This year, Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers program marks its 25th anniversary. In celebration, we’ve asked some of our favorite writers to take a fresh look at a few of the works that were selected for the program in its first five years. many of which — like Edwidge Danticat’s story of a Haitian-American woman’s coming of age in Breath, Eyes, Memory — have become hallmarks of a moment in literary history. See more Rediscoveries here.
Reading Edwidge Danticat’s first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, for the first time in 2015 is a remarkable experience. Over two decades have passed since its initial publication, and it is clear in retrospect that this is a novel whose literary resonance has been profound, one that opened many doors for others — without it, would we have The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao? — and not least for the author herself. In Danticat’s oeuvre, this novel is both a crown jewel and a diving board: the devastating complexities of immigration to the United States from Haiti that form the foundation of this story are then broken apart in her memoir, Brother, I Am Dying.
For those who have not read Breath, Eyes, Memory, the novel charts the trajectory of a young Haitian woman named Sophie from the fictional Croix-des-Rosets to Flatbush in Brooklyn. The four parts of the novel mark different time periods of her life: living with her aunt in Haiti as a child; coming to New York to live with her mother; and returning to Haiti twice, once to clear her head, and then eventually to bury her mother. Haiti serves as an anchor that evokes feelings of anxiety, dread, homegoing, and ultimately a kind of liberation for Sophie.
Even today, Danticat’s novel stands out for its ability to tackle complex issues of feminism, nationality, and family in a precisely rendered narrative voice. There is a kinship between Breath, Eyes, Memory and the early work of Toni Morrison. Like Morrison, Dantical traces a maternal lineage and lays bare all its graceless inheritances, anxiety-ridden memories, and the complex relationships between women across four generations. It opens this way: “A flattened and drying daffodil was dangling off the little card that I had made my aunt Atie for Mother’s Day.” In just a few words, Danticat’s musical prose sets up an unexpected relationship that serves as a foil to biological motherhood. The clarity of expression throughout allows the supernatural world to mingle with the natural, without jarring the perspective or romanticizing any of the brutality the story reveals.
Some of the most memorable passages center on storytelling and myth. Sophie recounts that “the story goes that there was once a woman who walked around with blood constantly spurting out of her unbroken skin.” After consulting with the orisha Erzulie, the woman was told that “she would have to give up her right to be a human being.” The woman chooses to become a butterfly. This Haitian story of transformation offers a mythic correspondence for Sophie’s own brutal rite of passage: breaking her hymen with a pestle so that her mother would cease “testing” her virginity. It is the folklore that gives us Sophie’s emotional terrain in that moment — the girl who bled, who gives up a portion of her humanity in order to end her suffering. And in the midst of this passage, there is a simple and crucial idea — “her right to be a human being.” In less skillful hands, the choice to include a folkloric human-to-butterfly transformation might come off as heavy-handed or clichéd. But Danticat’s butterfly gracefully embodies the fragility and vulnerability involved in rebirth for a woman who’s known great trauma.
The oral tradition is not simply relegated to this interplay of reality and folktale. It is also a practical consideration: Sophie’s family is only able to communicate between New York and Haiti via cassette tape, because neither Tante Atie nor Sophie’s grandmother can read. Correspondence by cassette tape may seem antiquated — or just quaint — from the vantage point of 2015, but it resonates as part of a broader Diasporic reckoning between the written and spoken word. Danticat’s approach to questions of literacy cannot be simplified to a discussion of which characters can read or who speaks which language and when. The concept of literacy throughout the novel is remarkable for its acknowledgement of Sophie’s own kind of “illiteracy.” For example, Sophie’s grandmother hears a young girl, Ti Alice, in the bushes with a boy, and describes her footsteps “like a whip chasing a mule.” Sophie cannot access that kind of hearing, saying, “I listened closely, but heard no whip.” This play with literacy stands out among the several instances in the novel where broadly “postcolonial” themes emerge in a work that, in many ways, refuses to be reduced to that academic category.
Yet in Breath, Eyes, Memory, Danticat is indeed taking on the chaos and messiness of building, rebuilding, and identity making — nationally, ethnically, culturally, generationally — as well as detailing immigrant experiences in the U.S. Beyond that, one of the main things Danticat’s novel contributes to the conversation around postcolonial literature is a fact both subtle and crucial — while we might be able to break free of those who control us by refusing to repeat or mirror their mistakes, the relationship never truly ends. Sophie’s relationship with her mother might physically end with death, but the reader is led to imagine she will grapple with it for the rest of her life. And it’s impossible to look away from the parallel: Just as there is no point at which Sophie is post-mother, Haiti’s history has never fully been post-occupation from the West, despite centuries of political independence.
Haiti’s political realities, as well as Sophie’s familial circumstances, create a striking juxtaposition against the novel’s tempered hopefulness. Despite the grimness of her central themes — sexual violence and intergenerational trauma — Danticat closes with a scene of catharsis: Sophie beats a cane stalk as if it were her father, the rapist who haunted her mother’s dreams. Reading Breath, Eyes, Memory in 2015, one inevitably recognizes a kind of bizarre parallel between the novel’s ending and the death of Haiti’s brutal former dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier in October of last year. While the death provides a kind of liberation from fear of further oppression at those particular hands, there is still much left unspoken. As Sophie’s grandmother puts it, “There is so much to say, but time has failed you,” in the novel’s closing passage. Looking back, it is hard not to see a connection between the time of the novel’s publication and that period in Haiti’s history. Jean Bertrande Aristide had returned after the first military coup, and there was a sense of hopefulness wrapped up in the possibility for true self-determination for Haitians — doubled with dread at what might sweep it away.
Duvalierism did not shape Sophie’s world entirely, but Danticat’s overt naming of Dessalines, the coal man who is killed by Tonton Macoutes, highlights the novel’s temporal precision. The Macoutes, the dictatorship’s foot soldiers who had been trained by American Marines, brutalized Haiti’s legacy. Without being directly explicit about the political landscape Sophie moves through, Danticat managed to seamlessly tie it in by having other characters gaze upon the protagonist’s face. Sophie’s face, so unlike her mother’s, is a reminder of the rape and brutality of the Duvalier era. Readers are left to assume that the shadow man who haunts her mother all her life is a Tonton Macoute. Sophie must contend with this fact, forcing readers to engage in the characters’ grief. In this way, Danticat personalized the historical, making the titular memory an uneasy reflection. Two decades after its publication, Breath, Eyes, Memory still provokes discomfort, enchantment, and questions about what the future may hold.