Brother, I’m Dying is Edwidge Danticat’s memoir about her family’s history in Haiti and the United States. The story revolves around Danticat’s father, her brother and an uncle, Joseph. On one early morning on July 2004, Danticat finds out that she is pregnant, on that same day her father is diagnosed with a terminal pulmonary illness (Danticat 4). The author then tells of her childhood: when aged 2, her parents moved to the U.S., leaving her and her brother, Bob, under the care of their uncle, Joseph. At the age of 11, Danticat and her brother, get a U.S. visa and they travel to the U.S. to rejoin their parents.
They are reunited with their parents and two new brothers. Danticat narrates the mistreatment of Uncle Joesph at the hands of immigration officials, which highlights the challenges Haiti immigrants face when seeking asylum in the United States. At New York, Danticat, tells of her American experience, the challenges of the Haitian immigrants moving to the U.S., the incarceration of Uncle Joseph by dictatorial regimes and the mistreatment in the hands of U.S. customs officials. In summary, the book focuses on Haitian sociopolitical climate and the challenges faced by Haitian immigrants. Edwidge’s parents are forced to relocate to the U.S. because of the dictatorial regimes and murderous Tonton Macoutes terrorized people and ravaged the economy.
The Title of the Chapters
The title of each chapter in Danticat’s book emanates from the content in the respective chapter. In the first chapter, ‘Have You Enjoyed Your Life?’, Danticat finds out that she is pregnant at a time a medical diagnosis reveals that her father has “end-stage pulmonary fibrosis” (Danticat 4). After this opening sentence, the author recounts her family history and her experiences as a young child growing up in Haiti and later in America.
She is motivated to record her family’s experiences following her father’s response to Bob regarding her condition. It is at the family gathering, when Dancat’s brother asks their ailing father, “Have you enjoyed your life?” (Danticat 6); this question becomes the title of the chapter. Also, the title of the fifth chapter, ‘We’re All Dying’, emanates from the contents of the chapter. In this chapter, Danticat is at the airport waiting to catch a flight when she decides to call her friends. She reveals to one of her friends about her father’s condition. The friend dismisses the doctor’s prognosis saying “Screw the doctor, we’re all dying” (Danticat 74).
The content of chapter six also relates to its title, ‘Good-bye’. In this chapter, Danticat narrates how Uncle Joseph’s lose of voice changed his life. When visiting a bank, he would request the company of his grandson or Danticat to “interpret him” (Danticat 132) to the officials. Also, in this chapter, Danticat talks of the death of Granme Melina, Denise’s mother, who shared a room with her and Liline, Danticat’s cousin. Her subsequent death, leaves Uncle Joseph drained. At the funeral service, he can only mutter the words, “Good bye” (Danticat 82). The one time Baptist preacher becomes barely audible after losing her voice.
Haiti People and their Beliefs
The story “Father God and the Angel of Death” (Danticat 89) is folklore about the Haitian people. As pointed out by the woman in the story, the Haitian people believe that life quality varies among different people and locations. Some people live a happy contented life while others are ravaged with disease, hunger and starvation. The Haitians also believe that one avoids painful death or delay death by being nice to the ‘Angel of Death’. The story also highlights the level of social inequalities in Haitian society. That is why some people pass on peacefully while others undergo a painful death. Still some die at a very tender age while others die at a very advanced age.
The story highlights the beliefs of the Haitian people about death and social inequalities in their country. In the book, the distrust that Haitians have on authorities is apparent in Tante Denise’s folklore. The woman reserves her water for the Angel of Death, instead of Father God because he “doesn’t play favorites” (144). She refuses to give water to Father God because he gave “some people peace and put [ting] some of us in war zones like Bel Air” (144). Also, whenever Uncle Joseph sought help in government offices, the officials only wished him “good luck” instead of help.
The Deterioration of Bel Air
Danticat’s narration in the book illustrates the pain she underwent as a child growing up in Haiti. Although her description of the situation in Bel Air is personal, it nevertheless, reveals the political and economic problems of the country at the time. The decline in security and the emergence of local gangs in Bel Air is metaphoric of the security situation in Haiti caused by political instability. After their parents leave for the U.S., Uncle Joseph adopts Danticat and her brother, taking them to his home in the Bel Air neighborhood. The author narrates of the hardships and the family loss caused by Haitian instability.
Part two of this book, Danticat describes the Bel Air neighborhood as a poor “hilltop district in the capital overlooking the Port-au-Prince harbor” (Danticat 21). The once stable neighborhood had degenerated into a highly insecure shanty town with streets littered with corpses following a military coup. This symbolizes the political turmoil and violence that Haiti descends to following the ousting of Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power in 2004. The capital becomes wreaked with organized gangs and rebels called the Thornton Macoutes, who enjoy massive support from UN forces. At first, Joseph is reluctant to leave Haiti claiming that “exile is not for everyone” (Danticat 140); but, a rise in bloodshed in Bel Air makes him to change his mind.
The events in Bel Air including the mass killings, rape and torture perpetrated by local gangs paint a grim picture of the level of anarchy that descended in Haiti after the 2004 coup. It also exposes the impact of political instability on the country’s economy; people lost their occupations and property to organized gangs. Insecurity and political instability in Haiti is also apparent in Bel Air. Uncle Joseph undergoes torture and mistreatment at the hands of the officials who accuse him of abetting the Bel Air gangs. The CMO officers invaded his church in pursuit of the criminals who had taken refuse inside the church.
The Bel Air Community
In the book, the Bel Air community is described as a poor neighborhood in the capital next to the Port-au-Prince harbor. However, on reading the book, one realizes that the district was inhabited by people of diverse backgrounds. On Sunday while Joseph is preaching, the CMO officers entered the Joseph’s church to pursue criminals who had sought shelter there. Joseph notes that the new people in the congregation could be “chimères, gangsters, bandits and killers” (Danticat 228).
This implies that all manner of criminal gangs operated in this part of the capital. At the same time, there were ordinary people who bore the brunt of the military incursion. Joseph was a charismatic pastor who “knew all the verses for love” (Danticat 137). Dancati fondly narrates tales of her childhood in Bel Air including the ghost stories and tales of the Haitian folklore shows that some Bel Air dwellers including her grandmother were deeply rooted in Haitian traditions and folklore. The Bel Air society had people of different religious and cultural backgrounds, while some were devout Christians like Joseph, the grandmother believed in traditional folklore.
The occupations of Bel Air dwellers were also diverse; book sellers dealing in used books, water carriers and disabled beggars shows that Bel Air dwellers where people of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. Danticat’s father, before leaving for the U.S. was a businessman in Bel Air. Thus, it can be seen that Bel Air dwellers were drawn from different backgrounds. Only by recognizing that, can the reader get the true picture of the socioeconomic challenges that faced the Bel Air society after the 2004 coup.
Danticat, Edwidge. Brother, I’m Dying. New York: Vintage, 2007. Print.