Heartbreaking account of Haitian immigrant coming to terms with her uncle’s cruel fate
Late in this memoir, acclaimed Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat describes her father’s dismay that the body of his brother—who has died unexpectedly and under deplorable circumstances in Florida—would not be returned to their home in Haiti.
“He shouldn’t be here,” Mr. Danticat (whom everyone calls Mira) protests tearfully. “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.”
Earlier in the book Danticat had painted a more harmonious relationship between her family and the United States, where several members have naturalized. But as every immigrant knows, the difference between success and happiness in a new place depends on the gulf between wanting and needing to be there.
Immigration is less about choice when you’re from a country like Haiti, which foreign-policy wonks constantly remind is “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.” Guyana, the country on the tip of South America where I grew up, has a slightly elevated status, considered among the poorest of the Western Hemisphere. However, its core problems, related to economic stagnancy and political turmoil, mirror Haiti’s, so I’ve always felt a kinship with Haitians. Both countries suffered massive brain drain as many of us citizens—faced with the prospect of never realizing even modest goals—steeled ourselves for adversity and snow, and determined to amount to something more somewhere else.
When Mr. Danticat says, “a country like any other,” he is undoubtedly thinking of the U.S., which is why many of us have made the necessary sacrifices to get here. We live in limbo between “Here” and “There,” clinging precariously to the beliefs and traditions that shaped us back home. Our achievements here are footnoted with “if onlys” there: If only our countries didn’t suffer from racist foreign policy or from greedy, corrupt, often violent, leadership, we could’ve done the same thing there.
In recent years, few voices have been as eloquent as Danticat’s in explaining the dichotomies of this hybrid American life. Her bestselling ?ction about Haitians and Haitian-Americans provides empathetic comfort to readers like me who have similar histories, and insight to others who can’t quite grasp why we continue to leave the tropics for concrete cities. For Haitians in particular, Danticat, 38, has taken on the task of literally rewriting their image in America, exposing the racist inaccuracies of the “boat people” persona that has been thrust upon these immigrants in this country.
I’m not suggesting that Danticat’s beautiful, lyrical ?ction is merely activism. That would be unfair and grossly inaccurate. The critical acclaim she has received attests to the level of her talent: She has an American Book Award (The Farming of Bones, 1999), a PEN/Faulkner Award (The Dew Breaker, 2004), was a ?nalist for the National Book Award (, 1995), and is an Oprah Book Club author (Breath, Eyes, Memory, 1994).
With Brother, I’m Dying, however, Danticat is certainly in battle mode, spurred by a family tragedy to tell the story of her two fathers: Mira, the man who gave her life, and his older brother, Joseph Dantica, who stepped in for the eight years it took her parents, who had settled in New York, to successfully petition the INS for Edwidge and a younger brother to join them from Haiti. (A mistake on her father’s birth certificate, she tells us, gave his clan the extra “t” at the end of the family name).
In 2004, Dantica—a pastor, then 81 years old—was forced out of his home in Bel Air, an optimistically named, crime-plagued neighborhood in the capital, Port-Au-Prince. There, he had built a church and computer center, as well as the home where he and his wife had taken care of their extended family, including Edwidge and her brother. One Sunday in late October, gun?re between Haiti’s brutal, UN-backed police force and local gangs broke out. The police stormed Dantica’s church, mid-service, climbing to his roof to take better aim at their opponents. After they left, the gangsters moved in. They accused Dantica of cooperating with the police, looted and burned his buildings and vowed to end his life. He hid for days with friends and family, ?nally escaping to Miami on a tourist visa.
Here in the U.S. however, Dantica was detained at the Krome detention center (well-known and dreaded by Haitians) after admitting to immigration officials that he planned to seek temporary asylum. Unlike Cuban refugees who are processed and released to their families after landing on American soil, Haitians are routinely imprisoned, then deported. Within days of his detention, Dantica took ill, received minimal medical attention and, handcuffed to a hospital bed, died alone because his family was not allowed to visit him.
In news reports from the time, Edwidge’s grief is palpable: “I feel angry. I feel pain. I feel sadness. But mostly I feel a desire to ?ght this,” she told a reporter for the Palm Beach Post. A family lawsuit to force a federal investigation resulted in the immigration personnel being absolved of any wrongdoing. “We are in some ways lucky we have a voice, we can speak, we can make noise,” Danticat told the Post.
In Brother, her voice is surprisingly gentle, but full of intention. She is documenting the decent, upstanding lives of these two men who took good care of her and in?uenced her most. In ?ashbacks to Haiti and East Flatbush, Brooklyn, where she spent her teenage years (she now lives in Miami) Danticat recounts their struggles to build lives, always at the mercy of circumstances beyond their control. Mira did the dangerous work of driving a cab in the immigrant neighborhoods of Brooklyn, shrugging off insults, fare hoppers, even gun-toting robbers. Joseph withstood cancer and chaos to preserve a Haitian home. There was little room for materialism, so Danticat mostly writes about the people they knew and loved: adopted children, neighbors and the hundred-year-old matriarch Granme Melina, the best storyteller around. The greatest accomplishment of his life, Mr. Danticat tells his family is that “You, my children, have not shamed me.”
Danticat’s father died about six months after her uncle from pulmonary ?brosis that had ravaged his body for more than a year. “This is an attempt,” she writes, “At recreating a few wondrous and terrible months when their lives and mine intersected in startling ways, forcing me to look forward and back in both celebration and despair. I am writing this only because they can’t.”
About a year before her uncle was sent there, Danticat went with a research group to Krome, which is isolated in the Everglades of southwest Miami. She met ordinary Haitians who had been reduced to prisoners, dressed in matching overalls and con?ned by stone, chain-link fence and barbed wire. “I have known no greater shame in my life,” an older man told her of his experience there.
As the debates on immigration and immigration policy roiled in the last few months, with talk of who should or shouldn’t be allowed in, I’ve felt a similar shame. It’s a shame that I know is ubiquitous, lurking in every immigrant community across the country. It’s the shame of being an economic refugee. The shame of needing to be here.