Assimilation Themes in Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

 

Edwidge Danticat’s novel Breath, Eyes, Memory demonstrates how immigrants bring their home culture ethos with them when arriving in a new country and how that makes assimilation difficult. The novel gives us a view of the better life that many immigrants hope America will deliver. This narrative achieves its purpose using gender issues, race issues, and divided loyalties. Danticat supports much of her premise through Haitian folk tales, which gives us a sense of the richness that is left behind but also of the ways in which oppression can be fostered.

In this view of Haiti during a time of violent political upheaval we meet four powerful women whose lives are affected by the way men value them. We witness the way these women respond to the values, or lack thereof, that Haitian men place on women. “Our men, they insist that their women are virgins and have their ten fingers.” (Danticat 150) This statement leads Sophie Caco to reflect on something her Tante Atie told her when she was just a child. Atie says that a woman’s ten fingers were given names before she was born. Purpose is embedded in those names: Mothering, Boiling, Loving, Baking, Nursing, Frying, Healing, Washing, Ironing and Scrubbing. (Danticat 151) In this we are given a Haitian woman’s value and begin to see the culture as controlled by men since it’s highly unlikely that these are the only purposes women would list for themselves. We learn from Tante Atie of Grandma Ife’s “testing” her daughters to be certain of their virginal purity. She tells Sophie how debased it made her feel to have her mother’s fingers probing inside her vagina to make sure she was intact. It is not women who value virginity so this is an imposed value that has been accepted as part of the norm that all good Haitian women adhere to in order to fit the standard. That this tradition follows Sophie when she immigrates to America at the age of twelve to join her mother, Martine, is clear later when Martine insists on “testing” Sophie. (Danticat 83) So we are given evidence that assimilation into a new culture and letting go of old traditions is a difficult if not impossible task.

Sophie has been told that America is a magical land of opportunity but she arrives in New York to find her mother, Martine, exhausted from working two jobs. Martine drives a shabby car and Sophie can feel springs when she sits in the front seat. (Danticat 39) Furthermore, the streets of the city are littered with garbage. Sophie’s expectations of a new and better life are suspect at this point in the narrative. She doesn’t speak English and must learn it. The food is unlike anything she has known before and her loyalties are torn between her Tante Atie who raised her and this mother who has only ever been a photograph and a voice on a tape machine. Sophie is out of synch in this new culture but as we move further into the narrative we understand that Martine is also.

To add to Sophie’s difficulties in her new country the novel gives us a view of extreme differences between the richness of her social life in the small town of Croix-des-Rosets, Haiti and her isolation in New York City. In her American school she endures racism that keeps her on the outside of relationships with classmates. Kristopher Hansson in his essay on cultural camouflage says that people tend to hide certain characteristics in order to blend into a social setting that is more desirable. (Hansson) There is no way for Sophie to hide the color of her skin in order to fit in. In contrast to Sophie’s mute acceptance, her mother constantly applies a bleaching cream to her own skin in an attempt to fit an American ideal. But because, initially, Martine lives close to immigrants from her country of origin and socializes exclusively in an enclave that is largely Haitian, she never really achieves assimilation. This plus the fact that Martine sends money home to Grandma Ife means Martine must work one job during the day and another at night. This severely limits her ability to learn American norms in order to adapt to them. Her mother working two jobs means that Sophie is essentially alone in this new country whereas the small town in Haiti where she grew up was filled with community. Clearly there are many forms of oppression besides the political violence Haitian immigrants have come to America to escape.

