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A Novel

Written by Edwidge DanticatAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Edwidge Danticat


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On Sale: July 01, 2003
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-56947-796-0
Published by : Soho Press Soho Press
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At the age of twelve, Sophie Caco is sent from her impoverished Haitian village to New York to be reunited with a mother she barely remembers. There she discovers secrets that no child should ever know, and a legacy of shame that can be healed only when she returns to Haiti—to the women who first reared her. What ensues is a passionate journey through a landscape charged with the supernatural and scarred by political violence. In her stunning literary debut, Danticat evokes the wonder, terror, and heartache of her native Haiti—and the enduring strength of Haiti’s women—with vibrant imagery and narrative grace that bear witness to her people’s suffering and courage.


Chapter 1

A flattened and drying daffodil was dangling off the little card that I had made my aunt Atie for Mother’s Day. I pressed my palm over the flower and squashed it against the plain beige cardboard. When I turned the corner near the house, I saw her sitting in an old rocker in the yard, staring at a group of children crushing dried yellow leaves into the ground. The leaves had been left in the sun to dry. They would be burned that night at the konbit potluck dinner.
     I put the card back in my pocket before I got to the yard. When Tante Atie saw me, she raised the piece of white cloth she was embroidering and waved it at me. When I stood in front of her, she opened her arms just wide enough for my body to fit into them.
    “How was school?” she asked, with a big smile.
    She bent down and kissed my forehead, then pulled me down onto her lap.
    “School was all right,” I said. “I like everything but those reading classes they let parents come to in the afternoon. Everybody’s parents come except you. I never have anyone to read with, so Monsieur Augustin always pairs me off with an old lady who wants to learn her letters, but does not have children at the school.”
    “I do not want a pack of children teaching me how to read,” she said. “The young should learn from the old. Not the other way. Besides, I have work.”
    A blush of embarrassment rose to her brown cheeks.
    “At one time, I would have given anything to be in school. But not at my age. My time is gone. Cooking and cleaning, looking after others, that’s my school now. That schoolhouse is your school. Cutting cane was the only thing for a young one to do when I was your age. That is why I never want to hear you complain about your school.” She adjusted a pink head rag wrapped tightly around her head and dashed off a quick smile revealing two missing side teeth. “As long as you do not have to work in the fields, it does not matter that I will never learn to read that ragged old Bible under my pillow.”
    Whenever she was sad, Tante Atie would talk about the sugar cane fields, where she and my mother practically lived when they were children. They saw people die there from sunstroke every day. Tante Atie said that, one day while they were all working together, her father—my grandfather—stopped to wipe his forehead, leaned forward, and died. My grandmother took the body in her arms and tried to scream the life back into it. They all kept screaming and hollering, as my grandmother’s tears bathed the corpse’s face. Nothing would bring my grandfather back.

