Edwidge Danticat’s latest short story collection, Everything Inside, chronicles the unimaginable losses faced by Haitians, mostly those living in diaspora communities such as Miami’s “Little Haiti” and Brooklyn, giving us characters who discover agency amidst brokenness.
Grief, forgiveness and losses of all kinds are present in these eight tales: break-ups between lovers and friends; memory loss from Alzheimer’s; deaths of spouses and children in earthquakes, by miscarriage and cancer; the death of idealism among those trying to help; losses of home and of limbs. Danticat is an accomplished Haitian-American novelist, memoirist and short-story writer who peppers religion — Catholicism and evangelical Christianity as well as Vodou — throughout her writing, giving her characters a transcendent depth as they seek to overcome these living nightmares.
My interest in Haiti and its people began when I was in high school and babysat for two girls adopted from that country. With their family I attended a Haitian cultural weekend where I learned more about the losses suffered among the diaspora. Though I was well on my way to converting to Catholicism, I also witnessed my first outdoor Mass, experiencing the energy that comes with the integration of music and language that is culturally relevant to those gathered. It was the first time I was able to see resurrection in the midst of sorrow. I’ve since read most of Danticat’s writing and as well as that of other Americans who write about Haiti — Paul Farmer, Jonathan Katz and Amy Wilentz, to name a few.
After the 2010 earthquake that killed as many as 300,000 people, I traveled to the country’s capital city, Port-au-Prince, to learn more about the people and the work of recovery. I spent time at the headquarters of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and toured transition shelters and camps. While meeting the people, I was deeply anguished by the physical destruction all around us — the collapsed governmental palace, the ruined cathedral and the piles and piles of debris. One development project stood out to me. CRS had initiated a rubble-crushing program, creating jobs. I saw workers cranking a small machine to turn the devastation into sand and gravel to sell. They were birthing something new, however small.
Ten years have gone by since the earthquake, with unfortunately little progress. Port-au-Prince’s Notre Dame de l’Assomption Cathedral has not been rebuilt. Horrendous sins have been committed by the United Nations and the Haitian government. The Haitian masses, like they have always done, are again rising up in protest against oppression.
Danticat commends them and joins in their struggle. Her brilliance in Everything Inside is the book’s message of survival amidst turmoil and the love Haitians have for their country despite its regular betrayal of them.
In “Dosas,” Elsie, a young home health nurse assistant in Miami, is swindled by her ex-husband into handing over her life savings as a ransom for his new lover’s fake kidnapping. Once she finds out that the lover, her former friend, is very much alive, she wonders whether Haiti is now safer somehow, whether she herself could go back there, and justifies her ex-husband’s actions based on his own longing to return. “Some people just want to go home, no matter what the cost. Some people would do just about anything to go home.”
Danticat develops her characters fully, probing them psychologically and spiritually. She intermingles grace and the grotesque in a way reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor and evident in “The Gift.” Anika and Thomas embrace the act of remembering in order to piece life back together after the earthquake. The two were embroiled in an affair when Thomas’ wife and child were killed in the disaster. Thomas himself lost a limb, and Anika tries to win him back, yearning to tell him about their unborn child, whom she miscarried.
An artist, Anika wonders: “When you paint an earthquake, do you paint soil monsters devouring the earth? Shattered houses? Bloody, lifeless bodies? Random personal items — T-shirts, dresses, shoes, hair combs, and toothbrushes — scattered above the rubble? Do you paint cemeteries and grave makers and distraught mourners weeping over them? Do you paint crosses, wilted dust-covered flowers, or vibrant bright red ones, for hope?” She settles on sketching the wife and daughter as birds born again. Thomas recoils, refusing the gift, confronting his and Anika’s sinfulness and complicity in the affair. He shows Anika his prosthetic leg as a way of moving toward closure in their relationship. Anika ends the night drinking wine alone, murmuring a chant from a ceremony she witnessed on the night of the earthquake: “Pou sa n pa wè yo. For those we don’t see. For those who are not here.”
I needed to read this book to be reminded that we cannot look away from suffering. We must face the reality of those who suffer, those who are dead, in order to claim our right to be among the living. I’m grateful Danticat’s stories do this remembering so well.
Arlene Montevecchio is director of the Center for Spirituality at Saint Mary’s College.