Breath, Eyes, Memory: A Novel by Edwidge DanticatBreath, Eyes, Memory: A Novel by Edwidge Danticat

Breath, Eyes, Memory: A Novel

byEdwidge Danticat

Paperback | May 18, 1998

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At an astonishingly young age, Edwidge Danticat has become one of our most celebrated new novelists, a writer who evokes the wonder, terror, and heartache of her native Haiti--and the enduring strength of Haiti's women--with a vibrant imagery and narrative grace that bear witness to her people's suffering and courage.  

At the age of twelve, Sophie Caco is sent from her impoverished village of Croix-des-Rosets to New York, to be reunited with a mother she barely remembers. There she discovers secrets that no child should ever know, and a legacy of shame that can be healed only when she returns to Haiti--to the women who first reared her. What ensues is a passionate journey through a landscape charged with the supernatural and scarred by political violence, in a novel that bears witness to the traditions, suffering, and wisdom of an entire people.
Edwidge Danticat was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1969. Her parents emigrated to New York when she was a small child, while she and her brother remained in Haiti, where they were raised by an aunt and uncle. At the age of twelve she moved to Brooklyn to be with her parents.Danticat began writing as a teenager, and her essays and s...

interview with the author

Q: Why did you decide to write Breath, Eyes, Memory?

A: I started Breath, Eyes, Memory when I was still in high school after writing an article for a New York City teen newspaper about my leaving Haiti and coming to the United States as a child. After the article was done I felt there was more to the story, so I decided to write a short story about a young girl who leaves Haiti to come to the United States to be reunited with her mother, who she doesn’t really know. The story just grew and grew and as it grew I began to weave more and more fictional elements into it and added some themes that concerned me.

Q: What would you say those themes are?

A: One of the most important themes is migration, the separation of families, and how much that affects the parents and children who live through that experience. My father left Haiti to come to New York seeking a better life--economically and politically--when I was only two years old, and my mother when I was four years old. I was raised by my aunt and uncle, and even though I understood, I think, early on the great sacrifices that my parents were making, I still missed them very much. But having formed parental-type relationships with my aunt and uncle, I was really torn and heartbroken when I had to leave them to be reunited with my parents in New York. So I wanted to deal with that from the point of view of a child who’s faced with this situation. I wanted to include some of the political realities of Haiti--as a young girl felt and interpreted them--and how that affected ordinary people, the way that people tried to carry on their daily lives even under a dictatorship or post-dictatorship. Finally, I wanted to deal with mother-daughter relationships and the way that mothers sometimes attempt to make themselves the guardians of their daughter’s sexuality.

Q: Do you think that the mothers’ concern with their daughters’ sexuality, the concern for virginity as expressed in the book, is something that is particularly and singularly Haitian?

A: Oh no. Not at all. The "testing" in the book for example, goes back to the Virgin Mary. If you look at the apocryphal gospels, after the Virgin Mary gives birth to the Christ child, a midwife comes and tries to test her virginity by insertion, if you can imagine. The family in the book was never meant to be a "typical" Haitian family, if there is ever a typical family in any culture. The family is very much Haitian, but they live their own internal and individual matriarchal reality and they worship the Virgin Mary and the Haitian goddess Erzulie in many interesting forms. The essential thing to all the mothers in the book is to try, in their own way, to be the best mothers they can be, given their circumstances, because they want their daughters to go further in life than they did themselves.

Q: What was it like for you to come to the United States as a child?

A: It was all so very different. I didn’t speak the language. I felt very lost and I withdrew into myself, became much more shy than I already was. I sought solace in books, read a lot, and kept journals written in fragmented Creole, French, and English. I think it’s very difficult for every child who comes here from another culture. I tried to deal with some of these adjustment issues in the book: the whole idea of learning another language and getting used to a completely new environment. Part of the reason that Breath, Eyes, Memory is told in these four fragments is that Sophie, the narrator, is a recent speaker of English, and in telling a story in English she would definitely try to be economical with her words. Her voice would have less novelistic artifice, for example. She would mostly get to the important events, right to the point. She would also get some things wrong, sometimes, but it would all come back to the story, what she wants to tell you.

