Book of the Month: Brother, I’m Dying.

Last month’s book focused on a family still feeling the reverberations of a violent dictatorship in the D.R. even as  staked out new lives in the United States. universeexpanding suggested that our second book club pick should explore similar themes as they played out on the other side of Hispaniola in Haiti.

With that in mind, we decided that our second book club selection will be Edwidge Danticat’s Brother I’m Dying, a look at the lives of her father and uncle, and a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.

From the New York Times Book Review:

Haunting the book throughout is a fear of missed chances, long-overdue payoffs and family secrets withering on the vine: a familiar anxiety when one generation passes to another too quickly. In the first chapter Danticat learns she is pregnant with her first child just as her father, Mira, receives a diagnosis of pulmonary fibrosis and loses his livelihood as a New York cabdriver after more than 25 years. At a family meeting, one of his sons asks him, “Have you enjoyed your life?” Mira pauses before answering, and when he does, he frames the response entirely in terms of his children: “You, my children, have not shamed me. … You all could have turned bad, but you didn’t. … Yes, you can say I have enjoyed my life.”

That pause, and that answer, neatly encapsulates an unpleasant, though obvious, truth: immigration often involves a kind of generational sacrifice, in which the migrants themselves give up their personal ambitions, their families, native countries and the comforts of the mother tongue, to spend their lives doing menial work in the land where their children and grandchildren thrive. On the other hand, there is the futility, and danger, of staying put in a country that over the course of Danticat’s lifetime has spiraled from almost routine hardship — the dictatorship of the Duvaliers and the Tontons Macoute — to the stuff of nightmares. Danticat’s father and uncle stand on opposite sides of this bitter divide.

There’s some overlap between the author’s lives. Like Junot Diaz, Danticat was born in the Caribbean and moved to New York at a young age. Both would become literary heavyweights by the time they reached their mid-30’s. They co-wrote an op-ed in the New York Times protesting the treatment of Haitian sugar workers by the Dominican government. There are, of course, major differences.  Diaz took over a decade to produce a second book after his early critical acclaim; Danticat has been writing at a steady clip. Where Diaz employs frenetic, kinetic sentences with hilarious digressions (and footnotes!), Danticat’s style is almost universally referred to as ‘clear-eyed’ or ‘sparse.’ Her writing is straightforward and unhurried, which makes her take on a lot of the subject matter all the more haunting.

5 thoughts on “Book of the Month: Brother, I’m Dying.

  1. […] Anyway, the discussion is here. Have at it! […]

  2. quadmoniker March 15, 2009 at 7:33 pm Reply

    I wanted to reread this book before we discussed it but haven’t had a chance. I remember not liking it until one of the sons asks the question the reviewer picks out, “Have you enjoyed your life?” I remember nearly crying uncontrollably, not so much because of their father’s answer, but because the question itself seemed to puzzle him a bit. I think that’s why stories like this, and The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, are so powerful. Everyone feels alienated from their parents, particularly in America. But immigration puts that alienation in hyperdrive.

    The kind of adaptation and sacrifice that Edwidge’s father makes is at odds with the kinds of adjustments that her Uncle Joseph will not make, and underneath the calm prose the book burns with indignation at the idea that those were the only two choices for that generation.

  3. aisha March 16, 2009 at 9:06 am Reply

    I have a few close friends who have had this experience. Being seperated from their parents while the parents come to the US to make a better life. Then they leave the aunts, uncles and grandparents who raised them and come to an unfamiliar place to live with unfamiliar people. That story is more American than I’ve acknowledged.

  4. […] So you know that book discussion group thingie we started a couple months ago? It got off to a rollicking start with Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and then rapidly flamed out with Edwidge Danticat’s Brother I’m Dying. […]

  5. be September 2, 2009 at 10:05 pm Reply

    I had no idea this was last months book. I actually read this book last month, interesting enough and it was PHENOMENAL. I was introduced to Edwidge Danticat in an African American Literature class a couple of years back with the book The Dew Breaker which I recommend to all. Brother I’m, Dying is one of the most captivating memoirs i’ve read and i appreciate her telling her life story thru telling the story of her family since they are intimately tied.
    great choice

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