The bòlèt man was coming up the road. He was tall and yellow like an amber roach. The children across the road lined up by the fence to watch him, clutching one another as he whistled and strolled past them.
    This albino, whose name was Chabin, was the biggest lottery agent in the village. He was thought to have certain gifts that had nothing to do with the lottery, but which Tante Atie believed put the spirits on his side. For example, if anyone was chasing him, he could turn into a snake with one flip of his tongue. Sometimes, he could see the future by looking into your eyes, unless you closed your soul to him by thinking of a religious song and prayer while in his presence.
    I could tell that Tante Atie was thinking of one of her favorite verses as he approached. Death is the shepherd of man and in the final dawn, good will be the master of evil.
    “Onè, mes belles, Atie, Sophie.”
    Chabin winked at us from the front gate. He had no eyelashes—or seemed to have none. His eyebrows were tawny and fine like corn silk, but he had a thick head of dirty red hair.
    “How are you today?” he asked.
    “Today, we are fine,” Tante Atie said. “We do not know about tomorrow.”
    “Ki nimewo today?” he asked. “What numbers you playing?”
    “Today, we play my sister Martine’s age,” Tante Atie said. “Sophie’s mother’s age. Thirty-one. Perhaps it will bring me luck.”
    “Thirty-one will cost you fifty cents,” he said.
    Tante Atie reached into her bra and pulled out one gourde.
    “We will play the number twice,” she said.
    Even though Tante Atie played faithfully, she had never won at the bòlèt. Not even a small amount, not even once.
    She said the lottery was like love. Providence was not with her, but she was patient.
    The albino wrote us a receipt with the numbers and the amount Tante Atie had given him.
    The children cringed behind the gate as he went on his way. Tante Atie raised her receipt towards the sun to see it better.
    “There, he wrote your name,” I said pointing to the letters, “and there, he wrote the number thirty-one.”
    She ran her fingers over the numbers as though they were quilted on the paper.
    “Would it not be wonderful to read?” I said for what must
have been the hundredth time.
    “I tell you, my time is passed. School is not for people my age.”
    The children across the street were piling up the leaves in Madame Augustin’s yard. The bigger ones waited on line as the smaller ones dropped onto the pile, bouncing to their feet, shrieking and laughing. They called one another’s names: Foi, Hope, Faith, Espérance, Beloved, God-Given, My Joy, First Born, Last Born, Aséfi, Enough-Girls, Enough-Boys, Délivrance, Small Misery, Big Misery, No Misery. Names as bright and colorful as the giant poincianas in Madame Augustin’s garden.
    They grabbed one another and fell to the ground, rejoicing as though they had flown past the towering flame trees that shielded the yard from the hot Haitian sun.
    “You think these children would be kind to their mothers and clean up those leaves,” Tante Atie said. “Instead, they are making a bigger mess.”
    “They should know better,” I said, secretly wishing that I too could swim in their sea of dry leaves.
    Tante Atie threw her arms around me and squeezed me so hard that the lemon-scented perfume, which she dabbed across her chest each morning, began to tickle my nose.
    “Sunday is Mother’s Day, non?” she said, loudly sucking her teeth. “The young ones, they should show their mothers they want to help them. What you see in your children today, it tells you about what they will do for you when you are close to the grave.”
    I appreciated Tante Atie, but maybe I did not show it enough. Maybe she wanted to be a real mother, have a real daughter to wear matching clothes with, hold hands and learn to read with.
    “Mother’s Day will make you sad, won’t it, Tante Atie?”
    “Why do you say that?” she asked.
    “You look like someone who is going to be sad.”
    “You were always wise beyond your years, just like your mother.”
    She gently held my waist as I climbed down from her lap. Then she cupped her face in both palms, her elbows digging into the pleats of her pink skirt.
    I was going to sneak the card under her pillow Saturday night so that she would find it as she was making the bed on Sunday morning. But the way her face drooped into her palms made me want to give it to her right then.
    I dug into my pocket, and handed it to her. Inside was a poem that I had written for her.
    She took the card from my hand. The flower nearly fell off. She pressed the tape against the short stem, forced the baby daffodil back in its place, and handed the card back to me. She did not even look inside.
    “Not this year,” she said.
    “Why not this year?”
    “Sophie, it is not mine. It is your mother’s. We must send it to your mother.”
    I only knew my mother from the picture on the night table by Tante Atie’s pillow. She waved from inside the frame with a wide grin on her face and a large flower in her hair. She witnessed everything that went on in the house, each step, each stumble, each hug and kiss. She saw us when we got up, when we went to sleep, when we laughed, when we got upset at each other. Her expression never changed. Her grin never went away.
    I sometimes saw my mother in my dreams. She would chase me through a field of wildflowers as tall as the sky. When she caught me, she would try to squeeze me into the small frame so I could be in the picture with her. I would scream and scream until my voice gave out, then Tante Atie would come and save me from her grasp.
    I slipped the card back in my pocket and got up to go inside. Tante Atie lowered her head and covered her face with her hands. Her fingers muffled her voice as she spoke.
    “When I am done feeling bad, I will come in and we will find you a very nice envelope for your card. Maybe it will get to your mother after the fact, but she will welcome it because it will come directly from you.”
    “It is your card,” I insisted.
    “It is for a mother, your mother.” She motioned me away with a wave of her hand. “When it is Aunt’s Day, you can make me one.”
    “Will you let me read it to you?”
    “It is not for me to hear, my angel. It is for your mother.”
    I plucked out the flower and dropped it under my shoes. Then I put the card back in my pocket.
    Across the road, the children were yelling each other’s names, inviting passing friends to join them. They sat in a circle and shot the crackling leaves high above their heads. The leaves landed on their faces and clung to their hair. It was almost as though they were caught in a rain of daffodils.
    I continued to watch the children as Tante Atie prepared what she was bringing to the potluck. She put the last touches on a large tray of sweet potato pudding that filled the whole house with its molasses scent.
    As soon as the sun set, lamps were lit all over our quarter. The smaller children sat playing marbles near whatever light they could find. The older boys huddled in small groups near the school yard fence as they chatted over their books. The girls formed circles around their grandmothers’ feet, learning to sew.
    Tante Atie had promised that in another year or so she would teach me how to sew.
    “You should not stare,” she said as we passed a nearsighted old woman whispering mystical secrets of needle and thread to a little girl. The girl was squinting as her eyes dashed back and forth to keep up with the movements of her grandmother’s old fingers.
    “Can I start sewing soon?” I asked Tante Atie.
    “Soon as I have a little time,” she said.
    She put her hand on my shoulder and bent down to kiss my cheek.
    “Is something troubling you?” I asked.
    “Don’t let my troubles upset you,” she said.
    “When I made the card, I thought it would make you happy. I did not mean to make you sad.”
    “You have never done anything to make me sad,” she said. “That is why this whole thing is going to be so hard.”
    A cool evening breeze circled the dust around our feet.
    “You should put on your blouse with the long sleeves,” she said. “So you don’t catch cold.”
    I wanted to ask her what was going to be so hard, but she pressed her finger over my lips and pointed towards the house.
    She said “Go” and so I went.

