Breath, Eyes, Memory | Study Guide

Edwidge Danticat

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Breath, Eyes, Memory | Context


Bildungsroman through a Semiautobiographical Lens

Breath, Eyes, Memory is heavily based on Edwidge Danticat's own childhood and young adulthood. Narrator and protagonist Sophie immigrates to the United States from Haiti as a preteen, moving in with a mother she doesn't know well. Sophie's story is a bildungsroman, or a coming-of-age novel, in which formative events in a character's life are explored. Sophie develops a new identity as a Haitian American, reckons with her family's complex and painful past, and becomes a mother herself. Danticat's own attachment to the country of her birth informs Sophie's relationship with Haiti. Throughout the novel Sophie feels both affection for her homeland and alienation from its culture.

Danticat is one of many American women writers who have used their childhood experience to fuel their fiction. Many of these authors were immigrants contributing to the rich wave of multicultural American writing in the late 20th century. Though the autobiographical novel had already been established as a genre, the female immigrant experience added a new layer of self-discovery. These novels illuminated the pain of exile, the importance of examining the past, and the challenge of creating an identity rooted in two cultures.

Some notable examples include Mexican American writer Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street (1983), Dominican American writer Julia Alvarez's How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), and Antiguan writer Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John (1984). Other multicultural works helped form Danticat as a young writer. African American writer Maya Angelou's semiautobiographical novel I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) was the first book Danticat read in English.

Semiautobiographical writing provided challenges for Danticat. Coming from a country in which many writers were jailed and killed, Danticat knew using her voice could be dangerous. Her parents discouraged her writing career, and the frankness of Danticat's novel was controversial in the Haitian community. Haitian readers protested the depiction of parents testing their daughters' virginity, a practice Danticat describes in the novel. They saw aspects of the novel as betraying cultural secrets to the wider world. In response Danticat emphasized that the experience of the character Sophie doesn't represent the experience of all Haitian women. According to Dominican American writer Junot Díaz, Danticat's work tackles the "historical silence and amnesia" surrounding many cultural practices.

Haitian Religion and Spirituality

Haitian characters in Breath, Eyes, Memory have worldviews shaped by both Western Christianity and Haitian voodoo. These two traditions often merge in Haiti.

Voodoo is central to Haitian identity. To Danticat, voodoo is a religion kept alive by memory. Haitian descendants of African slaves started the religion and passed it down through generations. Despite being forced into a new culture, slaves retained their beliefs in indigenous spirits and in the ongoing influence of ancestors. The word voodoo comes from the term for spirit or deity in Fon, an African language. Voodoo practitioners believe the world is inhabited by spirits, including the souls of the dead. Many rituals of the faith are centered on the human body. Voodoo became a way for black Haitians to claim their humanity and divinity in an oppressive colonial system.

Though voodoo is unique, it is also considered a "creolized" religion, or one combining practices of two different cultures. Haiti's French colonizers were predominantly Catholic. As voodoo formed, it borrowed many traditions from Christianity and Catholicism. There is a saying about Haiti, according to The Guardian news site, that characterizes the population as "70% Catholic, 30% Protestant, and 100% voodoo." The voodoo goddess Erzulie, who inspires Sophie in the novel, has features in common with the Christian figure of the Virgin Mary. Erzulie has been called a "Black Madonna," or a Christian icon adopted into the pantheon of voodoo spirits.

Breath, Eyes, Memory refers to the afterlife as a mythical place called Ginen, another concept originating in voodoo. Ginen, also spelled Guinee, Guinin, or Guinea, takes its name from the African country Guinea. Slaves and their descendants imagined reuniting in their African homeland after death. "In Haiti death was always around us," Danticat wrote in an essay describing her spiritual origins. She added that many Haitian folktales include death and express hope in an afterlife.

Political Occupation and the Duvalier Regime

The novel is most likely set in the 1980s, when Danticat would have been the same age as her protagonist, Sophie. These were the last years of the Duvalier dynasty in Haiti. Dictators François "Papa Doc" Duvalier (1907–71), and later his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier (1951–2014), ruled the country through terror and repression.

Like many other Caribbean nations, Haiti has a long history of foreign occupation and dictatorial leadership. United States Marines occupied the country from 1915 to 1934. Haitian characters in the novel debate the effects of American leadership, with one character vowing, "Never the Americans in Haiti again." Characters also suffer from the aftershocks of François Duvalier's rule (1957–71), a dictatorship backed by the United States. François Duvalier believed he was divinely appointed to be president for life. He reigned through violence, establishing a loyal militia. Haitians called the militia members the Tonton Macoutes after a thieving bogeyman in Haitian folktales. Like the bogeyman, the Tonton Macoutes often kidnapped people—opponents of the Duvalier regime—in the middle of the night. Duvalier was responsible for nearly 30,000 deaths.

When Duvalier died in 1971, his son Jean-Claude took over and continued his father's repressive policies. As a child, Danticat saw Jean-Claude throwing coins from the window of a car to gain the people's favor. Jean-Claude Duvalier was forced from power after a rebellion in 1986. However, political instability and armed conflict lingered.

In Breath, Eyes, Memory, the Tonton Macoutes remain an active force in Haiti. Young Sophie witnesses a student riot against soldiers near the airport as she prepares to leave the country. She later learns she was conceived when a man, possibly a Tonton Macoute, raped her mother. When Sophie returns to the country as a young adult, she sees Tonton Macoutes brutally attack a man in the marketplace. Dictatorship and violence become integral parts of both Sophie's story and the story of Haiti.

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