Brother, I’m Dying

I’ve been unexpectedly drawn to memoir lately, and it would be hard to find one easier to recommend than this family history by Edwidge Danticat. Besides being full of memorable stories, it sort of (for me) revealed how such a thing might be done: as a series of vignettes, sequenced without rigid chronology, each with its own moral and purpose. Of these tales, her Uncle Joseph emerges as an heroic figure, with political and then religious zeal, courageous and loving, raising a number of children that aren’t strictly his, and (in one case) risking his life to rescue one from a precarious situation. When Edwidge is separated forever from her uncle to go join her parents in New York, it feels more like a rupture than a reunion. This generosity of spirit is similar to Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. Both memoirists let other people take the starring roles in their stories.

The book also reminds me in many ways of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the Junot Diaz novel that traces Dominican family history to the days of Rafael Trujillo, just as Danticat traces her family history in Haiti back to the days of François Duvalier –both are stories of tyranny and diaspora, following the same arcs from Hispañola to New York sprawl.

But just as Haiti occupies the opposite half of an island from the Dominican Republic, this is an opposite kind of book. Diaz’s book is brutal, the characters driven by lust and possessiveness more than love, the narrative delivered with a dark and dry humor that reminds me more of Philip Roth than other Latin American writers. Danticat’s is about family bonds, and the love that drives their stories is real and uncompromising, the stories told with fearless sentiment.

Is the difference here between fiction and memoir? Male and female writers? It’s easy to see such dichotomies. But I find in Danticat what I’ve been missing in a lot of masculine fiction: unashamed hope and generosity. At some time in literary history sentimentality fell out of favor, and cold brutality held up as a timeless aesthetic standard rather than a fad. Danticat works from a different standard, one where she hopes to inspire and give strength to her readers, rather than win the acclaim of critics. That she won that acclaim anyway is testament to her finely honed storytelling skills.

2 thoughts on “Brother, I’m Dying

  1. Thanks for the recommendation. I’m always on the lookout for a good memoir. Have you read Brian Copeland’s Not a Genuine Black Man? It’s been a few years since I read it but, if I’m remembering it right, it may give you some of what you say you’ve been missing from male memoirists.

    It hit me particularly hard, because Copeland and I are within a year of the same age, and we grew up less than 250 miles apart–yet our lives couldn’t have been more different. Made me extremely grateful again, for my childhood, but also reminded me to keep opening my eyes to what else goes on in the world.

    • I’ll keep that one in mind for the future! I don’t want to oversimplify this distinction I’ve made but I think it strikes me most in these two memoirs vs. the books I usually read, the relative egolessness. I find it very refreshing and an antidote to cynicism.

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