Study Guide

Breath, Eyes, Memory

By Edwidge Danticat

Breath, Eyes, Memory Introduction

Edwidge Danticat's book landed on Oprah's Book Club reading list in 1998, four years after this dynamo of a debut novel hit the bookstore shelves. But don't let that scare you. Breath, Eyes, Memory isn't a "pink piece" to be filed under the dreaded category of "Chick Lit."

After all, when you hear "chick lit," you think of tamer romance novels: frilly dresses, fancy parties, men with Fabio hair, and moonlit horseback rides next to castles. Instead of all that, Breath, Eyes, Memory has trauma, political upheaval, and the life-warping experience of moving from the Caribbean to the US of A.

After all, we're following the experiences of protagonist Sophie Caco, a girl who relocates from Haiti to Brooklyn at the age of twelve to stay with her haunted mother, Martine. Over the next decade, Sophie and Martine's relationship grows both deeper and more strained as Martine reveals stories from her past: the rape that resulted in Sophie's birth, the way that violent political upheaval touched every Haitian's life, and the horrors that spring forth when women's worth is determined by their virginity.

This book ain't for the faint of heart.

But while turmoil and bloodshed saturate Sophie's tale from the very beginning, her story also reveals Haitian folklore and spirituality. We're talking about stories where women transform into butterflies (Kafka would be proud), birds are con men, goddesses rule the roost, and stars are monsters in disguise.

So how do you classify this novel? Is it gritty realism, or a genre-bending dreamscape? Is it the story of a few women's trauma, or the story of the trauma of an entire nation? Is it a look into the immigrant experience, or an inquiry into the psychedelic way that myth blends with everyday life?

Trick question. It's all of the above.

Because when characters (or, hey: actual people) have to confront generations of suffering and oppression, things get both real and real trippy. Sophie and the women of her family have to stop thinking of the past as the past… they have to accept the fact that the past bleeds into the present. They have to stop thinking that family history ends in Haiti, and have to start thinking of family history as extending across borders. They have to realize that folklore has a habit of blending with actual-factual memory.

Yeah. This novel pushes the boundaries of time, space, and reality. (Virginia Woolf would be proud.)

Sophie has the opportunity to break the cycle of suffering and become her own person, but she has to do it in a way that doesn't deny the identity she's inherited from her ancestors. It's a complex dance, but Sophie's amazing sensitivity and strength help her to pull it off. (Imperator Furiosa would be proud.)

But even though Sophie's triumphant in the end, we think that we're the real winners here. After all, we get a compelling narrative that won't let us go. What can we say? Thousands of Oprah fans can't be wrong.

What is Breath, Eyes, Memory About and Why Should I Care?

Do you remember that time you spent a semester reading Haitian literature? Yeah, we thought not.

While voices from the Caribbean are now regularly included on class syllabi and book club agendas (think Cuban-American writer Cristina García or Dominican writer Junot Díaz), it's still incredibly rare to see writers from Haiti in the mix.

And that's our loss, because books like Breath, Eyes, Memory offer a unique glimpse into a society that few outside Haiti ever get to see. Even after the catastrophic earthquake that captured the world's attention in 2010, most of us only know a very few facts about Haiti and Haitians.

But why's it important that people of non-Haitian descent know about the history and culture of a Caribbean nation? (Besides, you know, because knowing about history and culture makes you a better, more interesting, and more empathetic person?)

As of 2009, there were 830,000 Haitians living in the USA. That was a while ago, so we're guessing there are at least a million Haitian-Americans. That means that about 1 in 318 Americans is Haitian. (Source)

And if you're living in a metropolis like Miami, New York, or Boston, that percentage is way higher. But chances are still shockingly good that you probably don't know much about your Haitian neighbor's culture and history. You probably don't know much about Vodou. You may have never heard of the Tonton Macoutes. You might not recognize Haitian Creole when you hear it.

And while you've probably heard of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Zoe Saldana, Jason Derulo, Wyclef Jean, Usher, and W.E.B. Dubois… but you probably didn't know they're of Haitian descent. (Source)

Enter Edwidge Danticat's debut novel Breath, Eyes, Memory. This book isn't just going to knock your socks off with its exquisite prose, stop your heart with its tragedy, and make you deeply invested in its nuanced, mesmerizing characters. It's also going to give you a much-needed education.

Through Sophie Caco's narrative, you're going to get an intimate look at what it means to be Haitian in general, and specifically what it means to be a Haitian-American woman navigating her identity in both her old homeland and her new home.

So crack a Cola Couronne, get comfy in your armchair, and get ready to be transported by Danticat's language, moved by Sophie Caco's life story, and enriched with knowledge about the people that live in, moved from, and claim ancestry in the second most populous Caribbean nation.

Breath, Eyes, Memory Resources

Websites

Danticat in The New Yorker
Here you'll find a clearinghouse of Danticat's contributions to The New Yorker—including commentaries and works of fiction.

Social Media
Danticat's publicists maintain a Facebook page for the author, rather than a traditional website.

Movie or TV Productions

The Agronomist
Directed by Jonathan Demme and with Danticat as Executive Producer, this film tells the story of Jean Dominique, Haitian activist and radio journalist.

Poto Mitan
Danticat provides narration for this documentary about Haitian women.

Movie or TV Adaptations

Girl Rising
A documentary film about girls living in developing countries around the world, and how education changes their lives. Danticat contributes by writing the story of a Haitian girl called Wadley.

Articles and Interviews

Life Story
Here you will find a biographical article about Edwidge Danticat.

Bad Karma
A Haitian-American reporter reflects on her interview with exiled despot, Jean Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier.

Vodou Country
If you are confused by the mixed religious imagery in this book, check out this article. It offers a quick summary of the Vodou religion and how it "syncretizes" with Catholicism.

Video

Edwidge, Meet TED...
Danticat speaks of Haiti's contribution to the global community.

Award-Winning Danticat
Our author speaks on the occasion of being named MacArthur Fellow in 2009.

Chilling with Edwidge
Here is an intimate and casual Skype interview with Edwidge Danticat, in which she discusses the differences between writing fiction and non-fiction.

Audio

Whenever I Say Your Name...
It's okay if you don't know how to pronounce "Edwidge Danticat": there's an audiofile to help you with that. Take a listen to Danticat not only pronouncing her name for you, but also giving a little background.

Creativity in Exile
Talk of the Nation hosts three writers (including Danticat) who talk about their experiences as writers exiled from their home country. Transcript also available on this page.

Honoring the Dead
You might remember that Martine isn't interested in having an elaborate Haitian funeral. But for many, those traditional death rituals are essential to keep the peace with generations of dead. This NPR story talks about what happens in Haiti when a mass calamity keeps families from properly observing death traditions.

Images

Island on Fire
Danticat teamed up with director Jonathan Demme to create a catalogue of his many pieces of Haitian art. Danticat worked as editor on the project.