Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Diversity of Suffering
The stories in Krik? Krak! demonstrate that everyone experiences suffering in his or her own unique way. The characters in the collection come from diverse backgrounds and have very different experiences, but to a certain extent, they all share the same pain. The despair of Célianne in “Children of the Sea” as she throws herself into the ocean is felt by the male narrator of the same story when he embraces death and by Grace’s mother in “Caroline’s Wedding” when she goes to a mass for refugees who, like Célianne, died at sea. But while these and other characters all see the same horrible things happening to the people and the nation they love, they all have their own reactions. Guy, in “A Wall of Fire Rising,” tries to defy his hopelessness by stealing a brief moment of glory, even though he knows it must end in death. The mother in “New York Day Women” makes a new life for herself in the United States, but she still can’t face the suffering she left behind. As Danticat often explains, there is no universal Haitian experience because the people who suffer remain individuals.
Family As a Source of Posterity
In a country with a violent, complicated past, stories are passed on from mothers to daughters to preserve a sense of history and create a record for the future. In “The Missing Peace,” Emilie tells Lamort they should write down what has happened for posterity, but Lamort answers that she has posterity in the form of her family. She means that she has inherited her mother’s and her grandmother’s experiences, and when she is old, her own daughters will inherit her experiences. Similarly, Josephine’s mother tells her in “Nineteen Thirty-Seven” that her birth made up for her grandmother’s death. Death broke one link in the family chain, but a new one was formed. Many of the characters in Krik? Krak! sense the presence of their dead ancestors and feel connected to their pain. They understand their place in the world in terms of their mothers’ and ancestors’ experiences, and they pass these experiences on to their children in order to keep the family history alive. In the epilogue, “Women Like Us,” the narrator explains that these past experiences are what fuel her writing, giving her oppressed ancestors a voice.
The Dangerous Power of Hope
Hope has the power to give people strength in times of suffering, but it also threatens to blind them to reality. Most of the characters in Krik? Krak! hold on to hope in order to keep themselves alive. In “Night Women,” the narrator makes up stories about an angel coming to rescue her and her son in order to hide the truth from him, but she also uses these stories to escape the harsh reality of her life. Similarly, in “Seeing Things Simple,” Princesse avoids the world around her by dreaming of becoming an artist and immersing herself in the reality of a foreign painter. These characters survive by denial and wait for the day when such denial will no longer be necessary. However, this coping strategy can be dangerous. In “Between the Pool and the Gardenias,” Marie’s hope becomes a delusion when she pretends to find the daughter she always wanted. This fantasy leads her to hold on to the baby even as it begins to rot, and she is finally arrested when the pool-cleaner, whom Marie had convinced herself cared about her, accuses her of witchcraft. Several other characters find out that too much hope can result in crippling despair when reality sets in.
Imagined conversations often structure characters’ relationships in Krik? Krak!. “Children of the Sea” consists of letters that are never exchanged. Their letters are, in effect, more like journal entries than letters: they reveal more about how the characters feel about each other and how they feel in general than real letters would. In a different way, Suzette’s narration of “New York Day Women” is peppered with quotations she imagines her mother saying. Suzette’s consciousness of these quotations as she follows her mother around New York reveals the sensibility she has inherited from her mother, even though she distances herself from her mother’s beliefs. This narrative technique shows the impact people have on each other and on their understanding of the world, especially when making sense of the world is difficult to do independently.
Religious iconography shows the often-conflicted interaction between Haiti’s native voodoo religion and the Christianity imposed on the Haitian people by Europeans. Though Christianity represents oppression, many of the characters in these stories have embraced Christian beliefs as their own, even while clinging to voodoo rituals. In “Caroline’s Wedding,” Grace’s mother goes to mass regularly, but she also believes in superstitions, such as the magical powers of bone soup. Similarly, in “Nineteen Thirty-Seven,” Josephine’s mother practically worships a statuette of the Virgin Mary, but she believes it has mystical qualities that don’t belong to the Christian tradition. She incorporates these qualities into voodoo rituals to honor her ancestors. Any postcolonial nation has difficulties reconciling native traditions with colonial ones, but religion, a particularly significant area, proves to be an anomaly: in Haiti, beliefs that should be in conflict with each other are all embraced without question. The hybrid religion that results shows how Haiti’s national identity is influenced by both its native roots and its colonial history.
