Edwidge Danticat has a way of making small lives tell big stories. Gently and quietly, she writes the outrageous and compels us, her readers, to become intimate with tragedies that are at once particular and global. From her very first novel, the 1994 best seller Breath, Eyes, Memory, which made her something of a literary superstar, Danticat has told extraordinary stories about ordinary people and, in so doing, insisted on a commonality of human experience that Haiti and Haitians are too often denied.
For a writer to make fiction out of Haiti’s reality, in large part for the benefit of a non-Haitian readership, she must engage with what that audience believes it already knows about life in Haiti and its diaspora. Poverty and hunger, violence and corruption, illiteracy and “voodoo” are the sound-bite touchstones that have accompanied Haiti’s global positioning as absolutely “other” for most of the 20th and 21st centuries. From the US Marine occupation of Haiti between 1915 and 1934, to the arrival of Haitian “boat-people” on the shores of southern Florida under the successive regimes of François and Jean-Claude Duvalier, to international involvement in the ousting, reinstallation, and re-ousting of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991, 1994, and 2004, to the January 2010 earthquake and the island republic’s continued occupation by the United Nations, Haiti has circulated in the newspapers and the consciousness of North Americans as a place mired in perpetual crisis.
Haiti’s designation as exceptionally impoverished has become more or less permanently affixed to its international image. The nation’s writers thus face the question of how to navigate a discourse of “common knowledge” that insists relentlessly and with finger-pointing self-righteousness on the country’s abjection. Danticat—who emphatically self-identifies as “Afro-Haitian-American”—has responded to this question with both subtlety and great force. For nearly two decades now, she has sought to counter the flattening of her country into the category of failed state and of its citizens into that of archetypal victims. She has offered us narratives that evoke the very environmental, social, and political challenges that preoccupy Haiti’s most virulent detractors, but has done so while consistently
highlighting the universal dimensions of the stories she tells.
Danticat writes in full recognition of both the privileges and the responsibilities of her status.
Having garnered a place in the North Atlantic literary institution as a representative and mouthpiece for Haiti, Danticat writes in full recognition of both the privileges and the responsibilities that inhere in such a status. Like other Haitian writers of fiction, both expatriates and those who remain on the island, her access to international literary forums and even the very fact of her literacy place her at something of a distance from the subjects of her narratives. But as evidenced by her heartbreaking family memoir Brother, I’m Dying (2007), Danticat has no illusions about the limits of her influence as a Haitian artist. In recounting her inability to save her beloved uncle from the repressive authority of the US Department of Homeland Security, Danticat makes clear how well she understands the smallness of her own story in the face of dehumanizing state power.
In Claire of the Sea Light, her most recent work of prose fiction, Danticat both acknowledges and disavows the distance between her own, ostensibly “elite,” reality and that of the so-called Haitian masses. She manages this through her textual and meta-textual deployment of a simple phrase: “Tell me.” “Tell me.” These are the first words of the Jean Toomer poem that serves as the novel’s epigraph as well as the title, in English and in Kreyòl, of the book’s longest chapter. Less aggressive than a command and more forceful than a plea, Danticat’s “tell me” is an exhortation. It is a discreet, even humble, acknowledgment that, in her fortunate yet fraught role as a globally renowned teller of stories, she relies on her characters’ willingness to confide their stories to her.
Contained within a very small place, a tiny town called Ville Rose, Danticat’s novel lingers on the details of human exchange in ways that hint at broader social problems. The narrative is a collage portrait of a complicated place. At the heart of the novel is a motherless young girl, the Claire of the title, whose fisherman father, Nozias, is faced with the awful prospect of giving up his beloved daughter to Gaëlle Lavaud, a wealthy shop-owner from one of the town’s most established families. But this is not a familiar story of rich mulattos and poor blacks, of rapacious haves and cowering have-nots. The exchange between Gaëlle and Nozias is only one among several instances in the novel of lives linked intimately across the boundaries of class. The stories of the inhabitants of Ville Rose fold into one another in surprising ways; social barriers exist but are constantly transgressed—sometimes violently, sometimes with compassion and mutual understanding.
Here, as throughout the narrative, poverty is in the details—it is simple and personal.
By foregrounding Nozias’s predicament, Danticat is able to grapple with multiple aspects of Haiti’s difficult contemporary reality. First, the fact that he is a fisherman allows her to place the issue of Haiti’s ecological decline at the very heart of the novel. Nozias is obliged to give up his beloved daughter in order to chèche lavi—seek a better life—elsewhere because the complex ecosystem of the sea is all but broken. (“The seabed was disappearing, and the sea grass that used to nourish the fish was buried under silt and trash.”) Second, Nozias’s transfer of his daughter to Gaëlle allows Danticat to focus her sharp eye on Haiti’s “one percent.” Through Gaëlle’s tragic story, the stories of several other members of the elite are revealed, showing this community to be as rife with criminals and heroes, villains and victims, as the underclass who are Nozias’s people. Third, Nozias—a good father, a good man—is a particularly nuanced and compelling character through whom Danticat is able to uncouple poverty from indignity. “Nozias also felt ill at ease with unsolicited kindness,” she writes. “He was ashamed that his need for charity was so obvious, especially to someone he could never repay.” Here, as throughout the narrative, poverty is in the details—it is simple and personal: “Claire had never seen a picture of her mother. There were none. And if not for the class portrait … a portrait that her father could not afford to purchase, there would be no pictures of her either.”
Danticat recounts what a man without resources desires for his child: “… a lack of cruelty, a feeling of safety, but also love. Benevolence and sympathy too, but mostly love.” These things are no different from what the wealthiest parents in Ville Rose want for theirs. They are no different, in fact, from what any striving, guilt-ridden parent desires: “There was something tragic about a generation whose hopes had been raised, then dashed over and over again. … Idealists had been killed to make room for gangsters. … They’d built a society that was useless to their children.” At moments like these, which recur throughout Claire of the Sea Light, Danticat could be talking about anywhere in the world, even its most privileged spaces. Haiti, her novel thus reminds us, is perhaps not so exceptional––at least not in the ways the world might want to believe. Haiti is much more than a symbol or a sign of what everywhere else is not. And so, while Danticat pushes deep into questions of poverty, she moves beyond writing about “the poor.” She tells the stories of individuals––Haitian individuals––who are poor, yes, but who are many other things, too.