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.

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