Breath, Eyes, Memory, Edwidge Danticat, Soho Press Inc, 1994, 234 pp
One of the wonders of the United States melting pot is its wide range of writers from other cultures who emigrate to America and write in English. This provides us with a built-in translation program carried out by the immigrants themselves with a lag of approximately one generation.
I decided to read Danticat in tribute to Haiti when the earthquake happened. Breath, Eyes, Memory is her first novel and while it is in part autobiographical, it is stunning. The style is plain and unassuming but made exotic by the glimpses into Haitian culture that Danticat provides.
The first person narrator begins her story at age eleven, when she learns she is to be sent to her mother in New York City. She has been raised since infancy in a town outside Port au Prince by her aunt, whom she loves like a mother. Her own mother and the girl's birth are shrouded in mystery and in the way of eleven year old girls, Sophie would rather not know the details in the interests of maintaining the status quo.
However, off to New York she goes and unavoidably learns the grim details of her mother's past and of life as an impoverished minority in America. The most affecting aspect of the story is the custom of Haitian mothers repeatedly "testing" their teenage daughters to insure the girls remain virgins until they are married, which results in a mild form of genital mutilation deeply damaging to a woman's sexual development. Danticat reveals the tradition which goes back many generations and probably has its roots in African tribal culture.
Eventually, Sophie grows up, marries, becomes a mother and because she is educated, goes back to Haiti to seek an understanding of her life and troubles as well as her mother's. The story traces that fragile path of a woman moving out of ignorance and superstition into knowledge and selfhood.
"I come from a place where breath, eyes, memory are one, a place from which you carry your past like the hair on your head. Where women return to their children as butterflies or as tears in the eyes of the statues that their daughters pray to. My mother was as brave as stars at dawn. She too was from this place. My mother was like that woman who could never bleed and then could never stop bleeding, the one who gave in to her pain, to live as a butterfly."
(Breath, Eyes, Memory is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)