The constant references to water in Krik? Krak! suggest the limitations of the characters’ worlds. As half of an island, Haiti is surrounded by water, which symbolically serves to contain the country’s troubles. Refugees leave Haiti by boat, overcoming the limits the sea imposes on them and thus the limits of Haitian politics and poverty. But this obstacle is not so easy to overcome. “Children of the Sea” shows how the ocean holds the dead bodies of many Haitians who have tried to flee their desperate lives. The water that defines their world continues to overwhelm them even as they escape it, and it often claims them for its own. In “Nineteen Thirty-Seven,” water separates Haiti from the Dominican Republic as the Massacre River, and almost everyone who tries to cross it is killed. In “Seeing Things Simply,” however, Princesse sees beauty in the ocean. She sees not limits but possibilities in its vast, watery world, and she sees hope in the horizon, where the sea meets the sky. The characters who do escape Haiti, in “New York Day Women” and “Caroline’s Wedding,” live in New York, a city of islands, where water surrounds them and connects them to the lives they left behind.
Crying represents life, which in Haiti is always marked by pain. Crying expresses suffering, and as long as Haitians live, they suffer and therefore cry. Danticat indicates that both Célianne’s baby in “Children of the Sea” and the dead baby in “Between the Pool and the Gardenias” are dead by noting that they do not cry. For Marie, the absence of crying is positive in a way. She wishes no babies cried, because a dead baby cannot feel pain. In “Nineteen Thirty-Seven,” Josephine tries not to cry in order to suppress her suffering, as well as her mother’s. But Josephine’s mother makes the Madonna statuette cry because her suffering has not died, and she needs to express it somehow. Similarly, in “Women Like Us,” the narrator’s mother compares the sound of her writing to the sound of crying, and the narrator agrees that writing is a form of crying. She writes to express her suffering and the suffering of her ancestors and to keep their painful stories alive. In a way, the whole story collection is one deep cry, expressing the emotional pain of its characters.
In Krik? Krak!, butterflies suggest the understanding of harsh realities. In “Children of the Sea,” the female narrator explains that different butterflies can deliver different messages, but in a troubled country such as Haiti, nearly all the messages are bad ones. When the black butterfly at the end of “Children of the Sea” lands on the female narrator, she knows the male narrator has died. At the end of “The Missing Peace,” Lamort describes Raymond as a soldier who likes butterfly-shaped leaves because she realizes he has embraced the reality of political conflict and violence. The narrator of “Night Women” imagines her son as a butterfly in the middle of a stream because she knows he is too distant for her to protect him. Butterflies are elusive, hard to catch or to control, much like the suffering of the characters. They represent change, the blossoming of a lowly caterpillar into a bigger, greater creature, just as the characters’ daily pain blossoms into greater, unavoidable tragedy.
Braiding suggests the combination of unique strands into a coherent, more beautiful whole, an apt description of what Krik? Krak! does with the characters’ unique stories. Although this symbol appears only in the epilogue, it represents the book as a whole. In the epilogue, the narrator explains that writing is like braiding because it forces separate elements to build a single, unified meaning. It can be challenging, and if the hair doesn’t cooperate, the result isn’t always pretty. But there is something soothing about the process, the rhythmic performance of a skill that is both challenging and routine. To the narrator, it comes naturally. It is also a tradition she has inherited from her mother and her ancestors, who used to braid her hair when she was a child. Although the narrator’s mother doesn’t write or even approve of her writing, the storytelling traditions she has handed down to the narrator are the foundations of her writing. Although the narrator tells stories, or braids, in her own way, she maintains her Haitian inheritance by doing so.
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