What started out as “a very small book, a family keepsake” that Edwidge Danticat wrote for her daughter turned into an award-winning memoir.
The author spoke today (Nov. 6) at Fort Collins Reads, an annual event meant to “strengthen the community through reading and the civil discussion of challenging topics” and to promote understanding, diversity, and tolerance by breaking barriers between people and cultures.
Brother, I’m Dying tells the story of her father and his migration from Haiti to the U.S. and his brother’s decision to stay behind. The book has given a voice to immigrants who aren’t able to tell their stories. It won the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography and was named “Best Book of the Year” by several major newspapers. The New York Times called it, “Remarkable…A fierce, haunting book about exile and loss.”
Dandicat called it “not a me-moir. A we-moir.” The book’s opening sentence sets the stage for a story of tragedy and hope: “I found out I was pregnant the same day that my father’s rapid weight loss and chronic shortness of breath were positively diagnosed as end-stage pulmonary fibrosis.”
Writing the book was meant to crystallize the middle stage of the cycle of life she was experiencing, to honor her father and uncle and to give her daughter, Mira, something that would help her understand family history.
It was also a very personal process. “It was a way of grieving, really,” Danticat said. “Of mourning.”
Danticat’s uncle Joseph, her “second father,” cared for her and her brother starting when she was four years old, after her parents left for America; she and her brother joined their parents and two younger brothers in the U.S. when she was 12.
The author emphasized the power of a personal narrative to represent the experiences of many people. She was pleased Brother, I’m Dying was well-received on the national stage. “The reaction was so beyond what I expected,” she said.
She left out all references to the anger she felt at the time, because she wanted to focus on her father and uncle’s stories and draw attention to issues such as as immigrants dying while in U.S. detention centers; this is what happened to her uncle, which was later reported on by The Washington Post and 60 Minutes.
“I was trying to make a case,” she said, “an objective case.” Although writing and speaking out about these issues has resulted in some streamlining of the process, Danticat said “I wish I could tell you it’s gotten better.”
She pointed out that 10 immigrants have died in U.S. detention centers this year, which counts only those who died on center grounds, not those who were, for example, rushed off-site to hospital emergency rooms.
Danticat confessed that she secretly hoped her memoir would be used to train immigration officers.
“It puts a face on one family dealing with immigration issues. The majority of immigrants are hardworking people who want what’s best for their children.”
Colorado is part of the immigration story, of course. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility in Aurora currently houses 300 Haitians, she said.
Danticat shared with the Fort Collins Reads audience a few Haitian folklore and proverbs.
Lesson: Words have wings, words have feet. “It basically means words have superhero powers.”
Lesson: Sometimes you run from rain and end in fire.
“People have been migrating since the beginning of time” and know it’s not going to be easy, that it will require extraordinary sacrifices.
Lesson: Misfortune has no horn.
“Like a car horn. It’s incredible how your life can change in just an instant.”
Lesson: “Those who are concerned don’t sleep.”
“A better world benefits everyone. We share this planet. We’re more and more entwined in this world…indeed we are all connected in that way.”
Lesson: When you see an old goat in the road, it used to have flesh on it.
“Writing this book was putting flesh on the bones of my uncle and father,” Danticat said. “Every time I sat down to write I was visiting with my uncle and father.”
“Every time someone reads the book, it brings them back to life.”
Stay tuned for Part 2, in which Edwidge Danticat answers the audience’s questions about her writing journey and process.
Katherine Valdez loved Edwidge Danticat’s novel Claire of the Sea Light, which she read for book group last year, and was fortunate to score Brother, I’m Dying from the library a few days ago. She looks forward to reading Danticat’s next nonfiction book, The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story, scheduled to be published in July 2017.
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