One by one the men began to file out of their houses. Some carried plantains, others large Negro yams, which made your body itch if you touched them raw. There were no men in Tante Atie’s and my house so we carried the food ourselves to the yard where the children had been playing.
    The women entered the yard with tins of steaming ginger tea and baskets of cassava bread. Tante Atie and I sat near the gate, she behind the women and me behind the girls.
    Monsieur Augustin stacked some twigs with a rusty pitchfork and dropped his ripe plantains and husked corn on the pile. He lit a long match and dropped it on the top of the heap. The flame spread from twig to twig, until they all blended into a large smoky fire.
    Monsieur Augustin’s wife began to pass around large cups of ginger tea. The men broke down into small groups and strolled down the garden path, smoking their pipes.
Old tantes—aunties—and grandmothers swayed cooing babies on their laps. The teenage boys and girls drifted to dark corners, hidden by the shadows of rustling banana
    Tante Atie said that the way these potlucks started was really a long time ago in the hills. Back then, a whole village would get together and clear a field for planting. The group would take turns clearing each person’s land, until all the land in the village was cleared and planted. The women would cook large amounts of food while the men worked. Then at sunset, when the work was done, everyone would gather together and enjoy a feast of eating, dancing, and laughter.
    Here in Croix-des-Rosets, most of the people were city workers who labored like Tante Atie in baseball or clothing factories and lived in small cramped houses to support their families back in the provinces. Tante Atie said that we were lucky to live in a house as big as ours, with a living room to receive our guests, plus a room for the two of us to sleep in. Tante Atie said that only people living on New York money or people with professions, like Monsieur Augustin, could afford to live in a house where they did not have to share a yard with a pack of other people. The others had to live in huts, shacks, or one-room houses that, sometimes, they had to build themselves.
    In spite of where they might live, this potluck was open to everybody who wanted to come. There was no field to plant, but the workers used their friendships in the factories or their grouping in the shared houses as a reason to get together, eat, and celebrate life.

