Monday, July 2, 2012
In honor of E.'s safe return home, I read Brother, I'm Dying, the Edwidge Danticat memoir. The book had been sitting here for quite some time. Having finished it this morning, I can neither understand nor forgive my earlier resistance to it.
For this is a book. This is memoir at its most pure and form-redeeming—intelligent, researched, heartfelt. Calmly and with great care, Danticat weaves together the story of the man who raised her as a child in Bel Air, Haiti (her uncle), and the man who fled to Brooklyn in an effort to create for his whole family a better life (her father). Two brothers, then, two father figures, and two ultimately tragic trajectories as each man fights to survive impossible odds and their daughter fights hard not to lose them. In a single year—2004—Danticat, now married, in Miami, pregnant with her daughter—will watch her world unravel. She will bear witness to what revolutionary upheaval and disease can do to the men who, for so much of her youth, were not just essential but invincible.
Memoirs that make room for family history and country politics challenge their writers structurally; they ask more from the words on the page. No false binding will do, no obvious superimpositions, no easy themes, no ready truths. There are higher stakes, in memoirs like these. More is expected, more wanted. Danticat, who has proven herself in book after book, forges a remarkable narrative. She is there throughout, of course; memoir by definition is an "I story. But she is not her memoir's heroine; she is its maker, and there's a difference. She has set out to honor others, not to claim pity for herself. She has written with both intimacy and something I can only call nobility. She has made of fragments a whole. We believe her, utterly, when she writes these words:
I write these things now, some as I witnessed them and today remember them, others from official documents, as well as the borrowed recollections of family members. But the gist of them was told to me over the years, in part by my uncle Joseph, in part by my father. Some were told offhand, quickly. Others, in greater detail. What I learned from my father and uncle, I learned out of sequence and in fragments. This is an attempt at cohesiveness, and at re-creating a few wondrous and terrible months when their lives and mine intersected in startling ways, forcing me to look forward and back at the same time. I am writing this only because they can't.I am writing this only because they can't. Those who dismiss memoir as a genre have not read Brother, I'm Dying.