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Edwidge Danticat: Breath, Eyes, Memory

Danticat, herself an immigrant to the United States from Haiti, tells the story of Sophie, who goes to the United States from Haiti as a child. But, though this book is about Haiti and the Haitian experience, it is just as much about women particularly, of course, Haitian women and their difficult life.

We see Sophie at the beginning of the novel as a young woman in Haiti, living with her aunt Atie. Sophie’s mother is living in New York and Sophie has been brought up by her unmarried aunt. Immediately, we see the fate of women in Haiti. Sophie has to be checked regularly by her aunt to see if she still has a hymen (as do other young Haitian women). Sophie, we learn, is the result of her mother being raped by a masked assailant, who was never identified. Eventually, Sophie’s mother is able to get together enough money for Sophie to join her in New York, where she comes face to face with the racism found in the United States.

Eventually – behind her mother’s back – she meets a musician (who is about the same age as her mother) and they marry. However, after they have a daughter, Sophie, partially as a result of the hymen testing, finds herself unable to have sex with her husband and flees to Haiti and her aunt. Here the travails of Haitian women are brought to the fore. There are the grandmother and Aunt Tatie who have struggled to make a living and now face the terror of the Tonton Macoutes and there are the poor Haitians, symbolized by Louise, who want to flee to the United States but who often drown on the way. Above all, there is Sophie’s mother, a rape victim, who works two jobs, who has had a double mastectomy because of breast cancer and who now finds herself pregnant.

Danticat tells a gentle story of women struggling and, all too often, not succeeding, yet still somehow keeping their head up. There is no easy happy ending. Indeed, the ending is rather sad but, for Danticat, it is clear that these women have little choice as survival is their prime aim and survive they sometimes do and, sadly, sometimes don’t. However, Danticat tells a moving and well-written story of the experience of Haitian women.

Publishing history

First published 1994 by Vintage