Brother, I'm Dying

 

 

Brother I’m Dying is memoir at its very best. Edwidge Danticat writes in spare, elegant prose about the legacy of Haiti’s violent history and how it shaped her family. While the political and personal must be inextricable in any deeply examined life, Danticat’s childhood was so radically shaped by political context, it’s impossible to know who she would be had she not experienced her family’s response to Duvalier and his secret police, the machete-wielding Tonton Macoutes. Danticat’s parents leave Haiti for New York in the early 1970’s; her uncle and aunt raise her for nine years in a vividly recalled pink house in a Port-au-Prince neighborhood caught in the crossfire between rival political factions and gangs.

But this book, despite its evocation of a childhood marked by exile and violence, is finally a love story. The pink house in Haiti is alive with brave and intimately connected characters, and children who learn both sides of the emotional costs of diaspora. We see the exquisitely revealed and restrained emotional pain of the exile in Danticat’s parents, and the tremendous faith and loyalty to community embodied in Danticat’s Uncle Joseph, who, in the midst of terrible political strife, builds a church in Bel Air and becomes a preacher. Danticat’s tribute to family, especially to her father as he dies, and to her Uncle Joseph, who along with his wife raises her for the years when her parents are in the United States, is a profound testament to the durable power of grace and love in family relationships. Suffering in Danticat gives rise not to bitterness, but to a profound appreciation for the remarkable people who nurtured her against the odds.

The book is also an indictment of the abuse of power in Haiti, and in North America. Tragically, after Joseph leaves Haiti when his church is finally burned and looted in 2004, his escape to The United States becomes a nightmare. He asks for asylum, but instead is put into detention by U.S. officials. In the detention center he grows ill, and soon dies in a nearby hospital. This was a remarkably brave-spirited 81-year-old minister who risked his life to help people in a country shredded by violence, who becomes an emblematic figure at the end, a wrenching testament to the terrible abuse wrought by the U.S. government under the guise of homeland security. At the same time, he remains a beloved, irreplaceable, heroic uncle to the writer.

Reading this book can re-inscribe in us our own capacity for love and loyalty to one another, no matter how dark the circumstances of our lives become. Danticat writes with a beautiful understatement, certain only, as Keats wrote, of “the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination.”

—Jane McCafferty, 2008 finalist judge


2008 Nonfiction Winner


(Click play to see acceptance speech at awards dinner.)

Edwidge Danticat
Brother, I'm Dying

Edwidge Danticat was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to Rose and André Danticat. André immigrated to New York when Edwidge was two; two years later her mother followed. Edwidge and her younger brother were raised by their aunt and uncle for the next eight years. When she was twelve years old she left Haiti and moved to Brooklyn, New York, to join her parents.

She is the author of several books, including Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994), an Oprah Book Club selection; Krik? Krak! (1996), a National Book Award finalist; The Farming of Bones (1998), an American Book Award winner; The Dew Breaker (2004), a PEN/Faulkner and National Book Critics Circle finalist and winner of the first Story Prize; and most recently, Brother, I’m Dying (2007), a memoir that won the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is also the author of two children's books, and the editor of The Butterfly's Way: Voices from the Haitian Diaspora in the United States and The Beacon Best of 2000: Great Writing by Men and Women of All Colors and Cultures.

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Edwidge Danticat with Dayton Literary Peace Prize

“I am honored and humbled to have been awarded The Dayton Literary Peace Prize in nonfiction for my memoir, Brother, I'm Dying, a book which deals with not only my own family history, but with the devastating consequences of xenophobia and anti-immigrant acts. Many of us have turned to literature in difficult times and have found comfort and greater understanding there. I hope my work and that of my fellow finalists and winners will continue to help contribute to that conversation.”

—Edwidge Danticat                    


 
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