and reads more like a novel than the historical account that it is. Tom Reiss has excelled in researching both the vast volume of documentation, which from his account, sounds as if the Generals sent letters at an equivalent rate to which people send email today as well as visiting all of the battle sites and physical locations the General and his family were based.

Reiss encounters his own difficulties in pursuing the research, all of which contribute to making this a most compelling and entertaining read, but above all, one can’t help but admire the man, who lived in an extraordinary period of history, who was born into slavery, witnessed its emancipation, then both saw and experienced it tragically being rescinded. He deserves his rightful place in the historical annals of France, as a role model, a hero and a man of the people.

Note: This book was an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) kindly made available by the publisher via NetGalley.

Slaves and Siblings, Sorcery and Sadness, Strength and Salvation – Isabelle Allende’s Island Beneath the Sea

Isabel Allende.

I well remember being introduced to her debut novel ‘The House of the Spirits’ in my early twenties by a good friend and discovering this wonderful story teller. We became immersed in the lives of members of a Latin American family, following it during a time of political upheaval and personal transformation and though it was far from our own reality, it was pure joy to escape into.

Whenever I came across a new book I read it, including two of her wonderful young adult books ‘City of the Beasts’ and ‘The Kingdom of the Dragon’ and who could forget the heart-breaking but beautiful ‘Paula’. I haven’t read all her books, but I will continue to read those that cross my bookish path, just as ‘Island Beneath the Sea’ did recently, spotted on my book buddy’s shelf while feeding her son’s cat Oscar.

In this gripping novel, Allende takes us on a troubling but engaging journey to the sugar cane plantations of what was the French colony Sainte-Domingue, in one of its most historic and transformational eras during the late 1700’s and ends in New Orleans as Napolean trades terrains as if they are commodities with the Americans.

Toulouse Valmorain arrives in the colony from France where the dauphin King has just married Marie-Antoinette and few anticipate the changes to come with revolution in France or the effect that will have on this prosperous Caribbean island where slaves labour on crops that produce a third of the wealth of France and whose usefulness once they set foot on the island averages eighteen months; the fortunate dubbed the Maroons fleeing to the hills, the less fortunate en route to that place they believe all souls go, the island beneath the sea.

Knowing little of changing French laws that might change their status in the colony, many of the slaves find respite through voodoo and belief in men who escaped like the legend Macandal ‘The Black Messiah’. The Maroons will make history as they lead a slave revolt eventually resulting in the first black republic of Haiti.

Valmorain never expected to visit the family plantations but the premature death of his father and the necessity of supporting remaining family in France drive him to the colony where he must take over the family interests. Through him we meet high profile cocotte Violette Boisier, a free woman of mixed African heritage, the teenage slave Zarité, maid to Eugenia the troubled Spanish wife and her brother Sancho, Valmorain’s business partner. The story follows these characters as their fates intertwine and their lives are affected by society’s strictures and historical events.

The characters of Zarité and Violette jump off the page in a way that almost makes me wonder whether the author had her ‘favourite’ characters, we see them in situations and feel their struggles whereas I didn’t get quite the same feeling with the character of Eugenia, I found myself wondering how it really was for her as the drumbeats got inside her head and slowly drove her to madness. She wasn’t a strong character and although she suffered, we learn of it rather than experience it.

I realised towards the end that much of the novel is narrated, which also made me wonder how much longer it could have been if more of the narrative had been portrayed through the events themselves and dialogue, the characters are certainly engaging enough but at 457 pages, it is lengthy already. After being totally engaged with Josephine Bonaparte’s story beginning in another Caribbean plantation in Martinique, I could easily have been tempted by a sequel.

Allende narrates great stories and brings the reader to unforgettable settings during fascinating historic periods; she places interesting characters in this context, constructed with great clarity and insight and history comes alive as if it is the present and the reader is witness to it. For me ‘Island beneath the Sea’ was a real page turner and I was sad to finish it.

What Allende could never have anticipated while writing this book, was the major earthquake in 2010 that would disrupt this country, now known as Haiti, however it is a timely reminder of the previous chapters in the history of this trailblazing republic.