Study Guide

Breath, Eyes, Memory Identity

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My mother said it was important that I learn English quickly. Otherwise, the American students would make fun of me or, even worse, beat me. A lot of other mothers from the nursing home where she worked had told her that their children were getting into fights in school because they were accused of having HBO—Haitian Body Odor. Many of the American kids even accused Haitians of having AIDS because they had heard on television that only the "Four Hs" got AIDS—Heroin addicts, Hemophiliacs, Homosexuals, and Haitians. (7.51)

Sophie is getting a double dose of anxiety in her new homeland. She's hitting the ground at a place and time where to be Haitian-American is particularly difficult. Sophie will have to endure prejudicial comments from white Americans, including the sense that she's dirty or contaminated. On the other side of things, there is a kind of protective self-segregation that will keep Martine and Sophie reliant on the Haitian community in Brooklyn. Though Martine wants Sophie to learn English quickly, there's never a sense on either side that she'll ever "blend in": her mother won't hear of her dating an African-American man and those outside the Haitian community can't see her as anything but "other."

After her consultation with Erzulie, it became apparent to the bleeding woman what she would have to do. If she wanted to stop bleeding, she would have to give up her right to be a human being. She could choose what to be, a plant or an animal, but she could no longer be a woman. (12.87)

Sophie recalls the story of the woman who could not stop bleeding and who chooses to end her suffering by becoming a butterfly. It is telling that Erzulie asserts that to be human—and especially to be a woman—is to bleed. Sophie understands by this that to be human is to feel pain—overwhelming, uncontrollable distress that can only be stopped when the human condition is left behind. That's bleak.

"This here is my granddaughter, Uncle Bazie," my grandmother said to an old man sitting on the side of the road. He was slashing a machete across a thin piece of sugar cane. He took off his hat and bowed in my direction.

"Whereabouts she from?" asked the old man.

"Here," answered my grandmother. "She's from right here." (17.115-116)

Ifé introduces Sophie around Dame Marie when she returns with Brigitte. Before Sophie can even self-identify, her grandmother claims her for Haiti. While she may have spent the last decade in the U.S., it's clear that Sophie's roots can never be shaken—for better and worse.

"I know old people, they have great knowledge. I have been taught never to contradict our elders. I am the oldest child. My place is here. I am supposed to march at the head of the old woman's coffin. I am supposed to lead her funeral procession. But even if lightning should strike me now, I will say this: I am tired. I woke up one morning and I was old myself." (21.136)

Atie explains her position (and disappointment) to Sophie. While she knows her duty, Atie wonders how it is possible for her to have done everything right up to this point and yet still not have anything of her own. She is not a mother or wife in her own right, the only two things besides daughter she can really be in her society. Atie feels this failure deeply and never really recovers her spirits by the end of the work, though she is able to endure.

I wanted to reserve my right to ask as many times as I needed to. I was not angry with her anymore. I had a greater need to understand, so that I would never repeat it myself. (26.170)

Sophie has asked her mother why Martine performed virginity tests on her, even though she and Atie hated them so much themselves. Martine tells Sophie that she will speak of it only once (don't ask again, kid), but Sophie's concerned for Brigitte. She doesn't want to continue this cycle of violation with her own daughter, and she feels that she might need more than one explanation to lift herself out of it.

"As a woman, your face has changed. You are a different person. Besides, I have always had nightmares. Every night of my life. It was just stronger then, because that was the first time I was seeing that face." (26.170)

Sophie has had to deal with the fact that her life began through an act of violence, one that continues to haunt her mother every night of her life. The sorrow of this is made worse when Sophie realizes that she doesn't look like her mother (ergo, she must look like her rapist father). But Martine does her best to release from this torment by making Sophie understand that she's her own woman. She doesn't have to feel contaminated by her difficult beginnings because she is making a life of her own—and that is reflected in her face.

It was up to me to avoid my turn in the fire. It was up to me to make sure that my daughter never slept with ghosts, never lived with nightmares, and never had her name burnt in the flames. (31.203)

Sophie knows that part of her healing will happen when she loses her anxiety about becoming an abuser herself. Her therapy group encourages her, through ritual, to let go of her obsessive attachment with the pain that her mother felt and passed on to her—to begin to forgive. In doing so, Sophie is already one step ahead of the women in her family who came before her.

"I feel like I could have been Southern African-American. When I just came to this country, I got it into my head that I needed some religion. I used to go to this old Southern church in Harlem where all they sang was N**** spirituals. Do you know what N**** spirituals are?" she said turning to Marc. (33.214)

Although Martine never seeks the help she really needs to deal with her psychological suffering, it's clear that she's tried to settle something about her identity. This comment is an interesting about-face for Martine, who seemed so against Sophie hooking up with Joseph, who is African-American. She has a kindred feeling for the suffering expressed in N**** spirituals, a genre of music that is not part of her birth culture. Whether she says this just to make nice with her son-in-law or to express an authentic longing of her spirit, we don't know.

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)

Danticat wants us to understand that she's not just artificially stacking the odds in the favor of female characters in her book. She's got a deeper reason for doing so. In the folktales that Sophie recalls and the stories told by the women in her family, the characters and motifs are decidedly feminine. Danticat claims that this is because all Haitians are daughters of the land. Perhaps it is also because the experience of the women in this work sums up the human condition so well: complex and difficult, filled with beauty, terror, and a deep, longing sadness for freedom.

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. (35.234)

These are Sophie's concluding words, as she tries to reconcile herself to the loss of her mother and to confront the terror of the past. She understands that Haiti is an integral part of who she is because of what she has experienced there herself and what she has inherited from her mother through stories and secondary memories. Sophie can't escape any of it—the good or the bad—since it is a visceral part of her. It's quite literally in her DNA, a basic part of her identity that she can't shed and will live with every day of her life.

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