Tante Atie kept looking at Madame Augustin as she passed the tea to each person in the women’s circle around us.
    “How is Martine?” Madame Augustin handed Tante Atie a cup of steaming tea. Tante Atie’s hand jerked and the tea sprinkled the back of Madame Augustin’s hand.
    “I saw the facteur bring you something big yesterday.” Madame Augustin blew into her tea as she spoke. “Did your sister send you a gift?”
    Tante Atie tried to ignore the question.
    “Was it a gift?” insisted Madame Augustin. “It is not the child’s birthday again, is it? She was just twelve, no less than two months ago.”
    I wondered why Tante Atie had not showed me the big package. Usually, my mother would send us two cassettes with our regular money allowance. One cassette would be for me and Tante Atie, the other for my grandmother. Usually, Tante Atie and I would listen to our cassette together. Maybe she was saving it for later.
    I tried to listen without looking directly at the women’s faces. That would have been disrespectful, as bad as speaking without being spoken to.
    “How is Martine doing over there?” asked Stéphane, the albino’s wife. She was a sequins piece worker, who made herself hats from leftover factory sequins. That night she was wearing a gold bonnet that make her look like a star had landed on her head.
    “My sister is fine, thank you,” Tante Atie finally answered.
    Madame Augustin took a sip of her tea and looked over at me. She gave me a reprimanding look that said: Why aren’t you playing with the other children? I quickly lowered my eyes, pretending to be studying some random pebbles on the ground.     “I would wager that it is very nice over there in New York,” Madame Augustin said.
    “I suppose it could be,” said Tante Atie.
    “Why have you never gone?” asked Madame Augustin.
    “Perhaps it is not yet the time,” said Tante Atie.
    “Perhaps it is,” corrected Madame Augustin.
    She leaned over Tante Atie’s shoulder and whispered in a not so low voice, “When are you going to tell us, Atie, when the car comes to take you to the airplane?”
    “Is Martine sending for you?” asked the albino’s wife.
    Suddenly, all the women began to buzz with questions.
    “When are you leaving?”
    “Can it really be as sudden as that?”
    “Will you marry there?”
    “Will you remember us?”
    “I am not going anywhere,” Tante Atie interrupted.
    “I have it on good information that it was a plane ticket that you received,” said Madame Augustin. “If you are not going, then who was the plane ticket for?”
    All their eyes fell on me at the same time.
    “Is the mother sending for the child?” asked the albino’s wife.
    “I saw the delivery,” said Madame Augustin. “Then she is sending for the child,” they concluded. Suddenly a large hand was patting my shoulder. “This is very good news,” said the accompanying voice. “It is the best thing that is ever going to happen to you.”
Edwidge Danticat|Author Q&A

About Edwidge Danticat

Edwidge Danticat - Breath, Eyes, Memory

Photo © Jonathan Demme

Edwidge Danticat is the author of numerous books, including Claire of the Sea Light, a New York Times notable book; Brother, I'm Dying, a National Book Critics Circle Award winner and National Book Award finalist; Breath, Eyes, Memory, an Oprah Book Club selection; Krik? Krak!, a National Book Award finalist; The Farming of Bones, an American Book Award winner; and The Dew Breaker, a PEN/Faulkner Award finalist and winner of the inaugural Story Prize. The recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, she has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and elsewhere. She lives in Miami.

Author Q&A

Q: Why did you decide to write Breath, Eyes, Memory?

A: I started Breath, Eyes, Memory when I was still in high school after writing an article for a New York City teen newspaper about my leaving Haiti and coming to the United States as a child. After the article was done I felt there was more to the story, so I decided to write a short story about a young girl who leaves Haiti to come to the United States to be reunited with her mother, who she doesn't really know. The story just grew and grew and as it grew I began to weave more and more fictional elements into it and added some themes that concerned me.

Q: What would you say those themes are?

A: One of the most important themes is migration, the separation of families, and how much that affects the parents and children who live through that experience. My father left Haiti to come to New York seeking a better life--economically and politically--when I was only two years old, and my mother when I was four years old. I was raised by my aunt and uncle, and even though I understood, I think, early on the great sacrifices that my parents were making, I still missed them very much. But having formed parental-type relationships with my aunt and uncle, I was really torn and heartbroken when I had to leave them to be reunited with my parents in New York. So I wanted to deal with that from the point of view of a child who's faced with this situation. I wanted to include some of the political realities of Haiti--as a young girl felt and interpreted them--and how that affected ordinary people, the way that people tried to carry on their daily lives even under a dictatorship or post-dictatorship. Finally, I wanted to deal with mother-daughter relationships and the way that mothers sometimes attempt to make themselves the guardians of their daughter's sexuality.

