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Brother, I'm Dying by Edwidge Danticat

Brother, I'm Dying (2007)

by Edwidge Danticat

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Intelligent, thoughtful, and heartbreaking. A first-hand account of one man's ordeal, which illustrates in stark relief the way U.S. policies on immigration have combined with ignorance and systemic racism to cause untold suffering in Haitians. Danticat allows us to get to know her uncle in all his humanity and dignity before taking us step by step through his most terrible suffering and death at the hands of immigration officers. Most of this slim memoir is full of love and joy, even in the midst of the coups and day to day violence suffered by Danticat's family members in Haiti. By focusing on these deep family relationships Danticat allows us to experience the horror of what happens to Haitians in an entirely personal and visceral way that no amount of statistical analysis or big history can allow us to understand. I liked this memoir a great deal more than Danticat's fiction--it was grounded and real in a way that her fiction is not for me. ( )
  poingu | Jan 23, 2016 |
A difficult and disturbing memoir of life in Haiti through many tumultuous times. Danticat, who spent much of her childhood in the care of her Aunt and Uncle in Haiti after her parents left for America, tells the parallel stories of her father and his brother against the background of political unrest, violence, natural disasters and bureaucratic inhumanity. It must have been an incredibly hard story for her to tell, as parts of it were almost impossible for me to read, particularly the last several chapters, in which the U.S. Customs & Immigration officials come out looking no better than their Haitian counterparts. The author lived through some of the events she chronicles here, and reconstructed the rest from official records and family accounts. I admire the skill and strength it took to put this on paper; I wish I could take away a feeling that either I or the circumstances described in Brother, I'm Dying have been improved in any way by my having read it. It just made me feel bad.
Review written February 2012 ( )
  laytonwoman3rd | Oct 2, 2014 |
I love Edwidge Danticat's fiction. She writes beautifully about difficult situations in her home country of Haiti and in the Haitian diaspora. But my favorite of her books is [Brother, I'm Dying], a memoir that focuses on the role of two men in her life, her father and her uncle. The book begins when Edwidge goes to visit her father in New York and learns that he is dying. On the same day, she learns that she is pregnant for the first time. This initial chapter is powerful. Although we have not come to know Edwidge or her father yet, she writes her emotions on every page.

Through flashbacks, we learn about Edwidge's childhood. Edwidge's father and mother left Haiti when she was young to go to New York. She and her younger brother Bob were raised by their Uncle Joseph and Aunt Denise. For eight years, they communicated with their father through letters and dealt with the turmoil that filled the streets of Haiti. Even after Edwidge and Bob move to New York, they stay in touch with their uncle. In a way, the bond between Edwidge's father and her Uncle Joseph is stronger because of the important role that both men play in Edwidge's life.

The story of Edwidge's childhood is fascinating, but it is the events that unfold as her father's health worsens, Uncle Joseph's Haitian neighborhood is struck by increasing violence, and Edwidge prepares to welcome a baby that make up the emotional center of this book. I turned the final pages of this book with tears running down my face. Having lost my father only a year ago, I was struck by Edwidge's ability to convey the deepest emotion in simple and straightforward language. It is a powerful book that spoke to me when I read it originally in 2008 and that was just as impactful as a re-read. ( )
  porch_reader | Oct 1, 2014 |
This is an award-winning Autobiography about Edwidge Danticat's two most important family members -- her father and her uncle, Joseph.

When Edwidge was 3 years old her father left for New York on a supposed 'visit' to relatives, but when his visitor's visa was expired he simply stayed in the country. After her sixth birthday her Mother did the same, leaving her and her younger brother, Bob, behind to be raised by her Uncle Joseph and Aunt Denise with the money that mother and father wired from the United States for their care and feeding. Bob and Edwidge lived with Joseph and Denise until they were 10 and 12.

Edwidge not only gives us the history of the lives of these two men, but writes lovingly about each of them because, although she called only one of them Daddy, the other was her father as well.

