Prescribed Identity in "Brother, I’m Dying"

[Author's Note: This is the second essay I've written this semester that I feel is worth sharing, this one from late November. Written for a class on memoir and the construction of self, it examines various issues of identity in the memoir Brother, I'm Dying. I've left in page references that should correspond to both hardback and paperback editions, and I'd certainly recommend the book, if not quite rave about it.]

Edwidge Danticat’s Brother, I’m Dying is a memoir of frustrated dreams and cruel ironies, especially those lived out by its two protagonists, the narrator’s father and “second father” Uncle Joseph. Edwidge is left to sort through their histories, questioning, analyzing, perhaps eventually fulfilling them in ways they could not—but her own life story (as the title attests) is not the basis of the memoir’s exploration of love and loss. Rather, Edwidge’s interpretation crystallizes around issues of self-identity as it relates to her family history and to Haitians both in Haiti and the United States. At the culmination of the tragedy, we find both brothers irreversibly displaced. Edwidge’s father, Mira, long since spurred by violence and poverty to take up residence in the United States, lives in isolation from his homeland and the brother he barely knew as illness weakens him. Her uncle Joseph, who remains behind in Haiti, realizes that his homeland has turned against him and that he too must flee to the United States, where he meets a sudden, humiliating death. Just months away from his own death and soon after the passing of his elder brother, Mira tearfully reflects, “If our country were ever given a chance and allowed to be a country like any other, none of us would live or die here” (251). A moment before, Edwidge speculates of her uncle, “Did he think it ironic that he would soon be the dead prisoner of the same government that had been occupying his country when he was born? In essence he was entering and exiting the world under the same flag. Never really sovereign... never really free” (250). This displacement is the cumulative result of actions, both momentous and seemingly insignificant, that are motivated by characters’ conceptions of racial, ethnic, or national identity. That greater societies remain so sensitive to these distinctions forces the central players of Brother, I’m Dying to accept them, even as they contradict one another, as fixtures of their own selfhood.

In the first, telling alignment of fate, the echoes of which will haunt him all his life, Joseph is born into an American-occupied Haiti. From childhood on, his ideals for himself and his country are defined in direct opposition to the United States as foreign oppressor—and the impact of this occupation even on his earliest years is highly significant. His father is a committed fighter for the resistance movement and absent, for extended periods, from his children’s lives. Meanwhile, Joseph and his sisters are sheltered from harm but are given no information about their father’s whereabouts or safety. Most revealingly, Joseph’s first encounter with Americans (or, indeed, whites) involves a group of soldiers kicking around a severed Haitian head—a traumatic experience for any young boy. Interestingly, the understanding Danticat imparts on her young uncle is that “then, as now, the world outside Beauséjour was treacherous indeed” (247). Already, Joseph sees that the outside world has taken something from Haiti and of his own innocence—denied them the “chance” his brother later speaks of.

This leaves Joseph with an inexorable future ahead: confronted with the bloody works of “others,” he has to define an “us” with reference to “them.” His actions, his choices for himself, his ideas of himself—all indicate an effort toward undoing the trauma of his earliest past (perhaps even more than avoiding future crisis). He is, for the bulk of his life, committed to Haitian reform and populist politics (in opposition to the kind of iron-fisted government that would, as he recalls, make arrests for growing one’s hair out or going barefoot). In a similar spirit, he later turns to the church, a pastor at his own Eglise Chrétienne de la Rédemption, though his primary role might be more accurately described as “community builder.” Having taken on a strict but rewarding Baptist lifestyle and identity, certainly a relic of white influence in Haiti, Joseph can now access American missionaries as fellows, and manages to solicit from them “a monthly contribution for a free lunch program for [his] students,” serving his people while laying the seed for later conflicts of selfhood (34). Amidst the increasing political unrest of Haiti in the early twenty-first century, he remains resiliently behind, so deeply has he forged his own niche in and as a part of that society.

His final flight from Haiti, then, is ironic from a number of perspectives: he is condemned by the people for whom he has given so much; he is accused of giving aid to the UN forces, next in a series of foreign occupants, in their violent struggle with Haitian gangs; and he is forced, by threat of death, to turn to the United States, to a thin and somewhat troubling thread of his identity, where he will die. Edwidge herself realizes the weight of these contradictions years earlier while talking to an American consul as she is about to emigrate:
Sensing that it was the right thing to do, we both nodded, as if bowing to the flag that our grandfather had once fought against, that our mother and father had now embraced for nearly ten years, that we were about to make our own.... I felt my old life quickly slipping away. I was surrendering myself... (106)
This demonstrates not only that Edwidge and Joseph feel the weight of a new, inevitable, and troubling sense of self pressing in on them, one that is (at least in part) American or reliant on America, but moreover that there was a pre-existing self that was defined strongly as un-American and informs this reaction. Joseph was the automatic inheritor (as was Edwidge under his parenting) of a distinctly Haitian identity.