Danticat uses Haitian folk tales to further demonstrate the affect of Haitian culture on Sophie and her family. Tante Atie, Grandma Ife and Martine all use these tales to demonstrate Haitian ideals that control women and men. They repeat these tales to the young and malleable Sophie. In fact, Sophie is so inculcated by the stories that she returns to one before she breaks her own hymen. It is a story of the bleeding woman who seems incurable. The woman visits the goddess Erzulie who is femininity embodied in Vodoun religious practices. In this myth, which Sophie repeats to herself, the bleeding woman must give up being human in order to stop bleeding. She must become something other, be it plant or animal. As the woman considers her options she thinks of the animals that are captive and those that are free. She chooses to become a butterfly. At this point Sophie destroys the part of herself that has held her captive to her mother’s “testing.” So stories are also part of the culture that stays with us when we immigrate to a different country. They are often the guides that teach us how to be who we are expected to be within any ethos. In this instance Sophie chooses a freedom myth to give her the courage to change her current paradigm.

Arthur W. Frank, professor of sociology and core faculty at the Center for Narrative Practice in Boston has written several books that examine the way narrative story works within any culture. One of his major premises is this:

“Stories animate human life; that is their work. Stories work with people, for people, and always stories work on people, affecting what people are able to see as real, as possible, and as worth doing or best avoided.” (Frank)

That Danticat uses folk tales throughout Breath, Eyes, Memory tells us she is fully aware of the importance of these stories and how they influence behavior within a group. We are given subtle yet persuasive evidence of the power of one’s first culture when Martine insists on “testing” Sophie years after both she and her daughter left Haiti and immigrated to America. Even Tante Atie and Grandma Ife display the importance of these tales in their responses to each other, which are often delivered in story parables. When Sophie attacks the cane in the field where her mother was raped, Grandma Ife and Tante Atie shout the traditional Haitian storyteller’s question of “Ou libere?” (Are you free?) (Danticat 238)

In contrast to the way men in Haiti are represented, once we reach New York we are given a different male archetype. Martine’s lover Marc is Haitian but evolved enough to accept Martine as she is. He is even welcoming to her daughter Sophie. Sophie’s husband, Joseph, is accepting of who Sophie is. He doesn’t react except to worry about her when she leaves without telling him that she’s going to visit her family in Haiti. But these men are only lightly sketched into the overall story because Danticat is tightly focused on the four women at the narrative’s center. And in a novel so bound to the idea of immigration it is mostly Sophie and Martine who struggle with assimilating in a new culture.

We do have evidence that Sophie is Americanized when she goes jogging while in Haiti. This is in distinct contrast with the behavioral norms of women in her country of origin. Sophie notices the puzzled expressions on faces as if people are thinking, “Is this what happens to our girls when they leave this place? They become such frightened creatures that they run like the wind, from nothing at all.” (Danticat 158) There is other evidence that shows Sophie has assimilated further than her mother did. For one thing, she sees a therapist regularly. She is also a member of a women’s therapy group. None of these are things her mother would have seen as helpful for a “good Haitian woman.” Sophie will never totally reject her cultural heritage. Her family ties bind her to some traditions. She, though, has the option to pick and choose what she will keep. She is the transition between cultures and her daughter is the first of the American line of the Caco family.

In spite of the bleak first impression Sophie has of America and her divided loyalties between what was and what is, by the end of the novel we see that she has managed to find her own place in the new culture. Through her women’s group she has an avenue to assimilate without losing herself and all of her traditions.

 

Works Cited

Danticat, Edwidge. Breath, Eyes, Memory. New York: Vintage Books, 1998. Print.

Hansson, Kristopher. “Camouflage” in Orvar Löfgren and Richard R. Wilk, eds. “Off the Edge: Experiments in Cultural Analysis. Ethnologia Europaea, Vol 35. Museum Tuscalunlanum Press, 2006. Excerpted and reprinted in Camoupedia. http://camoupedia.blogspot.com/2010/03/cultural-camouflage.html

Frank, Arthur. Letting Stories Breathe: 2010. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s9676.pdf

 

