Edwidge Danticat dedicated her
Breath, Eyes, Memory, to "the brave women
of Haiti," whom she honored by transforming her own
childhood, in which she was raised by her aunt while
her parents made a new life in New York, into a
haunting novel that ranges from the supernatural to
the political. Brother, I'm Dying takes that
same raw material, the childhood of a girl separated
from her parents for eight years, and does something
very different. This is a memoir, deeply scored with
harsh facts, and it is about the beloved men in her
On the same day that she learns she is pregnant, Danticat learns that her father, Mira, is dying of pulmonary fibrosis. He lives long enough to hold her daughter, but he also lives long enough to experience the death of his brother Joseph, the uncle who also raised Danticat in Haiti. From these emotionally laden events, Danticat moves backward into history, tracing the brothers' thirty-year relationship across an ocean and her own role as a facilitator of their words.
For Danticat, paying tribute to her father and uncle means interviewing family members and poring over official documents in order to give their life stories the robustness and cohesiveness she feels they deserve. Yet for all her loving fidelity to the facts—the history of Haiti she deftly interweaves into her personal story, the medical data from her father and illnesses—this is eminently a writer's tale. Danticat pays as much attention to how her family tells each other their life stories as she does to those stories themselves. As a young girl reading her father's too-short letters from overseas, she "used to dream of smuggling him words." Later, he explains, "What I wanted to tell you and your brother was too big for any piece of paper and a small envelope." When she finally rejoins her parents, her welcome gift is a Smith Corona typewriter. "This will help you measure your words," her father tells her. Danticat becomes like her uncle who, when he loses his voice to a throat operation and can no longer preach in the church he founded, begins filling notebooks with observations and facts. Throughout the book, Danticat underscores her family's entanglement with Haitian politics and history by paralleling their lives to the characters in her Granmé Melina's folktales.
Brother, I'm Dying unfolds in a deliberately reserved, unornamented voice as the narrator subsumes herself into the story of her revered elders. Because of this, the passages about Danticat's own childhood never fully snap into focus and she can only gesture toward her feeling of abandonment when her parents move to the U.S. For at least one reviewer, this self-effacement compromises Danticat's honesty with the reader, especially since she was writing acclaimed novels and winning literary renown as the book's events unfolded. In this reviewer's opinion, her pared-down style devastatingly conveys, without overt editorializing, the injustice and inhumanity of her uncle's treatment in the hands of Homeland Security officials, and it delivers her grief at both men's deaths in raw form, without sentimentality. "I am writing this only because they can't," she states.
Brother, I'm Dying may be about Mira and Joseph Danticat, but it also serves as a portrait of a daughter and niece's fierce loyalty as she carves the lives of her loved ones in granite prose.
This review was originally published in October 2007, and has been updated for the September 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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