Brother I'm Dying
(2007)
 
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Kellen Pagan and Amy Taylor
Candidates, Master of Arts in English Education
Department of English & Theatre
University of North Carolina, Pembroke

I. WORTH BEING FAMILIAR WITH

“Our lives were now even more solidly on different tracks,” my father would later recall.
“He [Uncle Joseph] believed that his life had been spared for some reason
and only in Haiti could he discover why. He could have moved to New York
when Maxo and I came and he could have moved after that.
But I don’t think he ever really wanted to leave Bel Air
for any place in or outside of Haiti”
(Brother I’m Dying).

Haitian-born Edwidge Danticat, despite having lived in the United States for more than two decades, still finds herself caught between worlds. As a result, her novels and short stories have focused on Haitian families through the lens of immigration. Within this body of work, Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw writes that “the personal and the political worlds often dramatically and continuously entwine . . . determining how families will divide and dissect their lives” (74). Likewise, Danticat’s memoir, Brother I’m Dying, explores themes of separation, reunion, the meaning of home and how that meaning shapes one’s identity. In it, one man seeks a new home for his family while another pays the ultimate price for believing in his home’s redemption.

In our (primary research), service area high school teachers highlighted the popularity of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun because students “could relate to the family,” “‘connect’ instantly,” “identified with the characters,” and “love . . . its emotion.” In the same way, Brother I’m Dying should also connect with students because it is centered around family and the emotional spectrum these family members go through as they try to fulfill their dreams of home and reunion. The memoir would work well in English I, II, or III. The lesson plans included envision Brother I’m Dying in an English I curriculum, following a reading of The Odyssey, and would work in a genre- or theme-based curriculum. However, the author’s origin and the memoir’s setting also make this book a good fit for world literature. As Marjorie Valbrun notes in her article “Haiti’s Eloquent Daughter,” the celebrated writer is considered by many to be the “literary spokesperson” for Haitian Americans and a must-read for those unfamiliar with “Haiti’s long tradition of blood-soaked politics,” on the one hand, and “its strong family traditions, its deep respect for the elderly, its acclaimed artwork,” on the other (42).

The autobiographical nature of the work makes an in depth pre-reading biography of Danticat unnecessary. However, because the chapters oscillate between past and present in a non-chronological manner, keeping in mind a brief timeline will clarify when events happen. Danticat’s narrative echoes her own process of creation as she writes at the end of the first chapter that what she learned from her father and uncle was “out of sequence and in fragments . . . forcing me to look forward and back at the same time” (26). Chronologically, Danticat’s father left Haiti for the United States when she was 2 and her mother left when she was 4. At the ages of 12 and 10, respectively, she and her younger brother were reunited with them in the United States. During the interim, Danticat lived in Haiti with her uncle and aunt, Joseph and Denise. In 2004, her Uncle Joseph came to the United States seeking temporary asylum and died in the custody of immigration officials. National Public Radio offers an audio clip of the author being interviewed and reading the opening of her first chapter. Because this work is an autobiography, it is subjective in nature. Danticat gives thoughts, opinions, and motives not only for herself, but she also imparts them to others, some who, because they are no longer alive, cannot confirm or deny them.

The two father figures in her memoir, Mira, her biological father, and Joseph, Mira’s brother, represent two different immigrant experiences. A cursory understanding of the relationship between the United States and Haiti gives insight into the Haitian immigrant experience and corrects a stereotype encouraged by media coverage of “the boat people” trying to reach the shores of Florida. Danticat believes that among other hurdles Haiti “has had to overcome” is the lasting impact of U. S. occupation in Haiti from 1915-1934 (“90 Years Later”). She writes that the occupation was one of many factors that contributed to “a long and painful cycle of destruction and reconstruction, self-governance and subjugation.” This cycle created in many the desire to immigrate to the United States where, like other immigrant groups, Haitians saw the promise of a new beginning or, at least, protection from the turmoil at home. The political turmoil in Haiti made late 1960 through the early 80s a period of intense migration. The election of Jean Paul Aristide in 1990 initiated a brief slow-down until a military coup forced him from power (Walcott-Hackshaw 73). Haitians’ U. S. reception has not always been a welcome one. In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience comments that “Haitians have been victims of negative stereotyping; no contemporary immigrant group has encountered more prejudice and discrimination” (“Overview”). In fact, Haitian “requests for political asylum have been met with the highest rejection rate of any national group” (“A Particular Prejudice”). After the events of September 11, 2001, the crackdown on immigration in general also affected Haitians trying to reach the States. Both Mira and Joseph were trying to escape threats to their life, but Joseph did so in a post 9-11 era. So, while Mira remained illegally in the States after his visa expired, he eventually obtained citizenship. Joseph, on the other hand, enters with a valid visa, requests asylum, and is imprisoned.