Q: How much of your book is autobiographical?

A: The book is more emotionally autobiographical than anything else. It’s a collage of fictional and real-life events and people. To quote a wonderful Haitian-American writer who came before me, a man named Assotto Saint, "I wanted to write a carefree poem for my childhood lost too fast . . . somewhere in the air between Port-au-Prince & New York City." But I also wanted to tell a story in the very basic sense of the word, create a narrative that would keep you interested in the lives of the characters.

Q: Why do you write in English and not in French or Creole?

A: I came to the United States at an interesting time in my life, at twelve years old, on the cusp of adolescence. I think if we had moved to Spain, I probably would have written in Spanish. My primary language was Haitian Creole, which at the time that I was in school in Haiti was not taught in a consistent written form. My instruction was done in French, which I only spoke in school and not at home. When I came here I was completely between languages. It’s not unusual for me to run into young people, for example, who have been here for a year and stutter through both their primary language and English because the new language is settling into them in a very obvious way. I came to English at a time when I was not adept enough at French to write creatively in French and did not know how to write in Creole because it had not been taught to me in school, so my writing in English was as much an act of personal translation as it was an act of creative collaboration with the new place I was in. My writing in English is a consequence of my migration, in the same way that immigrant children speaking to each other in English is a consequence of their migration.

Q: How often do you go back to Haiti?

A: I go back as often as I can. For family visits and other things. I still have a lot of family in Haiti and going back is often linked to family affairs.

Q: Do you think about being a role model, a representative for your culture?

A: I come from a very rich, strong, proud, and varied culture. There are so many aspects to Haitian culture that one person could not ever ever represent them all, and humbly and respectfully I don’t believe that this task is mine. I’m a weaver a tales. I tell stories. Speaking on national culture, Frantz Fanon says that "Each generation must out of relative obscurity discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it." I’m simply trying to fulfill mine. What I do is neither sociology, nor anthropology, nor history. I think artists have to be allowed to be just that: people who create, who make things up. However, as Ralph Ellison writes at the end of Invisible Man, "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?" I hope to speak for the individuals who might identify with the stories I tell. However, I think it would be disrespectful of me to reduce the expression of an entire culture to one voice, whether that voice be mine or any other individual’s. There are many great and powerful role models and representatives in Haitian life. There are millions and millions of Haitian voices. Mine is only one. My greatest hope is that mine becomes one voice in a giant chorus that is trying to understand and express artistically what it’s like to be a Haitian immigrant in the United States.
Title:Breath, Eyes, Memory: A NovelFormat:PaperbackDimensions:256 pages, 8.02 × 5.15 × 0.55 inPublished:May 18, 1998Publisher:Knopf Doubleday Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:037570504x

ISBN - 13:9780375705045

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Rated 2 out of 5 by from Poor story, but interesting folk tales Sophie Caco lives with her aunt in Haiti while her mother has escaped from life and a rape to New York. At the age of 12, Sophie is summoned by her mother to New York and she has to leave everything she knows behind for a new world. Her mother is haunted by dreams of the rape that produced Sophie every night, and every night Sophie wakes her mother and "saves her". When Sophie's mother realizes that Sophie is starting to fall in love, Sophie is "tested" to make sure that she is still pure. This traumatizes Sophie for the rest of her life. Yet Sophie's mom tells her stories of how and why her mother did it to her. Eventually, Sophie runs away to be with her soon to be husband, has a child, and travels back to Haiti where she learns more about what and why her mother has done. Of all the Oprah Book Club books that I have read, I've found this one the easiest to read. It reads like an auto-biography, and I suspect that it follows pretty closely to Danticat's own life and her experiences in Haiti. There is a prominent member of the Canadian government right now that is a Haitian native and when the book speaks of Haitian beauty, I picture this individual who is stunning! I really enjoyed the folk stories that the grandmother, aunt, and mother tell their children. I don't know much about Haitian culture so it was nice to read about that. Since I've never been in a situation that is even close to what Sophie and her mother have been in, I couldn't quite understand their relationship. Being that there is abuse involved, I guess I can't be surprised that Oprah chose it as her book club book. If you're going to read it, read it for the tales and information on Haiti!
Date published: 2007-12-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Marvy Book This is a beautifully written book that helps open your eyes to the culture and terror of Haiti. Her story manages touches down on sexual abuse, eating disorders, love, and still manages to dazzle you with the heroine's innocence.
Date published: 1999-09-09

