Dear Reader

Random musings on reading and books from a librarian in training.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Brother I'm Dying

When Edwidge Danticat was a young child, her parents emigrated to the United States. For eight years, she and her brother, Bob, lived with her aunt and uncle, Joseph and Denise in Haiti. In her moving memoir, Brother I’m Dying, Danticat chronicles her family’s history.

During their years apart, she communicates with her family through sparse letters and brief phone calls.

After moving to the United States, Dantitcat remains close with her uncle, visiting him many times. Her family refers to her uncle as their second father. When Joseph arrives for a visit, her father says:

“Do you see your children,” my father blurted out as though he’d been waiting a long time to say it. “Do you see how much they’ve grown.”

In later years both her uncle and father are in poor health. After UN troops use the roof of her uncle’s church as a base to fire their weapons, he finds himself in serious danger. Even though he had no control over what the troops did and they fired from many people’s roof, gangs threaten Joseph and his church and home are looted. A neighbor smuggles him out of the neighborhood in a disguise and he eventually flies to the United States. (He had a trip planned). When he arrives, Joseph requests temporary asylum.

It’s then, unfortunately, things take a turn for the worse. Joseph – an 81 year old with health problems, is placed in detention. He dies shortly after – in the prison ward of a hospital, unable to see his family. When he becomes sick during an asylum hearing, a medic even claims that he’s faking it. Just five months later, Danticat’s father also dies after fighting pulmonary fibrosis.

I’m woefully ignorant of Haiti’s history. It’s one of political unrest, oppression and violence. When he was a small boy, Joseph was ordered to not go too far home because his family was worried American troops would make him work in gangs rebuilding bridges and roads. His brother urged him many times to leave arguing that there was too much violence in his neighborhood. Joseph did not want to leave his church and neighbor’s.

This is a gripping, elegant, heart breaking memoir with a tragic ending. Danticat loses both her uncle and father in close succession. Shortly after her uncle dies she gives birth to her daughter, Mira, who she named after her father.

The family can’t bury Joseph in Haiti because gangs threaten to burn his corpse. He’s buried in New York.

“He shouldn’t be here” my father said … “If our country were ever given a chance and allowed to be a country like any other, none of us would live or die here.”


“And I’m my imaging, whenever they lose track of one another one of the other calls out in a voice that echoes throughout the hills, “Kote w ye fre m?” “Brother where are you?”

And the other one quickly answers, “Mwen la. Right here, brother. I’m right here.”

Additional reading

A Haitian family, linked by love, must learn to live on separate shores,

NBCC Award Finalists in Autobiography: Edwidge Danticat's "Brother, I'm Dying,"

Edwidge Danticat, Dealing with Birth and Death,

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