Funny Women...Serious Business
Featured Speaker Edwidge Danticat
A noted Haitian-American author, Edwidge Danticat has written an array of award-winning fiction and nonfiction books over the past 25 years, including Brother, I’m Dying, a memoir centered on the uncle who’d helped raise her.
Edwidge Danticat was born on January 19, 1969, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Her parents, fleeing the oppressive regimes of François Duvalier and son Jean-Claude, were able to settle in Brooklyn, New York, while Danticat and younger sibling André had to remain behind. Her uncle Joseph became her “second father” when she was placed in his care after her parents left. At 12, Danticat and her brother were reunited with their parents in NY, meeting two new siblings for the first time. As she made a life in a new country–adjusting to being far away from so many who she loved–she and her family continued to fear for the safety of those still in Haiti.
Though her parents initially wanted her to study medicine, Danticat earned a degree in French literature at Barnard College and a creative writing graduate degree from Brown University in 1993. Her former master’s thesis was released in 1994 as the debut novel Breath, Eyes, Memory, following a girl’s journey from Haiti to the U.S. The work earned great acclaim and was selected as an official book club pick by Oprah Winfrey in 1998.
Over the years, Danticat has penned a variety of fiction and nonfiction works chronicling the lives of Haitian citizens and creating vivid, unflinching portrayals of injustice. She followed Breath, Eyes, Memory with Krik? Krak!, a collection of 10 stories, and the 1998 novel The Farming of Bones. Her other fiction offerings have included The Dew Breaker and Claire of the Sea Light, and she has served as the editor of the Haiti Noir anthology series, published by Akashic Books.
Among Danticat’s nonfiction books are the travelogue After the Dance: A Walk Through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti, The Art of Death and Brother, I’m Dying. The latter work focused on her uncle, Reverend Joseph N. Danticat, who had raised Edwidge. He later fled Haitian gang violence and sought asylum in the U.S., but died while being held in custody by the Department of Homeland Security.
She has been the recipient of an American Book Award, a National Book Critics Circle Award and a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, among many other honors.
A powerful and poignant storyteller, Danticat’s experiences as a woman and an immigrant have never been more timely. We are looking forward to hearing her speak on October 16!
Get Ready for the Luncheon!
Brother, I'm Dying
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography
National Book Award Finalist
A New York Times Notable Book
Purchase Brother, I’m Dying or the Oprah Book Club selection Breath, Eyes, Memory through AmazonSmile and support Rosie’s Place in one more way!
Share this inspiring book with your book club and use the guides below to spark discussion of Edwidge Danticat’s story.
Reading Group Guide
1. Danticat tells us that she has constructed the story from the “borrowed recollections of family members . . . . “What I learned from my father and uncle, I learned out of sequence and in fragments. This is an attempt at cohesiveness, and at re-creating a few wondrous and terrible months when their lives and mine intersected in startling ways, forcing me to look forward and back at the same time” [pp. 25-26]. Discuss what this work of reconstruction and reordering means for the structure of the story she presents, as well as for her own understanding of what happened to the two brothers.
2. As one reviewer put it, “If there's such a thing as a warmhearted tragedy, Brother, I'm Dying is a stunning example” (Yvonne Zipp, The Christian Science Monitor). Do you agree? If so, what elements in the writing and the story contribute to this effect?
3. How does young Edwidge retain her loyalties to her parents, even though they are absent from her life for so many years? Is there evidence that she feels hurt or rejected by their decision to leave for the States? How does she feel when they come back to visit Haiti with two new children [pp. 87-96]?
4. Haiti's history is briefly sketched on page 29 and elsewhere. While many readers will know that Haiti was a slave colony, why is the fact of the American invasion and nineteen-year occupation less well known [p. 29]? Danticat's paternal grandfather, Granpè Nozial, fought with the guerrilla resistance against the Americans. How does the family's engagement with Haiti's political history affect Joseph's unwillingness to emigrate to the U.S.? Why does he refuse to leave Haiti, or even to remove himself from the dangers of Bel Air [pp. 30-36]?
5. If so few words are passed between Danticat's parents and their two children in Haiti, how is emotion transmitted? Is there a sense, in the book, that Danticat is emotionally reticent even after her reunion with her parents? Why is she reluctant to tell her parents the news about her pregnancy [p. 44]? Why is it important that her father gave her a typewriter as a welcoming present [pp. 118-20]?
6. Danticat found a scrap of paper on which she had written, soon after coming to Brooklyn, “My father's cab is named for wanderers, drifters, nomads. It's called a gypsy cab” [p. 120]. What does this suggest about how she understood, or thought about, her father's work and her family's status in America? What does it reveal about a young girl's interest in the power of words?
7. Consider the relationship between the two brothers, Mira and Joseph. There is a significant difference in age, and Mira has been away from his brother for decades, by the end of the story. Despite this, they remain close. What assumptions about kinship and family ties are displayed in their love for each other? Are these bonds similar to, or stronger than, ties you would see between American-born brothers?
8. How does Danticat convey a sense of the richness of Haitian culture? What are the people like? What are their folk tales like? How does their use of both Creole and French affect their approach to language and speech? How does she make us feel the effects of the violence and poverty that the Haitians endure?
9. Does what happened to Joseph while in custody in Florida suggest that racist assumptions lie at the heart of U.S. immigration policy? Is Danticat right to wonder whether this would have happened had he not been Haitian, or had he not been black [p. 222]? Does it seem that the family could have taken legal action against the Department of Homeland Security?10. Danticat relates her Granmè Melina's story about the girl who wanted the old woman to bring her father back from the land of the dead [pp. 265-67]: what is the effect of her decision to end the book with this story? How does the story reflect on the book as a whole, and on the act of writing?