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  • Written by Edwidge Danticat
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  • Written by Edwidge Danticat
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On Sale: September 04, 2007
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-307-26773-3
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

From the age of four, award-winning writer Edwidge Danticat came to think of her uncle Joseph as her “second father,” when she was placed in his care after her parents left Haiti for America. And so she was both elated and saddened when, at twelve, she joined her parents and youngest brothers in New York City. As Edwidge made a life in a new country, adjusting to being far away from so many who she loved, she and her family continued to fear for the safety of those still in Haiti as the political situation deteriorated.

 

In 2004, they entered into a terrifying tale of good people caught up in events beyond their control. Brother I'm Dying is an astonishing true-life epic, told on an intimate scale by one of our finest writers.

BONUS: This edition includes an excerpt from Edwidge Danticat's Claire of the Sea Light. 

Excerpt

Beating the Darkness

On Sunday, October 24, 2004, nearly two months after he left New York, Uncle Joseph woke up to the clatter of gunfire. There were blasts from pistols, handguns, automatic weapons, whose thundering rounds sounded like rockets. It was the third of such military operations in Bel Air in as many weeks, but never had the firing sounded so close or so loud. Looking over at the windup alarm clock on his bedside table, he was startled by the time, for it seemed somewhat lighter outside than it should have been at four thirty on a Sunday morning.

During the odd minutes it took to reposition and reload weapons, you could hear rocks and bottles crashing on nearby roofs. Taking advantage of the brief reprieve, he slipped out of bed and tiptoed over to a peephole under the staircase outside his bedroom. Parked in front of the church gates was an armored personnel carrier, a tank with mounted submachine guns on top. The tank had the familiar circular blue and white insignia of the United Nations peacekeepers and the letters UN painted on its side. Looking over the trashstrewn alleys that framed the building, he thought for the first time since he’d lost Tante Denise that he was glad she was dead. She would have never survived the gun blasts that had rattled him out of his sleep. Like Marie Micheline, she too might have been frightened to death.

He heard some muffled voices coming from the living room below, so he grabbed his voice box and tiptoed down the stairs. In the living room, he found Josiane and his grandchildren: Maxime, Nozial, Denise, Gabrielle and the youngest, who was also named Joseph, after him. Léone, who was visiting from Léogâne, was also there, along with her brothers, Bosi and George.

“Ki jan nou ye?” my uncle asked. How’s everyone?

“MINUSTAH plis ampil police,” a trembling Léone tried to explain.

Like my uncle, Léone had spent her entire life watching the strong arm of authority in action, be it the American marines who’d been occupying the country when she was born or the brutal local army they’d trained and left behind to prop up, then topple, the puppet governments of their choice. And when the governments fell, United Nations soldiers, so-called peacekeepers, would ultimately have to step in, and even at the cost of innocent lives attempt to restore order.

Acting on the orders of the provisional government that had replaced Aristide, about three hundred United Nations soldiers and Haitian riot police had come together in a joint operation to root out the most violent gangs in Bel Air that Sunday morning. Arriving at three thirty a.m., the UN soldiers had stormed the neighborhood, flattening makeshift barricades with bulldozers. They’d knocked down walls on corner buildings that could be used to shield snipers, cleared
away piles of torched cars that had been blocking traffic for weeks and picked up some neighborhood men.

“It is a physical sweep of the streets,” Daniel Moskaluk, the spokesman for the UN trainers of the Haitian police, would later tell the Associated Press, “so that we can return to normal traffic in this area, or as normal as it can be for these people.”

Before my uncle could grasp the full scope of the situation, the shooting began again, with even more force than before. He gathered everyone in the corner of the living room that was farthest from Rue Tirremasse, where most of the heavy fire originated. Crouched next to his grandchildren, he wondered what he would do if they were hit by a stray. How would he get them to a hospital?



An hour passed while they cowered behind the living room couch. There was another lull in the shooting, but the bottle and rock throwing continued. He heard something he hadn’t heard in some time: people were pounding on pots and pans and making clanking noises that rang throughout the entire neighborhood. It wasn’t the first time he’d heard it, of course. This kind of purposeful rattle was called bat tenèb, or beating the darkness. His neighbors, most of them now dead, had tried to beat the darkness when Fignolé had been toppled so many decades ago. A new generation had tried it again when Aristide had been removed both times. My uncle tried to imagine in each clang an act of protest, a cry for peace, to the Haitian riot police, to the United Nations soldiers, all of whom were supposed to be protecting them. But more often it seemed as if they were attacking them while going after the chimères, or ghosts, as the gang members were commonly called.

