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.