20 January 2010

Edwidge Danticat

Edwidge Danticat (1969- ) was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and was twelve years old when she left with her family for New York. She writes in English and her first novel was Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994), which in part concerns the young Haitian girl Sophie's relationship with her mother, who is speaking here about the 'testing', a degrading old custom to which she subjects Sophie:

'When I was a girl, my mother used to test us to see if we were virgins. She would put her finger in our very private parts and see if it would go inside. Your Tante Atie hated it. She used to scream like a pig in a slaugherhouse. The way my mother was raised, a mother was supposed to do that to her daughter until the daughter is married. It is her responsibilty to keep her pure.'*

Her mother describes her rape and the conception of Sophie rather more laconically, but no less dramatically for that: 'A man grabbed me from the side of the road, pulled me into a cane field, and put you in my body.'

Krik? Krak! (1996) refers to a storyteller asking if he can tell a story, and the enthusiastic reply. It is a book of stories of the myths of Haiti, the family, the horrors of the tontons macoutes, the contrasts between the poorest country in the western hemisphere and the riches of north-east America, but most of all it is a series of stories about stories. In the longest story, 'Caroline's Wedding', the narrator Grace remembers a story told by her father about the Haitian dictator Papa Doc:

'God once called a conference of world leaders. He invited the president of France, the president of the United States, the president of Russia, Italy, Germany, and China, as well as our own president, His Excellency, the President for Life Papa Doc Duvalier. When the president of France reached the gates of Heaven, God got up from his throne to greet him. When the president of the United States reached the gates of Heaven, God got up to greet him as well. So, too, with the presidents of Russia, Italy, Germany, and China.

'When it was our president's turn, His Excellency, the president for Life Papa Doc Duvalier, God did not get up from his throne to greet him. All the angels were stunned and puzzled. They did not understand God's rude behavior. So they elected a representative to go up to God and question Him.

'"God", said the representative, "you have been so cordial to all the other presidents. You have gotten up from your throne to greet them at the gates of heaven as soon as they have entered. Why do you not get up for Papa Doc Duvalier? Is it because he is a black president? You have always told us to overlook the color of men. Why have you chosen to treat the black president, Papa Doc Duvalier, in this fashion?"

'God looked at the representative angel as though He was about to admit something He did not want to.

'"Look, he said. "I am not getting up for Papa Doc Duvalier because I am afraid that if I get up, he will take my throne and will never give it back."'

Edwidge Danticat is a great storyteller. Only a fool would read this 'joke' as a racist statement, and only a fool would fail to see that this story illustrates just as much the tragedy that is Haiti as the hell that Haiti is now undergoing.

*The structure of the title Breath, Eyes, Memory, written by a 24-year-old Danticat, invokes another very powerful book about Haiti, the suppressed Amour, colère et folie (1968) by Marie Chauvet, who died when Danticat was seven. Simone de Beauvoir was greatly impressed by that strong criticism of the Duvalier regime, but as a result of its publication, Chauvet was forced to flee to New York.

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