Leah Mirakhor (Los Angeles Times, 14 July 2017) shares a deeply moving and sensitive review of Edwidge Danticat’s The Art of Death. Here are excerpts from “Edwidge Danticat writes into the unknown in ‘The Art of Death.’”
“My father was dying and I was pregnant,” is a haunting echo from Edwidge Danticat’s 2007 memoir “Brother, I’m Dying,” the story of the deaths of her father from pulmonary fibrosis and her uncle in a detention center awaiting to enter the United States from Haiti. Like her acclaimed works of fiction “Breath, Eyes, Memory” (1994), “The Dew Breaker” (2004), “Claire of the Sea Light” (2013), her new book “The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story” delves into the physical and psychic landscapes of loss. In “Brother, I’m Dying,” Danticat translates “Pa pi mal,” a Haitian Creole term her father uses to explain his health, as “Not so good” and “Not so bad,” articulating the precarious nature of his health, but also his condition of living in-between different worlds as a Haitian exile.
So too, in “The Art of Death,” Danticat attempts to convey her mother’s state — as one that has long been wrestling between at least two poles: “In Haitian Creole, when someone is said to be lòt bò dlo, ‘on the other side of the water,’ it can either mean that they’ve traveled abroad or that they have died. My mother at forty was already lòt bò dlo, on the other side of the water.” This memoir narrates her second crossing, into death.
In early 2014, Danticat’s 78-year-old mother is diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer and chooses to forgo intensive chemotherapy, telling her doctor and her daughter “it’s up to God now.”
The book is the latest in Graywolf’s “The Art of” series about writing, joining a dozen others loosely addressing the practice of poetry, fiction and nonfiction. Danticat’s is a memoir written in a manner akin to the circular, overlapping and overwhelming processes of grief and mourning; she layers her story with other poems, memoirs, novels and essays about death, scaling the personal to wider-ranging political and ecological catastrophes.
Two inquiries frame this short but deeply felt memoir; the first is —How does one write about death? All of us are exposed to death, but none of us has experienced death ourselves, and, as she notes we can’t ask anyone else “what it is like to die.” Danticat agrees with Michael Ondaatje, who writes that “death means you are writing in the third person.”
The second inquiry asks what can guide us through what Toni Morrison calls “circles and circles of sorrow.” Reading Elizabeth Alexander’s memoir “The Light of the World,” a moving elegy to her late husband, Danticat reads her confession, “‘I want rules, I want the prayers to say every day for a year at dusk and I want them to be beautiful and meaningful.’ I wanted these same kinds of rules and prayers too.”
Danticat attempts to find the rules and prayers through texts that have sustained her throughout her life — undertaking a process of close reading that reinforces how stories are integral to making sense of our experience, echoing James Baldwin’s oft quoted sentiment that “you think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” [. . .]