Edwidge Danticat Background

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. In 2001, she edited The Butterfly's Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora. In 2004, Danticat published The Dew Breaker about a man who used to be a torturer for the Haitian government and the many lives he affected. In 2013, she published Claire of the Sea Light, a novel about the disappearence of a young girl set in the town of Ville Rose, Haiti.

Danticat has also been involved with several anthologies of writings by diverse Haitian and Haitian-American authors. She often says that her voice is only one of many representing the Haitian people and refuses to be a spokesperson for the whole nation. She has taught creative writing and New York University, and lives in Brooklyn, although Danticat has stated that she still considers Haiti to be her home.

Literary Context for Breath, Eyes, Memory

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.

Historical Context for Breath, Eyes, Memory

Haiti is on the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the Dominican Republic. Columbus landed on Hispaniola in 1492 and claimed it for the Spanish, who imported African slaves to work on plantations. However, the Spanish population was concentrated on the eastern half of the island, and French pirates began conquering the western half. In 1697, a treaty gave the French possession of what is now Haiti. Producing abundant amounts of sugar, indigo, cotton, tobacco, and rum, among other things, Haiti quickly became one of the most economically successful settlements in the Caribbean. However, the profitable exploitation of slaves came to an end as repressed mulattoes and then Black slaves began to revolt. In 1791, a slave named Boukman used voodoo priests and rituals to lead the first significant slave revolt. This set off a number of smaller revolts, leading to the revolution of the slave and General Toussaint L’Ouverture, who took control of all of Hispaniola, oversaw the end of slavery on the island, and set the stages for the establishment of Haiti’s independence. Toussaint had been tricked and captured by French forces, then sent to France where he died in 1803. Haiti’s first ruler, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, declared Haiti’s independence on January 1, 2804. Dessalines also made the country a military force and executed the majority of its white population.

Haiti’s former wealth all but disappeared, replaced by an extreme poverty and illiteracy that only worsened over the next few centuries. Early 20th-century attempts by the United States to establish security in the country, including an American occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934, failed. In 1957, a fraudulent election made a doctor named François “Papa Doc” Duvalier Haiti’s president. Duvalier became a despotic ruler and declared himself “president for life.” His tonton macoutes, a ruthless secret police named after a mythical Haitian monster, terrorized the nation, arresting or killing the government’s critics. Duvalier compared himself to both Haitian voodoo spirits and Jesus Christ, exploiting the country’s religious influences. He avoided deposition by the United States by opposing communism and allied himself with the Dominican Republic’s dictator, Trujillo (who in 1937 had massacred Haitians at the Dominican border). But while Duvalier’s political power and wealth increased, Haiti became the poorest country in the Americas. Duvalier stole as much money and land from his people as possible, using foreign aid money for his personal gain. The small percentage of educated Haitians fled the country for economic or political reasons.

When Duvalier died in 1971, his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, continued his legacy of political tyranny and economic exploitation while making superficial reforms to improve Haiti’s international reputation. “Baby Doc” was deposed in 1986 because of opposition from both the Haitian people and the United States government. He left behind a power vacuum that resulted in military control, despite many attempts at democratic elections. In 1991, democracy seemed to be established with the election of Jean Bertrand Aristide. However, Aristide was overthrown months later by a military coup. In 1994, the United States government, under pressure from its Haitian citizens, restored Aristide to the presidency with threats of military invasion. Several democratic elections followed, but Haiti’s political status remains unstable, and its economic conditions are still the worst in the western hemisphere. Communities of Haitian immigrants and their Haitian-American descendants, including Danticat, remain in the United States.

In the time since Krik? Krak! and Breath, Eyes, Memory were published, conditions in Haiti have not improved. Political instability remains the norm, including the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July of 2021. Haiti has also been buffeted by series of natural disasters—including Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and a massive earthquake in August of 2021—that have caused a huge number of casualties and continued upheaval for Haiti’s people and economy.