An incredible true-life story recounted by a member of a family that was torn between Haiti and the United States. A heart-rending tale of two brothers who loved and trusted each other but were compelled by circumstances to live apart. Joseph, the elder, lives in Bel Air, a hilltop neighbourhood overlooking Port-au-Prince harbour. The younger brother, Andre, moves to New York in the prime of his life leaving behind a wife and two infants. The elder of the two is the author of this book. She was barely two when her dad disappeared. Two years later, her mom follows dad. Edwidge and her brother Bob wait another eight years to make the crossover to privilege and prosperity. Dad slowly and painfully builds a future in a strange country, driving taxis to make a livelihood. Two of his four children are born in the United States.
Of her father’s migration the author says simply, “Because he had a job, a wife and two children as incentives to return to Haiti, my father was granted a one-month tourist visa. But he had no intention of coming back.” While Danticat avoids the temptation of getting too sentimental, any reader can easily feel the intense pangs of separation felt by every one of the characters in the story. Imagine the pain of a mother having to abandon a two year old and a four year old and make a leap into the unknown!
Abandoned children were aplenty in Joseph’s household. His grandson Nick was more or less forsaken by both parents, who separated soon after his birth, his mom moving to Canada and his father Maxo to the US. Marie Micheline, the precious orphan, who lost her Haitian mother and was abandoned by her Cuban father when she was six months adds sweetness and pathos to the story. Raised by Joseph and Denise, she bear four children out of wedlock, escapes domestic violence, and works as a nurse, until her life is brutally cut short when she was only thirty seven. “Nasty, brutish and short,” Rousseau would have opined.
Joseph’s wife Tante Denise appears as a larger than life figure, presenting a portrait of grace and stoicism in the face of adversity. Interestingly, the author’s own mother is mentioned less often.
Joseph loses his voice in 1978 following illness and surgery. There’s no dearth of tragedies – to list them would be next to impossible. Yet the book is not a tear-jerker but a thought-provoker, a true measure of the author’s literary finesse.
The book traces Haiti’s descent into political instability and social chaos, and speaks of abject poverty, lawlessness, gang wars, police raids and indiscriminate violence. “It was Thursday, July 15th, 2004, the fifty first birthday of Jean Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s twice elected and twice-deposed president. Having been removed from power in February 2004 through a joint political action by France, Canada and the United States, Aristide was now spending his birthday in exile in South Africa.” That’s an interesting way of putting it.
“The hill in Bel Air on which the house was built had been the site of a famous battle between mulatto abolitionists and French colonists who’d controlled most of the land since 1697 and had imported black Africans to labor on coffee and sugar plantations as slaves. A century later, slaves and mulattoes joined together to drive the French out, and on January 1st, 1804 formed the Republic of Haiti.” Wow! That’s the only example of slaves vanquishing a mighty colonial power. I’d read about this before but Danticat’s narrative is particularly interesting because it triggers some rare thoughts. Why did the Declaration of Independence (from Britain) by white colonists (in North America) become a globally acclaimed historical event, while a more stupendous feat achieved by poor and unarmed black slaves has gone unnoticed by the world?
And what follows is even more fascinating: “More than a century later, as World War I dawned and the French, British and Germans, who controlled Haiti’s international shipping, rallied their gunboats to protect their interests, President Woodrow Wilson, whose interests included, among others, the united Fruit Company and 40 percent of the stock of the Haitian national bank, ordered an invasion. When the US marines landed in Haiti in July 1915 for what would become a nineteen year occupation…” Oh! So one hundred years later (with mass produced social media ‘fake’ news at our fingertips) if some of us expect President Donald Trump to be driven by his economic interests, that wouldn’t be so far-fetched would it? After all, history is said to repeat itself.
“In the fall of 1994, Aristide returned to Haiti, accompanied by 20,000 US soldiers. Citing the brutality of the military regime and the menace of a mass exodus of Haitian refugees to nearby Florida, then President Bill Clinton launched Operation Uphold Democracy.” The author points out that while Cuban refugees were welcomed with open arms Haitian refugees were often imprisoned and deported. Joseph dies in tragic circumstances and Andre follows soon thereafter.
Danticat is humble enough to say, “What I learned from my father and uncle, I learned out of sequence and in fragments. This is an attempt at cohesiveness, and at recreating 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.”
Overall assessment: Don’t miss this masterpiece.
Brother, I’m Dying
Author: Edwidge Danticat
Publisher: Random House
Year of Publication: 2007
Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.