Read from the Book

Chapter 1A flattened and drying daffodil was dangling off the little card that I had made my aunt Atie for Mother's Day. I pressed my palm over the flower and squashed it against the plain beige cardboard. When I turned the corner near the house, I saw her sitting in an old rocker in the yard, staring at a group of children crushing dried yellow leaves into the ground. The leaves had been left in the sun to dry. They would be burned that night at the konbit potluck dinner.I put the card back in my pocket before I got to the yard. When Tante Atie saw me, she raised the piece of white cloth she was embroidering and waved it at me. When I stood in front of her, she opened her arms just wide enough for my body to fit into them."How was school?" she asked, with a big smile.She bent down and kissed my forehead, then pulled me down onto her lap."School was all right," I said. "I like everything but those reading classes they let parents come to in the afternoon. Everybody's parents come except you. I never have anyone to read with, so Monsieur Augustin always pairs me off with an old lady who wants to learn her letters, but does not have children at the school.""I do not want a pack of children teaching me how to read," she said. "The young should learn from the old. Not the other way. Besides, I have to rest my back when you have your class. I have work."A blush of embarrassment rose to her brown cheeks."At one time, I would have given anything to be in school. But not at my age. My time is gone. Cooking and cleaning, looking after others, that's my school now. That schoolhouse is your school. Cutting cane was the only thing for a young one to do when I was your age. That is why I never want to hear you complain about your school." She adjusted a pink head rag wrapped tightly around her head and dashed off a quick smile revealing two missing side teeth. "As long as you do not have to work in the fields, it does not matter that I will never learn to read that ragged old Bible under my pillow."Whenever she was sad, Tante Atie would talk about the sugar cane fields, where she and my mother practically lived when they were children. They saw people die there from sunstroke every day. Tante Atie said that, one day while they were all working together, her father-my grandfather-stopped to wipe his forehead, leaned forward, and died. My grandmother took the body in her arms and tried to scream the life back into it. They all kept screaming and hollering, as my grandmother's tears bathed the corpse's face. Nothing would bring my grandfather back.The b?l?t man was coming up the road. He was tall and yellow like an amber roach. The children across the road lined up by the fence to watch him, clutching one another as he whistled and strolled past them.This albino, whose name was Chabin, was the biggest lottery agent in the village. He was thought to have certain gifts that had nothing to do with the lottery, but which Tante Atie believed put the spirits on his side. For example, if anyone was chasing him, he could turn into a snake with one flip of his tongue. Sometimes, he could see the future by looking into your eyes, unless you closed your soul to him by thinking of a religious song and prayer while in his presence.I could tell that Tante Atie was thinking of one of her favorite verses as he approached. Death is the shepherd of man and in the final dawn, good will be the master of evil."Honneur, mes belles, Atie, Sophie."Chabin winked at us from the front gate. He had no eyelashes-or seemed to have none. His eyebrows were tawny and fine like corn silk, but he had a thick head of dirty red hair."How are you today?" he asked."Today, we are fine," Tante Atie said. "We do not know about tomorrow.""Ki nim?ro today?" he asked. "What numbers you playing?""Today, we play my sister Martine's age," Tante Atie said. "Sophie's mother's age. Thirty-one. Perhaps it will bring me luck.""Thirty-one will cost you fifty cents," he said.Tante Atie reached into her bra and pulled out one gourde."We will play the number twice," she said.Even though Tante Atie played faithfully, she had never won at the b?l?t. Not even a small amount, not even once.She said the lottery was like love. Providence was not with her, but she was patient.The albino wrote us a receipt with the numbers and the amount Tante Atie had given him.The children cringed behind the gate as he went on his way. Tante Atie raised her receipt towards the sun to see it better."There, he wrote your name," I said pointing to the letters, "and there, he wrote the number thirty-one."She ran her fingers over the numbers as though they were quilted on the paper."Would it not be wonderful to read?" I said for what must have been the hundredth time."I tell you, my time is passed. School is not for people my age.The children across the street were piling up