The Half-Life of Memory
Edwidge Danticat, author of 2015 Summer Read Brother, I’m Dying, talks with eloquence about family, home and what it means to give voice to her Uncle Joseph’s story.
Whitman Magazine: The epigraph: “everywhere we go, say of me: ‘he is my brother.” Would you say that your Uncle Joseph and your dad were both “fathers” to you, as well as brothers?
Edwidge Danticat: Absolutely. I think, because of how I grew up, our definition of family was very open. The neighbor was like family. People who traveled a long way with you throughout life could become family. You could have your chosen family [and] your blood family. Migration separates people and they form new alliances, new families, and they still have these old ties. I grew up with a very layered and nuanced, or complicated even, [sense of] what it means to be family.
WM: And if we’re all brothers, then empathy is really important.
ED: I felt there were so many moments where if someone had seen [Joseph] with a more empathetic eye—as a brother, as a father, as an uncle, seen him as closer to the kind of human being they are—that there might have been moments where they could have stopped the derailment of that kind of situation.
WM: You also say: “I’m writing this only because they can’t.” How do you balance the act of creating a narrative and telling the true story of your father and your Uncle Joseph?
ED: Well actually, creating the narrative—the structure—was probably the hardest part of writing the book, because I had a lot of material. I had the emotional material, I had memories, I had this string of events, but I also had a box of documents that we’d gotten from the government. The editor I was working with said: you’ve written fiction before, think of it that way, as just telling a story. So once I had that in mind, I think that’s where having written fiction helped with the structure and the pacing of the book. I also didn’t want to write a pamphlet. I wanted to write something that felt like art.
WM: It definitely feels like art—it reads in a beautifully balanced, very natural way.
ED: I wanted to be engaging in the sense that people are reading it in the way you remember things, so something in the present triggers an incident where you remember something in the past. When I read memoir, I just hate it when it starts with somebody’s birth [laughs]. One of the things that became clear to me as I was going along—which is why I use the folk tales and things like that—is that when you’re coping with grief or a situation like that, you’re really pulling on every piece of knowledge you have. Suddenly you’re hearing these stories and you remember: ah, that’s why I was told this, for exactly this kind of moment.
WM: In the book, voice—literally and metaphorically—seems to be tied to location. Is yours the voice of an American writer or a Haitian writer or both?
ED: Probably what comes closest to describing it would be a Haitian-American writer. I’ve lived now in the United States much longer than I lived in Haiti, but I still have a very strong connection to Haiti—I have a lot of family still in Haiti, I go back quite a lot. This situation… just amplified the whole experience that my family’s had with immigration—some good, some bad—but it sort of brought everything to the surface. And having had this sort of experience makes you really evaluate everything. I mean, my father, as he was dying, was rethinking this whole journey. Weighing out what they had gotten versus what they had sacrificed.
WM: I was angered by the immigration issues your uncle faced. Is that a reaction you hoped to stir? Do you hope to raise more awareness of immigration issues?
ED: Well, I was trying to really fight the impulse that basically just said: “I’m angry, I’m angry” [laughs]. I wanted to actually make a case, and that’s why having the documents was so important to me—to really present [things] to people rationally. If you were this officer, what would you do? One of the reviews the book got early on said: “she steps back and lets the reader do all the seething for her.” Because the only way I could get through writing it was to have a kind of remote distance. I really wanted to present the evidence I had and see what people think. I really wanted the reader to come to their own conclusion.
WM: What did your family think of the book?
ED: I had my brothers read it early, because I really wanted them to see it before everyone else did. Because, especially now that we’ve lost both our parents, [we all went through] that experience together. My father had a very difficult and painful illness as he was dying, and so we all got through that as siblings and I knew there’s nobody else in the world who understood exactly all the nuances of what I was going through. The only thing one of my brothers said is “why are you so much in there,” I said, “well, because I wrote it!” [laughs]. Brothers have to always give you a little tease.
WM: How does it feel to have the book selected as Whitman’s Summer Read?
ED: It always feels very surreal. When I was writing this book, I thought I really wanted to concretize this moment. I was really writing it because they couldn’t and it was a way for me to really kind of go back and be with my uncle and my dad. Every day I sat down, it felt like I was with them. And there were so many things that I didn’t want to forget. When the book did come out and people started responding, one of the hopes I had for it is that it would start a conversation, and that it would make people question certain things. Now there’s so much happening in the world and in this country around immigration, around migration, that what’s always missing is the personal part. So if this story can join other stories that give voice to a personal narrative that puts a face on people and families that go through this, I’m really thrilled.
—Daniel F. Le Ray
Summer Read Program
Created by then-president Tom Cronin in 1998, the Whitman Summer Read Program assigns incoming first-year students a book to read prior to their arrival on campus. The college’s newest class then discusses the book during Orientation Week with their resident and student advisers, as well as in other classes on campus. The book’s author also gives a public lecture on campus in the fall semester.
The program has featured authors such as Henrik Ibsen, Dave Eggers, Sherman Alexie and Marjane Satrapi. It was designed with the intent of modeling classroom-style discussions in students’ residences on campus.
Assistant Professor of Rhetoric Studies Heather Hayes spoke on a faculty panel about this year’s Summer Read.
“It’s so important because it facilitates the immersion of all new students into the culture of critical thinking and academic rigor that will characterize their education at Whitman,” Hayes said. “The commonality of everyone reading the same text, and thinking about what it means, also allows for productive discussions across campus as the school year unfolds.”
In her class Rhetoric, Race and Film, Hayes planned to use Brother, I’m Dying to support discussions on the representations of immigrant communities and families and their place in U.S. public culture.
Associate Professor of French Nicole Simek was on the same panel, where "students particularly appreciated the opportunity to talk with Edwidge Danticat. Her discussion of the ways writing prose serves for her both to give cohesion to a scattered experience and to interest readers who might otherwise turn away from thorny topics like immigration helped bring new perspective to some of the questions we've been considering in class,” Simek said.