BELOVED HAITI, there is no place like you. I had to leave you before I could understand you." This popular Haitian song, which Haitian refugees sing in the first story of Edwidge Danticat's collection Krik? Krak! (1995) and which plays on the radio in the last, captures the author's own experience. Before she was five, Danticat's parents left Haiti and immigrated to New York in search of a better life. She and her younger brother remained behind in their native Port-au-Prince with their aunt and uncle. Danticat was finally reunited with her parents in Brooklyn when she was 12, but not without more loss. When sociopolitical conflict later forced her beloved uncle to flee Haiti, he died in the U.S. Customs detainment center, a tragedy she relates in her heartbreaking new memoir, Brother, I'm Dying (2007).
In her fiction and nonfiction alike, Danticat tries to understand and portray the land she left behind as a child. Modern-day Haiti, its bloody past, and its lingering effects on Haitian immigrants inspire her tales of pride, courage, and brutality. Danticat knows this terrain of terror well: she was born in 1969 during Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier's bloody dictatorship, which the U.S. supported for its anti-Communist stance and strategic proximity to Cuba. Danticat looks further back into Haitian history as well: the award-winning Farming of Bones (1998) puts a human face on the 1937 massacre of Haitians by El Generalissimo Trujillo's murderous regime. Even when depicting violence, however, she manages to convey Haiti's rich, verdant beauty and the joy still found in its culture.
The United States, of course, gave Danticat opportunities lacking in her native land. She earned a degree in French literature from Barnard College and honed her poetic, lush style in Brown University's Creative Writing program. Her MFA thesis, which became Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994), cast her into the literary limelight at age 25. The novel explores the effects of the Tonton Macoutes--Duvalier's death squad--on generations of women. Danticat's debut, which was selected four years later for Oprah's Book Club, introduced many of the themes and female characters that populate her novels and short story collections.
After the success of Breath, Eyes, Memory, Danticat was named "1 of 20 people in their twenties who will make a difference" by Harpers Bazaar and one of "30 under 30" people to watch by New York Times Magazine. Her prestigious awards attest to her arresting probe into Haiti's violent past. Now, with the publication of Brother, I'm Dying (our review is at the end of...