The din of clanking metal rose above the racket of roofdenting rocks. Or maybe he only thought so because he was so heartened by the bat tenèb. Maybe he wouldn’t die today after all. Maybe none of them would die, because their neighbors were making their presence known, demanding peace from the gangs as well as from the authorities, from all sides.

He got up and cautiously peeked out of one of the living room windows. There were now two UN tanks parked in front of the church. Thinking they’d all be safer in his room, he asked everyone to go with him upstairs.

Maxo had been running around the church compound looking for him. They now found each other in my uncle’s room. The lull was long enough to make them both think the gunfight might be over for good. Relieved, my uncle showered and dressed, putting on a suit and tie, just as he had every other Sunday morning for church.

Maxo ventured outside to have a look. A strange calm greeted him at the front gate. The tanks had moved a few feet, each now blocking one of the alleys joining Rue Tirremasse and the parallel street, Rue Saint Martin. Maxo had thought he might sweep up the rocks and bottle shards and bullet shells that had landed in front of the church, but in the end he decided against it.

Another hour went by with no shooting. A few church members arrived for the regular Sunday-morning service.

“I think we should cancel today,” Maxo told his father when they met again at the front gate.

“And what of the people who are here?” asked my uncle. “How can we turn them away? If we don’t open, we’re showing our lack of faith. We’re showing that we don’t trust enough in God to protect us.”

At nine a.m., they opened the church gates to a dozen or so parishioners. They decided, however, not to use the mikes and loudspeakers that usually projected the service into the street.

A half hour into the service, another series of shots rang out. My uncle stepped off the altar and crouched, along with Maxo and the others, under a row of pews. This time, the shooting lasted about twenty minutes. When he looked up again at the clock, it was ten a.m. Only the sound of sporadic gunfire could be heard at the moment that a dozen or so Haitian riot police officers, the SWAT-like CIMO (Corps d’Intervention et de Maintien de l’Ordre, or Unit for Intervention
and Maintaining Order), stormed the church. They were all wearing black, including their helmets and bulletproof vests, and carried automatic assault rifles as well as sidearms, which many of them aimed at the congregation. Their faces were covered with dark knit masks, through which you could see only their eyes, noses and mouths.

The parishioners quivered in the pews; some sobbed in fear as the CIMO officers surrounded them. The head CIMO lowered his weapon and tried to calm them.

“Why are you all afraid?” he shouted, his mouth looking like it was floating in the middle of his dark face. When he paused for a moment, it maintained a nervous grin.

“If you truly believe in God,” he continued, “you shouldn’t be afraid.”

My uncle couldn’t tell whether he was taunting them or comforting them, telling them they were fine or prepping them for execution.

“We’re here to help you,” the lead officer said, “to protect you against the chimères.”

No one moved or spoke.

“Who’s in charge here?” asked the officer.

Someone pointed at my uncle.

“Are there chimères here?” the policeman shouted in my uncle’s direction.

Gang members inside his church? My uncle didn’t want to think there were. But then he looked over at all the unfamiliar faces in the pews, the many men and women who’d run in to seek shelter from the bullets. They might have been chimères, gangsters, bandits, killers, but most likely they were ordinary people trying to stay alive.

“Are you going to answer me?” the lead officer sternly asked my uncle.

“He’s a bèbè,” shouted one of the women from the church. She was trying to help my uncle. She didn’t want them to hurt him. “He can’t speak.”

Frustrated, the officer signaled for his men to split the congregation into smaller groups.

“Who’s this?” they randomly asked, using their machine guns as pointers. “Who’s that?”

When no one would answer, the lead officer signaled for his men to move out. As they backed away, my uncle could see another group of officers climbing the outside staircase toward the building’s top floors. The next thing he heard was another barrage of automatic fire. This time it was coming from above him, from the roof of the building.

The shooting lasted another half hour. Then an eerie silence followed, the silence of bodies muted by fear, uncoiling themselves from protective poses, gently dusting off their shoulders and backsides, afraid to breathe too loud. Then working together, the riot police and the UN soldiers, who often collaborated on such raids, jogged down the stairs in an organized stampede and disappeared down the street.

After a while my uncle walked to the church’s front gate and peered outside. The tanks were moving away. Trailing the sounds of sporadic gunfire, they turned the corner toward Rue Saint Martin, then came back in the other direction. One tank circled Rue Tirremasse until late afternoon. As dusk neared, it too vanished along with the officers at the makeshift command center at Our Lady of Perpetual Help farther down the street.