Deadline Day on a San Francisco Fellowship

Today is the deadline!
Fellowship applications are now open through September 30. To apply, click here.
The Grotto Fellowship
Our fellowship program is dedicated to fostering emerging writers. It is open to writers of every genre, including fiction, nonfiction memoir, journalism, poetry, dramatic writing, etc. Writers who have demonstrated a commitment to their craft but who are not yet widely published are invited to apply.
Fellows are offered no-cost work spaces here at the Grotto on a part-time basis (up to eight days a month) for a six-month period, beginning in either January or July. Fellows are members of the Grotto during the duration of their fellowship.
In addition to working at the Grotto, fellows will get a chance to meet with established writers in their field. Fellows are invited to all Grotto events (including lunches, which are usually a communal occasion frequented by visiting writers, editors, filmmakers and other artists). Once a year, fellows are invited to do a public reading at the Grotto to present the work they’ve done on fellowship.
Frequently asked questions
What constitutes a demonstrated commitment to writing?
Commitment to writing comes in many forms. You don’t need to have an MFA, though that would be an example of a demonstrated commitment. Internships in your field of interest, a history of attending writing conferences, publications, participation in writing workshops, or activism in the writing community (running a journal, organizing a reading series, or reading at local events) all show dedication to your craft.
Why only six fellows per year?
The Grotto has limited space and can only accommodate a few new people at a time. We’ve set aside space for emerging writers because new voices enrich our community.
What are you looking for?
We’re looking for excellent writing and interesting and focused projects. You should have a clear idea of the trajectory of your project before you apply, and it should be already underway.
How much does it cost?
Grotto fellowships are free. The costs involved ($100 a month, per fellow) are presently being underwritten by an anonymous donor.
What is the application process?
From the time period of September 1 to September 30, an online form is available here. (If the page isn’t up, please wait for its appearance to submit your application). Be prepared to submit a sample of recent work (ten pages of prose or up to ten poems) as well as a brief statement explaining your background, your particular project, and what you hope to gain from working at the Grotto.
Please note that the fellowship supports emerging writers. If you have published a book (or have one under contract), a full-length collection of poetry or regularly write for national magazines/newspapers, your application is unlikely to be approved.
Fellows for the 2016 fellowships have already been decided. Our next application reading period is for the 2017 fellowship year. Deadline for all applications is September 30, 2016.
Questions? Please contact us at sfgrottofellowship@gmail.com. Please note this account is not checked outside of the submission period.
What do you mean by not yet widely published?
Fellows may be published, but need not be in order to apply. The goal of this fellowship is to offer up-and-coming writers a working environment among professionals in which to learn and thrive.
You can find a list of past and current Grotto Fellows here.

One of My Annotations from the First Packet in My MFA Program with Aimee Liu at Goddard College

Admiration, Envy and Resentment in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Short Story, “Fatherland”

Viet Thanh Nguyen gives us entry into complex family dynamics when he opens the short story “Fatherland” with the statement, “It was a most peculiar thing to do. Everyone said so who heard the story, of how Phuong’s father had named his second set of children after his first.” This rumination leads immediately into the second born Phuong’s envious declaration that “her father’s other children were much more blessed.” In this single phrase you have an inkling of Phuong’s envy and resentment even though it is veiled in admiration. This is the inner conflict that gives us a tension strong enough to carry the story forward. The statement is delivered as an oblique observation that hints at the emotion behind it. Nguyen approaches the internal landscape of his characters in Fatherland via external physical action, reaction and observation. It is this approach that allows the necessary subtlety to affect readers without becoming cloyingly sentimental.

Based on letters and photos of the first Phuong sent home by the first Mrs. Ly we learn several things. Phuong number one is taller, fairer skinned, wears better clothes, has a better education and, thanks to a practice in pediatrics, is independent. Basically she’s everything that makes Phuong number two feel less worthy than the first. This is further reinforced by the fact that though the second daughter is intelligent enough to earn a degree in biology she works as a mere hostess in a restaurant. So Phuong number two has not been strong enough to break free of a sense of unworthiness in contrast with her sister. The reason for her poor sense of self comes directly from her father and becomes clear as we read, “He often compared Phuong to her absent namesake, which had cultivated both a sense of yearning for this sister and some undeniable jealousy.” (5) This statement shows that our point of view character has some self-awareness that may serve her later.