the leaves in Madame Augustin's yard. The bigger ones waited on line as the smaller ones dropped onto the pile, bouncing to their feet, shrieking and laughing. They called one another's names: Foi, Hope, Faith, Esp?rance, Beloved, God-Given, My Joy, First Born, Last Born, As?fi, Enough-Girls, Enough-Boys, Deliverance, Small Misery, Big Misery, No Misery. Names as bright and colorful as the giant poincianas in Madame Augustin's garden.They grabbed one another and fell to the ground, rejoicing as though they had flown past the towering flame trees that shielded the yard from the hot Haitian sun."You think these children would be kind to their mothers and clean up those leaves," Tante Atie said. "Instead, they are making a bigger mess.""They should know better," I said, secretly wishing that I too could swim in their sea of dry leaves.Tante Atie threw her arms around me and squeezed me so hard that the lemon-scented perfume, which she dabbed across her chest each morning, began to tickle my nose."Sunday is Mother's Day, non?" she said, loudly sucking her teeth. "The young ones, they should show their mothers they want to help them. What you see in your children today, it tells you about what they will do for you when you are close to the grave."I appreciated Tante Atie, but maybe I did not show it enough. Maybe she wanted to be a real mother, have a real daughter to wear matching clothes with, hold hands and learn to read with."Mother's Day will make you sad, won't it, Tante Atie?""Why do you say that?" she asked."You look like someone who is going to be sad.""You were always wise beyond your years, just like your mother."She gently held my waist as I climbed down from her lap. Then she cupped her face in both palms, her elbows digging into the pleats of her pink skirt.I was going to sneak the card under her pillow Saturday night so that she would find it as she was making the bed on Sunday morning. But the way her face drooped into her palms made me want to give it to her right then.I dug into my pocket, and handed it to her. Inside was a poem that I had written for her.She took the card from my hand. The flower nearly fell off. She pressed the tape against the short stem, forced the baby daffodil back in its place, and handed the card back to me. She did not even look inside."Not this year," she said."Why not this year?""Sophie, it is not mine. It is your mother's. We must send it to your mother."I only knew my mother from the picture on the night table by Tante Atie's pillow. She waved from inside the frame with a wide grin on her face and a large flower in her hair. She witnessed everything that went on in the bougainvillea, each step, each stumble, each hug and kiss. She saw us when we got up, when we went to sleep, when we laughed, when we got upset at each other. Her expression never changed. Her grin never went away.I sometimes saw my mother in my dreams. She would chase me through a field of wildflowers as tall as the sky. When she caught me, she would try to squeeze me into the small frame so I could be in the picture with her. I would scream and scream until my voice gave out, then Tante Atie would come and save me from her grasp.I slipped the card back in my pocket and got up to go inside. Tante Atie lowered her head and covered her face with her hands. Her fingers muffled her voice as she spoke."When I am done feeling bad, I will come in and we will find you a very nice envelope for your card. Maybe it will get to your mother after the fact, but she will welcome it because it will come directly from you.""It is your card," I insisted."It is for a mother, your mother." She motioned me away with a wave of her hand. "When it is Aunt's Day, you can make me one.""Will you let me read it to you?""It is not for me to hear, my angel. It is for your mother."I put the card back in my pocket, plucked out the flower, and dropped it under my shoes.Across the road, the children were yelling each other's names, inviting passing friends to join them. They sat in a circle and shot the crackling leaves high above their heads. The leaves landed on their faces and clung to their hair. It was almost as though they were caught in a rain of daffodils.I continued to watch the children as Tante Atie prepared what she was bringing to the potluck. She put the last touches on a large tray of sweet potato pudding that filled the whole house with its molasses scent.As soon as the sun set, lamps were lit all over our quarter. The smaller children sat playing marbles near whatever light they could find. The older boys huddled in small groups near the school yard fence as they chatted over their books. The girls formed circles around their grandmothers' feet, learning to sew.Tante Atie had promised that in another year or so she would teach me how to sew."You should not stare," she said as we passed a near-sighted