As soon as the forces left, the screaming began in earnest. People whose bodies had been pierced and torn by bullets were yelling loudly, calling out for help. Others were wailing about their loved ones. Amwe, they shot my son. Help, they hurt my daughter. My father’s dying. My baby’s dead. My uncle jotted down a few of the words he was hearing in one of the small notepads in his shirt pocket. Again, recording things had become an obsession. One day, I knew, he hoped to gather all his notes together, sit down and write a book.

There were so many screams my uncle didn’t know where to turn. Whom should he try to see first? He watched people stumble out of their houses, dusty, bloody people.

“Here’s the traitor,” one man said while pointing at him. “The bastard who let them up on his roof to kill us.”

“You’re not going to live here among us anymore,” another man said. “You’ve taken money for our blood.”

All week there had been public service announcements on several radio stations asking the people of Bel Air and other volatile areas to call the police if they saw any gangs gathering in their neighborhoods.

It was rumored that a reward of a hundred thousand Haitian dollars—the equivalent of about fifteen thousand American
dollars—had been offered for the capture of the neighborhood gang leaders. My uncle’s neighbors now incorrectly believed he’d volunteered his roof in order to collect some of that money.

Two sweaty, angry-looking young men were each dragging a blood-soaked cadaver by the arms. They were heading for my uncle.

My uncle stepped back, moving to the safer shadows of the church courtyard. Anne, once a student of his school, followed him in.

“Pastor,” she whispered, “my aunt sent me to tell you something.”

Anne’s aunt Ferna, now thirty-seven years old, the same age Marie Micheline had been when she died, he recalled, had been born in the neighborhood. My uncle had known both Ferna and Anne their entire lives.

“What is it?” asked my uncle.

“Don’t talk,” said Anne. “People can hear your machine.”

My uncle removed his voice box from his neck and motioned for her to continue.

“Pastor,” said Anne, “my aunt told me to tell you she heard that fifteen people were killed when they were shooting from your roof and the neighbors are saying that they’re going to bring the corpses to you so you can pay for their funerals. If you don’t pay, and if you don’t pay for the people who are hurt and need to go to the hospital, they say they’ll kill you and cut your head off so that you won’t even be recognized at your own funeral.”

My uncle lowered the volume on his voice box and leaned close to Anne’s ears.

“Tell Ferna not to worry,” he said. “God is with me.”

Because, just as he’d told my father, he would be leaving for Miami in a few days to visit some churches, he had eight hundred dollars with him that he planned to leave behind for the teachers’ salaries. So when his neighbors crowded the courtyard telling him of their wounded or dead loved ones, he gave them that money. Because many were bystanders who had been shot just as he might have been shot inside the walls of his house, his church, they understood that it was not his fault. By the time it got dark, however, and Tante Denise’s brothers urged him to go back inside so they could lock all the doors and gates, the two corpses had been dragged to the front of the church and laid out. That afternoon, on the radio, the government reported that only two people had died during the operation. Obviously there were many more.



That night after dark everyone gathered in my uncle’s room. He and the children crowded together on his bed, while Maxo and his wife, Josiane, Léone and her brothers stretched out on blankets on the floor. To avoid being seen, they remained in the dark, not even lighting a candle.

They could now hear a more familiar type of gunfire, not the super firing power of the Haitian special forces and UN soldiers but a more subdued kind of ammunition coming from the handguns and rifles owned by area gang members. Shots were occasionally fired at the church. Now and then a baiting voice would call out, “Pastor, you’re not getting away. We’re going to make you pay.”

Using a card-funded cell phone with a quickly diminishing number of minutes, Maxo tried several times to call the police and the UN alert hotline, but he could not get through. He wanted to tell them that their operation had doomed them, possibly condemned them to death. He wanted them to send in the cavalry and rescue them, but quickly realized that he and his family were on their own.

At one point they heard footsteps, the loud thump of boots on a narrow ledge above my uncle’s bedroom window. Maxo tightened his grip on the handle of a machete he kept under his pillow, just as his father had in his youth. Something heavy was being dragged across the floor above them, possibly the generator on which they relied for most of their electrical power.

It was quiet again. My uncle waited for the children to nod off before discussing strategy with the adults.

“They’re mostly angry at me,” he said. “They’re angry because they think I asked the riot police and the UN to go up on the roof. Everyone who came tonight asked me, ‘Why did you let them in?’ as though I had a choice.”

