Does faithfulness have a root cause? Is it conditional, or is it unbounded? In Edwidge Danticat’s memoir, “Brother, I’m Dying,” she tells the story of her family – their hardships, their pain, their love, their roots. During times of turmoil in their home country of Haiti, she explores the passion her family has to protecting their communities and the integrity of an increasingly unstable homeland. When Danticat’s family is separated, she is put under the care of her uncle and aunt and forms an allegiance to the family who is raising her. Even through there are many miles separating Danticat and her biological parents and minimal opportunities for communication, she maintains a steadfast faith in their shared love. An indescribable commitment is seen in her uncle’s allegiance to his church through a great deal of adversity, and a similar devotion is seen in Danticat’s own devotion to her writing. At its core, the theme of “Brother, I’m Dying” is loyalty.
The story of this family begins and ends with a dedication to Haiti. Whether they made the choice to leave or were forced out, many family members ended up leaving their home country. In a New York Times article, Jess Row speaks on Haitian immigrants, asking, “Do they accept a hybrid identity, a hyphen, or do they keep alive the hope of “next year in Port-au-Prince,” so to speak?” (Row) Even though she had left for New York at a rather young age, Danticat herself didn’t lose her devotion to Haiti. She returned many times during her adult life for both family visits and work-related endeavors. However, her Uncle Joseph best exemplified this. He became interested in politics after a move from the country to the capital in his early life, developing an admiration for the politician behind the “Laborers and Peasants Party”, Daniel Fignolé. Committed to the idea that Fignolé would be the answer to the country’s problems, he hosted regular meetings of his supporters in his home for years. When his hero was finally sworn into office and then unseated after only 19 days, Joseph reacted with a great outpouring of emotion that reflected his true investment in the wellbeing of his country. Joseph’s father had a similar sense of commitment. During the United States’ invasion of Haiti, he joined the guerilla resistance and risked his life to protect Haiti. Danticat says, “Each time his father left for a campaign, my uncle worried that, like the thousands of Haitian guerilla fighters who were killed by the Americans and dumped in roads and public parks to discourage others, his father might never come back.” In the end, his forceful desire to return to his country led to a fatal chain of events and he died in America. Unable to return his body to Haiti, the family buried him in New York. Danticat comments on this painful experience by saying, “Now he would be finally exiled in death. He would become part of the soil of a country that had not wanted him.” Most upset by this was her father, who solidified how deep his family’s ties to their country are when he tearfully remarked, “He shouldn’t be here. If our country were ever given a chance and allowed to be a country like any other, none of us would live or die here.”
Being raised in great part by her Uncle Joseph and Aunt Denise fosters Danticat’s strong loyalty to them. When her father left for New York for better opportunities, Edwidge was very young. She was put into the care of her Uncle and Aunt and soon merged seamlessly into their family. She recalls a day of her uncle buying her an ice dessert and her favorite book, which suggests she has many fond memories of her time with him. Although she did miss her parents, she knew so little of them that their absence was almost eclipsed by her love for her caretakers. Bliss Broyard comments on this in her Washington Post review, saying that when the two are compared, “Much more tangible is her Uncle Joseph…” (Broyard) Her genuine bond with them was exposed when it came time to leave for America, and leave them behind. Danticat says, “Even though we had all been expecting it, how could I tell him I didn’t want to leave him?” When finally faced with the chance to be reunited with her parents, what she truly desired was to stay behind with those whom she knew and adored. She recalls the day she left with uncertainty for the facts — perhaps because she was young, or perhaps because she was so shaken by leaving that her memories were affected. Speaking about her thoughts on the plane, she says, “I only remember wishing as we soared into the clouds that my uncle had cried a torrent of tears, had thrown himself on the ground and made a scene, all the while forbidding us to go. He should have cried out, in his old voice, the sudden revelation that I was really his daughter and that he couldn’t live without me.”
Loyalty to one’s own family tends to be inevitable, but that doesn’t make it less important. Being raised in part by someone other than her parents allowed a new allegiance to grow, but it didn’t detract from the existing one. Although her knowledge of her parents was limited to very distant memories, a few stories, and the regular but unrevealing letter, Danticat holds on to her faith in her parents and their love. Her father’s loyalty to his family was the driving force in his much of his life. When he gave up everything he knew and moved from his home country to America, he did so with the hope that he would make enough money to support his children and wife. He ended up in a career as an independent taxi driver. He constantly had to wake up before the sun and deal with unnecessarily rude customers. He even encountered dangerous situations that put his life on the line. When Danticat, still young, asked him if he would rather do something else, she could see his face on the verge of breaking as he nonchalantly said, “Sure.” Row elaborates on the dedication he exhibited, saying, “Immigration often involves a kind of generational sacrifice, in which the migrants themselves give up their personal ambitions, their families, native countries and the comforts of the mother tongue, to spend their lives doing menial work in the land where their children and grandchildren thrive.” (Row) Her father forfeited parts of his life in order to make the lives of his family better, but he also based the value of his life on his family. When asked, at the end of his life, if he had enjoyed it, he cites his children as his greatest accomplishments, saying, “You could have all turned out bad, but you didn’t. I thank god for that. I thank god for all of you.”
Danticat’s father saw his job only as a way to provide and sustain his family, but others felt a deep devotion to their careers and callings. Danticat nursed her love for writing from a young age. When she had the chance to write letters to her father, she’d boast about her success in school before asking for gifts, one of which was a typewriter. When she arrived in New York to live with her father, she finally received her typewriter and used it to practice the logistics of writing. She now sees her father’s commitment to helping her align and assemble her words as a foresight on his part. The book itself showcases her commitment to writing. Handling such personal and sentimental information with care would undoubtedly be difficult for any writer but she cites her reason for delving into such a difficult project, saying, “I am only writing this because they can’t.” Joseph Dantica’s loyalty to his job as a pastor endured all adversity. After abandoning politics, he became so involved in religion that he started his own church. He could have given up when a procedure stole his voice, but he was too dutiful. Instead, he continued until he regained his ability to communicate. Even as the political situation in Haiti deteriorated, he stayed. The sense of commitment that he had to his church and the community that had formed within it overpowered any inkling of danger or fear that may have arisen. A misconception about his loyalties turned his neighbors against him and led them to destroy his church and seek to murder him. When he should have feared for his life, he was mourning the loss of his integrity and his beloved church. When finally he was forced to flee, his desire to return caused him to choose the wrong words – triggering a chain of events that lead to his death. Row says of Dantica, “Had he not clung so stubbornly to his own truth, he might still be alive.”
So many of the choices made and actions taken in this story are driven by the dedications that were held. Everyone has some sort of anchor, be it to their family members, their beliefs, their home country, or their careers. Whether these things were done out of a sense of duty or out of a deep-seated sincerity doesn’t matter. What matters is how they make and mold the people who act upon them. Without the honor that caused Joseph to swim against the tide or the fact that Danticat felt she needed to pay homage to her family, this memoir would not carry the weight that it does. Loyalty, in all of its forms, is the theme of “Brother, I’m Dying.”