So Far Away
BROTHER, I'M DYING
By Edwidge Danticat
Knopf. 272 pp. $23.95
Imagine being a child whose parents live in a faraway place that won't allow you to visit them, or them to come to you. Imagine being a parent who learns that his child across the ocean was beaten at school and who is unable to protect or comfort her. Imagine meeting your younger siblings for the first time when you are almost a teenager. Imagine saying goodbye to the only family you've known for the past eight years. Imagine fleeing for your life to a country that greets you as a criminal.
For many immigrants to the United States, such painful scenarios are all too familiar. For the rest of us, Edwidge 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.
As she recounts in her powerful new memoir, Brother, I'm Dying, Danticat was 2 when her father left Haiti for the United States and 4 when her mother followed him to New York City. "Then, as now, leaving often seemed like the only answer, especially if one was sick like my uncle or poor like my father, or desperate, like both." She lived for eight years with her father's older brother, Joseph, a dynamic pastor who ran a church and school in the hilltop neighborhood of Bel Air overlooking Port-au-Prince, while waiting to join her parents. Danticat interweaves the story of her childhood spent between her two "papas" with the final months of both men's lives, which happened to coincide with her first pregnancy. In the process, Brother, I'm Dying, a nominee for this year's National Book Award, illustrates the large shadow cast by political and personal legacies over both the past and the future.
At age 12, Danticat was finally granted a visa to go to the United States. With great economy, she conveys in a brief scene at the American consulate the complex attraction and revulsion that aspiring immigrants and their adoptive country hold for each other. "Le consul," who is "at the center of so many families' lives, the focus of so many thoughts and prayers," turns out to be a "very tanned, nearly bronzed white man with what seemed like bottle green eyes." He asks 12-year-old Edwidge if she misses her parents. She nods dutifully, although, as she writes, "my father had mostly been a feeling for me, powerful yet vague." He is the character in an oft-repeated anecdote about butter cookies that he would present to her every evening in the year leading up to his departure; he is the man whose beard resembles that of the man on the American pennies she finds after his single visit. Much more tangible is her Uncle Joseph, a stubborn idealist who refuses to give up his troubled homeland for a country that did not want him, the surrogate father whom she fantasizes will claim her as his own in the 11th hour so that she can stay in Haiti.
As le consul stamps the application of Edwidge and her brother, he tells them that they are now both free to be with their parents, for better or for worse. As insensitive as this treatment is, the question drives much of Brother, I'm Dying, and its answer is neither clear nor easy. While the Danticats in New York may feel safer and more comfortable, they seem to be mostly biding their time there, with Haiti as the central focus of their lives.
As a young adult, Danticat returns frequently to Haiti, where she visits her aunt and uncle and observes firsthand the continuing political and social turmoil of her native country. When a violent neighborhood gang mistakenly believes that her uncle is cooperating with the provisional government, they burn his church, and the ailing and elderly pastor flees to Miami. Despite having both a valid visa and a legitimate reason for requesting temporary political asylum, he's imprisoned by the U.S. Customs agents. He dies in the custody of homeland security a few days later. Because the gang threatens to behead Joseph's body if it returns to Haiti, the family decides to bury him in New York, near Danticat's parents. Her father, who is in the final stages of pulmonary fibrosis, remarks that Joseph shouldn't be in the United States. "If our country were ever given a chance and allowed to be a country like any other, none of us would live or die here."
Five months later, just a short while after Danticat brings her 3-week-old daughter to meet her parents, her father also dies. He is buried in Queens next to his brother, but Danticat imagines them reunited in death, walking along the hills of Beaus¿jour in Haiti where they were born. She imagines that whenever they are separated, one calls out for the other: "Brother, where are you? And the other one quickly answers, 'Mwen la. Right here, brother. I'm right here.' " *
Bliss Broyard is the author, most recently, of "One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life -- A Story of Race and Family Secrets."