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A Child of the Haitian Shore

Cosima Scavolini/Splash News/Corbis
Edwidge Danticat, Rome, June 2013

Nozias Faustin, a fisherman and widower in a Haitian village, has a dilemma. He loves his seven-year-old daughter, Claire, and therefore believes he should give her away. Especially if the town’s fabric vendor, Gaëlle Lavaud, will finally take her. Madame Lavaud is rich and has what Nozias hopes is a soft spot for Claire.

But, loving Claire, Nozias does not want to lose her. He loves his daughter with the faithful intensity with which he loved his wife, also named Claire, who died giving birth to her. In the evenings, in their shack near the water, he pretends to repair his net so he can sit close to his daughter as she singsongs through the school day’s vocabulary list. He enjoys bartering part of his morning catch for Claire’s breakfast of cornmeal or eggs, and buying her, each year, a slightly larger birthday dress of pink muslin.

Nozias’s dilemma—should he give up the child he loves for her own sake?—originates in his destitution. He worries, reasonably, that he cannot provide adequately for his daughter, that the sea might one day swallow him up and leave Claire an orphan, that Claire will someday wander too close to the brothels in Ville Rose. If he didn’t have to care for Claire, he thinks, he could go off to chèche lavi, look for a better life, on a sugarcane plantation or a big fishing operation in the Dominican Republic. He thinks of this every year when he asks the seamstress to sew his girl a new pink dress.

Shame plays a part. Nozias’s poverty embarrasses him and threatens his dignity, and he believes that Claire deserves better. The fisherman is “ill at ease with unsolicited kindness” he does receive—the schoolmaster has waived Claire’s tuition as a favor to a friend who employed the girl’s mother—but Nozias is “ashamed that his need for charity was so obvious.” Rearing Claire, Nozias thinks, “he would always need caretakers he couldn’t afford, neighbors from whom he’d have to beg favors, and women he could either pay or sleep with so they would mother his child.” Giving Claire up would be painful, but most of the time Nozias believes it’s “better a child cry for a parent now than for everything later on.”

With about 11,000 residents, a handful comfortable or wealthy and the rest “poor, some dirt-poor,” Ville Rose feels like many coastal places in Haiti: beautiful, beleaguered, a “small and unlucky town.” Jacarandas and bougainvilleas flower, the sea shimmers, and there is a palpable ethic of neighborly care and kindness expressed by the recurring Creole motif fòk nou voye je youn sou lòt (we must watch out for one another). But the town is in decline. Most residents are engaged in some version of “churning butter from water.” Pulling fish from the water is difficult enough. At the start of Nozias’s fishing career, the sea yielded large fish readily, but now even immature specimens must be coaxed out. No longer able to “let the sea replenish itself,” Nozias and his fisherman brothers go out every day, “even as the seabed was disappearing, and the sea grass that used to nourish the fish was buried under silt and trash.” They have no choice.

People in the mountains have no choice either. They chop trees for cooking fuel, so that during the rainy season water sluices down the hillsides, taking with it topsoil and debris and swelling the rivers in town. The rivers overflow nearly every year. Sometimes they take houses with them, their occupants still inside. Ville Rose’s only historical landmark, a castle intended as a gift for Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, is in ruins, tubers growing and animals grazing where the drawing room would have been. A flood of secondhand clothing, or pepe, from the United States has displaced the local fabric trade. The place becomes more unlivable by the year, and many of those who could leave Ville Rose already have. Still, it is choked with cars and buses and flanked by a crowded, violent slum. The radio station, the drug trade, and the mortuary thrive.

Singular events sharpen a mood of impending disaster. The first chapter opens with a freak wave that capsizes the town’s senior fisherman, “a giant blue-green tongue, trying, it seemed, to lick a pink sky.” Some pages later, Nozias recalls the sudden collapse of a Ville Rose school that killed more than one hundred pupils (this may be homage to the ninety-seven students killed when a school outside Port-au-Prince collapsed in 2008). One summer, a blistering heat wave makes the town’s frogs explode, and the frayed carcasses of kokis and dwarf jungle frogs litter the dry riverbeds. The sun is too hot for them to rot. They just dry up.

Claire of the Sea Light has a looming, end-times feel. The whole world is bearing down on Ville Rose. The question Edwidge Danticat explores is how this insecurity—the slow-motion environmental catastrophe, the ubiquitous but sharp poverty, and the Gordian knot of vicious cycles that seem to bind Haiti—affects intimate relationships, and particularly those between parents and children. Relationships that involve sex are ephemeral, often of secondary importance. Friendships, in contrast, seem stable and generous, uncomplicated. Siblings are curiously absent. But the relationships between parents and children sustain, haunt, and drive characters to do awful and transcendent things. “The worst possible case of unrequited love,” one character recalls, “was feeling rejected by a parent. Was the second worst being rejected by your child?”

