Edwidge Danticat Wrestles with Death, in Life and in Art

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Here is an insightful review by Michiko Kakutani of Edwidge Danticat’s work, in particular, her forthcoming The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story (July, 2017). For the original review, see “Books of the Times,” The New York Times (26 June 2017).

Death and grief haunt Edwidge Danticat’s fiction and nonfiction — ghosts from her own family’s losses, and the sufferings of Haiti (where she was born and spent the first 12 years of her life) over the decades from poverty, murderous paramilitary thugs and a devastating 2010 earthquake that left an estimated 220,000 to 316,000 dead.

In her deeply affecting memoir “Brother, I’m Dying,” Danticat wrote about the deaths of her father and her uncle, and how the Haitian diaspora both fractured and rallied her family. For years, she lived with her uncle and her aunt in Port-au-Prince, while her parents tried to start a new life in America. When she was 4, her mother departed for the United States, leaving Edwidge with 10 dresses she’d sewn — most of them too big, and meant to be saved and worn in the years to come.

In her latest book, “The Art of Death,” Danticat writes about her mother’s death from cancer a few years ago, and the last months she spent by her mother’s bedside remembering the stories and jokes and walks they shared, and trying to piece together — or imagine — her early life and the years they’d lived in different cities or countries.

“There was a kind of fragility to our relationship,” she writes. “Neither one of us thought we could handle a full-blown fight, because of all the years we’d spent apart. The wrong words might have shattered us to pieces. Every moment we spent together was time being made up.”

This book is a kind of prayer for her mother — an act of mourning and remembrance, a purposeful act of grieving. It’s also a book about how Danticat and other writers have tried to come to terms with the fact of death.

She writes about Tolstoy writing in “Confession” about the deaths of loved ones and strangers, and the rumor that he was so determined to share his own last moments that he “came up with a series of codes, including eye movements, so that when his time came, he could describe to the people around him what it was like to die.” She writes about “Mortality,” Christopher Hitchens’s brave, funny, shattering account of his 18-month fight with esophageal cancer and his steadfast determination not to feel sorry for himself. And she writes about Gabriel García Márquez’s fear of dying, and how, in “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” he wrote about “death as though it were the only possible subject.”

Characters in García Márquez’s novel, she points out, “die alone, en masse, in wars, massacres, executions, drownings, suicides. They die from miscarriages and during childbirth, from old age — very old age — and disease and, every now and then, of natural causes. Some spend months and years dying and get sprawling death scenes. Others are simply done with in a sentence or two or in a few words.”

Like John Updike, Danticat writes beautifully about fellow writers, dissecting their magic and technique with a reader’s passion and a craftsman’s appraising eye. There are illuminating passages in this volume about the role that suicide and murder play in Toni Morrison’s fictional world, where “death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person,” at least not as bad as “the living death that was slavery.” And a moving section about the solace Danticat took — in the wake of the Haiti earthquake of 2010, which claimed members of her own family — in rereading “After the Quake,” Haruki Murakami’s collection of stories set after the 1995 Kobe earthquake in Japan.

At times, Danticat’s references to books by other writers — including Susan Sontag’s “Illness as Metaphor,” Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Mary Gordon’s “Circling My Mother” — proliferate so rapidly that the reader can feel like a student cramming for finals in a seminar on the Literature of Death and Grief. We are given an aside about the obsession with suicide shared by Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton; an analysis of why Alice Sebold had the 14-year-old narrator of “The Lovely Bones” recount the story of her own rape and murder; and disquisitions on how novelists like Camus, Thornton Wilder and Don DeLillo have depicted death.

Such passages obviously lack the intimacy of the sections of this book devoted to Danticat’s mother, but the reader gradually comes to understand why the author is circling around and around an almost unbearable loss: As a grieving daughter, she wants to understand how others have grappled with this essential fact of human existence; and as a writer — a “sentence-maker,” in the words of a DeLillo character — she wants to learn how to use language to try to express the inexpressible, to use her art to mourn.

See original at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/26/books/review-edwidge-danticat-art-of-death.html

Also see purchasing information at https://www.amazon.com/Art-Death-Writing-Final-Story/dp/1555977774

 

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