Nguyen further reveals how Mr. Ly values his first daughter over the second when stating that there are photos of only the first young woman. They are laminated, protected, even kept close at hand. By this readers are free to assume a few things. Since no photos of the second Phuong are mentioned, we assume there are none. Though Mr. Ly does take a photo as the sisters exit a Ferris wheel ride, Phuong two is cut out of the frame leaving only her older sister. The second daughter is a nonentity as far as her father is concerned and so Phuong two’s envy and resentment of both her sister and her father is believable. This remains at a subtext level until late in the story. The tension underlying the narrative at this point is not made entirely clear but we learn that the little sister has a secret. Phuong number one represents possibility for the younger woman. If given the same opportunities, could the less fortunate sibling accomplish just as much as her sister? There’s a kind of hopeful fantasy going on here that keeps the second sister from truly embracing her resentments. They remain at a slight remove.

Envy is born of admiration in this story though we find later that the first family’s success is a sham invented by the ex wife. The things that have produced the second born daughter’s yearning are for the most part unreal. However, her father’s apparent preference for the version of Phuong now going by the name Vivien seems quite real and is later reinforced.

There is some evidence that Phuong’s view of her father is already complicated when she observes him with pity but without respect. While the first family’s apparent success is not entirely true, they seem to have done well enough in their new homeland for the oldest daughter to travel. In contrast, the second family remaining in Vietnam has struggled through re-education camp and poverty. At one point Vivien acknowledges that she spent money on Phuong and her family because they have, “never been anywhere.” This indicates that Vivien has been more fortunate.

The most telling indicator of Phuong’s changing emotional landscape occurs after Vivien has left. By this time Phuong knows that her sister is not a doctor and that the first wife has been lying in her letters. Vivien sends a letter and photos back to her father and the second family. Through Phuong’s inner observations we see a new cynicism. We get glimpses of several passages in the letter that she feels show her sister’s hypocrisy. When Mr. Ly tells her to take the photos and have them laminated for an album she speaks from her truth for the first time, “What for?” Her father’s shock lets us know that this is not the norm he expects.

When a photo is taken of both sisters at the end of the visit, Phuong is finally present in the frame. She stands unsmiling beside her apparently happy sister in an ao dai that she was forced to wear. Here is where the movement from innocence to awareness is clear and where the possibility for freedom begins. When she finally burns the photos of her sister’s trip she is burning the illusions with which she masked her hope and envy. She has fully embraced her resentment.

Welcome to My Updated Website

Welcome to the new simplified website. As books, poems and/or articles are published you’ll hear about it on this page. Meanwhile I’m really enjoying working toward my MFA in Creative Writing at Goddard College. My advisor this semester is Aimee Liu. Her ability to get to the heart of whatever I’m working on and help me see the light at the end of the tunnel is extraordinary. And the best part is she does it with grace and intelligence. I feel blessed.

Going To Goddard for Grad School!

Dear readers, I’ve decided to go back to college and get my MFA in creative writing. For some time I’ve been unhappy with the editing process on Blue Truth. I feel there are gaps in my knowledge that are causing me to take missteps I no longer want to take. Because of the demands of returning for a graduate degree, I’m putting Blue Truth on a back burner for now. I will keep you posted with updates on my studies as I work toward a clearer understanding of how to write the best book I’m capable of writing. Thanks for all your support – in the past and in the future.

Fall Tomatoes and Mushrooms

Tomato Harvest Ripe & Unripe

A change in the weather meant that these babies needed to come in and ripen in my kitchen.

Today has been a day of harvesting. After bringing in the tomatoes we went mushrooming in the Olympic Mountains and came back with a bonanza of Lobster and Chanterelle mushrooms.