Although parent–child bonds have figured in Danticat’s fiction before, never, to my knowledge, has the Haitian-American writer so explicitly considered the effects of material want on them. Her novel Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994) centered on a daughter’s anguished relationship to her mother, an immigrant in New York, and the sexual phobias she inherits. The Dew Breaker (2004) considered how the legacy of Duvalierist brutality refracts through immigrant families. Sexual violence and torture appear in Claire of the Sea Light, but they are understated, there to drive plot and not as vehicles to examine trauma or memory.

Happily, the book is wholly devoid of the fireworks that many English-language books set in Haiti feature: megalomaniac presidents (or presidents of any kind), Vodou priests, zombies, aid failures, peacekeepers, or cinematic, apocalyptic disasters. There are no blan, or foreigners, either, save for a young white doctor who offers vasectomies to Haitian men. (Initially tempted, Nozias leaps off the operating table after the first prick to his testicles, buttoning his trousers as he runs out.) The state, whose lack of capacity is made so much of by first-world policymakers, barely makes an appearance, with two exceptions: the mayor-undertaker, a jokey and benevolent man whose hands tremble constantly, and the police, whose methods are indistinguishable from those of the gangs they’re supposedly trying to wipe out. Poverty is a backdrop instead of a spectacle.

All this is to say that Danticat provides a welcome antidote to the narratives about “Haiti” that we’re used to reading in the West, home to the country’s largest foreign aid donors. When we speak of “Haiti,” it’s often speciously. Often we seek to judge whether it is good or bad, whether it is worth saving. We reify it without understanding what it is. Claire of the Sea Light, even more than Danticat’s other brilliant and humane work, counters this tendency. In avoiding the so-called big questions about Haiti, Danticat considers universal ones.

Dangerous waters and denuded hills get their due, but so does the otherworldly landscape of southern Haiti. Many of the characters in Claire of the Sea Light are alive to the sensual pleasures of Haiti’s terrain. Enough remain. Even as it vanishes or turns on its inhabitants, Danticat’s Haiti can seem like heaven: the “robin’s egg blue” of the sea; the cool, sharp stones of a riverbed on bare soles; an almond tree’s generous leaves; “splinters of daylight” that crisscross mahogany floors; a shower of sparks when fishermen cast salt into a bonfire; the sea that “sometimes sounded like one long breath.” Claire realizes she would miss the sea if she ran away,

the turquoise in the distance and its light-blue ripples up close, the white foam at the peaks of the waves…the milky or rosy clouds of dawn and the orange mists of sunsets.

Her father’s sail is a patchwork of discarded advertising banners as colorful and intricate as “rare butterflies.” In the cemetery, “bright-orange weeping willows” hang over sun-bleached tombstones and crosses rise from rust-colored earth.

Here is Nozias, remembering the bioluminescent algae he saw once during a night swim with his wife. It is like pixie dust:

Surrounding her was a dazzling glow. It was as though her patch of the sea were being lit from below. From her perfectly round breasts down, she was in the middle of a school of tiny silver fish, which were ignoring her and feeding on gleaming specks of algae floating on the water’s surface.

Danticat’s prose is typically sensitive and precise, and as usual, it resists sentimentality, especially when describing traumas. Danticat has a talent for making plain words thrill. “It was as if the heat of the kitchen had melted and sealed it,” she writes of a working-class mother’s stern and unchanging countenance. Describing a particularly introverted, mistrustful character, Danticat explains: “She wanted to turn away, but instead she pressed her eyelids so tightly together that they made another kind of sky, a sky full of fireflies and tiny torches.”

At the same time, Danticat’s language here feels looser, possessed of a generosity and, at times, a playfulness that seem new. The town’s residents joke that the mayor-undertaker will turn Ville Rose into a cemetery so he can get more clients. The mayor himself jokes like this, especially when he’s bantering with his closest friend. Their gentle shtick is funny and affectionate. (The mayor doesn’t have a bodyguard, he explains, because “if someone wants to kill me, they’ll just shoot the bodyguards first, then me. I’m saving the town money and the criminals bullets.”) Nozias recalls his wife’s strenuous efforts to conceive, which included various rum-soaked nostrums. These “made her drunk, which increased the frequency of sex, but led to no immediate results.” Even young Claire, contemplating the awfulness of her father giving her away, has an unwitting dryness: “The good news, Claire thought, was that her father did not try to give her away every day. Most of the time, he acted as though he would always keep her.”

For all the jokes and shimmering colors, the book is shot through with loss and grief, things that Haiti visits upon its residents much earlier than other places. Thinking of a fisherman’s song about a hat that falls into the sea, young Claire observes, “You never got back things that fell into the sea. She was surprised that the granmoun, the adults, were not singing this song all day long.”

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