Study Guide

Breath, Eyes, Memory Contrasting Regions

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Contrasting Regions

I never said this to my mother, but I hated the Maranatha Bilingual Institution. It was as if I had never left Haiti. All the lessons were in French, except for English composition and literature classes. Outside the school, we were "the Frenchies," cringing in our mock-Catholic-school uniforms as the students from the public school across the street called us "boat people" and "stinking Haitians." (9.66)

It's pretty clear that Sophie doesn't care for her mother's careful choices for her education. She feels that she can't ever fully assimilate to her new country because she is hedged in by the Haitian community in the U.S. Her attendance at the Maranatha Bilingual Institution only emphasizes her otherness and makes her mother's suggestion to learn English quickly kind of a joke. The mixed signals Sophie receives ("You're American now!" and "Remember you are Haitian") makes it truly difficult for her to fit in, resulting in a serious sense of isolation.

Inside the train, there were listless faces, people clutching the straps, hanging on. In Haiti, there were only sugar cane railroads that ran from the sugar mill in Port-au-Prince to plantation towns all over the countryside. Sometimes on the way home, some kids and I would chase the train and try to yank sugar cane sticks from between the wired bars. (10.77)

Sophie is on the subway in New York but her mind travels back to her childhood days in Haiti. There's no value judgment in her connection of the two places, except to say that the trains in Haiti were scarce and therefore more of a source of joy for her there. This moment is more important in illustrating the constant fluidity of place that Sophie experiences after she leaves Haiti. Even though she lives in New York, her mind is always drawing connections to the place of her birth.

"It is really hard for the new-generation girls," she began. "You will have to choose between the really old-fashioned Haitians and the new generation Haitians. The old-fashioned ones are not exactly prize fruits. They make you cook plantains and rice and beans and never let you feed them lasagna. The problem with the new generation is that a lot of them have lost their sense of obligation to the family's honor." (10.80)

Martine sums up the difficulty for many immigrant women in a new land: how will they bridge the gap between their old lives and their new ones? Will they choose to continue participating in their ethnic communities, the diaspora in a new land? Or will they look for a partner that will take them one step closer to assimilation? Note that Martine has no intention of encouraging Sophie to choose an American outside of the Haitian-American community. She's not ready to cut her ties so completely.

She said that in Haiti if your mother was a coal seller and you became a doctor, people would still look down on you knowing where you came from. But in America, they like success stories. The worse off you were, the higher your praise. (10.80)

Sophie's gotten herself into a situation with her mother by making up a Haitian boyfriend, Henry, to conceal her relationship with non-Haitian Joseph. Somehow, Martine manages to search out a pedigree for the fictional Henry—and it's not good, by Haitian standards. But in this case, Martine comes out on the American side of things. She discards the snobbery of her homeland for the belief in the American dream. This means that Henry, doctor-in-training, meets her approval. If only Henry were a thing, Sophie would have come out on the winning side of the culture clash.

Along the way, people stared at me with puzzled expressions on their faces. Is this what happens to our girls when they leave this place? They become frightened creatures that run like the wind, from nothing at all. (23.157)

Sophie has gone out for a jog in Dame Marie to clear her head. This is a pastime that is clearly unheard of in the village and causes Ifé's neighbors to wonder what the heck this young woman is doing. Sophie imagines that they think she is running in fear (why else would you run, really?), but she makes another, telling observation: that she's running from nothing. Ifé will tell Sophie on this trip that she is suffering from a particularly American disease—making mountains out of molehills. If Sophie wants to move ahead, she's going to have to let go of the hurtful things that really don't concern her.

"You are so tiny, so very petite. Why would you do that? I have never heard of a Haitian woman getting anything like that. Food, it was so rare when we were growing up. We could not waste it." (28.179)

This is Martine's response to Sophie's confession that she has bulimia. Martine is totally blown away, but not because her daughter is ill. It's because it's so not Haitian. Where could she be getting this from? What Martine does not yet understand is that Sophie's disorder is less about food and more about control. At the moment, it feels for Martine like the generation gap is getting larger, made worse by the cultural differences between their lives in Haiti and Brooklyn.

"You have become very American," she said. "I am not blaming you. It is advice. I want to give you some advice. Eat. Food is good for you. It is a luxury. When I just came to this country I gained sixty pounds my first year. I couldn't believe all the different kinds of apples and ice cream. All the things that only the rich eat in Haiti, everyone could eat them here, dirt cheap." (28.179)

While Martine doesn't really understand the underlying causes for Sophie's bulimia, she does understand what being a stranger in a strange land means. Her own experience with food in the U.S. illustrates that adapting to a new life often requires an immigrant to trust—not an easy place to get to, especially when moving from instability and unmet needs.

He was observing, watching for changes: In the way the customs people said Merci and au revoir when you bribed them not to search your bags. The way the beggars clanked the pennies in their tin cans. The way the van drivers nearly killed on another on the airport sidewalk to reach you. The way young girls dashed forward and offered their bodies. (35.228)

When Marc and Sophie arrive in Port-au-Prince with Martine's body, Marc is overwhelmed by all the changes he sees around him. He hasn't been back "home" for a long time, so he's basically a stranger to the place. Although Danticat doesn't editorialize too much on Marc's first experience back in Haiti, it's clear that his time in America has given him new eyes with respect to his homeland.

Listening to the song, I realized that it was neither my mother nor my Tante Atie who had given all the mother-and-daughter motifs to all the stories they told and all the songs they sang. It was something that was essentially Haitian. Somehow, early on, our song makers and tale weavers had decided that we were all daughters of this land. (35.230)

Haiti is a land of stories, possessing it's own folklore and mythology—all of it heavily feminine in nature. These stories bind Sophie and her mother to the land of their birth in a way that cannot happen in their adopted country. In this case, Haiti is quite literally the motherland. It's a role that can't be taken on by any other place.

There is a place where women are buried in clothes the color of flames, where we drop coffee on the ground for those who went ahead, where the daughter is never fully a woman until her mother has passed on before her. There is always a place where, if you listen closely in the night, you will hear your mother telling a story and at the end of the tale, she will ask you this question: "Ou libéré?" Are you free, my daughter?' (35.234)

Haiti is a place that always occupies Sophie's imagination. Partly this is because she has to recreate it in her mind when she is living in Brooklyn, and partly it happens from the colorful stories she recalls from her childhood. In them, everything is brighter, more intense, more violent—more everything—than her gray life in New York. This realm of stories, Haiti, also defines her life narrative, and her mother's. In the end, the two of them have become part of the mythology of the land, something that immigration can't take away from them. At the same time, there is part of them that can never escape from the land. The question "Are you free?" is definitely a loaded one, and one that we don't ever get a direct answer to.

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