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Breath, Eyes, Memory

Edwidge Danticat

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Summary

Edwidge Danticat was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on January 19, 1969. Her father and mother emigrated to the States while Danticat was a child, leaving her in Haiti to be raised by an aunt and uncle. At the age of twelve Danticat, like her protagonist Sophie, was sent to New York to live with her parents. She went on to receive a degree in French literature from Barnard College and a Master of Fine Arts degree at Brown. Danticat began writing Breath, Eyes, Memory, her first novel, while an undergraduate at Barnard. Finished as her MFA thesis, it was published in 1994 to critical acclaim. In 1998, Breath, Eyes, Memory entered a larger public consciousness when it was featured as Oprah's Reading Club Selection. In addition to various shorter pieces, Danticat has since published Krik? Krak! (1996), a collection of short stories which became a National Book Award finalist, and The Farming of Bones (1998), about the 1937 massacre of Haitian workers ordered by the Domincan Republic dictator Molina. Most recently, she has edited The Butterfly's Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora (sic) (2001). She has taught creative writing and New York University, and lives in Brooklyn.

Though Breath, Eyes, Memory is told through the eyes of a child and young woman, often in simple and direct language, it is by no means primitive. The novel has access to a wide variety of narrative styles, from parable to psychoanalysis and from revelation to remembrance. As a result, its deliberate reliance on Sophie's innocence, candor, mistakes and hyperbole does not romanticize childhood so much as expose the raw edges and debilitating fictions of the adult world. More broadly, though the novel incorporates folk wisdom, female intuition, kinship, parables, metaphors, and vaudou rituals as dykes against the world's horror, it does so in a way which highlights the hypocrisy and terror of the current order. Put otherwise, Breath, Eyes, Memory exposes the fundamental ways in which dominant narratives have restricted its characters' possibility of self-actualization and self- expression. It is smart, angry, articulate and self-aware. To read it as travelogue, as sentimentalism, as regionalism or as simple romance is to miss the full human reality of its women's experience.

Though it is not gratuitously theoretical, Breath, Eyes, Memory can nonetheless be read in light of contemporary post-colonial and diasporic scholarship which has tried to formally address many of the novel's concerns. The opposition of women's narrative, women's bodies, women's creativity and women's time to the violence and rigidity of the masculine order suggest the work of French feminist Julia Kristeva, who has written extensively on the political consequences of female exile and woman's time. Likewise, the novel's parallel struggles with writing, sexuality, and psychoanalysis are reflected in French-Algerian theorist Hélène Cixous' account of her own "Coming to Writing." The vaudou practice of doubling suggests the techniques of simulation, mimesis and mimicry as a response to oppression, pain and power, explored in the context of French colonialism in Algeria by Frantz Fanon and in the context of English colonialism by Homi Bhabha. Finally, the novel's concern with the intricacy of Creole and the legitimacy of local, private languages reflects the argument for the legitimacy of black English given in James Baldwin's groundbreaking 1979 essay, "If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?" Though the presence of such theory attests to a broader academic awareness of the issues raised in Breath, Eyes, Memory, the novel stands easily alone; theory is a supplement to, but not a necessary mediator of, its message.

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