Though immigration is a part of this story, it is mainly a story of multiple journeys made by people who seek a stable home. In both Danticat and her uncle, Joseph, an Odysseus figure emerges. Danticat’s odyssey will take her to New York and reunion with her parents. Joseph’s odyssey is within Haiti and in his hope of return. All three major characters, Danticat, Mira, and Joseph, struggle with creating and sustaining a sense of home, whether it “be a fixed location, offering rooted security, grounding, a continual reference or . . . an ambiguous, enigmatic shifting space that destablizes and promotes feelings of transience” (Walcott-Hackshaw 71). And as Danticat notes in her New York Times essay, “New York Was Our City on the Hill,” home may depend upon “the all-powerful gatekeeper” who would or would not see “fit to let us in” (CY 1). Danticat and her father are fit. Joseph is not. Their stories provide great material for the discussion not only of what it means to identify with a home, but also of societal responsibility and justice.

II. IMPORTANT TO KNOW AND DO

“Death is a journey we embark on from the moment we are born,”
he’d say. “An hourglass is turned and the sand starts to slip in a different direction
as soon as we emerge from our mother’s womb … [I]if we weep at death,
it’s because we do not understand death. If we saw death
as another kind of birth…we wouldn’t weep, but rejoice,
just as we do at the birth of a child” (“Good-bye”).

In the survey conducted by graduate students at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, local educators suggested that it is difficult for teachers of other ethnicities to teach African American literature since their students may question their authority on the matter; therefore, an integral part of teaching literature is showing students that “the experience is universal” so that they “can gain something positive from the literature” by making “connections to their own lives” (link to Teacher survey). With Edwidge Danticat’s memoir Brother I’m Dying, readers of all ethnicities can relate to the Haitian author’s portrayal of family, journeys, and the idea of home. These themes are illustrated through the relationships she has with her family members and reveal underlying truths prominent in day-to-day life and in many other works of literature.

In addition to theme, students can explore the metaphor of voice within this work and the subjective nature of voice. When Danticat is only four, her parents entrust her life to her Uncle Joseph and travel to America in search of a better life for their family. Then, at age twelve, Danticat must leave her uncle who has become another father figure and move to America as well. As an adult, she employs this transition as a foundation for many other subplots that intertwine with each other to create a delicate structure that encompasses the hopes, dreams, and legacies of both her family and herself. When Edwidge’s uncle has surgery on his larynx, she must travel with him and speak for him. When her father goes to the doctor, she is the one who must tell the other family members of his condition. She becomes the voice, both literally and figuratively, for her family and tells their stories (and hers). Because this is a piece of nonfiction, the author employs her own subjectivity to write it. It does not necessarily express the exact order of events or the language of the people involved but instead her interpretation.

In an interview by Katharine Capshaw Smith, Edwidge Danticat asserts that the spirit of storytelling many Haitian children experience is not “acknowledged in school,” and the “local culture was primarily ignored…so often what a student experienced at home was never really echoed in the classroom” (195). Due to the continuously shifting landscape of American schools, a classroom community where students can share their own unique ideas and customs and be accepted into a larger social culture is ever-more important. In Unquiet Pedagogy: Transforming Practice in the English Classroom (1991), educational researchers Eleanor Kutz and Hephzibah Roskelly stress that since American classrooms are becoming increasingly diverse, it is imperative that educators utilize the knowledge their students bring to the classroom and “provide ways to extend [the students’] competence” by “connecting home to school” (Kutz and Roskelly 115). Danticat also wishes for her readers to “learn more about their connection to the material they’re reading” (Smith 203). Making personal connections to the themes of family, journey, and home can help students not only empathize with the author and her struggles, but also understand their own struggles and how they are shaped by them.

Danticat writes that Brother I’m Dying is “an attempt…at re-creating a few wondrous and terrible months” when the lives of her father and uncle and her “intersected in startling ways, forcing [her] to look forward and back at the same time” (26). Danticat connects the main events of this memoir, which include Danticat’s father, uncle, and other family members, to her own significant personal events, such as her marriage, her subsequent move to Miami, and the birth of her daughter. These events relate the themes discussed previously and can easily be applied to events in the students’ own lives and the journey they are taking. This journey may even only exist in the mind of the student, but as Danticat suggests in a 2002 interview with Sandy Alexandre and Ravi Howard, “when things are difficult, we often think of traveling, of physical as well as imaginary escapes” (113). She relates this to the migration of a butterfly whose journey is made continual through its offspring (114). With this image as a proverbial lens, teachers can guide students to imagine how the lives of their parents and other family members create a starting point for their own journey.

III. ENDURING UNDERSTANDINGS

"What I learned from my father and uncle,
I learned out of sequence and in fragments.
This is an attempt at cohesiveness,
and at re-creating a few wondrous and terrible months
when their lives and mine intersected in startling ways,
forcing me to look forward and back at the same time.
I am writing this only because they can’t" (“Have you Enjoyed Your Life?”).

