Brother, I'm Dying
by Edwidge Danticat
Reviewed by Helen Zia
The lilting, Creole voices of two admirable brothers, their lives separated for three decades by political strife in Haiti. A child's wounded heart, toughened by the years she was left behind when her parents fled their tumultuous homeland. The longing and guilt of exile, separation, loss in characters so real you want to reach out and wipe away their sorrows.
Acclaimed writer Edwidge Danticat has woven a spellbinding tale that could be yet another best-selling novel, only this time the story is her own. Her memoir revolves around the lives of her father, who left Haiti for New York City in 1971, and his elder brother Joseph, who stayed behind. Born of a freedom fighter against the U.S. invasion in the early 20th century, the brothers are idealists who chafe under Duvalier and his fearsome private police, the machete-wielding Tonton Macoutes. Her father escapes by overstaying his tourist visa to the U.S.; Uncle Joseph becomes a preacher, building his church in the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Bel Air.
Danticat's book begins in New York City as her father is diagnosed with a terminal disease on the day she learns she is pregnant; at the same time, she worries about elderly Uncle Joseph's safety as Bel Air turns into a battleground. She joins these sweeping backdrops with the meticulous observations of a little girl whose father emigrated when she was 2 and whose mother followed him only two years later. In the airport, she writes, her mother's eyes welled with tears as she handed Danticat's little brother Bob to Joseph's wife, Denise, who removed her gloves to receive him. "Back then Tante Denise rarely ever removed her gloves in public, so the very careful gesture, her removing her gloves and patting her wig slightly with her well-manicured fingers, seemed to me to indicate that something big was going to happen."
Denise and Joseph provide a nurturing home to Edwidge and Bob, whom they raise with other children left in their care. Danticat offers tales of her Bel Air childhood with loving detail: her grandmother's frightening ghost stories and fragrant poultices, which mask the odors of her bedwetting cousin; the drama of her beloved cousin Marie Micheline's out-of-wedlock pregnancy; and Joseph's rescue of the young mother from the hands of a vicious Macoute.
When Danticat is 11, her U.S. visa and Bob's are approved, reuniting the family. Bittersweet challenges arise as she leaves Haiti to become reacquainted with her parents and two new brothers. Her first meal in New York City is stewed chicken, fried plantains and rice and beans, to ease the transition. But the troublesome relationship between the two countries is never far away, as she reveals in the infuriating details of 81-year-old Joseph's mistreatment at the hands of Homeland Security in 2004.
Danticat names her newborn daughter after her father and imagines him and her uncle walking together through the green hills of Haiti. One calls out, "Kote w ye frÃ¨ m?" (Brother, where are you?) The other answers, "Nou la. Right here, brother. I'm right here." Danticat's beautiful telling shows that the delicate threads between those who leave and those who stay are often unbreakable.
Helen Zia is the author of Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People.