Q: Do you think that the mothers' concern with their daughters' sexuality, the concern for virginity as expressed in the book, is something that is particularly and singularly Haitian?

A: Oh no. Not at all. The "testing" in the book for example, goes back to the Virgin Mary. If you look at the apocryphal gospels, after the Virgin Mary gives birth to the Christ child, a midwife comes and tries to test her virginity by insertion, if you can imagine. The family in the book was never meant to be a "typical" Haitian family, if there is ever a typical family in any culture. The family is very much Haitian, but they live their own internal and individual matriarchal reality and they worship the Virgin Mary and the Haitian goddess Erzulie in many interesting forms. The essential thing to all the mothers in the book is to try, in their own way, to be the best mothers they can be, given their circumstances, because they want their daughters to go further in life than they did themselves.

Q: What was it like for you to come to the United States as a child?

A: It was all so very different. I didn't speak the language. I felt very lost and I withdrew into myself, became much more shy than I already was. I sought solace in books, read a lot, and kept journals written in fragmented Creole, French, and English. I think it's very difficult for every child who comes here from another culture. I tried to deal with some of these adjustment issues in the book: the whole idea of learning another language and getting used to a completely new environment. Part of the reason that Breath, Eyes, Memory is told in these four fragments is that Sophie, the narrator, is a recent speaker of English, and in telling a story in English she would definitely try to be economical with her words. Her voice would have less novelistic artifice, for example. She would mostly get to the important events, right to the point. She would also get some things wrong, sometimes, but it would all come back to the story, what she wants to tell you.

Q: How much of your book is autobiographical?

A: The book is more emotionally autobiographical than anything else. It's a collage of fictional and real-life events and people. To quote a wonderful Haitian-American writer who came before me, a man named Assotto Saint, "I wanted to write a carefree poem for my childhood lost too fast . . . somewhere in the air between Port-au-Prince & New York City." But I also wanted to tell a story in the very basic sense of the word, create a narrative that would keep you interested in the lives of the characters.

Q: Why do you write in English and not in French or Creole?

A: I came to the United States at an interesting time in my life, at twelve years old, on the cusp of adolescence. I think if we had moved to Spain, I probably would have written in Spanish. My primary language was Haitian Creole, which at the time that I was in school in Haiti was not taught in a consistent written form. My instruction was done in French, which I only spoke in school and not at home. When I came here I was completely between languages. It's not unusual for me to run into young people, for example, who have been here for a year and stutter through both their primary language and English because the new language is settling into them in a very obvious way. I came to English at a time when I was not adept enough at French to write creatively in French and did not know how to write in Creole because it had not been taught to me in school, so my writing in English was as much an act of personal translation as it was an act of creative collaboration with the new place I was in. My writing in English is a consequence of my migration, in the same way that immigrant children speaking to each other in English is a consequence of their migration.

Q: How often do you go back to Haiti?

A: I go back as often as I can. For family visits and other things. I still have a lot of family in Haiti and going back is often linked to family affairs.

Q: Do you think about being a role model, a representative for your culture?

A: I come from a very rich, strong, proud, and varied culture. There are so many aspects to Haitian culture that one person could not ever ever represent them all, and humbly and respectfully I don't believe that this task is mine. I'm a weaver a tales. I tell stories. Speaking on national culture, Frantz Fanon says that "Each generation must out of relative obscurity discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it." I'm simply trying to fulfill mine. What I do is neither sociology, nor anthropology, nor history. I think artists have to be allowed to be just that: people who create, who make things up. However, as Ralph Ellison writes at the end of Invisible Man, "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?" I hope to speak for the individuals who might identify with the stories I tell. However, I think it would be disrespectful of me to reduce the expression of an entire culture to one voice, whether that voice be mine or any other individual's. There are many great and powerful role models and representatives in Haitian life. There are millions and millions of Haitian voices. Mine is only one. My greatest hope is that mine becomes one voice in a giant chorus that is trying to understand and express artistically what it's like to be a Haitian immigrant in the United States.



