Brother I’m Dying, Knopf, September, 2007, 288 pages
Edwidge Danticat, in each of her books of fiction about Haiti, writes of stark realities—torture, civil unrest, dictatorship’s burdens—from an ethereal distance. Her latest is a memoir, Brother, I’m Dying, in which her graceful writing is grounded in the most intimate of places: family. Raised by both her father and uncle, it is as much their story as it is hers. “I wrote this,” she writes, “because they can’t.”
The book opens with impending death—her elderly father learning he has a terminal illness—and it carries that thread through the unfurling of life. “Death,” she writes, “is a journey we embark on from the moment we are born.” Still the story is one of lives lived courageously, if not easily. Balancing between history and present, Danticat unravels the men’s hardscrabble history from her father’s toiling as a tailor, a shoe salesman, and eventually a cabbie in New York City to her uncle Joseph’s work as a voiceless pastor whose dedication to Haiti’s salvation never waivers.
The harrowing crescendo comes, the reader thinks, when in 2004 a gang threatens to behead her uncle after U.N. peacekeepers use his church after the coup of President Aristide. Joseph survives, only to end up days later in an American detention center where he ironically meets a death perhaps worse, and certainly more shameful, than a ruthless beheading.
For the telling, Danticat pores through FOIAed documents, uses details found in notepads left by her uncle, and lets us into her own raw memories. Through her recollections we are privy to the sometimes stark, sometimes harrowing realities of what are most often anonymous lives. Yet—as in each of her books—it’s as if Danticat offers as a gift the joys that lie beneath what we so easily take as utter turmoil; the sweets her uncle brought her as a child that she savored only after handing them right back for him to savor, the typewriter her distant but astute father gave her at 14, her own child who is born while she’s in mourning.
While sorrow and death and the deep roots of pain and injustice sew up your heart through its pages, Brother, I’m Dying is, in the end, a story of lives hard fought, and ones certainly never taken for granted. “Maybe we are all dying,” she writes, “one breath at a time.”