“Maxo,” he said, putting as much command as he could behind his mechanized voice. “Take your wife and the children and go to Léogâne with your aunt and uncles. If you leave at four in the morning, you’ll be on one of the first camions to Léogâne.”

“I’m not going to leave you,” Maxo said.

“You have to,” my uncle insisted. He wanted to paint a painful enough picture that would force Maxo to leave, not just to save himself but the children as well. So he borrowed an image from his boyhood of the fears that a lot of parents, including his, had for their children during the American occupation.

“They’re very angry with us right now,” he told Maxo. “What if they bayonet the children right in front of us? Would you want to see that? Your children torn from limb to limb right before your eyes?”

Maxo paced the perimeter of the room, walking back and forth, thinking.

“Okay,” he said finally. “I’ll make sure the children leave safely, then I’ll come back for you. You call my cell phone as soon as you can and we’ll meet at Tante Zi’s house in Delmas.”

“You should leave with us,” Léone persisted.

I’ll never know whether my uncle thought he was too old or too familiar to his neighbors, including the gang members, to be harmed in any way, but somehow he managed to convince everyone to leave. So when the sun rose the next morning, he was all by himself in a bullet-riddled compound.


From the Hardcover edition.
Edwidge Danticat

About Edwidge Danticat

Edwidge Danticat - Brother, I'm Dying

Photo © Jonathan Demme

Edwidge Danticat is the author of numerous books, including 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.

Praise | Awards

Praise

“Remarkable. . . . A fierce, haunting book about exile and loss and family love.” —The New York Times"With a storyteller's magnetic force . . . [Danticat] gives voice to an attachment too deep for words.” —O, The Oprah Magazine“Powerful. . . . Danticat employs the charms of a storyteller and the authority of a witness to evoke the political forces and personal sacrifices behind her parents' journey to this country and her uncle's decision to stay behind.” —The Washington Post Book World“Heartwrenching, intimate. . . . Through the seemingly effortless grace of Danticat's words, a family's tragedy is transformed into a promise of collective hope.” —San Francisco Chronicle“Her power of language is so great, and at the same time, so subtle, that even those that cannot see her or understand her stories will be transformed by her impact on their world.” —Walter Mosley

Awards

FINALIST 2007 National Book Awards
WINNER 2007 National Book Critics Circle Awards
WINNER 2008 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award
National Book Critics Circle Awards
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“Remarkable. . . . A fierce, haunting book about exile and loss and family love.”
The New York Times

The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are intended to enhance your group's discussion of Brother, I'm Dying, a memoir of the tragedy and losses of a Haitian family and the hope of a new life in America.

About the Guide

When she was four, Edwidge Danticat's mother left Haiti to join her father who had gone to New York two years earlier, leaving her and her younger brother, Bob, in the care of her father's brother, Joseph. Edwidge came to think of her uncle Joseph as a second father because he treated her with such tenderness and because, as a minister, “he knew all the verses for love” [p. 35]. Until she was twelve, when she finally joined her parents in Brooklyn, she lived in the Bel Air section of Port-au-Prince as a member of her uncle's family. While Edwidge struggled to integrate herself into her parents' household (she and Bob were joining two brothers born in America), her uncle was absorbing the challenges of life in Haiti as its political situation deteriorated and violent gangs gained in power. The story Danticat tells is often disturbing as the people she loves are exposed to misfortune, injustice, and violence, but ultimately, Brother, I'm Dying is reassuring in its expression of deep familial love and enduring bonds.

About the Author

Edwidge Danticat is the author of numerous books, including Breath, Eyes, Memory; 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 first Story Prize. She lives in Miami with her husband and daughter.

Discussion Guides

1. Danticat tells us that she has constructed the story from the “borrowed recollections of family members. . . . What I learned from my father and uncle, I learned out of sequence and in fragments. This is an attempt at cohesiveness, and at re-creating a few wondrous and terrible months when their lives and mine intersected in startling ways, forcing me to look forward and back at the same time” [pp. 25-26]. Discuss what this work of reconstruction and reordering means for the structure of the story she presents, as well as for her own understanding of what happened to the two brothers.

2. Consider the scene in which Danticat sees the results of her pregnancy test. How do her fears for her father affect her first thoughts of her child? She says to herself, “My father is dying and I'm pregnant” [pp. 14-15]. How does this knowledge change her sense of time? How does it affect her understanding of the course of her family's history?

