Saturday, March 27, 2010

Breathe, Eyes, Memory

Breathe, Eyes, Memory is by Haitian author, Edwidge Danticat, 1998. I first learned about Danticat on the New Yorker Fiction podcast. Danticat read a story by Junot Diaz, and later, Diaz read one of her stories. Diaz spoke so highly of Danticat that his recommendation was enough for me.

Breathe, Eyes, Memory is a book about a young girl, Sophie, who lives with her aunt in Haiti. Her mother lives in New York and soon sends for her. She lives with her mother for a little while, and then there's a quick fast forward when Sophie returns to Haiti with her own daughter to deal with some family issues. (I don't think I'm ruining it for you.)

Danticat weaves in some big themes: diaspora, the abuse cycle, sexuality, family, matriarchy. Her description of life in Haiti is both beautiful and sometimes a bit shocking. Sophie's mother begins what she calls "testing" her in an attempt to verify her virginity. Sophie realizes this is a pervasive practice in her culture and comes up with a fairly drastic way to make it stop. She hates the practice and suffers psychological repercussions, as did her mother, and as did her mother.
Haitian men, they insist that their women are virgins and have their ten fingers.

According to Tante Antie, each finger had a purpose. It was the way she had been taught to prepare herself to become a woman. Mothering. Boiling. Loving. Baking. Nursing. Frying. Healing. Washing. Ironing. Scrubbing. It wasn't her fualth, she said. Her ten fingers had been anmed for her even before she was born. Sometimes, she even wished she had six fingers on each hand so she could have two left for herself.
Something that surprised me is that Danticat's writing is extremely simple. Aside from the somewhat frequent multilingual text, I was generally not wow-ed by her writing, although I appreciate how extremely accessible it was, and think this would be a really excellent book for young women. I remember Diaz saying that the way she writes is actually a rather complex accomplishment for a writer, I'm not sure I get that, but I really respect his opinion. The last two pages, I will say, were absolutely beautifully written, and I suspect the simplicity of the language for the majority of the book made those last few pages all the more spectacular.

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