UNDER THE BONE
By Anne-christine d'Adesky
Farrar Straus Giroux. 371 pp. $23
BREATH, EYES, MEMORY
By Edwidge Danticat
Soho Press. 234 pp. $20
IT IS ALWAYS worth watching a reputable journalist -- especially a foreign correspondent -- jump ship and make the slippery transition from the expository to the creative arts. Twain, Orwell, and Hemingway come immediately to mind, as do their contemporary counterparts: Robert Stone, Phil Caputo, Oriana Fallaci, and Joanne Omang, to name but a few. Add to that list the author of Under the Bone, Anne-christine d'Adesky, a Haitian American who has spent much of her life in Haiti, covering the Dechoukaj (the uprooting of Jean-Claude Duvalier) and subsequent events for the San Francisco Examiner, Interview, Village Voice, and L.A. Weekly.
Since literature humanizes what governments and the media inevitably dehumanize, the moral -- and often, political -- urge to repackage one's fieldwork into fiction is unquestionably strong. Perhaps this is why d'Adesky felt compelled to step aside from her career as a journalist to write Under the Bone. Surely she had experienced the profound frustration of reporting a tragedy that never changes, filing stories to office-bound editors who must display a practical limit to their patience for the cultural, social and political complexity of Haiti, an outcast nation whose wretched home-grown conflicts are compounded internationally by racial typecasting. Consequently, when a correspondent comes in from the field, she carries a satchel packed with a mix of raw material that must be culled and shaped to fit inflexible criteria. The bulk -- perhaps the most subtle but illuminating pieces of the puzzle -- gets dumped in favor of conciseness, clarity, objectivity. The more the material is distilled, the more the lives that provided the story fade.
For a professional witness such as d'Adesky then, writing fiction is a cry of freedom, a jail-break from these constraints. Still, she escapes across the literary frontier unable to completely shake off her journalistic sensibilities. What d'Adesky has done, essentially, is empty her reporter's satchel into the vessel of a novel, thereby creating a collage of parallel narratives, documentation, interviews, agency reports, news bulletins, faxes and cables, phone calls, testimonies, transcripts, talking heads, oral "letters," and dramatizations. There's even the first act of a surreal play about the corruption of justice, penned by an overworked lawyer desperate for release and transcendence.
The integration isn't always smooth or elegant, but who says it has to be, since what d'Adesky has accomplished most brilliantly is to master the burden of her own experience in Haiti, to wring out everything she has absorbed of the place and its people, the full depth and texture of her immersion as an outsider, struggling for knowledge and struggling to express that knowledge in a meaningful way.
To this purpose, the author has created Leslie Doyle, a young, recently divorced, white, female human rights worker from Washington, D.C., setting her down for three weeks in Port-au-Prince during the "so-called period of liberalization" following the ouster of Baby Doc, a time when the foreign-service community was reluctant to admit that the end of Duvalier did not translate into the end of Duvalierism. With the help of Haitian advocates, including Pere Emmanuel, a grassroots-oriented Catholic priest modeled after Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Doyle's ostensible mission is to assess the viability of funding a dozen development projects.
Her real objective, however, seems to be to document human-rights violations -- read violence -- committed by the new/old regime against activists and innocents, especially women. With an almost voyeuristic sense of dread and fascination, Doyle tours the ruination of post-Duvalier Haiti: the infamous Titanyen, the garbage dump where the military disposed of the corpses of its victims; the ransacked houses of the elite; the terrorized hamlets in the countryside; the unspeakable horrors of the slums and hospitals and prisons.
This is the literature of witness and of empire, salted with images that haunt an observer for life: a beautiful "fire so big it set off huge sparks in the distance" as it burned through the city; a "boy jumping up and down, his stomach shooting blood like a fountain, a little human fountain, and the soldiers just walking away." The writing is eloquent, passionate and powerful, never more so than when the author brings us the voices of two of Haiti's disappeared: Ti Cedric, a peasant activist, and Elyse Voltaire, a young woman unjustly imprisoned for reporting a body to the authorities.
Under the Bone unfolds in fragments, in the way that initially disconnected, seemingly disparate events slowly coalesce. Without ever pressing the point, d'Adesky exposes the reader to the genuine and enduring difficulties of digging out the truth from a landscape ravished by evil, and her success at this should be considered a triumph. Yet, ultimately, everything in Under the Bone -- the narrative, the history, the politics -- remains appropriately but not, alas, satisfactorily, unresolved. Blame it, if you wish, on the White House. Nevertheless, to what literature can and should be, Under the Bone comes mightily close.
WHILE d'Adesky sometimes seems to have too much to write about, at first impression Edwidge Danticat, another young and talented Haitian-American novelist making her debut, seems to have too little. However, despite the author's underutilization of her material, her stylistic simplicity, and a pace that skips over sizable gaps in the storyline, that first impression is wrong, and Breath, Eyes, Memory is a novel that rewards a reader again and again with small but exquisite and unforgettable epiphanies. You can actually see Danticat grow and mature, come into her own strength as a writer, throughout the course of this quiet, soul-penetrating story about four generations of women trying to hold on to one another in the Haitian diaspora.
Like her narrator Sophie Caco, Danticat herself was born in Haiti, raised by relatives, and, at age 12, sent to join her parent(s) in New York -- in Sophie's case, her mother, a woman whom she knows solely through letters, cassettes, old photographs; Sophie's father was an anonymous rapist. "In this country," Sophie is told by her aunt on the eve of her flight to New York, "there are many good reasons for mothers to abandon their children." Sophie lies in bed that night, "waiting for the nightmare where my mother would finally get to take me away." Even in Haiti, happy childhoods can sometimes be carved out of misery by the sheltering love of adults. At the entrance to the airport, soldiers fire tear gas and then bullets at student demonstrators.
"Do you see what you are leaving?" Sophie's Tante Atie asks her, but the girl can only answer, "I know I am leaving you."
In Brooklyn, both mother and daughter struggle to find a comfortable groove for their new relationship, to no avail. Sophie withdraws from her mother's damaging over-protectiveness, her high expectations that her daughter make something of herself, so that all of the women in the family can "raise our heads." For Martine, the mother, her own alienation is fueled by a violent sexual history and the exhausting demands of survival for a black Haitian immigrant. The cost of Sophie's rebellion is severe; finally, as a young woman and a mother herself, she flees her loving husband to return to Haiti, desperate to understand the "memories of a past that at times was cherished and at others despised."
The writing in Breath, Eyes, Memory is loaded with folk wisdom and fairy tales, the imagery of fear and pain, and an understated political subtext that makes this first novel much, much more than the elementary domestic story it might have been, were it not for the author's Haitianness. Both of these novels reviewed here reminded me of something the novelist Pam Durban once wrote: "After all, a person's life is a deep thing: You can never really get to the bottom of it." Danticat and d'Adesky get nearer to the bottom than most.
Bob Shacochis, author of "Swimming in the Volcano," has reported on events in Haiti for Harper's magazine.