Praise for Breath, Eyes, Memory

Oprah Book Club Selection

"Vibrant, magic . . . Danticat's elegant, intricate tale wraps readers into the haunting life of a young Haitian girl."
—The Boston Globe

"Danticat's calm clarity of vision takes on the resonance of folk art . . . Extraordinarily successful."
—The New York Times Book Review

"A novel that rewards the reader again and again with small but exquisite and unforgettable epiphanies."
Washington Post Book World

“Written in prose as clear as a bell, magical as a butterfly, and resonant as drum talk . . . An impressive debut.”
—Julia Alvarez, author of In the Time of the Butterflies

"Danticat has created a stirring tale of life in two worlds: the spirit-rich land of her ancestry, whose painful themes work their way through lives across generational lines, and her adopted country, the United States, where a young immigrant girl must negotiate cold, often hostile terrain, even as she spars with painful demons of her past."

"A distinctive new voice with a sensitive insight into Haitian culture distinguishes this graceful debut novel . . . In simple, lyrical prose enriched by an elegiac tone and piquant observations, [Danticat] makes Sophie's confusion and guilt, her difficult assimilation into American culture and her eventual emotional liberation palpably clear."
Publishers Weekly
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

The questions, discussion topics, author biography, and suggested reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory. We hope they will bring to life the many themes with which Danticat builds her story of a young Haitian woman's coming to terms with her country, her mother, and her own identity.

About the Guide

Danticat's heroine is Sophie Caco, who has spent a happy childhood in rural Haiti with her grandmother and her beloved aunt Atie, who raised her as her own child. Sophie's mother, Martine, lives in New York City and supports the family with the money she sends home. When Sophie is twelve years old, Martine sends for her, and Sophie must leave the only home and family she knows and begin a new life in a strange country with a mother she hardly remembers. As Sophie overcomes her initial fears and becomes closer to her mother, she learns that Martine has for many years been tormented by memories of the anonymous man--Sophie's father--who violently raped her when she was a teenager.

Martine's fears frequently carry her to the verge of madness, and she inevitably brings her feelings of terror and guilt to bear upon her daughter. Sophie finds the palpable pain in her home impossible to cope with, and she elopes with Joseph, a musician some years older than she. But Martine has left Sophie with emotional problems that continue to haunt her in her new life, and in an attempt to come to terms with her past and her family, she takes her infant daughter to Haiti. There the four generations of women finally come to understand one another, and while life ends tragically for Martine, Sophie is able to go back to her American life with new strength.

About the Author

Since the publication of her debut work Breath, Eyes, Memory in 1994, Edwidge Danticat has won praise as one of
America's brightest, most graceful and vibrant young writers. In this novel, and in her National Book
Award-nominated collection of stories, Krik? Krak!, Danticat evokes the powerful imagination and rich narrative
tradition of her native Haiti, and in the process records the suffering, triumphs, and wisdom of its people. Author
Paule Marshall has said of Danticat, "A silenced Haiti has once again found its literary voice."

Born in Haiti in 1969, Danticat, like the protagonist of her novel Breath, Eyes, Memory, at the age of twelve left her
birthplace for New York to reunite with her parents. She earned a degree in French Literature from Barnard College,
where she won the 1995 Woman of Achievement Award, and later an MFA from Brown University. More recently,
she has received an ongoing grant from the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Foundation.

Critical acclaim and awards for her first novel included a Granta Regional Award for the Best Young American
Novelists, a Pushcart Prize and fiction awards from Essence and Seventeen magazines. She was chosen by Harper's
as one of 20 people in their twenties who will make a difference, and was featured in a New York Times
article that named "30 Under 30" creative people to watch. This winter, Jane magazine named her one of
the "15 Gutsiest Women of the Year."

Danticat's second novel, The Farming of Bones, based upon the 1937 massacre of Haitians at the border of the
Dominican Republic, will be published in September 1998 by Soho Press.

Discussion Guides

1. Edwidge Danticat has said that in Haiti, "Everything is a story. Everything is a metaphor or a proverb." How does the character of grandmother Ifé; personify this tendency? How do some of the proverbs and tales she tells Sophie relate to the events and themes of the novel?

