The Haitian American writer Edwidge Danticat has authored numerous brilliant and inspiring narratives. A few of my favorites are her short story collection, Krik? Krak! (1996), her adult novels, The Dew Breaker (2005), Claire of the Sea Light (2014), The Farming of Bones (1999), the YA tale, Untwine (2017), and her gorgeous collection of essays, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (2011).
But when I first cracked open my Kindle edition of Edwidge Danticat’s much-awaited collection, Everything Inside (2019) I was disappointed. The first short story, “Dosas,” while poignant and well-written, as is to be expected from Danticat, was one that I recognized.
I felt I had read it before somewhere else.
Skip to the back of the collection and there it was: evidence that I wasn’t crazy or clairvoyant. Not only was “Dosas” previously published, but so were all of the other stories that followed, in various literary venues.
I have no problem with a writer gathering a selection of their work in a single volume and publishing it, but the writer and the publisher should be up front about it.
Nowhere in the publicity about the collection did I see that every single one of the stories had been published in part or in full in other venues.
Book description from Amazon:
Named a Highly
Anticipated Book of Summer 2019 by Lit Hub, Esquire, Los Angeles Times,
Newsweek, BuzzFeed, TIME, Good Housekeeping, Bustle, and BookRiot
From the internationally acclaimed, best-selling author of Brother, I’m Dying, a collection of vividly imagined stories about community, family, and love.
Rich with hard-won wisdom and humanity, set in locales from Miami and Port-au-Prince to a small unnamed country in the Caribbean and beyond, Everything Inside is at once wide in scope and intimate, as it explores the forces that pull us together, or drive us apart, sometimes in the same searing instant.
In these eight powerful, emotionally absorbing stories, a romance unexpectedly sparks between two wounded friends; a marriage ends for what seem like noble reasons, but with irreparable consequences; a young woman holds on to an impossible dream even as she fights for her survival; two lovers reunite after unimaginable tragedy, both for their country and in their lives; a baby’s christening brings three generations of a family to a precarious dance between old and new; a man falls to his death in slow motion, reliving the defining moments of the life he is about to lose.
This is the indelible work of a keen observer of the human heart–a master at her best.
It’s simple: someone who is a diehard Danticat fan–of which there are many–would have read most, if not, all of the stories in the collection. The reader is denied the option to decide if they want to reread her stories before purchasing the book.
That said, Danticat, like every great writer, offers wonderful insight into the human condition.
I’ve spent a good amount of time researching dosas so I really enjoyed the reference to marasas and dosas in the story, although the way it is explored is heartbreaking. At the end the reader may be left wondering who were the marasas and who was the dosa in the threesome’s relationship.
The second story, “In the Old Days,” is about a young woman who is called to the deathbed of a father she has never known by her father’s wife, Nadia. While the story of the choices that people made—whether to stay in the US or return to Haiti when Jean-Bertrand Aristide was the first democratically elected President is important—equally prescient, equally pressing is the issue of how the deceased are laid to rest.
There were countless Haitian and Haitian American intellectuals and professionals living abroad who, upon Aristide’s election, returned home determined to help sweep the streets, teach the children, and build a democratic society based on community and accountability—aah, the idealism of the new and uncharted.
All of their dreams of democracy were shattered when eight months later, in September 1991, General Raoul Cedras, with the US’s help, led a coup d’etat and exiled “the people’s president,” arresting “the flood.” Many of those who had returned home were murdered in the hours and days following the coup. Others escaped under cover of night. Their presence threatened to disrupt the systems of oppression that those who profited from the exploitation of the poor and uneducated had maintained for centuries.
As Nadia explains about her experience of return, “I left at ten with my family and returned after practicing criminal law in Boston for twenty years”…“When the dictatorship ended, I went back to see what I could do. I was working with a group pf Haitian American lawyers who were trying to help rebuild the system, but between the repressive laws inherited from the French Napoleonic code and those passed down through the dictatorship, our hands were tied.”
Indeed, many also left out of sheer frustration at the impossibility of affecting real change.
The story also reminded me of a common practice of married men having affairs with “outside” women, having children with said outside women, and bringing those children home to meet their families—sometimes to live with their families permanently. And those wives accept this common practice.
Though there are important differences between the practice and the story that Danticat tells, it brought up some uncomfortable feelings in me, having witnessed it several times. This ability to make the reader uncomfortable is, for me, another mark of a great writer.
But, I think equally cogent about the story is Danticat’s exploration of traditional Caribbean birth and burial rites, with a proper reverence for their importance and significance in their respective cultures. For example, singing the deceased’s soul into the afterlife.
The narrator/protagonist relates,
“My father’s wife has her own version of the old days. In the old days, she was telling me, conch shells blared for each person who died. In the old days, when a baby was born, the midwife would put the baby on the ground, and it was up to the father to pick up the child and claim it as his own. In the old days, the dead were initially kept at home. Farewell prayers were chanted and mourning dances were performed at their joy-filled wakes. When it was time to take the dead out of the house, they would be carried out feet first, through the back door, and not the front, so they would not know to return, their babies and young children would be passed over their coffins so they could shake off their spirits and wouldn’t be haunted for the rest of their lives. Then a village elder would have poured rum on the grave as a final farewell. In the old days, she said, I would have pronounced my father dead with my bereavement wails to our fellow villagers, both the ones crowding the house and others far beyond.”
Sadly, these beautiful traditions, passed down perhaps in other iterations through the generations, cannot be practiced in the 21st century in a suburb of Miami or any other city or suburb in the US where many of those who had to flee Haiti after the coup now reside. What this means, of course, is that a critical rite of passage—one that sustains families and communities—is lost as, if they are not passed down and maintained, will be forgotten; a haunting thought.
There are several other well-crafted and poignant stories in the collection. Another that haunted was “The Port-au-Prince Marriage Special” about a young woman, Mélisande who works as a nanny at a hotel and contracts AIDS from one of the foreign men who stay there. The reader will be reminded of the 1990s when the FDA declared that Haitians were excluded from donating blood because of the belief that they were a source for the spread of the AIDS virus. The brilliant anthropologist Paul Farmer revealed in AIDS and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame (1992), however, that Haitians were not the source, but rather, the victims of infected tourists who preyed on desperate men who had sex for money and then returned to their wives with the virus.
The final story, “Without Inspection,” reveals the memories of a construction worker during his final moments of life. What is revealed is a world with which many of us are familiar through the news, but are ignorant about the interiority of.
The stories that Danticat tells give the reader insight into the humanity of a people who are deeply wounded, disrespected, vilified, ridiculed, exploited, and dehumanized. Simply put, her stories are important and should be read by anyone who is interested in tapping into their own wounded humanity.