Novelist Edwidge Danticat grew up with two papas – her dad, Mira, who left Haiti for America when she was 2, and her Uncle Joseph, a pastor who raised Danticat and her younger brother, Bob, until they were able to join their parents in New York when she was 12.
Almost two decades later, in 2004, Joseph was forced to flee Haiti after gangs threatened to kill him. Despite the fact that he had a valid visa and a passport, the United States government imprisoned the octogenarian, who was dead within days. Earlier that year – on the same day that she discovered that she was pregnant – Danticat found out that Mira had been diagnosed with a fatal illness.
Now, Danticat has written a beautiful memoir to both her fathers. If there's such a thing as a warmhearted tragedy, Brother, I'm Dying is a stunning example. As she did in her powerful novels, such as 2004's "The Dew Breaker," Danticat uses the personal to show the impact of a whole country's legacy. But she does so in a way that avoids rage or bitterness – an amazing feat since it's not possible to even read about her uncle's treatment in US custody without a deep-burning anger. But the main characteristics of the memoir are the generosity, strength, and dignity of the two men, and the love Danticat has for both.
"Brother, I'm Dying" also encompasses
the emotional lives of both halves of a diaspora: those who leave and those who remain behind. As a child, she cherished the rare links to her parents, who were only able to make one trip to Haiti during the eight years between the time her mother left to join her father and her own trip.
Before leaving, her mother sewed Danticat 10 dresses, most of them too big, so that she could still dress her daughter after she was gone. In her uncle and aunt's house, Danticat shared a room with their adopted daughter, Marie Micheline, who would whisper to Danticat the story of the butter cookies Mira would buy for his little girl on his way home. As a toddler, Danticat didn't care for the cookies, but she would hoot with laughter and feed them to her papa.
" 'He loved you so much,' [Marie Micheline] would say out loud at the end of the story, 'he left you with us.' " Marcel Proust's stale old madeleine doesn't have anything on Marie Micheline.
With no phone at home, letters were their primary connection. Every other month, her father would mail a three-paragraph letter, carefully avoiding any overly personal topics that might cause his children pain. Her uncle created a ceremony to honor the importance of those paragraphs. In college, Danticat writes, she found out her dad's letters were written in a "diamond sequence, the Aristotelian 'Poetics' of correspondence." Later, he said to her, "What I wanted to tell you and your brother was too big for any piece of paper and a small envelope."
Words remained a powerful symbol between Danticat and her father, even though, she writes, the two always carefully avoided any emotional conversations. When she and Bob rejoined their parents in New York, her dad gave her a Smith-Corona Corsair portable typewriter as a welcome-home present. " 'This will help you measure your words,' he said, tapping the keys with his fingers for emphasis." Her dad meant it literally – both Danticat and her dad's cursive had a tendency to run downhill – but the gift turned out to be a prescient one.
Danticat recalls her uncle with great affection. She writes about small treats, such as a shopping trip where her uncle bought her a shaved coconut ice and a secondhand book ("Madeleine"), as well as the time Joseph risked his life to save Marie Micheline and her baby from an abusive husband. Her uncle and aunt took a number of children into their pink house in the Bel Air neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, as well as running a church and a school.
Despite Mira's urgings to join him in America, Joseph refused to abandon his church – even when an emergency surgery left him without a voice with which to preach. Coups and the growing riots in his neighborhood couldn't shake him. Then gangs burned the church down and began hunting for Joseph. His escape from Port-au-Prince was worthy of Houdini, but the miracle was short-lived. After arriving in Miami and asking for asylum, the octogenarian was sent to the Krome detention center, where his medication was taken away. Perhaps to avoid charges of embellishment, or perhaps because it's just too painful, Danticat keeps adjectives to a minimum and largely lets the government's own documents tell of her uncle's final days.
Mira ended up outliving his brother long enough to hold Danticat's daughter, whom she named for him. "I wish I could fully make sense of the fact that they're now sharing a grave site and a tombstone in Queens, N. Y., after living apart for more than 30 years," she writes at the conclusion of her memoir.
"In any case, every now and then I try to imagine them on a walk through the mountains of Beausèjour.... And in my imagining, whenever they lose track of one another, one or the other calls out in a voice that echoes throughout the hill, 'Kote w ye frè m? Brother, where are you?'
"And the other one quickly answers, 'Nou la. Right here, brother. I'm right here.' "
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.