Mira’s story begins and ends somewhat differently, despite some thematic overlap with that of his brother. Notably, he is born twelve years after Joseph, after the end of American occupation and the period in which his father, Grandpè Nozial to Edwidge, was away from his children fighting for the resistance—altogether a very different childhood landscape. From his perspective, violence in Haiti is a product of internal turmoil—he is harassed and threatened at his modest job as a shoe salesman by President “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s Macoute militia, and when he is soon charged additionally with supporting a family, he feels that for their safety and economic prospects he will have to look to America and eventual emigration—a decision, perhaps, to which his never brother could never have committed. Mira is bounded by a sense of obligation not to the Haitian community, which would have at the forefront of a country engulfed in a foreign war, but to his own ambitions, interests, and concerns—already a somewhat more American notion of priority. Along these lines, he devotes himself fully, missing out, as does his wife, on most of Edwidge’s childhood to pave economic inroads in the United States, an action that could only have been undertaken with a more fluid sense of national and cultural identity.

This dissonance in identification is apparent to both brothers. Of Joseph’s immediate withdrawal to Haiti after undergoing radical laryngectomy in New York, Mira reflects, “Our lives were now even more solidly on different tracks…. I don’t think he ever really wanted to leave Bel Air for any place in or outside of Haiti” (42). But his conclusion after Joseph’s funeral and burial in Queens reflects a more certain, and mournful, understanding: “He shouldn’t be here” (251). What is interesting to consider is the process that informed this development.

Mira’s story in America is arguably one of disillusionment. On his first visit back to Haiti since his departure, years before Edwidge and her younger brother Bob emigrate, Mira regales a captive audience with violent urban legends of New York, confirming a claim that New York is “as dangerous as it can be with the macoutes here” (92). While he does this with more than a touch of grandiosity, he nonetheless admits into his dichotomy of America and Haiti a shared presence of violence. In another twist of irony, his work as a taxicab driver leads him to encounter threats against his life, much the way his work as a shoe salesman did in Haiti. He is also subject to unwarranted and unchecked cruelty from his employers: he is fired from a factory job when his boss won’t let him leave early to pick up his children at the airport, and his cabdriver’s license is revoked when he fails a drug test on prescription codeine—despite a written appeal from his doctor. The treatment to which his race, class, and ethnicity consigns him is the undoing of his optimism for America, forcing him, in the process, to revert to an identity scheme similar to Joseph’s—one of Haitians struggling against and reluctantly turning to the same multilateral oppressor. At the end of his life, it is of Haiti Mira thinks tragically as “our country” and longs for the life in which “none of us would live or die [in America]” (251).

Edwidge Danticat’s account of the separate lives of her two fathers, unified ultimately by the twin arc of their long, slow deaths, takes on the weight of tragedy principally through the seeming futility of their actions, or more accurately the identity they are handed down, challenged by, and frustrated by for the rest of their lives. Both Joseph and Mira’s early development and negotiation of selfhood left them with distinct sets of aspirations for effecting permanent change to their worlds, neither of which was fully realized. The memoir, however, does not belong in the class of absolute tragedy: there are more than a few glimmers of redemption. Danticat leaves the reader with the understanding that however our identity, and our treatment as the same, is largely determined by societal divisions, varying experience sets matter enormously. Just as Joseph and Mira were initially set apart by different childhood circumstances, so will Edwidge’s life, and that of her infant daughter Mira, be lived out in different, and unpredictable, terms.

Visions of China in “Heaven” and “Persimmons”

[Author's Note: In order to stave off writing a new essay, I've decided to seize this busy moment to post a couple I've written this past semester that I'm decently proud of. This one's from late September, for my "Imagining America" English class. I'm sure you could find both poems discussed below online—it might be helpful to reference them (I've left in line citations). I think this is a fairly insightful analysis, and I really love the phrase "stern matron of disambiguation."]

Poets Cathy Song and Li-Young Lee share a curious number of biographical similarities, many of which notably inform their work. Born two years apart, Song in Hawaii and Lee in Indonesia, they both predominately claim Chinese heritage and American upbringing. They emerged as part of a larger wave of Asian-American writers in the Seventies and Eighties and scored critical acclaim with their inaugural collections, Song's Picture Bride (1982) and Lee's Rose (1986). Over the course of their careers, both have continued to ruminate on themes of cross-cultural identity and concerns that, while universal, are deeply rooted in the Asian-American experience. In “Heaven” (from Song's sophomore collection, Frameless Windows, Squares of Light) and “Persimmons” (from Lee's debut), they examine the divisions that lay not only between but within individual Americans in a larger society that encourages assimilation and uniformity. Mired in dissatisfaction and isolation, the speakers in “Heaven” and “Persimmons” are able to transcend their often mundane or tiresome surroundings through the unifying fixations of the poems' titles, each recalling something of their ancestral Chinese homeland that is now lost to them.

