Excerpted from Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat. Copyright © 1998 by Edwidge Danticat. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Edwidge Danticat is the author of numerous books, including Brother, I’m Dying, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a 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. She lives in Miami with her husband and two daughters.
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.
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?