old woman whispering mystical secrets of needle and thread to a little girl. The girl was squinting as her eyes dashed back and forth to keep up with the movements of her grandmother's old fingers."Can I start sewing soon?" I asked Tante Atie."Soon as I have a little time," she said.She put her hand on my shoulder and bent down to kiss my cheek."Is something troubling you?" I asked."Don't let my troubles upset you," she said."When I made the card, I thought it would make you happy. I did not mean to make you sad.""You have never done anything to make me sad," she said. "That is why this whole thing is going to be so hard."A cool evening breeze circled the dust around our feet."You should put on your blouse with the long sleeves," she said. "So you don't catch cold."I wanted to ask her what was going to be so hard, but she pressed her finger over my lips and pointed towards the house.She said "Go" and so I went.One by one the men began to file out of their houses. Some carried plantains, others large Negro yams, which made your body itch if you touched them raw. There were no men in Tante Atie's and my house so we carried the food ourselves to the yard where the children had been playing.The women entered the yard with tins of steaming ginger tea and baskets of cassava bread. Tante Atie and I sat near the gate, she behind the women and me behind the girls.Monsieur Augustin stacked some twigs with a rusty pitchfork and dropped his ripe plantains and husked corn on the pile. He lit a long match and dropped it on the top of the heap. The flame spread from twig to twig, until they all blended into a large smoky fire.Monsieur Augustin's wife began to pass around large cups of ginger tea. The men broke down into small groups and strolled down the garden path, smoking their pipes. Old tantes-aunties-and grandmothers swayed cooing babies on their laps. The teenage boys and girls drifted to dark corners, hidden by the shadows of rustling banana leaves.Tante Atie said that the way these potlucks started was really a long time ago in the hills. Back then, a whole village would get together and clear a field for planting. The group would take turns clearing each person's land, until all the land in the village was cleared and planted. The women would cook large amounts of food while the men worked. Then at sunset, when the work was done, everyone would gather together and enjoy a feast of eating, dancing, and laughter.Here in Croix-des-Rosets, most of the people were city workers who labored in baseball or clothing factories and lived in small cramped houses to support their families back in the provinces. Tante Atie said that we were lucky to live in a house as big as ours, with a living room to receive our guests, plus a room for the two of us to sleep in. Tante Atie said that only people living on New York money or people with professions, like Monsieur Augustin, could afford to live in a house where they did not have to share a yard with a pack of other people. The others had to live in huts, shacks, or one-room houses that, sometimes, they had to build themselves.In spite of where they might live, this potluck was open to everybody who wanted to come. There was no field to plant, but the workers used their friendships in the factories or their grouping in the common yards as a reason to get together, eat, and celebrate life.Tante Atie kept looking at Madame Augustin as she passed the tea to each person in the women's circle around us."How is Martine?" Madame Augustin handed Tante Atie a cup of steaming tea. Tante Atie's hand jerked and the tea sprinkled the back of Madame Augustin's hand.

Bookclub Guide

The questions, discussion topics, author biography, and suggested reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory. We hope they will bring to life the many themes with which Danticat builds her story of a young Haitian woman's coming to terms with her country, her mother, and her own identity.


From Our Editors

Set in Haiti's impoverished villages and in New York's Haitian community, this is the story of Sophie Caco, who was conceived in an act of violence, abandoned by her mother and then summoned to America. But in New York, Sophie discovers that Haiti imposes harsh rules on its own. This award-winning 24-year-old Haitian-American's evocative novel explores the bonds joining four generations of women. Breath, Eyes, Memory is an unforgettable novel that shimmers with the wonder and terror of Edwidge Danticat's native Haiti.

Editorial Reviews

"Danticat has created a stirring tale of life in two worlds: the spirit-rich land of her ancestry, whose painful themes work their way through lives across generational lines, and her adopted country, the United States, where a young immigrant girl must negotiate cold, often hostile terrain, even as she spars with painful demons of her past."--Emerge