Not Oprah’s Book Club: Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

Ed. note: This is a guest post from Emily Villano. Emily is a recent college graduate and a feminist, living and writing in Central Oregon.

Edwidge Danticat has stated that though her body is in the United States, her imagination lies in Haiti. She writes about Haiti in Brooklyn, NY, with her debut novel Breathe, Eyes, Memory; in the Dominican Republic, with The Farming of Bones, her hauntingly intimate portrayal of the Haitian Massacre; in the fraught memories of state-sponsored torture, with The Dew Breaker; in the U.S. immigrant detention center, with her memoir Brother, I’m Dying. Danticat’s books deftly thread personal and political histories, issues of gender, race, class, and nationality, and evoke a Haiti at once distinctive and difficult to pin down.

As a writer, Danticat merits interest partially because she is one of the only black, immigrant woman to receive attention in the U.S. literary mainstream. But that attention is all too often through a frustratingly narrow lens: as the resistance to Haiti’s “undifferentiated mass of misery;” as purveyor of Voudoun literary “magic.” These reviewers reduce Danticat’s writing to her mere presence, to an essentialized, Western notion of “Haiti” that she is expected to represent.

In reality, Danticat’s writing is better read by following her attention to absence. There is no straightforward narrative of resistance-amidst-the-rubble; Danticat circles and re-circles sites of bereavement and loss. And far from putting some exoticized notion of “Island Magic” on display, Danticat emphasizes the ways in which Haiti exceeds its geographic borders. Simply stated, for Danticat, what is not-there is as important as what is-there.

This perspective seems to be informed by her immigrant experience, having moved from Haiti to the United States at the young age of 12. Haiti occupies her mind precisely because she isn’t there in body. Her identity has been importantly shaped by a space that is elsewhere. This dislocation opens up insight into liminal, in-between spaces—when one doesn’t easily fit into one, single place, when one is displaced, the distinctions between here and there, between presence and absence, become blurred.

Thinking through Danticat’s writing brings critically important feminist issues to the fore: questions of personal and national trauma; persons displaced by war or economic deprivation; the undocumented; the indigent; those at the borderlands of nationhood and identity. She merits interest, then, not merely because of her presence, as a black, immigrant woman writer on the U.S. literary stage, but because of the amazing things she’s saying while she’s up there.

For Claire of the Sea Light, her newest book, Danticat locates Haiti in the fictive town of Ville Rose. Nozias, an impoverished fisherman, fears for his ability to care for his daughter, Claire, whose mother died during childbirth. He spends this day, Claire’s seventh birthday, attempting to convince a wealthy fabric vendor, Madame Gaëlle, to take on and raise his child. That evening, Madame Gaëlle finally relents, only for Nozias to find that Claire has disappeared. What unfolds cannot be easily summarized. The book forms not so much a straightforward plot as a non-linear, polyrhythmic set of interdependent stories. Danticat roves around the fictional town, picking up different perspectives and temporal strands. She lets Ville Rose spill over itself, into the nearby slum, Cité Pendue, into Miami, into uncharted stretches of radiowaves.

Yet even as the narrative disperses, the stories cluster around similar themes, especially the theme of loss. In an interview, Danticat describes the book’s series of separations as “a sort of volley of loss.” This term “volley” suggests equivalence, exchange. It recalls a passage: “Claire felt people moving around her, exchanging places. Sometimes she wished people, especially adults, were trees.”

Claire is, herself, the object of an exchange. At birth, her mother “lovingly surrendered” her own life for Claire’s. Now, her father gives her up to Madame Gaëlle in the hopes of a better life for both of them. Madame Gaëlle, in turn, gains a daughter to replace the one she lost to a terrible accident. The notion of exchange resonates, too, with the subplots of revenge that Danticat weaves alongside those of revival. The refrain, “An eye for an eye,” repeats throughout the book as various characters put its logic into play: a murder for a murder, a slap for a slap. Louise George, a successful radio hostess at Radio Zòrèy, stands at the intersection of these punitive commutations. On her show, Di Mwen, or Tell Me, townsfolk air grievances and name names. It becomes an ambiguously feminist space: one woman details her experience of rape, and Louise uses it to avenge herself against a paternalistic lover.

But Danticat undoes these easy equivalences—life in place of death, an eye for an eye—as steadily as she sets them up. “She’d expected a hole to feel plugged that never was,” reflects one of the characters. Holes persist, whatever the attempt to fill them. Far from being replaced, Danticat suggests, loss can only ever be displaced. Presences become present absences—like the Haiti of Danticat’s imagination, standing in for the country she left behind.

This theme is reflected in yet another radio show appearing in the book: Chimé, or Ghosts. Bernard Dorien dreams of broadcasting the intimate lives of the gang members, colloquially known as chimé, who frequent his parents’ restaurant. But after experiencing a harrowing gang-related incident, he thinks up a new segment: a chronicle of the “real ghosts”—phantom limbs, phantom loved ones—that continuously haunt those left behind. Just as the gang members of Cité Pendue express the displaced violence of an impoverished society, the present absence of economic opportunity and social support, so too does loss “ghost” the characters in Danticat’s novel, hovering over each household like the disembodied voices of Radio Zòrèy.

With her very language, Danticat rejects the logic of equivalence. By leaving evidence of her translations, including the words Chimé and Ghosts both, Danticat reminds the reader that her writing in English does not mirror, but rather, displaces the Haitian Creole in which her stories are imagined.

In a way, Danticat structures the whole book around absence: the absence of Claire. Between the first chapter, when she disappears from her beachside shack, and the last, when Danticat finally picks up her perspective, Claire is held in suspense. This unstable position is emphasized by the circumstances of her birth. As one who “entered the world just as her mother was leaving it,” Claire is known as a revenan, or ghost. Caught between life and death, the revenan can “easily follow [her] mother into the afterworld.” Just before dying, Claire’s mother utters a single word: “Vini,” or “Come.” Does she urge her daughter to enter life in this world? Or does she beckon Claire to follow her into death, as the myth of the revenan suggests? Danticat leaves these ambiguities intact, letting Claire collapse traditional distinctions between presence and absence.

Danticat herself reflects Claire’s in-between position. Although efforts have been made to categorize her as either Haitian or American, her migratory experience confounds this binary. As the critic J. Michael Dash writes of her work, “The ground on which Danticat situates her narrative is neither that of absolute belonging nor that of postcolonial placelessness, but the in-between spaces of the displaced Haitian nation.”

In one scene, another character hears a search party shouting Claire’s name. “It was a love name and not a revenge name,” he reflects, “It was the kind of name you could call out with hope.” With her new book, Danticat undermines the logic of simple equivalences, of revenge and replacement, and so, of mere presence. She preserves loss, the doubled echo of “Vini,” gently reminding us that here is always haunted by elsewhere. And finally, Danticat makes her readers a kind of offering: Claire Limyè Lanmè, her space of indeterminacy, and all the possibility it contains.

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