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Breath, Eyes, Memory | Study Guide

Edwidge Danticat

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Edwidge Danticat | Biography


Haitian Roots and Immigration to America

Haitian American author Edwidge Danticat's work explores power and justice, family and relationships, and Haitian history. Born in Haiti's capital city, Port-au-Prince, on January 19, 1969, Danticat briefly lived under the dictatorship of Haitian leader François "Papa Doc" Duvalier (1907–71) as a child. Her parents moved to the United States in the early 1970s to seek better job opportunities. They left Danticat and her brother temporarily with an aunt and uncle in Haiti.

Her early memories of Haiti include power outages. The family would gather around a candle as elder family members, like Danticat's grandmother and great-aunt, told stories. Attracted to "the vibrant interaction between teller and listener" from a young age, Danticat later included Haitian folktales in her writing.

Danticat joined her parents in the United States in 1981 when she was 12. She struggled to adapt to parents who were now unfamiliar as well as to a new culture. She knew little English when she arrived. Instead she spoke Haitian Creole, a combination of French and African languages developed in Haiti.

The New York City neighborhood Flatbush, Brooklyn, had a vibrant Haitian American community that became a refuge for Danticat's family. Danticat began writing stories to understand her own experience. Her novel Breath, Eyes, Memory is partly based on her own immigration and adjustment.

Family and Identity in Breath, Eyes, Memory

Danticat's parents hoped she would have a successful medical career and Danticat briefly attended nursing school. But she preferred to study language, earning a degree in French literature from Barnard College and another in creative writing from Brown University.

Her master's thesis at Brown became Breath, Eyes, Memory, a semiautobiographical novel about four generations of Haitian women. Protagonist Sophie Caco immigrates to the United States from Haiti as a child and conflicts with her protective mother. When Sophie returns to Haiti as a young adult, she sees how the country has shaped the lives of her grandmother and aunt. The women face issues of cultural identity, family obligations, sexual trauma, and preparation for death—topics Danticat engages with in much of her work.

Remembering History as an Artist

Breath, Eyes, Memory made Danticat a name to reckon with on the literary scene. The New York Times said Danticat was one artist "likely to change the culture." She followed her debut with a short story collection called Krik? Krak! (1995), taking the title from a call-and-response phrase in Haitian storytelling. The collection was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Danticat continued to delve into Haitian history with her second novel, The Farming of Bones (1998). Titled after a phrase Haitians use to describe harvesting sugarcane, the novel deals with the 1937 massacre of Haitians in the Dominican Republic. Her short story collection The Dew Breaker (2004) describes the effects of the repressive Duvalier regime. Other novels include Claire of the Sea Light (2013) and the young adult novel Untwine (2015).

Danticat's nonfiction explores themes related to immigration and artistic responsibility. Her memoir, Brother, I'm Dying (2007), tells the complex story of two men in Danticat's family. Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (2010) discusses Danticat's experience writing about her home country. She talks about her mother's passing and examines literary depictions of death in The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story (2017).

As an advocate for Haitian and Haitian American writers, Danticat has collaborated on several additional projects. She edited the anthologies The Butterfly's Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States (2001) and Haiti Noir (2010). She also contributed to the 2013 film Girl Rising, a documentary about young girls seeking education around the world.

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