I didnâ€™t choose to attend Barnard with an awareness of what a great legacy of female writers had passed through its cramped classrooms and underground tunnels, but it has been one of my greatest gifts. I studied story writing with Mary Gordon for a full year. I was an Erica Jong writing fellow. Zora Neal Hurston, Anna Quindlen, Natalie Angier, Sigrid Nunez, Jeanette Walls, and Jhumpa Lahiri, all went to Barnard once upon a time. It is humbling to have a shared biography with any of these names.
Also humbling is the exquisite example of Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat, whose senior thesisâ€”Breath, Eyes, Memoryâ€”became a bestselling novel after landing on Oprah’s actual bookclub. Danticat has earned herself a well-deserved reputation as a genius at simple, chilling storytelling. She reclaims folktales, capitalizes on sensory experience, and paints a vivid picture of a culture she loves, though its shortcomings make for some of her best writing.
Her new book, Brother, Iâ€™m Dying, is her first memoir. It is the story of both her uncle and her father dying just as her own daughter is being born. As you might imagine, the cycle of life and death is at the center of this tale, as are the themes of home, national and cultural identity, family loyalty, and dignity.
Danticatâ€™s fatherâ€”a lifelong gypsy cab driverâ€”dies slowly of pulmonary fibrosis. His struggle to stay alive until his granddaughter is born is touching, as is the delicate way in which Danticat explores that universal reversal of roles when a parent becomes fragile and in need of caretaking.
Danticatâ€™s uncleâ€”who is like a second father to herâ€”dies a far more abrupt and maddening death, essentially at the hands of immigration officers in Miami. Trying to enter the country after a Haitian coup, he is intercepted by officials and forced to stay in a prison without his medications while he awaits trial.
But the story is less about the menâ€™s deaths than about their lives. Danticat is like the little girl in all of us, perched on the edge of the couch, listening to the grown-ups talk and observing their every movement. By reading about her paternal legacy, I felt like I understood Haitian culture better than ever before (and Iâ€™ve seen many films and read many books on the subject.) She grapples with the immigrant experience so beautifully that it seems effortless.
What is most striking about this memoir is its simplicityâ€”in language, in structure, in insight. It is so dignified. Even as the immigration officials are killing her second father, Danticat manages to present the scene without overwriting. Because she isnâ€™t manipulative with her gift with words, a profound trust develops between narrator and reader.
When her uncle died, I cried on the subway. Not because she had coerced me into identifying, but because I felt like I had known this well-intentioned, misunderstood, and kind human being. He reminded me of the old men I have loved and lost. And she, of course, reminded me of myself.
Next Week: the Barnard memoir theme continues with Mary Gordon’s Circling My Mother