Brother I'm Dying
23 September 2007
Dallas Morning News
Edwidge Danticat delivers terrible news garlanded in fine prose. In fictional works such as The Dew Breaker (2004) and The Farming of Bones (1998), Ms. Danticat achieves precision alignments of lyricism and human devastation in her machete-cleaved descriptions of Haitian experiences, carving splintery pictures of contemporary Haiti and its diaspora.
Forgoing fiction, Ms. Danticat's new memoir, Brother, I'm Dying, inlays her family narrative with Haiti's thorny history of families dispersed and democracy deferred. Ms. Danticat juggles stories about her father Mira's slow, gasping death in Brooklyn, her uncle's ministerial devotion to the Bel Air section of Port-au-Prince, and her own transition from daughter and wife into motherhood in Miami.
But instead of writing an airless cliché about death-birth cycles, Ms. Danticat enlivens her father and uncle by gracefully detailing their sagacious attitudes about the nature of parenthood and parental sacrifices, about political commitment and personal responsibility, and about the benefits of fraternity and family. Geographically and psychologically situated between them, Ms. Danticat creates herself in the work by memorializing the lives and deaths of her two fathers.
In 1973 Ms. Danticat's parents migrated to the United States, leaving her and her younger brother, Bob, in the care of Uncle Joseph, their father's older brother. Living for eight years with Uncle Joseph and Tante Denise, Edwidge and Bob learn to love their birth parents through long-distance phone calls and terse, hand-scripted letters from Flatbush, Brooklyn. Edwidge reads her father's "dispassionate letters" as ritualized evasions of the emotional minefields sown by his absence.
But Ms. Danticat does not want for fatherly affection and protection: Her Uncle Joseph raises her as his daughter. And when she and Bob finally leave Haiti to join their parents and younger brothers in Brooklyn, Edwidge wishes that her uncle "had cried torrents of tears, had thrown himself on the ground and made a scene, all the while forbidding us to go. He should have blurted out, in his old voice, the sudden revelation that I was really his daughter and that he couldn't live without me."
The book's construction evokes the delicate balancing act of Ms. Danticat's daughterly allegiances as she alternates her focus from father to uncle in the short chapters of the opening section, "He Is My Brother." Though the memoir opens with heart-rending family drama (news of Mira Danticat's terminal lung disease coupled with news of Ms. Danticat's pregnancy), the book's second section, "For Adversity," is bruising.
During political upheaval in Port-au-Prince, in October 2004, gang members destroy Uncle Joseph's church compound, threatening his life. Joseph, 81, flees Bel Air in disguise, seeking amnesty in Miami. However, escape lands Joseph in a deadly detention center. Ms. Danticat's lacerating narration of his rapid demise marks the final pages with anger, disgust and furious frustration.
Ms. Danticat's remorse is dampened by the birth of her daughter, Mira. The two Miras are photographed together once, a symbol of generational continuity. Although the elder Danticat quickly follows his brother in death, their daughter has written a beautiful and devastating testament to their lives.