Sunday, April 24, 2011

Optional Work: Breath, Eyes, Memory

I chose this book as my optional choice for this time period because I had previously read Edwidge Danticat’s Brother, I’m Dying for a class on literature of the New Immigration. While Brother, I’m Dying is more of a memoir/social criticism, this novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory is considered while fiction, but is still based in Danticat’s experiences as a Haitian girl who has spent time in both Haiti and the U.S.A. It is beautifully written, and my best way of describing it would be with the short phrase “hauntingly powerful.”


To my surprise, this novel has been categorized as young adult fiction…although I am not sure why I am surprised since I rarely feel like books that are placed in that category should be labeled as such. Especially books containing such difficult material as this one does, but there you go. Perhaps I am not giving our youth enough credit – who knows?

I could say it is “Haitian-American” fiction, but that feels like such a cheat since I am sure people only want to call it that because Danticat is herself Haitian-American. But of course, the book does deal with what it is like for a girl raised in Haiti until the age of 12 to be transported, rather suddenly, to New York City to live with a mother she barely knows. During the course of the novel, the narrator, Sophie, will return to Haiti two more times: once for a visit with her aunt and grandmother, and then again when (spoiler alert!) her mother commits suicide and is buried in the family plot.

The other genres I can think of would actually be better explained in relation to theme.


Probably the best theme to start off with would be that of racial, as through it we can cover so much. The book not only deals with how others treat Haitians in New York City, but also what it is like for a Haitian, specifically a Haitian girl and woman, in Haiti. The intense conflict that is carried throughout the novel for the female characters comes from the Haitian tradition of the mothers believing it is necessary to “test” their daughters. What that means is that (brace yourselves) the mothers feel the need to be convinced that their daughter has remained pure by inserting their finger(s) inside of their vaginas to see if they go in. If they don’t, then the daughter has passed; if they do, the daughter has failed. This “testing” is what causes Sophie to later have problems being intimate with her husband. It is also is what indirectly causes her to leave home, and she forcefully (brace yourself again) breaks her hymen just so the tests will end. Her mother then, of course, believes she has been impure and, while she doesn’t necessarily kick Sophie out of the house, Sophie feels she might as well leave anyway, so she does, and runs off and marries her husband. Healing only begins for her after she returns Haiti the second time and confronts both her and her mother’s demons.

Another theme related to race is linguistics as the Haitian characters sometimes speak English, sometimes Creole, and sometimes French. Also, through the use of their extremely colorful and vibrant language, many different stories and folk tales are told as entertainment, warnings, advice, and instruction. Some are incredibly lovely to hear, while others are downright horrifying.

The “testing” also leads into the theme and issue of gender identity. Because of the “tests” she had to endure as a teenager, Sophie later has issues being intimate with her husband. The experience is painful for her and she doesn’t enjoy it. It also doesn’t help that the first time she has sex with her husband she gets pregnant with their child. Also, Sophie herself is a product of a rape that took place when her mother was 16 and living in Haiti (this would be the demon I referred to earlier). This causes Sophie’s mother, Martine, to have recurring nightmares for 25 years – nightmares that get worse when she finds herself pregnant with her boyfriend’s child. The experience of being pregnant again pretty much drives her crazy, resulting in her feeling the need to stab herself 17 times to kill the baby, and also herself. Before her death, Martine does tell Sophie that the one positive result of the rape was that it made the tests stop.

The issue of gender identity is also told in another way through Sophie’s aunt Tante Atie (her aunt) who was supposed to marry one of the men from her hometown, but that was until he met someone else and decided to marry her. She grows up and never marries, but instead raises Sophie until her mother moves her back to New York, and then she moves in with her mother, Sophie’s grandmother, to take care of her until she dies. Because of this, Tante Atie doesn’t even see a need for her to marry and have kids as she feels that her place in society is with her mother and her estate.


It both impresses and angers me that this book was published when Danticat was only 25 years old. Like I mentioned before, Danticat grew up in Haiti and had the similar experience of being moved to the U.S.A. as a child to be with her parents who had been living there separate from her and her brother. Like Sophie, Danticat grew up in the midst of all of the political violence, traditions, suffering, and wisdom of an entire people. Also, “testing” has been a Haitian tradition for centuries. There is an obsession with women’s purity and the virginity of young women is placed on a very high pedestal. An entire family will experience deep shame if they find out their newly married daughter was not pure for her husband. And future husbands seek out women who are known to have been untouched. What happens in the novel is that while Martine feels the need to test Sophie once she realizes she has a love interest, Martine herself has been sleeping with her boyfriend, Marc, even though they aren’t married.

And those are my thoughts on this fascinating and gripping book. I am not sure if I will be able to post next week because of my impending preoccupation on my final exam next week. If I do, it will probably be on another optional work. When summer finally does arrive, I will have to move back to some of my neglected required works if I ever hope to conquer this list.

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