A Child of the Haitian Shore

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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 …

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