8 pounds of Chanterelles and Lobster mushrooms gathered this morning.

8 pounds of Chanterelles and Lobster mushrooms gathered this morning.

My Edits Are Painfully Slow So I Took a Poetry Break

Below are two poems I’ve been working on whenever I get sick of editing 350 pages of text.

Poet

I live on an inland sea
where daily
I hear the wheeze
and hack of herons,
long dactylic hexameters,
odd wracking convulsions,
sad tuneless songs
to lost sailors.
Like Odysseus –
a low down
drunk Cyrenian
who slopped
too many whiskeys,
inhaled too many
unfiltered cigarettes –
my pursuit is
beyond redemption.

I rope myself to a raft of pages
refusing to ballast my ears
against the muse’s song
calling from the same rocky knowing
that cast us all from paradise.

Saluting Aristippus for his belief in pleasure
I bend my back to the task –
unfurling poems,
turning them to luff
past the barrier reef of my skin.

***
My Strawberries Wild

Knee high wanton wilderness.
Seeded with rubies under foliage
like emerald umbrellas
pressing humidity hard into musk and loam
black with decay, the life giver.
What was relinquishes to what will be
the sweet fruition of possibility.
A strawberry forest cultivates wildness.
It is this chaos that gives a flavor
for life, for its ups and downs.
It is this juice that forces the drive
to over-reach, go beyond, burgeon.

The birds and I harvest together
each vying for our fair share.
But we are objective co-owners
of this manna. We cooperate,
co-habitate, celebrate our fortune.
The birds approve my constant hunger
as I husband each plant.
In return we are all blessed
with more and more offspring. And, too,
it’s me who tears out the tangle-foot quack grass
that thwarts each feathered farmer’s passage
on their journey to partake of forbidden fruit.

***

 

Now My Space Really Is Complete! It Has a Cushy Chair, a Dog & Her Bed, a Character Gallery & Most Important of All – a Plotting Wall!

Character & Plotting wall in my finished workspaceHere are a couple photos of the plotting wall in progress. All the visuals for composites of each major character are up where I can stare at them for inspiration. They’ll help keep my descriptions consistent, too. In addition, I’ve got a 7-foot strip of butcher paper tacked to the wall with a line that shows the way the plot climbs along its trajectory to the denouement then down into crisis in the last third of the book and finally up again into a peak moment before things settle down at the end. What I’ll do with the evolving outline is print it out, scene-by-scene, on small pieces of colored paper.  I’ll stick these up along the plot line visual where each event occurs within the novel. Then I can move the bits of paper around as I fiddle with the plot until it’s working the way I want it to.

Close-up of the character & Plotting Wall

 

 

My Writing Space Is Finished!

I finally have a room of my own again. It’s in the basement away from distractions and completely self-contained. I never need to come upstairs unless I WANT TO!

My newly remodeled work space. Lovely isn't it -- even without a chair, yet!

My newly remodeled work space. Lovely isn’t it — even without a chair, yet!

These blank walls will help me plot out my novels and move stuff around without losing track of time and date! I'll post photos as I begin to develop this handy tool!

These blank walls will help me plot out my novels and move stuff around without losing track of time and date! I’ll post photos as I begin to develop this handy tool!

One of My Poems Won 3rd Place in the 8th Annual Writer’s Digest Poetry Competition!

Hummingbird

Percussive wing song.
Throb of muscle and sinew.
Sweet tooth en plein air.
A cinnabar dash rises like fury,
strokes the weathered
verdigris of lamb’s ear
to paint cayenne and emerald
across a simple sage-blue sky.
Dragon’s blood shimmers
and morphs along prism cells
catching light. Hue and shade
as changeable as flight.

Tiny tyranny. Feeder in The Garden
whose tongue is a black snake
urging Eve with sugared words
to taste the apple’s blossom,
the pomegranate’s seed,
to open the world
with the nectar of knowing
all that the gods have hidden.