Brother, I’m Dying. A Must read memoir of life in 20th and 21st Century Haiti and America

A Must Read Book!

I like to buy books and sometimes they sit on my bookshelf way too long.  For instance, Edwidge Danticat’s Brother, I’m Dying, published in 2007.

I first read Danticat in college as part of a post-colonial literature class.  Because of that, I was able to read   Krik? Krat! a few years before Oprah got her hands on it for her book club.  

Brother, I’m Dying is a memoir of Danticat’s childhood in the Belair section of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti as she was raised there  by her Baptist minister  uncle for the first part of her life as her parent’s built a new life in Brooklyn, New York.  Today, Belair is home to 200,000 people, one of the most impoverished slums of Port-Au-Prince and might have been the hardest hit by the earthquake.

As we all struggle to come to terms with what happened in Haiti last week and find ways to help or just comprehend the tragedy, Brother, I’m Dying is the first book that you read.

Ultimately, Brother is about Danticat’s uncle, Joseph, and her father, Mira.   When Danticat’s father picks her up to take her to America as a 11-year-old, after being  raised by her uncle,  Mira says a Haitian proverb, “One papa happy, one papa sad.” Such is life in the diasphora.

Through these two Haitian men and their family history translated through the eyes and heart of Danticat, Brother, I’m Dying takes the reader through Haitian history and culture, the nastiness and brutality of America’s presence and impact of  America’s fingerprints and boot prints in Haiti, and also what the USA means for Haitian immigrants.  It is also the simple story of a beautiful family and their love and patience for each other.

Things unravel for Uncle Joseph late in life.  All hell breaks loose in 2004 when Jean-Bertrand Aristide is overthrown by a armed force  (funded by at least partly by the USA) with no popular backing.   Bel-Air becomes a battleground and Uncle Joseph’s church becomes unintentionally embroiled in a subsequent gun battle between Chimeres and the United Nations.  Due to some fortunate timing with a planned trip to Miami, Joseph and his son, Maxo, are able to fly out of Port-Au-Prince and the chaos just in time.

Due to an (intentional?) misunderstanding or sheer meanness, Joseph and Maxo aren’t able to clear Miami’s customs and they are sent to the notorious Krome Detention Center.  Danticat described it as “a cross between Alcatraz and hell” in a 2005 column.  Uncle Joseph does not make it out of Krome.

Though against Haitian custom, there is no way to return Joseph to his wife’s gravesite.  At the burial service in Brooklyn, Mira, Danticat’s father, tells her, “He shouldn’t be here. If our country were ever given a chance and allowed to be a country like any other , none of us would live or die here.” Such is life in the diaspora.

Let’s hope that in the madness of the earthquake, it is voices like Edwidge Danticat’s that prevail.

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