In its surrealist, dreamlike contours, “Heaven” implicates three generations of Chinese-Americans across two continents in an integrated, cyclical vision of departures and returns. The speaker considers both her grandfather, who left China to build railroads in the old American West and never returned, and her son, of mixed race, who envisions China as heaven—peaceful, awaiting, and just out of sight. In evocative, visual language, Song draws a sharp contrast between the drab nearby and the idyllic remote. The speaker's home “just east of the Rockies” is rife with impermanence, decay, and inadequacy—“reedy aspen with light, fluttering leaves” for vegetation, “the broken fences, the whiny dog, the rattletrap cars” for possessions, and “this creek they call a river” for environment (17, 23, 29, 38). America is portrayed as a failed homeland, a mean, inhospitable surrogate for the China the speaker and her son have never known. The speaker's ambivalent feelings for her country are emphasized in her somewhat ironic reference to words and cultural relics that are uniquely American. She locates her home “on the pancake plains,” amidst “landlocked, makeshift ghost towns,” and describes a Wild West bustling with “shootouts and fistfights in the back alley,” characterizing the nation not only in its breakfast, geography, and mythos but in its hard-sounding and ruthlessly functional compound words (16, 49, 32).

The distant, unknown China fares distinctly better by the speaker's imaginative rendering. In the first stanza, China is described as “that blue flower on the map, / bluer than the sea,” and the rest of the poem alludes to China, whether directly or indirectly, by referencing both blue, classically associated with heaven, and the sea, the Pacific Ocean being the physical barrier (or bridge) between such separate poles of existence (6-7). The speaker describes the Rocky Mountains as “shimmering blue above the air,” leading her son to the poem's metaphysical conclusion that “you can see all the way to heaven” (58, 63). The sea remains largely as faraway as the China with which it's associated: their “landlocked” American home is “a mile above the sea” (49, 19). But the sea has also the power to transport—the speaker's grandfather came from Guangzhou, a port city navigable to the South China Sea, and as her son envisions heaven, he is described as “leaning out from the laundry's rigging, / the work shirts fluttering like sails” (61-62). Just as heaven is always a foil to the worldly, so is China-as-heaven a dream of escaping a dingy and unfulfilling lifestyle, fueled by a complex relationship and fixation with the past.

“Persimmons” taps into many of the same feelings of alienation and disillusionment, but Lee's approach is entirely different. Rather than focusing on setting and the sharp division between China and America, “Persimmons” concerns itself with the individual and the fracturing of Chinese and American identity within the narrator. This sense of disorientation and uncertainty becomes part of the structural map of the poem in the narrator's repeated confusion over pairs of English words. Doubling the crisis, however, is his loss of Chinese words as he forges an American identity; as he and Donna lie naked in the yard, says the narrator, “I teach her Chinese. / Crickets: chiu chiu. Dew: I've forgotten. / Naked: I've forgotten” (22-24). American experience comes as his Chinese self is blanked over. This fundamental confusion and disarray, a concern for things misplaced, forgotten, or misunderstood, is echoed in several carefully laid parallels. Mrs. Walker herself, that stern matron of disambiguation, is guilty of “not knowing the difference”: she presents a persimmon to the class as a “Chinese apple,” when in fact that term is ascribed to pomegranates (4, 43).

As in “Heaven,” the eponymous image of the poem is a kind of redemption that reconciles the reality of life in America with the narrator's longing to hold on to his Chinese past. That Lee used the persimmon in particular to achieve this effect is no accident: persimmons have historically been associated with Chinese herbal medicine and, in that field, are widely recognized for their restorative powers. The narrator's mother describes how “every persimmon has a sun / inside”—it is this metaphorical sun, classically representative of light, power, and goodness, that can penetrate the father's blindness as he recalls perfectly, in painting, the fullness of ripe persimmons (46-47). This image resonates in the cardinal's song (“The sun, the sun”) as the persimmons ripen on the windowsill; the sun imbibes the fruit with a sense of sublime perfection, as would be missing from the unripened fruit the careless Mrs. Walker serves and which the narrator must decline (53). The sun, then, represents China, stamping the persimmon with its memory. This is perhaps why the narrator tells the American Donna that “she is beautiful as the moon” (28). The moon and the sun occupy separate times and spaces, and he is learning to accept the duality of night and day, of American existence and Chinese heritage.

The titles “Heaven” and “Persimmons” are more than chance or arbitrary attempts to grasp at the “subject” of each poem. They represent two narrow but meaningful points of access for Chinese-Americans living estranged from any one culture to retain something, even if only a vision, of a purer and brighter Chinese past. Both poems are simultaneously an indictment of the shortcomings of a homogeneous, uncomprehending greater America and an acceptance of that reality as their future—heaven and persimmons can only be substantive enough to impact the speakers' attitudes towards their situations, not the situations themselves. It is telling that each poem ends on a note of clarity, tranquility, and closeness—as if Cathy Song and Li-Young Lee were reconciling with their own split identities, arriving at some intersection with the past that seems to transcend the present.