It was fascinating to read about the lives of these two men separated by many miles and each living a life with constant and unexpected dangers -- one a New York cab driver and the other a minister in Haiti with its volatile political situation. I felt privileged to learn about each of them. Recommended. ( )
  whymaggiemay | May 23, 2014 |
Before this book, I thought of Haiti in snippets of earthquake, political unrest, the first successful slave revolution and whatever postcolonial joyrides the country had been taken for thereafter by many an intrusive neighbor. Danticat, née Dantica, does not yet know of the earthquake in the writing of these pages, and indeed has no concern for whatever panoramic blips I've picked up about this country. Her country, for however long a time she has spent outside it, Haiti is where she was born, and Haiti is where she would live with kith and kin, if the world would only let her.

Danticat is not here to speak of her country to an extraordinary depth, but the lives of her loved ones makes for a cross section both historical and personal. While her Granpè Nozial fought on unknown Haitian battlegrounds in 1933, her uncle Joseph hid from occupying US conscription forces and watched a soldier's game of 'Kick the Decapitated Head'. She speaks of Presidents and politics because of the fervent belief of both father and uncle, as well as the simple fact that coup d'états and military regimes suck in the native populace all too often and spit out the death and mutilation of all too many. It is this threat of violence that spurs her father to emigration, and it is the near completion that forces her uncle to jump from frying pan to the final fire.

Again, this is a story of Danticat's beloved father and uncle and many other family members, but it is impossible to discuss her family's immigration and refusal to do so without the context. Up until 2004, papers and passports work out to a serviceable extent, and the pages of this book are spent in recollection of memories both large and small, the losing of her uncle's voice and the accounts of Danticat's first flight from Haiti to the US, all told by different flight attendants, all of them in disagreement. In 2004, the concept of "progress" is put to the test when Joseph flees for his life, the lack of expertise the United Nations Stablisation Mission in Haiti (French acronym: MINUSTAH) sends him off with matching only the lack of humanity with which US Customs and Border Protection receives him.

I would say spoiler alert, but the implications of the title and the bluntness of the cover flap beg to differ. Long story short, Joseph dies, an eighty-one year old man with a number of health issues who could not speak without the aid of technology, incarcerated by a horrifically nonsensical bureaucracy that will never in his lifetime set him free. This is the US ten years ago, perhaps the US today, the refusal of immigration reform and so many other issues being the imbecility it is. It's amazing how little of this shows up on Wikipedia, as if this abject treatment of Haitian immigrants by the US wasn't worthy of contesting. But not really.

So don't read this book for what I've just detailed above, for it is a story too often told in too many a locale. Rather, read for the immense love Danticat had for her uncle, her father, dying soon after his brother but not until he's held his daughter's first child. Read for all the rest of her family and the words they have given her to share with the rest of us. And you DFW and Pynchon and Gaddis types (I'm friends with enough of them), read for the fact that she's a MacArthur fellow. I know what you like. ( )
  Korrick | Feb 26, 2014 |
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To begin with death. To work my way back into life, and then, finally, to return to death. Or else: the vanity of trying to say anything about anyone.

Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude
For the next generation of "cats": Nadira, Ezekiel, Zora, Timothy and Mira
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I found out I was pregnant the same day that my father's rapid weight loss and chronic shortness of breath were positively diagnosed as end-stage pulmonary fibrosis.
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Danticat came to think of her uncle Joseph, a charismatic pastor, as her "second father" when she was placed in his care at age four when her parents left Haiti for America. So she experiences a jumble of emotions when, at twelve, she joins her parents in New York City, whom she struggles to remember--she has left behind Joseph and the only home she's ever known. The story of a new life in a new country while fearing for those still in Haiti soon becomes a terrifying tale of good people caught up in events beyond their control. In 2004, his life threatened by a gang, the frail, 81-year-old Joseph makes his way to Miami, where he thinks he will be safe. Instead, he is detained by the Department of Homeland Security, brutally imprisoned, and dead within days. It was a story that made headlines around the world.--From publisher description.… (more)

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