I’ve been meaning to read Danticat for years and @bookofcinz’s encouragement to just hurry up and do it for her #readcaribbean celebration this year was just the push I needed. I decided to go with this one because it’s the title I had heard of most frequently. Also, I have to be honest, I was totally intrigued by the title and really wanted to find out what it referred to/meant. Yes, I know I could have Googled it, but that is not the point! And I found out in the opening story (but no spoilers from me, you’ll have to read it yourself to find out…I promise it’s worth it).
This collection delves into the recent/contemporary history of Haiti and the myriad, individual ways it affected families and lives (of those who stayed, those who left and those who returned). There are wonderful moments and tastes of Haitian culture and difficult moments of the violence the country and people have seen. And through it all, there is a deep-rooted theme of mother and child (especially daughter) relationships that stood out to me as a connecting thread. In addition, I really enjoyed the few commonalities, like names or events or, that were referenced in other stories. That type of connection, bringing things together in small ways, is a device that I always love reading.
As with all short story collections that I read, here is a short reaction, and likely a pull-quote (or a couple) because the writing is lovely, for each piece:
Children of the Sea – Holy. F*ck. What. An. Opening. This is one of my favorite short stories that I have ever read. Ever. It’s longing and wistful and brutal. I loved the writing back and forth. I loved the two voices speaking to each other and the way it unfolded their story/stories. I loved the imagery of the messages of the butterflies and the memories living in the sea (it brought to mind themes from The Deep, which I also loved). Stunning. “They say behind the mountains are more mountains. Now I know it’s true. I also know there are timeless waters, endless seas, and lots of people in this world whose names don’t matter to anyone but themselves.” “all anyone can hope for is just a tiny bit of love, manman says, like a drop in a cup if you can get it, or a waterfall, a flood, if you can get that too.” “people are just too hopeful, and sometimes hope is the biggest weapon of all to use against us.” “i love you until my hair shivers at the thought of anything happening to you.”
Nineteen Thirty-Seven – This is a beautiful ode to survival of the spirit and the way beliefs and mythology can help maintain that spirit. However, it’s simultaneously a dark spotlight on the depth and breadth of trauma that the spirit has to overcome. This story also sent me down a Google research hole about the 1937 massacre of Haitians on the Haiti/Dominican Republic border on Trujillo’s orders. I knew about Trujillo from a DR perspective, but had never heard of Massacre River (tens of thousands of Haitians were murdered!) or Trujillo’s feelings about/actions towards Haitians before. “Our mothers were the ashes and we were the light. Our mothers were the embers and we were the sparks. Our mothers were the flames and we were the blaze.”
A Wall of Rising Fire – This story created a poignant juxtaposition of the despair and minimal options of a present-day reality with hope for the future and next generation. The device of a boy learning lines for a play about the Haitian Revolution (and another Google research hole for me) that he then recites after the suicide of his father who doesn’t have pride in or hope for the life he’s currently living (centuries later)…that mismatch of the revolutionary lines and the truth of his own life…is haunting. A favorite of mine from this collection for sure. “Pretend that this is the time of miracles and we believed in them.”
Night Women – What women will do for their children, to protect and care for them, especially in the face of extremely limited choices, is a common enough theme in literature. But the way this story is crafted, with the mother using stories of angels visiting in the night, to keep the truth hidden from her son as long as possible…it’s sweet and sad in a quiet way that struck a deep chord. “I want him to forget that we live in a place where nothing lasts.”
Between the Pool and the Gardenias – This one was haunting. Stories about women who long to be mothers and cannot, for whatever reason, are always so affecting. The way the narrator here imagines and expresses her sorrow, projecting life into the corpse of someone else’s child is just heartbreaking. This one was intense. “It’s so easy to love somebody, I tell you, when there’s nothing else around.”
The Missing Peace – A snapshot of aftermath: confusion, loss, violence, looking away, people lost without a trace, questions unanswered and answers unknown. And the pain of those left behind, with a special focus on mothers and daughters and the unique relationships therein. Quite touching. “‘They say a girl becomes a woman when she loses her mother,’ she said. ‘You, child, were born a woman.’”
Seeing Things Simply – Art adds light and hope to every dark place. I always love an ode to art, as this story was. It also included some wonderful insights into a local, historic culture and, similar to the previous story, a layered look at the interactions between local people and tourists, those who stayed versus those who were able to leave, and the differences, the way the distance between them grows. “The sky in all its glory had been there for eons even before she came into the world, and there it would stay with its crashing stars and moody clouds. The sand and its caresses, the conch and its melody would be there forever as well. All that would change would be the faces of the people who would see and touch those things, faces like hers, which was already not as it had been a few years before and which would mature and change in the years to come.”
New York Day Women – Seeing a mother-child relationship through the eyes of a grown child, usually including the disconnect between the parent they grew up with and the way said parent interacts with the greater world, is a unique perspective. And here we also have the added complexities of an immigrant mother with a more “acclimated” child. I loved the snippets back and forth between what this child remembers and what they are now seeing in this quick story. One of my favorite stories of the collection.
Caroline’s Wedding – This was by far the longest story in the collection and it really clearly explored the theme of immigration and the contradictions of longing for the past/nostalgia for a home country and traditions versus the reasons for leaving/hope for a better future. I also really enjoyed the way that the big/special moments, like a wedding in this case, can bring mothers and daughters together even if in so many other ways they have grown apart or are not recognizable to each other. A sweet, and also partially somber, look at female-only family dynamics and the interactions of that with cultural expectations. “These were our bedtime stories. Tales that haunted our parents and made them laugh at the same time. We never understood them until we were fully grown and they became our sole inheritance.” “‘The heart is like a stone,’ she said. ‘We never know what it is in the middle.’” “Even though you are an island girl with one kind of season in your blood, you will make a wife for all seasons: spring, summer, autumn, and winter.”
Epilogue: Women Like Us – Wow. Just wow. This collection was bookended with two of the best short stories I have ever read. The weight of expectations, and expectations failed, is visceral in the words of this story. Yet the urge to create, the need to write, to tell the stories of one’s (female) ancestors is felt just as strongly. The feeling of the writer behind the words in this piece is spectacular – you can tell this is Danticat’s truth. Also, the general flow of this story was fantastic, the sentences just pulled me along. Amazing. “A thousand women urging you to speak through the blunt tip of your pencil. Kitchen poets, you call them. Ghosts like burnished branches on a flame tree. These women, they asked for your voice so that they could tell your mother in your place that yes, women like you do speak, even if they speak in a tongue that is hard to understand.” “The women in your family have never lost touch with one another. Death is a path we take to meet on the other side. What goddesses have joined, let no one cast asunder. With every step you take, there is an army of women watching over you. We are never any farther than the sweat on your brows or the dust on your toes.” “And this was your testament to the way that these women lived and died and lived again.”
In the Old Days – This additional story, new to the 20th anniversary edition, was stirring and emotional as it explored the impossible decisions between country and family, present responsibilities and hope for a better future for one’s homeland. It really added perspective to the other stories about the history of Haiti and individual experiences of violence and immigration and family that are included in this collection as more of a retrospective angle, like the author of the rest is looking back and adding context because of what she learned as she grew up (at least, that’s how it felt for me).
Overall, this was a very striking collection of stories. It is poetic and full of deep straits of emotion. It explores many shades of suffering, but also holds many small moments of connection to cherish. The portrayal of the Haitian community and culture both at home and abroad is rich and full of a clear pride in the people and traditions, despite the shared pain of both the past and present, which is a feeling I think many readers can identify with. This is the first thing I’ve ever read by Danticat; I really enjoyed it, and I do not expect that it will be the last.