Most people don’t want to talk about death, about the dead family members or friends or lovers who used to be here, but now… are gone. Traveling to that realm inside ourselves, where history and memory intermingle, can be rough going, but if you’re lucky, there may be a new understanding, a new outlook on life waiting there.
Maybe Edwidge Danticat is one of those lucky people. Born in Haiti in 1969, Danticat underwent that difficult journey herself to pen her latest book, the memoir Brother, I’m Dying (Knopf, $23.95). On its surface, the memoir recounts the relationship between her father, André, who left Haiti as a young man, and his brother, her Uncle Joseph, who remained on the island nation. Unable to bring Danticat with him at the time, she stayed in Haiti with her uncle and aunt. With a tether in one country and a foot in another, she listened to stories told by relatives, stories of revolution, of death, that shaped her as a writer. Those well-honed skills — as demonstrated in the story collection Krik? Krak! and the novel The Dew Breaker — come into even sharper focus in Brother, as she weaves back and forth through time to tell the stories of her father’s diagnosis with pulmonary fibrosis, her uncle’s radical laryngectomy due to throat cancer, her own childhood with tuberculosis, and the birth of her first daughter.
Which all sounds incredibly depressing. Yet deep in the heart of this book, a finalist for the National Book Award for nonfiction, resides a tale so enthralling, so captivating, and so unbelievably free of treacle, it bowls you over while soothing your soul. How Danticat did it is a mystery, except to say: she knows how to write. While she was in town recently, we sat at a corner table at Waid’s, a Haitian restaurant and lounge in the Central District, and talked of life, death, immigration, and falling stars.
So. You wrote a great book.
Thank you, I appreciate that.
Your very first sentence is about finding out you’re pregnant, and then you find out your father has pulmonary fibrosis on the same day. How is that to have a day where you’re in this middle-place of finding out about life and about death, too?
It was staggering. There were moments when I thought I couldn’t hold both of them in my head at the same time. It’s very strange also because my father, for so long, would drop hints like, “When is the baby coming?” When I think about him dying, I think of all the things, the moments that my daughter won’t have with him.
What is, or was, your relationship to death? I mean, does death scare you?
I think I had a pretty, one would say, familiar relationship with death, because my uncle [Joseph] was a minister and presided over a lot of funerals when I was a kid. And my aunt’s mother had died pretty much in the same room with me. And I think in Haiti, too, in general — at least the Haiti of my time, our people of our station in life, during the dictatorship — we knew people who were here one day and weren’t there the next. It wasn’t morbid like in the movies. I mean, it could be tragic, it could be violent, but it was something we were familiar with. We knew about death. I feel like as long as I’ve been conscious, I’ve known about death.
That seems like such a different experience of death than in the United States.
Of course, and I learned this when my father was dying. For example, if you were in the countryside of Haiti, people, they keep the dead at home because there was no morgue, so the dead are usually buried the next day. As soon as someone in the countryside in Haiti dies, their bodies are bathed, they’re dressed, and they stay there in the house. There’s no preservation, there’s no morgue, so it’s simpler. And nobody says, “Don’t let the children see this.” It seems like a natural part of life.
I think here, and I saw this in my father’s death, all the sometimes extraordinary efforts to bring people back. This idea that death is seen as an emergency and the dead are more removed from us. For a lot of us, the first time we see somebody dead is when they’re nicely dressed and totally made up in a coffin. So it’s something that is totally removed from our daily lives, which I think is a lot different than in many smaller cultures, smaller places.
The role of ancestors: how did that play into Haitian culture?
Very strongly, because if you go to the Haitian countryside, you will see somebody’s very small, modest house, and then the grave of their family mausoleum behind the house. And the grave, that site looks better than the house. So the dead are still part of the family. They’re still there. It’s the same in many African cultures: the dead manifest themselves in many ways. For example, when you see a shooting star [in Haiti,] it means that somebody has died, it’s a manifestation of the soul leaving a body. It’s just all these ways that we interpret nature and the connection of nature to the dead, of the dead to us. It’s very important that they’re not forgotten.
Here, when you see a shooting star, you’re supposed to make a wish.
“Make a wish.” Yeah. [Chuckles.] Very Disney.
In your book, you talk about the politics of Haiti, of family members involved in political struggles. So much of that struggle for freedom is violent, tinged with blood. Why do you think freedom can be so bloody?
Well, in Haiti, it’s really this case where the nation has been carved out of blood. It was the first case in history where a republic had been created by slaves, who had to fight what was then, at the time, the greatest army in the world, Napoleon’s army. And soon after that, when Haiti became independent, nobody wanted to accept that independence. The United States didn’t. For the United States to have acknowledged Haiti’s independence would mean they would have had to end slavery here. So it’s a country that’s had to fight from its beginning. And people always say to me, “Why can’t the Haitians — why can’t you all get your thing together?” But I know people will be saying that about Iraq 100 years from now: “Why can’t they get their shit together?” A country does not recover very quickly from these types of things, especially when it seems like people around you don’t want you to succeed.