3. As a child, Danticat was disturbed at how little her father said in the letters he sent to the family in Haiti. He later told her, “I was no writer. . . . What I wanted to tell you and your brother was too big for any piece of paper and a small envelope” [p. 22]. Why, as a child, did she “used to dream of smuggling him words” [p. 21]?

4. How does young Edwidge retain her loyalties to her parents, even though they are absent from her life for so many years? Is there evidence that she feels hurt or rejected by their decision to leave for the States? How does she feel when they come back to visit Haiti with two new children [pp. 87-96]?

5. Haiti's history is briefly sketched on page 29 and elsewhere. While many readers will know that Haiti was a slave colony, why is the fact of the American invasion and nineteen-year occupation less well known [p. 29]? Danticat's paternal grandfather, Granpè Nozial, fought with the guerrilla resistance against the Americans. How does the family's engagement with Haiti's political history affect Joseph's unwillingness to emigrate to the U.S.? Why does he refuse to leave Haiti, or even to remove himself from the dangers of Bel Air [pp. 30-36]?

6. If so few words are passed between Danticat's parents and their two children in Haiti, how is emotion transmitted? Is there a sense, in the book, that Danticat is emotionally reticent even after her reunion with her parents? Why is she reluctant to tell her parents the news about her pregnancy [p. 44]? Why is it important that her father gave her a typewriter as a welcoming present [pp. 118-20]?

7. Danticat found a scrap of paper on which she had written, soon after coming to Brooklyn, “My father's cab is named for wanderers, drifters, nomads. It's called a gypsy cab” [p. 120]. What does this suggest about how she understood, or thought about, her father's work and her family's status in America? What does it reveal about a young girl's interest in the power of words?

8. Brother, I'm Dying is Danticat's first major work of nonfiction. What resemblances does it bear-if any-to her works of fiction in terms of style, voice, content, etc.?

9. Danticat says of her story, “I am writing this only because they can't” [p. 26]. As a girl, Edwidge was often literally her uncle's voice, because after his tracheotomy she could read his lips and tell others what he was saying. Why is it important that she also speak for her father and her uncle in writing this memoir?

10. Consider the relationship between the two brothers, Mira and Joseph. There is a significant difference in age, and Mira has been away from his brother for decades, by the end of the story. Despite this, they remain close. What assumptions about kinship and family ties are displayed in their love for each other? Are these bonds similar to, or stronger than, ties you would see between American-born brothers?

11. When Danticat describes the death of her cousin, Marie-Micheline, or her uncle's list of the bodies he has seen on the street, or when she recounts the story of the men laughing as they kick around a human head, or the threat of the gangs to decapitate her uncle Joseph, or the looting and burning of his home and his church, what is your response as a reader? How does this violence resonate against the warmth and love that are so clearly expressed by the feeling of Danticat's extended family members for each other?

12. How does Danticat convey a sense of the richness of Haitian culture? What are the people like? What are their folk tales like? How does their use of both Creole and French affect their approach to language and speech? How does she make us feel the effects of the violence and poverty that the Haitians endure?

13. Does what happened to Joseph while in custody in Florida suggest that racist assumptions lie at the heart of U.S. immigration policy? Is Danticat right to wonder whether this would have happened had he not been Haitian, or had he not been black [p. 222]? Does it seem that the family could have taken legal action against the Department of Homeland Security?

14. Danticat's description of what happens to her uncle in U.S. custody is reconstructed from documents. How does Danticat control her emotion while presenting these events? How, in general, would you describe her writing style as she narrates these often devastating events?

15. Danticat relates her Granmè Melina's story about the girl who wanted the old woman to bring her father back from the land of the dead [pp. 265-67]: what is the effect of her decision to end the book with this story? How does the story reflect on the book as a whole, and on the act of writing?

16. As one reviewer put it, “If there's such a thing as a warmhearted tragedy, Brother, I'm Dying is a stunning example” (Yvonne Zipp, The Christian Science Monitor). Do you agree? If so, what elements in the writing and the story contribute to this effect?

Suggested Readings

Dave Eggers, What is the What; Anne Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down; Paul Farmer, The Uses of Haiti; Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines; Mary Gordon, Circling My Mother; Tracy Kidder, Mountains Beyond Mountains; Jamaica Kincaid, My Brother; Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Random Family; Daniel Mason, A Far Country; Jeanette Walls, The Glass Castle.

  • Brother, I'm Dying by Edwidge Danticat
  • September 09, 2008
  • Biography & Autobiography
  • Vintage
  • $15.00
  • 9781400034307

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