This is not a happy novel. It is, however, a crucial one. Thanks to my friend Scott at Auntie’s for pushing it on me. 😉
Breath, Eyes, Memory is the story of 3 generations of Haitian girls trying to survive their childhoods and reclaim their power as adult women.
It is the story of generational abuse perpetuated by women who were themselves abused as girls.
The heroine, Sophie, is finally the one with the courage to say,
“Enough. I will not do this to my daughter.”
A pivotal scene in the book takes place in New York, during a meeting of a sexual phobia therapy group. The other members of the group are Buki, an Ethiopian college student, who had her clitoris cut and her labia sewn up when she was a girl, by her grandmother. Davina, a middle-aged Chicana, was raped by her grandfather for 10 years. Sophie herself has a dark legacy that I won’t reveal here.
Slowly, the women write the names of their abusers on a piece of paper, raise it over a candle and watch as the flames consume it. Sophie realizes;
“It was up to me to avoid my turn in the fire. It was up to me to make sure that my daughter never slept with ghosts, never lived with nightmares and never had her name burnt in the flames.”
The book was unsatisfying in one regard – I felt the story of the aunt who raised Sophie was left unfinished. At the same time, the author does a great job of showing, not telling, how Sophie’s relationship with her aunt and mother and grandmother change as Sophie becomes a woman. The dialogue changes from adult-child to equal with equals. More the way you would speak to friends.
I would like to learn more about the Haitian goddess Erzulie, now equated with the Virgin Mary…Especially since the Haitian virginity cult has done so much harm to women and girls. I’ll bet in her earliest form, Erzulie was a fertility goddess who was about abundance, not tightness. This motif was nicely understated by the author.
A Gruesome History
Edwidge Danticat is excellent at tip-of-the-iceberg writing. The prose is sparse, lyrical, and engages the five senses. It merely hints at the glacier of Haitian politics and history – so you see it like a ghost, from the corner of your eye. But you always know it’s there.
“People have been killed for saying the wrong things,” Sophie’s grandmother announces matter-of-factly. A young boy has hysterics on the plane to New York because his father has just been set on fire in front of him. (The stewardess announces dispassionately that the father was a corrupt government official.) In the market, a coal-vendor is stomped to death by the Touton Macoute for no apparent reason – other than the fact that they can.
You won’t find this in the book, but since 1804, after a successful slave revolt, Haiti established itself as the first independent nation of Latin American & the Caribbean. A far cry from the corrupt Duvalier Docs – Papa and Baby – and how did we get from a success story to today? The Western colonial powers played a big and disgusting role…
And Wikipedia makes no moral judgments, but I submit to you Jamaica Kincaid’s idea that the former slaves internalized the violence and abuse they received from their former French masters. (Paraphrasing here…children learn what they live?) I submit to you the idea that violence begets violence and abuse begets abuse. That those of us who are survivors must say, like Sophie: Enough.
We cannot continue abusing ourselves in the absence of our perpetrators. And we definitely must not pass it on.