How important was the role of storytelling to you when you were a young child?
Huge. I feel like I’m a writer because I was told stories. Every story in the world — I don’t care if it’s a novel — every story begins with, “Once upon a time.” Which, if you interpret it, is, “Let me tell you a story.” For us [in Haiti], that would be Krik? Krak! But to me, the stories we tell about our loved ones, that’s family folklore. In the same way that the stories we might tell our children to hope that they learn a lesson from, that’s another kind of folklore. I don’t think I would have become a writer if I had not listened to, or had not been told, stories.
So can you tell Uncle Joseph’s story and what happened to him when he tried to come here that last time?
He was threatened by a gang in Haiti because the United Nations and some Haitian rights’ groups had come in the neighborhood where he had lived for more than 40 years, to drive out a gang there. [The U.N.] got on top of his roof because it was one of the higher buildings in the neighborhood and shot at and killed a number of people. When the gang threatened him, he hid out in the neighborhood and then he came to the U.S., where he was stopped at Immigration, he was arrested, put in a detention center, and he became ill during a hearing before an immigration judge. He died in the prison ward of a hospital where he was brought by Homeland Security.
How old was he?
He was 81 years old.
I can’t even imagine what it must be like to get a phone call— you got the call in the middle of the night, right?
We had been waiting for him to come. I knew he was coming from Haiti, but he had a minister friend who was going to pick him up. [Uncle Joseph] didn’t show up, and we were just calling back and forth to Haiti. So at 1:30, I got a call from a customs officer who said, “We have your uncle here,” and I thought we were going to pick him up. That’s not what happened.
We had to file a Freedom of Information Act request for the documents [concerning his death] from the government. Then, there was an investigation done by the Office of the Inspector General, where they interviewed pretty much everybody he encountered, including the immigration officer who found him dead. The report basically concluded that there [wasn’t] anything wrong. I used those documents to tell what happened because I wanted to use their words more than mine, because when you’re angry, when you’ve lost a loved one, you can be very easily accused of writing a rant or exaggerating.
How do you feel about those documents and those interviews?
I was really angry. When you read the documents, you have to process also the fact that [the witnesses are] being investigated, so everybody’s gonna answer so that it’s favorable to them. But even within that, you can still see bits of truth, which tells me that it was even more cruel than I thought. When they interviewed the medic who accused my uncle of faking his illness, even though he was vomiting, the medic said, “Well, I have experience in this. I’ve seen people fake before.” So, even after my uncle died, [the medic] must have still been sure that he was faking.
People say, “Why is her book not more angry?” but you have to get past the past. I mean, the words in the book are running tears down the page.
How were those last few times you spent with your father? Your daughter was born by then, correct?
We came from Miami after [my daughter, Mira] was born and I stayed with him a month in Brooklyn. It was really— by then, he was so weak. I mean, he must have weighed— [Pause]. My father was 5”11’, he must have weighed like 70 pounds. My daughter was really young, she was just a couple of weeks, so he would just hold her when he could. But it was wonderful, you know. She’s named after him.
How old were you when your father first came to the United States?
And then you were 12—
—when I joined him.
You tell this story about trying to get to the United States and being diagnosed with tuberculosis and how that delayed you from arriving. Do you think it was easier to get into the United States then than it is now?
Yeah, much easier. It was probably easier than before 9/11. But it was a lot easier then because, first of all, the United States had this relationship with Haiti in the ’70s where we had this dictator [Baby Doc Duvalier], but they liked him because he wasn’t communist, like Fidel Castro. Duvalier had basically drained the country of anybody who wanted to leave. There were lot of people who didn’t get visas, but it wasn’t like now. Now it’s very difficult for Haitians to get residency.
You think that race plays into that?
I think race plays into it; I think class plays into it, because the large numbers of people who are coming now are poor and Black. I think a lot of U.S. policy, even friendly U.S. policy, is driven by the fear that suddenly there’ll be 50,000 Haitians in Miami. I think if we were maybe rich — rich Black people — maybe something would be different. Haiti is often referred to as, of course, “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.” We don’t have oil, you know.
I started off asking you, “How did it feel to be in that middle-place between life and death?” So, what kind of place would you say you’re in now?
Still in that middle-place, but not so much between life and death. You know how they have all these stages in death? I think I’m at acceptance, and I’m at this point where I can think of him happily, because the last days were so horrible. After he died, that’s all we could think about, that year. But I’m at a point where we can think about the happy times, too.
But I think closure is a myth. People think this book will give closure. No, it doesn’t. I feel like I will be grieving my father at my daughter’s wedding. You know, I think this is what we feel: it’s like these pockets, these moments of remembering, these jolting moments when you think, “Oh. This person should be here, but they’re not.”