Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat

We spent most of yesterday telling stories.  Someone says, Krik?  You answer, Krak!  And they say, I have many stories I could tell you, and then they go on and tell these stories to you, but mostly to themselves.  Sometimes it feels like we have been at sea longer than the many years that I have been on this earth.

Krik? Krak! was another suggestion given to me for the ninth grade, and it hits all the right criteria: the author, Edwidge Danticat, is a woman of color, a New Yorker born in Haiti, and the protagonists of the short stories in the collection are mostly, but not always, women of color as well.  And the stories themselves are excellent--I admit this is a book I had been reluctant to read because of its voguishness in high school curricula.  (I have a distrust for contemporary books that are read more in schools than outside of them.)  But they are good.

The first story in the collection, "Children of the Sea," takes the form of letters written back and forth between a Haitian woman and her lover, who is in a raft trying to cross the Caribbean Sea to the United States to seek asylum.  The female writer talks about the political violence happening in Haiti, the male writer about the dwindling food rations and approaching dehydration on the raft.  Of course, the writers have no way to get these letters to their intended recipient--but they write them all the same, knowing that they'll never reach the other.  That kind of elegiac touch is typical of Krik? Krak!, which catalogs the myriad ways that political and economic instability erode the lives and minds of ordinary Haitians.

[Spoiler alert for the following paragraphs.]  The best story, I think, is "Between the Pool and Gardenias," the story of a Haitian woman who finds a baby on on the curb of the road and keeps it as her own.  The narrator herself has had many miscarriages, and the providential child underlines the difference in the family life of the rich and poor, the traditional and urbane:

When I had just come to the city, I saw on Madame's television that al ot of poor city women throw out their babies because they can't afford to feed them.  Back in Ville Rose you cannot even throw out the bloody clumps that shoot out of your body after your body after your child is born.  It is a crime, they say, and your whole family would consider you wicked if you did it.  You have to save every piece of flesh and give it a name and bury it near the roots of a tree so that the world won't fall apart around you.

In the city, I hear they throw out whole entire children.  They throw them out anywhere: on doorsteps, in garbage cans, at gas pumps, sidewalks.  In the time I had been in Port-au-Prince, I had never seen such a child until now.

But as Danticat slowly reveals, the child that the narrator has taken in is herself already dead, and the narrator tragically deluded.  The tragedy is a political one, informed by the narrator's poverty, her isolation, her migration from the Haitian countryside to the city, but more than that it is intimate and psychological.  Danticat manages to strike just the right balance between these.

I don't think I want to teach these stories.  For one, I don't love the idea of teaching a collection of stories in the first place.  Secondly, they are frequently punishing--from the doomed lovers of "Children of the Sea" to the would-be mother of "Between the Pool and Gardenias," they are emotionally difficult material.  In another story, a man jumps out of a hot air balloon to his death.  The darkness eases up only toward the end, with the final trio of stories, which are set in the New York Haitian immigrant community.  These stories, like "Caroline's Wedding," which details the culturally difficult marriage of a Haitian woman and a non-Haitian man, are devoid of the blood-and-terror of the Haitian stories.  More importantly, they fulfill the scuttled promise of the very first story by depicting immigrants who have built successful, hard-won lives in the United States. 

That's part of the question Danticat poses, of course: are the sufferings of the Haitians in the first stories redeemed by the lives of the Haitian-Americans in the final ones?  Does the Haitian mother, even as she struggles to accept her daughter's marriage, recover the dream of the narrator of "Between the Pool and Gardenias" to have a daughter who is safe and loved?

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