Edwidge Danticat: The Haitian Diasporic Imaginary.
Edwidge Danticat is one of the most important Caribbean authors writing in the diaspora today. Her entire body of work may be summarized as a response to the displacement she experienced first after her parents left her behind with her aunt to immigrate to the US, and secondly after she herself left to join them at twelve years of age. Haiti may be the country where she first felt orphaned, but the United States is the place where she truly experienced transplantation after leaving the only home she had ever known. Danticat has since remarked that it was only through and in her encounter with the English language that she felt like she was home again. Language was the space she could enter, engage, learn with, use, and manipulate without judgment or fear of reprisal. It is the tool through which she could fashion her own identity, represent and move beyond the many traumas of her life. It was home.
Nadege T. Clitandre's new book on Danticat beautifully renders this transnational and prolific author's complex negotiation of the diasporic consciousness and its multilayered relation to the nation of origin. Edwidge Danticat: The Haitian Diasporic Imaginary is a much-needed critical analysis not only because it offers the first sustained monograph about the works of this celebrated author, but also because it successfully recalibrates our understanding of diaspora in postcolonial studies. Indeed, over the last few decades, postcolonial studies has moved from nation to diaspora as a key concept, with many scholars highlighting the opposition between the two. By contrast, Clitandre emphasizes the dialogic relationship between nation and diaspora in Danticat's work. Her recasting of diaspora as a more complicated phenomenon than what has been theorized under the aegis of "transnationalism" is lucidly articulated, but it is also evocatively and lyrically rendered through the trope of the "echo." Clitandre shows that the echo effect and its reverberation in any diasporic context may truly be the only appropriate way in which the silenced histories of post-slavery migration and transplantation can actually be represented; that is, through the resonances and traces left by often undocumented and inaccessible wounds whose effects remain as pervasive today as if we had witnessed them firsthand. These are histories that can only be returned to us in a diffused and indirect way, in echoes rather than through any mimetic representational rhetoric.
As Clitandre points out, the diaspora is often configured in Caribbean women's narratives through strategies and metaphors of doubleness, another concept that evokes the repetitive quality of the echo. The double, Clitandre rightly points out, is a recurring trope especially in texts that tackle sexual trauma (as most Caribbean women's fiction does). As such, it functions both as a coping mechanism and as a narrative strategy, a double-pronged dimension whose rippling repercussions are indeed echo-like.
In Chapter One, it is through a review of Haiti's turbulent history of colonialism and decolonization that the echo takes on an even more resonant valence. Clitandre discusses, for instance, the three waves of Haitian migration to the US and the echoing ways in which they completely transformed the social and relational fabric of the two countries. She also shows how "Danticat's literary return to a localized, geographically bounded fictional space does not expunge the diasporic and transnational contours of the small village" (31). Considering the realities of diasporic subjects that have and maintain dual relationships and loyalties to multiple places in our era of globalization, this historicized intervention could not be more timely.
Also particularly successful is the theoretical discussion that frames the historicized chronicling and close readings that are offered throughout the book. Clitandre does a convincing job of clearly referencing the theoretical paradigms she uses to articulate her reconceptualization of diaspora, nation, identity. For instance, she offers an illuminating distinction between the Fanonian and the Duboisian notions of double consciousness. The importance of Glissant's poetics of relation to her reconfiguration of diaspora is underscored throughout as she, like him, refuses to read the world or the text through an identitarian logic that reifies binaries of here vs. there, self and other, home and exile. She also shows how the Haitian echoes of Danticat's writing subvert the Western imaginary at the very same time as Christian and Western echoes and references work together to disrupt any Haitian/Western dichotomies.
In Chapter Two, Clitandre focuses on Danticat's collection of essays Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work where the trope of the "echo chamber" (5) functions as a central reading strategy that references two concurrent phenomena: one about our relation to the gaps in Haitian history that can only be rediscovered through a reverberated logic and the other about the diasporic subject's own echoing relationship with the nation of Haiti. As such, the echo is revealed as a process that operates both synchronically and diachronically in relation to diasporic consciousness, with rippling effects that have both a temporal and a spatial dimension.
Chapter Three focuses on Danticat's first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, in which the paradigm of the echo is personalized through the mother-daughter relationship. Both the protagonist, Sophie, and her mother, Martine, are shown to resort to "doubling" as a defense mechanism for self-preservation in relation to the trauma of testing (for virginity). As she tests Sophie for the first time, Martine explains that in checking her daughter's virginity as her own mother did before her, Sophie and she will become "the same person, duplicated in two" (84). This is where any egoistic subjectivity is supplanted by an echoistic one. Clitandre convincingly shows how the use of doubling is further replicated in the language of the folk tale of the Marassas, the divine twins in Vodou, as well as in Biblical terms. Her reading emphasizes the echoing of Christian and Afro-Caribbean practices in the novel rather than their supposedly categorical difference. Clitandre also discusses the ways in which the theme of the double is represented by reflections in mirrors and in water, which evoke the myth of Narcissus. Her cogent analysis reveals the sustained syncretism of the cultural forces at work in the Haitian context Danticat represents in her work.
In Chapter Four, on Danticat's The Dew Breaker, Glissant's notion of echo-monde in his poetics of relation provides the central and dynamic trope in play between the nation and the diaspora. Clitandre's reading of The Dew Breaker frames the novel as a narrative that provides a genealogy of the Haitian diaspora. She argues that this genealogy helps dislodge history from its nationalist and linear straightjacket in order to recognize alternative narratives of origin, family, and ancestry and heterogeneous traditions that incorporate oral lore. Again, the creolized dimensions of memory and history are at the forefront of the ways in which Danticat relates nation to diaspora.
Chapter Five examines Danticat's haunting novel Farming of Bones, her epic depiction of the relationship between Haitians and Dominicans under the rule of Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo leading up to the Parsley massacre of 1937. In this novel, the trope of the echo references traces of memory that literally come from beyond the grave, in what anticipates the deconstruction of the living-dying binary that Danticat will undertake in The Art of Death. The novel stages the protagonist Amabelle Desir's long journey in pursuit of news of her lover from whom she was separated during the massacre. Clitandre elucidates how the traumatic history of the massacre can only be told and retold through repetition and the belated narrative of trauma. The trope of the echo again provides the only avenue for recall of a past moment in history when the tongue as the articulation of speech and voice was literally slashed by the machete.
Clitandre's Edwidge Danticat closes with an appendix that includes an enlightening interview of Edwidge Danticat conducted by Clitandre herself. This is where the Haitian author reveals her opinion of the Trump administration's immigration policies and discusses her book The Art of Death, which chronicles the death of her mother from ovarian cancer in 2014. The concepts discussed and elucidated throughout are taken up directly with the author in a way that gives them further depth and meaning. For instance, the concept of "echo chamber" that Clitandre theorizes so compellingly evokes, for Danticat, "being in the mountains of Leogane as a child and shouting out a name and hearing that name repeated back to me in dozens of voices that I was never fully sure were mine" (202). Danticat's fiction is revealed as a theory in the flesh, one that seeks to reconcile her and her country's many voices and fates.
Edwidge Danticat: The Haitian Diasporic Imaginary is truly impressive in its analysis of the intertextual play at work in Danticat's fiction and nonfiction. It is an important intervention in Caribbean Studies for two reasons: first because it offers, as its author states, the only "sustained full-length interpretive literary analysis" (xii) of the corpus of one of the most important and celebrated Caribbean writers in the diaspora today, and second because it does so by analyzing her influential interventions in the context of a rising global imaginary.
CARINE MARDOROSSIAN, University at Buffalo
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|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2019|
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