Robert Coles, both a writer and a doctor trained in pediatrics and child psychology, shares in his book The Call of Stories (1989) advice that he got from another doctor-writer, William Carlos Williams. Stories, Williams told him, are “what we all carry with us on this [metaphorical] trip we take, and we owe it to each other to respect our stories and learn from them.” Coles affirms that narratives are indeed everyone’s “rock-bottom capacity” and “universal gift, to be shared” (30). Occasionally, as in the case of Danticat, we must tell the stories of those who cannot. Since the telling of a story draws on a personal point of view, sharing stories presents an opportunity to respect differences of opinion. As teachers, we want to train our students to recognize the subjective nature of nonfiction, and autobiography in particular. Voice is a powerful metaphor throughout this work. The voice can be simply a mouthpiece, but it can also imply translation, interpretation, and advocacy. Edwidge Danticat, early in her life, “acquired the job of deciphering” her father’s letters for the family that remained in Haiti (22). Later, she finds herself communicating for her uncle after the removal of his larynx. She says of this in an interview with Renee H. Shea for the journal Callaloo, “It’s a bit presumptuous of me to say that I was his voice, but for a while, I felt like I was an extension of his voice” (386). Interpretation of nonfiction depends upon an understanding of subjectivity. We want students to say, “I have a story,” but we also want them to reflect critically about their own stories and those of others.

This reflection should reinforce for students the paradox that it’s possible to be both diverse and alike. Brother I’m Dying is a story about immigrants, and the immigrant population in our service area continues to grow. Even students who were born in America need to remember that we are largely a nation of immigrants. Regardless of the students’ ethnicity or race, most have ancestors who came to the United States from another country. They came seeking stability, safety, and a home. They hoped for acceptance and respect even though how “home” or “respect” is defined and perceived may differ. Those who are native to this nation or came by force desire the same. Students, especially adolescents, also desire stability, a feeling of connectedness, and respect. Mira, Joseph, and ultimately Danticat are looking for home, and like Odysseus, the epic hero who spent ten grueling years trying to get home, these characters are willing to face whatever trials and obstacles come their way. Comparing Danticat’s or Mira’s or Joseph’s idea of home, the idea of home held by a member of the student’s household, and the student’s own idea of home, will reveal that which is universally valued.

The revelation of these common values raises a question: why are immigrants treated unevenly? The treatment Danticat’s uncle receives upon arrival shows a lack of balance between compassion and vigilance and an incident in which administrative routine supplants common sense. Throughout history, different immigrant groups have been persecuted, and Danticat wonders if her uncle is a victim: “Was my uncle going to jail because he was Haitian? . . . If he were white, Cuban, anything other than Haitian, would he have been going to Krome?” (222-23). Danticat here draws attention to the issue of prejudice. Was her uncle discriminated against, and if so, was it because of his ethnicity, the color of his skin, or both? Brother I’m Dying presents an excellent opportunity to consider whether or not the words of Emma Lazarus, engraved upon the Statue of Liberty, still apply to modern-day immigrants, particularly those who enter not through Ellis Island but through our nation’s southern border:

'Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!' (ll. 10-14)

Students will hopefully leave this memoir with an understanding of what different people have in common and, at the very least, a knowledge of Haiti and Haitians that defies the stereotype of “the boat people.” Just as Phillis Wheatley, the first published African American poet, defied the stereotype that slaves were intellectually inferior (link to Phyllis Wheatley page), Edwidge Danticat defies the stereotype of the Haitian immigrant and offers a politically and culturally complex picture of Haiti. Her own success as an author should put to rest any ideas about the inability of a particular immigrant group to contribute in a meaningful way to American society. Her account of her family’s repeated splintering and reuniting will help students identify every human’s search for a sense of community and anchoring called home.

Note: The framework that structures this conceptual overview -- "Worth being familiar with," "Important to know and do," and "Enduring understandings" -- comes from Understanding by Design, expanded 2d. ed., by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD. © 2005 by ASCD. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. Learn more about ASCD at http://www.ascd.org.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Alexandre, Sandy, and Ravi Y. Howard. "My Turn in the Fire: A Conversation with Edwidge Danticat." Transition: An International Review 12:3 (2002): 110-128.

Coles, Robert. The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1989.

Danticat, Edwidge. Brother I'm Dying. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.

---. "New York Was Our City on the Hill." The New York Times 21 Nov. 2004: CY 1.

---. "90 Years Later, Ghosts of U.S. Invasion Still Haunt Haiti." The Progressive 19 July 2005. Accessed online 30 Oct. 2008 http://www.progressive.org/mp_danticat070705.

Kutz, Eleanor, and Hephzibah Roskelly. An Unquiet Pedagogy: Transforming Practice in the English Classroom. Portsmouth, N.H.: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1991.

Lazarus, Emma. "The New Colossus." Jewish Women's Archive. Accessed online 14 Nov. 2008 http://jwa.org/exhibits/wov/lazarus/el9.html.

Shea, Renee H. "The Dangerous Job of Edwidge Danticat: An Interview." Callaloo 19:2 (1996): 382-389.

Smith, Katherine Capshaw. "Splintered Families, Enduring Connections: An Interview with Edwidge Danticat." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 30:2 (Summer 2005): 194-205.

Valbrun, Marjorie. "Haiti's Eloquent Daughter." Black Issues Book Review 6:4 (2004): 42-43.

Walcott-Hackshaw, Elizabeth. "Home Is Where the Heart Is: Danticat's Landscapes of Return." Small Axe 27 (2008): 71-82.

THE AUTHORS

Kellen Pagan is ... Amy Taylor is ...

© 2008 | Last rev. April 13, 2009