Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat

A beautifully written memoir, Brother, I’m Dying is the story of two Haitian brothers who, living thousands of miles apart, share a great love for one another and use that love to cultivate their exceptionally compassionate and supportive family, despite the distance and a number of difficult challenges. 

The book is written by Edwidge Danticat, who was born in Haiti in 1969.  When she was just two years old, her father, Andre, left Haiti for New York City to find work and make a place for his family.  Her mother joined him two years later, leaving Edwidge and her younger brother with Andre’s older brother (her Uncle Joseph) and his wife and family.  During her twelve years of childhood in Haiti, Edwidge came to know Uncle Joseph as her second father.  At age twelve, Edwidge’s parents came back to Haiti with their two youngest children, whom Edwidge and her brother had never met.  They all returned to New York together.  Despite the distance, the two halves of the family remained close, and their concern and care for each other are remarkable qualities missing from many family dynamics today.  I wonder if their closeness was a characteristic of Haitian culture or of this particular family.

While the book is largely about her family and the relationship between her father and uncle, Danticat also discusses the relationship between Haiti and the United States.  She incorporates within her story certain facts from 20th century history as they affected her family, especially regarding political unrest in Haiti and the involvement of the United States.  As an Haitian-American the author seems conflicted by the changing relationship between the two countries.  She mentions both negative and positive effects of U.S. agencies in Haiti and exposes some shockingly brutal facts regarding the treatment of Haitian immigrants in the United States.  These facts are always revealed clearly and without sensationalism which I feel greatly increases her credibility.

Because the characters are presented by someone who loves them, the reader can’t help but feel love for them, too.  It’s easy to cry and laugh with them, be dismayed by bad news, happy during long-awaited reunions and heartbroken during injustice and tragedy.  While most of the stories in the book are written from verbal recollections she gathered from members of her family, I found the scenes written from her own experiences particularly compelling.

Danticat has written one other work of non-fiction, After the Dance:  A Walk Through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti and four books of fiction:  The Dew Breaker, The Farming of Bones, Krik? Krak!, and Breath, Eyes, Memory.

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Published in: on August 1, 2010 at 4:45 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Stitches by David Small

Wow.  This was an amazing experience of a book.  I haven’t read many graphic novels (do comic books count?) so I’m not really sure if it was this book in particular that I found so compelling or the medium itself.  I would be interested to know the opinion of someone who has read a lot of graphic material.  (The word “graphic” in this context doesn’t mean “explicit,” it only refers to the method of storytelling using frames of artwork to tell the story with minimal prose.  I offer the explanation despite the risk of being overly-didactic because it was only recently that I figured it out myself.)

The artistic style of David Small immediately set the tone of the book as dark, gothic and significantly creepy.  The memoir is the story of his boyhood growing up in the 1950s in the suburbs of Detroit.  Small’s mother was an angry, repressed woman and his entire family including his father and older brother lived in a world of angry silence, never knowing how the others were feeling or what they were thinking. 

His father was a doctor; specifically a radiologist, and at that time, the science of radiology was still fairly new.  David underwent “therapy” for his sickly sinuses by having his father zap him with ridiculous amounts of radiation in their basement.  Consequently, when David was in his early teens he developed a growth on his neck and after various tests was admitted to the hospital for what he was told was routine surgery.  He woke up with his neck “stitched up like a boot” and unable to talk since half of his vocal cords had been removed.  David only found out later that it had been cancer.

The novel’s art puts the reader in the mind of David as a little boy and later as a teenager.  It is really interesting to see the world as he remembers seeing it, the eyes of all adults hidden by their glasses giving everyone an alien and closed appearance, which is exactly how the author must have felt in a house of no words or affection.  Amplifying the intensity of silence was when he lost his own voice and the pictures become even more internalized, as dream sequences.

If you pick up this book, I suggest reading it all in one sitting if possible.  It probably won’t take more than 20-30 minutes and the result is an intensity of visually driven emotion that compliments the story.  You can always go back later to look at the graphics in detail and appreciate the intricacies.

Published in: on May 23, 2010 at 7:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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