Breath, Eyes, Memory

Breath Eyes Memory

I come from a place where breath, eyes, and memory are one, a place from which you carry your past like the hair on your head. Where women return to their children as butterflies or as tears in the eyes of statues that their daughters pray to. My mother was brave as the stars at dawn. She too was from that place. My mother was like that woman who could never bleed and then could never stop bleeding, the one who gave in to her pain, to live as a butterfly. Yes, my mother was like me.

Sophie Caco was born in Haiti and lived with her aunt Atie, the only mother she knew, until she was 12 years old and her biological mother summoned her to New York and the home Sophie’s mother had run away to after Sophie was born. In New York, Sophie has a new life, but she cannot escape Haiti. She goes to a Haitian school and eats Haitian food, and when at 18 she meets a man, she’s subjected to the nightly tests of her virginity that her mother also faced when she was young. For Sophie’s mother, those tests only ended when she was raped, but Sophie forces her way out and then must figure out how to make peace with her past and the mother who was both abused and abuser.

This 1994 novel by Edwidge Danticat starts out seeming like a typical coming-of-age/immigrant story. The writing is poetic and evocative, with each short chapter feeling like a brief meditation on a particular moment in time, but the plot beats are predictable. Girl moves to city, girl has trouble adjusting, girl grows up, girl meets boy, girl has conflict with old-fashioned parents about said boy. We know the outline; it’s only the details that vary.

In this case, the most significant detail is in the nature of Sophie’s conflict with her mother and the steps she takes to end the conflict. Her mother, following family tradition, inspects Sophie’s genitals nightly to ensure that she’s still a virgin. To Sophie, this is abuse, and she takes extreme measures to stop it and escape her mother’s home.

And here’s where the novel turns into something fresh and beautiful. In her attempt to liberate herself, Sophie learns that her past is still part of her. She has to look at it square in the face and name it. She was abused by a woman who loved her and was herself abused. Danticat presents this cycle of abuse with clear eyes and with compassion for all involved. Never does she let Sophie’s mother, or Sophie’s grandmother, off the hook for doing what they were taught is right. But neither does she turn this into a polemic against Haitian traditions. She allows all the complex emotions to sit alongside each other. The important thing is not to place blame but to look reality in the face and name the truth.

Throughout the novel, characters name their truths through stories and songs and poems, all part of the Haitian tradition that the novel celebrates. They take part in rituals to tame their demons, or they go to therapy to talk it out. All of these routes to peace have power and value. The one route that does not is hiding from it. The truth cannot be evaded; it will come in nightmares if it’s not spoken in waking hours. Facing the truth isn’t easy, and it doesn’t bring a quick resolution, but in the world of this novel, it’s the path that brings hope.

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8 Responses to Breath, Eyes, Memory

  1. A fine review of a powerful book.

  2. Jeanne says:

    It’s a rare writer who can get the complex emotions from one culture to show up beside each other in all their complexity for a reader from another culture.
    It’s the opposite of the Grinnell Housing staff, whose questionnaire asked “do you have any habits that might be annoying to a prospective roommate?” and my daughter answered that she whistled to herself absent-mindedly. When she found herself rooming with a girl from Cuba who said it was absolutely against her religion (some branch of Santeria) to hear whistling, we figure the housing staff saw the word “whistling” on both housing forms and put them together.

    • Teresa says:

      YIkes! That sounds almost like a computer just went through looking for matching words with no sense of whether they were positive or negative.

      When it came to my freshman roommate, I wondered if one of us got the Likert scale on the questionnaire wrong, thinking 1 meant strongly agree when it meant strongly disagree (or vice versa). Because it seemed like the things we felt most strongly about were where we were opposites.

  3. This sounds like an absolutely fascinating book. I’ve often marvelled at the way that women in the world, though they are the ones so often unfairly dominated by cultural traditions, continue the traditions themselves, practicing them on other women! It’s a point that I can’t imagine Edwige Dandicat missing, and indeed your review suggests that she highlights it in this book.

    • Teresa says:

      She definitely highlights it in all its complexity, and she ends up making it as much about cycles of violence and abuse that probably exist in any culture as it is about this particular practice.

  4. Stefanie says:

    I’ve had this book on my list to read for ages. Thanks for reminding me why. Now maybe I will get to reading it!

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