I know that everyone’s thoughts are with Haiti at the moment and so I thought it would be a good idea to compile a list of books that might help us to understand something about the place.
HAITIAN BOOK ONE is one that I read at the beginning of 2008
Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat
“We are each going to our mothers. That is what was supposed to happen. Your mother wants to
see you now.Sophie. She does not want you to forget who your real mother is. When she left you
with me, she and I, we agreed that it would only be for a while. You were just a baby then. She
left you because she was going to a place she knew nothing about. She did not want to take chances with you.”
The narrator, Sophie has been raised by Tante Atie, her mother’s illiterate elder sister. All she knows of her real mother she has learnt from this mother substitute. She only knows her mother’s voice from the spoken cassettes that are sent several times a year. Then one day the inevitable happens, a ticket is sent and Sophie must join her mother in New York.
“My angel, she said, I would like to know that by word or by example I have taught you love. I must tell you that I do love your mother. Everything I love about you, I loved in her first. that is why I could never fight her about keeping you here. I do not want you to go and fight her either. In this country, there are many good reasons for mothers to abandon their children.”
And so it is that Sophie moves from the simple traditional way of living in Haiti to the life of an immigrant in New York, looked down on and called names by classmates. In her luggage she carries not only her few belongings but the weight of the past.
In her mother’s apartment she discovers a photo,
“I moved closer to get a better look at the baby in Tante Atie’s arms. I had never seen an infant picture of myself, but somehow I knew that it was me. Who else could it have been? I looked for traces in the child, a feature that was my mother’s but still mine too. It was the first time in my life that I noticed that I looked like no one in my family. Not my mother. Not my Tantee Atie. I did not look like them when I was a baby and I did not look like them now.”
Though Sophie, her mother and other Haitian friends now live in New York tradition casts a long shadow. The old ways are not easy to leave behind.
“Haitian men, they insist that their women are virgins and have their ten fingers.
According to Aunt Tatie, each finger had a purpose. It was the way she had been taught to prepare herself to become a woman. Mothering. Boiling. Loving. Baking. Nursing. Frying. Healing. Washing. Ironing. Scrubbing. It wasn’t her fault, she said. Her ten fingers had been named for her even before she was born. Sometimes she even wished she had six fingers on each hand so she could have two left for herself.
The strength of women holds the generations together despite what is done in the name of tradition and inheritance. My reading of this book was at a very superficial level, concentrating on the relationships between the generations of women. There is much more to be excavated but first I would need to understand something of the social and political history of Haiti a place where the indigenous population was wiped out, replaced by African slaves under French rule. Subsequent interference by a variety of nations followed by a long period of dictatorship in which African roots were emphasied and used against the people by bringing to life the Tonton Macoute or bogeyman of traditional tales.
Don’t be put off by that last paragraph of mine. The book is told through the eyes of the child, Sophie, as she progresses from childhood to womanhood. The warmth of affection between Sophie & Tante Atie manages to keep out the underlying chills.
I suspect that any book by Edwidge Danticat will provide fruitful reading for anyone wishing to taste the flavour of Haiti.
HAITIAN BOOK TWO is The Comedians by Graham Greene.
I read ths years ago and I know that it is in the house somewhere so I will need to go on a bookhunt.
.. and finally … I will leave you with a link to an article in THE NEW YORK REVIEW of BOOKS that provides you with a list of books.