2. As a young girl, Martine's favorite color was daffodil yellow; in middle age she is obsessed with the color red. What significance and associations do these colors have for her? In what way does the change from yellow to red symbolize the change in Martine's own character? Does Danticat use color symbolically elsewhere in the story?

3. Martine once hoped to be a doctor; later, she transfers her ambitions to Sophie. "If you make something of yourself in life," she says to her daughter, "we will all succeed. You can raise our heads" (p. 44). Why does Sophie consciously reject her mother's ideal of high achievement? Why does she choose to become a secretary rather than, for instance, a doctor?

4. The character of Atie is perhaps the most complex and mysterious in the novel. Why is Atie so changed when Sophie returns to Haiti? Why does she so resolutely stick to her idea of staying with her mother and doing her "duty," even though Ifé; says, "Atie, she should go. She cannot stay out of duty. The things one does, one should do out of love" (p. 119)? What does "chagrin" mean to Atie? What significance does the act of writing in her notebook take on in her life?

5. Atie says to Sophie, "Your mother and I, when we were children we had no control over anything. Not even this body" (p. 20). How does this knowledge help Sophie shape her life? In what ways does Sophie take control of her own life as her mother and aunt never were able to?

6. In the graveyard, Atie reminds Sophie to walk straight, since she is in the presence of family. Grandmother Ifé; plans carefully for her death, which she thinks of as a "journey" (p. 195). How does Sophie's grandmother's attitude toward death and the dead, as illustrated in this novel, compare with American ones? How does each culture attempt to foster a sense of wholeness, of continuity, between the generations?

7. Sophie feels that Haitians in America have a bad image as "boat people." Are her efforts to assimilate, to become "American," in any way related to her physical self-loathing ("I hate my body. I am ashamed to show it to anybody, including my husband" [p. 123])? How does her bulimia express such self-loathing?

8. Breath, Eyes, Memory is primarily a story of the relationships between women: mothers, daughters, grandmothers, sisters. But there are two significant male characters in the novel, Joseph and Marc. Does Danticat depict Joseph and Marc as full, rounded-out characters, or do we see them only through Sophie's slanted point of view? How does Sophie express her ambivalent feelings about both of them? Why is she so angry with Marc after her mother's death? Do you feel that her anger is justified? Is it possible that Sophie's aloofness from both these men stems from her upbringing in an almost exclusively female world, where "men were as mysterious to me as white people" (p. 67)?

9. The Haitian goddess Erzulie is both a goddess of love and the Virgin Mary. What does this tell you about the Haitian culture and its ideas of love and religion? How does this differ from American and European culture?

10. Martine's rape by an unknown man, possibly a Macoute, is the defining event in her life, bringing with it overpowering feelings of fear and self-loathing which she passes on to her daughter. Sophie's therapist even suggests that Martine undergo an exorcism. How does Sophie in her own way succeed in "exorcising" the evil events of the past? "It was up to me to avoid my turn in the fire" (p. 203), she says; how does she achieve this?

11. When Sophie breaks her maidenhead with the pestle, she likens it to "breaking manacles, an act of freedom" (p. 130). What exactly does "freedom" mean to Sophie? Which of her other actions represent bids for freedom and autonomy? What does she accomplish when, at the end of the novel, she beats the stalks of sugar cane? What does the final cry of "Ou libéré;" (p. 233) mean to Sophie? To Atie? Do you feel that Martine in some manner "liberated" herself by committing suicide? Or was her act one of submission?

12. Do you believe that the three women in the sexual phobia group have comparable problems? Is the word "abuse" equally appropriate in each of their cases? How effective is their joint attempt to free themselves from their past? Is Buki's wrecked balloon a pessimistic symbol? Do you believe that the therapist's psychological tools are adequate to deal with the complex, culturally rooted problems of Sophie and Buki?

13. What is the significance of Martine's "Marassas" story in the context of the relationship between Martine and Sophie? Why does Martine tell the story to Sophie as if she is "testing" her? Why is the theme of likeness, of identification between mother and daughter, so important to Martine? Why does Sophie resist it? When she comes to terms with her mother at the end of the novel, is it because she identifies with her mother or because she comes to feel independent of her? Or both? Do you sense that she has fully forgiven Martine for the hurt she has caused her?

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