TURN IT

Brother, I'm Dying
by Edwidge Danticat

Alfred A. Knopf, 2007   272 pages

Review by Jeffrey Hillard March 2008

 

The award-winning novelist and short story writer, Edwidge Danticat, has written an unforgettable, factual story about her family and, even more, a story that depicts one gripping injustice leveled at her father’s brother, the uncle who helped raise her and her brother Bob.

This is no make-believe story. This story happened.

A native of Haiti who has lived in the U.S. since 1981, Edwidge Danticat has written several works of highly-regarded fiction, including Breathe, Eyes, Memory; Krik! Krak?;The Farming of Bones; and The Dew Breaker. Her writing awards are many.

In Brother, I’m Dying, Danticat uses the brave yet horrific twin stories of her father, Mira, and uncle, Joseph Dantica, to frame the book. She provokes us to see just how under-reported life in immigration detention centers in this country is and the often-abysmal depths in which these centers operate. Danticat offers this reality-check through the disastrous account of her uncle’s last days as a detainee in Krome detention center in Miami, Florida.

However, before we read in the final part of the book about her uncle’s lethal period of incarceration in Krome, Danticat spends valuable time on so many other unexpected moments in her life that make this a thrilling read. She discovers she is pregnant at the time she learns her father is dying in New York from pulmonary fibrosis, a painful lung disease. Mira was delighted with the news of a grandchild he’d so hoped for.

Interestingly, too, when Danticat was eventually with her father during his medical check-up that later revealed his lung disease had no cure, Mira did not know two things: that he was in fact dying and that his daughter Edwidge was pregnant. Her portrait of her father is tender and suspenseful.

Many beautiful moments in the book reveal both her skillful writing – especially the fine imagery – and her affection for her father: “That morning, while our new blood and spy brothers were introducing us to Saturday-morning cartoons, my father, still in his pajamas, carried in what looked like a large black handbag with a small silver latch and laid it carefully on my bed. And though his face was crumpled and there was sleep in his eyes, he seemed eager for me to open it…. It was a typewriter, a Smith-Corona Corsair portable manual. Once more, tears gathered in my eyes before I even had time to think of something to say.”

Danticat incorporates brilliant storytelling into a chronology of facts that expose how she and her family struggled under the harsh political climate in Haiti. Chaos and political fear reign alongside her relatives’ love and a sense of community. In Haiti, when Danticat was a young girl, the country was hardly stable, and yet her Uncle Joseph’s small church in the countryside community of Bel Air, The Christian Church of the Redemption, provided rest and hope.

She and her brother lived with their Uncle Joseph and Aunt Denise, knowing that one day they’d be reunited with their parents. Still, they witnessed misfortune in Haiti. One pivotal time involved Dantica’s adopted daughter, Marie Micheline whose kindness and beauty Edwidge adored. Marie was also pregnant at a young age.    Danticat's poetic language captures what she regarded as Marie’s “secret pregnancy”:

“Marie Micheline came out of her too-large white nursing school uniform. Her belly was still undetectable under her clothes, but now she put less effort into hiding it, letting her body move naturally in a way that clearly showed her struggles with sluggishness and extra weight.”

Uncle Joseph was the preacher, the anchor of that community. He was the patriarch of the Danticat family, the oldest brother. Joseph loved people and, for his niece Edwidge, he offered a kind of humanitarianism and Christ-like servitude that she would never forget. It helped form the kind of responsible person she would later become. For those ten years in Haiti, she cherished living with her uncle and aunt.

There was a deep and abiding love within the family that provided comfort to Edwidge and Bob. Edwidge savored all of this time with her aunt and uncle, knowing, too, that one day they would be reunited with their father who had emigrated to Brooklyn, New York in 1971.    

Currently 36 years-old, Danticat and Bob lived with her Uncle Joseph and “Tante” (Aunt) Denise for ten years, from the age of two to 12. During that time, Joseph made numerous trips to the United States, which makes his final “stay” in a Miami detention center all the more dumbfounding.   

Before her father Mira Dantica left for the U.S. in 1971 – with full plans of bringing up Edwidge and Bob in due time – he worked in a shoe store for very low pay. He was frightened, too, of the political action around his family; thus he and Edwidge’s mother sought a better life for himself and his family in America. When Edwidge and Bob later arrived in the country, their mother said, according to Edwidge, “Every time I sat down to eat, I wondered if you all were eating. Every time I went to sleep, I wondered if you were sleeping.”

Her father drove a cab in New York for many years. Danticat has a patient way of unearthing her major themes of family (separation, relocation, and reunion), freedom, immigration, and intercultural dynamics.  The book’s true aim, once she has embedded us in her most intriguing upbringing, is to explore her uncle’s tragic death. At the age of 81, Joseph Dantica fled to the U.S. in 2004, after much unrest in Haiti and a series of problems, including gang violence, continued to plague once-peaceful  Bel Air. Armed guards used the roof of his church as a shooting post. Before he fled, Joseph had even gone into hiding.    

In addition, years before he’d battled throat cancer and, after surgery, used a voice box to communicate.

So much went wrong for Joseph in Miami when he arrived with a multi-entry visa (it didn’t expire until 2008). He applied for temporary political asylum. He was detained and his medicines taken away from him. In fact a medic at Krome detention center claimed Joseph was “faking his illness.”

After a series of complications, including Joseph’s inability to use his voice box because he was weakening and he’d vomited on the machine, and including later-discovered negligence on the part of detention officials, Joseph died in detention in November, 2004.   

 According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, nearly 30,000 immigrants are currently in detention in the U.S. Some 300,000 are detained each year in private, county, or federal incarceration facilities. It’s reported that many of the detainees have chronic health problems.   

Danticat filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) application to obtain most all documents pertaining to her uncle’s detention. She says in a recent interview that, when writing about her uncle’s plight in Krome, she used “vertabim in the book” many of the true details documented by Krome and immigration officials.   She even had to file an FOIA to get documents pertaining to the investigation of the detention of her uncle.   Danticat portrays the deep negligence in the care of her uncle inside Krome. It’s apparent now, these few years later. Her story is a wake-up call to immigration concerns.

Brother, I’m Dying should be required reading in high schools, universities, and among any individuals concerned with or involved with immigration policy in the 21st century. It’s as current as current events go. Danticat makes us never forget the question, “How can a man with such esteem – a man held in such high regard in his country – a man that has traveled to the U.S. many times be first of all detained so inappropriately and, secondly, be treated so poorly, with such disregard, especially for his age and in light of his ill health?”  The question saddens us, because the answers are clearly spelled out in the book. Danticat does not write vindictively. She’s too intelligent for that.

Brother, I’m Dying is not a diatribe. It’s a blunt story, wrapped in prose that, along with her other works, testifies to her poet’s heart.    Edwidge Danticat, by putting in narrative the stories of a few of her ancestors, has channeled a very painful part of her life into lucid understanding. She has lost these dear loved ones while making their stories alive and real. Her art has resurrected their dominant presence in her life, and she’s sealed that love in the printed word.    

Mira Dantica got to spend a little time with his grandchild before he died. That’s a beautiful thing.    As a writer Edwidge Danticat has sustained the lives and accomplishments of her father’s and uncle’s families, breathing new life into these generations that first gave her an artist’s original vision.

 

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