At the age of twenty-six, young for a writer, Edwidge Danticat has many honors credited to her name. Aside from publishing two books, the novel Breath, Eyes, Memory and a collection of short stories, Krik? Krak!, she has also received much critical acknowledgment. Her novel earned her recognition by the New York Times as one of the “thirty young artists to watch,” and it was nominated for a National Book Award in 1995. Krik? Krak! drew as many rave reviews; Publishers Weekly writes that it “confirm[s] Danticat’s reputation as a remarkably gifted writer.”
Danticat, who emigrated from Haiti to the United States when she was twelve years old, writes about life in her country and its people. The Haiti that emerges from Danticat’s fiction is the one in which she grew up, a country under the rule of dictators Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude, known as “Baby Doc.” The Duvaliers governed Haiti by dint of oppression and cruelty. Their brutal secret police—the Tonton Macoutes—committed many atrocities against the Haitian people. The Duvalier regime was not overthrown until 1986, but the political situation suffered upheaval until well into the 1990s.
Haitian writers from the mid-1940s on have often found themselves, like Danticat, far from home. Given the restrictive and violent dictatorship that has controlled Haiti and its people, many Haitian writers have not been allowed to express themselves freely in their own country. Danticat, even though she lives in the United States, has stated that she doubted not only her ability to write, but she also had the feeling that it might be a dangerous profession. A strong part of the culture, however, is its tradition of storytelling. The title of Danticat’s collection bears witness to her rich heritage of storytelling and is explained in the epigram: “We tell the stories so that the young ones will know what came before them. They say Krik? We say Krak! Our stories are kept in our hearts.”
Danticat follows in another tradition: that of writers from other cultures living in the United States who give voice to the sorrows and the joys that have shaped their experiences. The works of Jamaica Kincaid, who was born in Antigua, highlight the anger that West Africans feel about their past enslavement. Toni Morrison, though born in the United States, explores the issue of oppression through the institution of slavery. Perhaps most similar to Danticat’s writings are those of Julia Alvarez, whose family fled from the Trujillo dictatorship and the Dominican Republic. Alvarez, like Danticat, revisits her homeland in her work and describes the horrors of living under a regime of terror and examines how the bonds of family are perhaps strengthened by such circumstances.
Some of the power of Danticat’s fiction lies in its shocking subject matter; she often depicts violent death, incest, rape, and extreme poverty. Danticat fills her stories with characters who exist within a painful external world. Like Haitian writers who have come before her, Danticat battles against the despair of the past and the pain of exile while also describing a culture in which people learn, love, and laugh. Despite growing up in a society which often seeks to silence women, Danticat has found her voice. She has found a way to tell the stories of her country’s men and women and in a modern voice that brings attention to the problems of the past.
“Children of the Sea,” the first story in the collection Krik? Krakf, tells of young lovers separated by the political situation. He is a revolutionary who has been forced to flee Haiti on a small, rickety boat or risk his life at the hands of Duvalier’s secret police. The young woman he wants to marry remains with her family in Haiti where she continues to witness the ever-present horrors. The hero of the story, who is never given a name, epitomizes the choice that so many Haitians have faced over the years: exile or imprisonment. The heroine, also nameless, exemplifies the people who stay behind but must pay the price of silence.
The story is in the epistolary style, which means that it is written as a series of letters between the two main characters. Though they cannot send these letters, their telling of stories in the “Krik? Krak!” method lessens the pain of separation for them. “When we see each other again, it will seem like we lost no time,” one of them writes. Expressing their stories through writing rather than speaking also symbolizes their political oppression, since their separation is caused by their inability to speak freely in Haiti. The exchange of ideas must be secretive. The Haitians understand this and break their code of silence only when secrecy loses its power to affect change. The mother tells her daughter “sometimes you have to choose between your father and the man you love” after the young man has gone into exile. Conversely, Madan Roger holds on to her secret and never reveals the names of her dead son’s associates to the secret police. The young woman, while not hiding her relationship with the young man, does not tell her father of their love until the issue has become moot. Even when she does speak the truth, her father does not acknowledge the secret: “he looked me straight in the eye and said nothing to me … papa just turned his face away like he was rejecting my very birth.” The young man is the only person who cannot keep his thoughts to himself. His involvement with a revolutionary group, “the Radio Six,” provided him with a forum where “we could talk about what we wanted from government, what we wanted for the future of our country.” Though he escaped from Haiti, he will die because of his boldness.
The young woman’s father is the person who best understands the importance of secrecy. He wants his daughter to get rid of her radio show tapes because they would incriminate her. When Madan Roger is attacked by the secret police, he refuses to go to her aid because he knows he cannot protect anyone. While he is presented as a man too willing to submit to the injustices of Duvalier’s regime— “you can let them kill somebody because you are afraid, they are the law. it is their right,” he says — he does have a reason for being so paralyzed. The mother tells the daughter that the Tonton Macoutes were “going to peg [her] as a member of the youth federation and then take [her] away.” To save his daughter’s life, the father bribed them with the family’s money, home, and property. Her lover, unable to keep secrets, sacrifices himself to his beliefs. But her father, who keeps even this a secret, “gave everything he had” to save someone else. While the father is willing to find a way to live in Haiti, the young man, though he does not “want to be a martyr,” cannot keep his feelings to himself. The young woman is torn by the polar opposites the two men represent. At first she feels frustration at her lack of self-determination and her separation from her lover; then she takes out this frustration on her father instead of on the true culprit, Duvalier. After she learns of her lover’s death, however, she gets ready to take on a more active role in her future as she acknowledges “i don’t know what’s going to happen, but i cannot see staying here forever.”
A young pregnant girl traveling on the same boat as the revolutionary further represents the dilemma of secrecy. The other passengers speculate that Celianne was thrown out by her parents for having an affair, but the truth is far worse. Her baby is the result of being raped by the Tonton Macoutes. Immediately afterward, Celianne “cut her face with a razor so that no one would know who she was”; her desire to keep her secret is so strong that she is even willing to destroy her identity. Like the young woman’s father, Celianne keeps silent about her experiences, allowing the people of Haiti to cast blame on her rather than on the oppressive regime. But unlike the young man, she did nothing to bring her fate upon herself; even though she was innocent, she pays the cost of keeping her secret with her life. The only alternatives for Haitians, represented by Celianne and the revolutionary, both can lead to death. In the face of such options, it makes more sense to give up the secrets in hopes of creating a society in which such secrets will no longer exist.
As the lives of Haitians play themselves out against this backdrop of secrecy, it is fitting that the hidden world of the sea becomes the only place where the lovers can be together, at least spiritually. For the young man, the sea increasingly welcomes him. While he had first imagined he was “going to start having nightmares once we get deep at sea,” he instead dreams of dying and going to heaven and heaven is at the bottom of the sea. By the time the ship is about to sink, however, he knows he will “live life eternal, among the children of the deep blue sea, those who have escaped the chains of slavery.” With these words he draws the link between Haitians under Duvalier’s regime and the Africans who were forced from their homeland centuries ago. His speeches have hinted at this connection—”Yes, I am finally an African” because the sun has darkened his skin, the passengers go to the bathroom “the same way they did on those slave ships years ago”—but only when he has finally given himself to the idea of death does he accept that he has been “chosen” for this destiny because it is the only way to escape oppression. The sea is a vast, open space, and though it is far away from the young woman, they both know the sea is “endless like my love for you.”
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Edwidge Danticat, Published by Gale, 1997.
Rena Korb, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.