“The tale is not a tale unless I tell. Let the words bring wings to our feet.”– Edwidge Danticat, “Breath, Eyes, Memory.”
My first read for Black History Month, “Breath, Eyes, Memory” is Edwidge Danticat’s first novel and I loved it. This writer introduced me to Haitian literature over a decade ago and I feel strong feelings of kinship with her.
This was a beautiful and moving story about a young Haitian girl named Sophia, whose mother leaves her with an aunt in Haiti as a baby and moves to New York to escape bad memories and get a better life for herself. When Sophia is finally reunited with her mother at the age of 12, she is a girl wise beyond her years, trying to navigate herself in an unfamiliar environment, using a strange language, with a mother she doesn’t really know:
“Night had just fallen. Lights glowed everywhere. A long string of cars sped along the highway, each like a single diamond on a very long bracelet.”
I was struck by that description. How would the busy streets of NYC look to a young girl freshly arrived from the Third World?
I’ve heard far too many stories of families separated by immigration. We hear about families reuniting but rarely do we hear about the difficulties they face trying to re-adapt to each other and make up for lost time. Danticat brings these issues to the forefront.
Despite depicting some of Haiti’s violent history, it was a hopeful book, one infused with Haitian thought and mentality, mostly through stories, songs and the grandmother’s wisdom, the grandmother, who like mine, has been preparing for her own funeral for years. The part about the grandmother definitely touched me; it hit very close to home.
The descriptions of Haiti were evocative; it felt like Danticat was drawing from her own memories there:
“The mid-morning sky looked like an old quilt, with long bands of red and indigo stretching their way past drifting clouds. Like everything else, eventually even the rainbows disappeared.”
I know this book will speak a lot to a lot of immigrants, especially those who question where home is. Being stuck between two worlds as well as experiencing the generation gap is a double whammy for many immigrant kids. Old practices continue to take place in their new home; however, with a new westernized mentality it can all be hard to take. The unbelievable stress a young immigrant faces having to live up to high expectations, after all their family sacrificed so much for them to have a better life is something that is a real issue:
“If you make something of yourself in life, we will all succeed. You can raise our heads.”
Reading this made me dwell on how much the world is changing. My first language is different from my mother’s and my grandparents’, I can’t even communicate with some of my relatives because we don’t have a language in common. My relatives are spread out all across the globe. Changes beget changes and questions about identity and the value of tradition abound.