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.”

In fact, some Ville Rose adults do sing a version of that lament. One is Bernard Dorien, a young man whose fondest dream is to host a radio show called Chimé, or Ghosts, about the gangs that rule his slum neighborhood. He wants to go deep; he wants to investigate what kind of humanity lurks under the gang members’ apparent amorality. One of his first guests will be a leader named Tiye, whose name means “Kill” and who has a prosthetic arm:

He would open Chimé with a discussion of how many people…had lost arms, legs, or hands. He would go from limbs to souls—to the number of people who had lost siblings, parents, children, and friends. These were the real ghosts, he would say, the phantom limbs, phantom minds, phantom loves that haunted them because they were used, then abandoned, because they were out of choices, because they were poor.

No character in Claire of the Sea Light agonizes over her losses as does Gaëlle Lavaud, the fabric seller who resists Nozias’s attempts to give her his daughter. During one of the affairs she uses to soothe her heartache, a man involved with her tells her, “No one will ever love you more than you love your pain.” Gaëlle sees his point. “Her pain, her losses: these were what was keeping her in this town,” even though she no longer has kin in Ville Rose, even though, she thinks, her losses had weakened her instead of making her stronger.

Her husband was her childhood sweetheart and the sun around which she revolved. He was killed, a bystander in a gang shooting, the night Gaëlle gave birth to her daughter, Rose. Her husband’s death throws Gaëlle into a nihilistic depression. But the infant resurrects the mother, first through nursing—a practice Gaëlle continues well into Rose’s childhood—and later, through mothering:

Gaëlle got out of her bed only when she could no longer keep her daughter in it, when the child began to crawl. And when her daughter started to walk, Gaëlle walked again. And when Rose began to talk, Gaëlle talked again.

As she grows, the girl replaces the husband as the center of Gaëlle’s life. She dies at seven, thrown off a moto-taxi like “an angel in a navy-blue pleated skirt and white blouse, raising both her hands and flapping them like wings, before she hit the ground.” Gaëlle’s ensuing despair is marked not by the listlessness she felt after her husband’s death, but by rage and confusion. Her losses do not make sense to her; she cannot comprehend them. The reader senses her grasping for a moment of relief when she attempts to blame herself:

Maybe she was not worthy of growing old with the man she had loved most of her life. Or of seeing her daughter grow up. Could it be that there was a puppet master somewhere who despised her and had decided that she was to be made an example of?

That kind of answer doesn’t help. All that keeps her alive is her eagerness “to see what would come next, what her husband and daughter had missed.” She thinks constantly of her dead family, especially her daughter, and what she would be like as a ten-year-old, an eleven-year-old:

Would she still push her head back now and then and shout ‘Papa!’ to the clouds, then ask if everyone was in heaven, why there was any need for cemeteries? Why didn’t the dead just float up and drift away like balloons?

Each of the book’s eight chapters is told from the point of view of a different character in Ville Rose, but most are in a consistent, third-person voice. The last chapter is the exception. It is a stream of consciousness almost sung by seven-year-old Claire.

Elsewhere, Danticat has resisted calling Claire of the Sea Light a novel, and though the connection of one chapter’s narrative to the next is explicit, together they feel like a fugue or a set of variations. The book is intensely patterned, its plot full of repetitions, resonances, and symmetries. Diagrammed, it might look like a veve, the patterned floor markings of chalk or flour that Vodou saints use to summon the spirits.

The most prominent symmetry is between Nozias, the poor fisherman, and Gaëlle, the wealthy fabric vendor. They are like mirrors on either end of a long hall that reflect each other’s life events. Both lose well-loved spouses on the very day of their daughters’ births. Like Gaëlle, Nozias is sustained in his early grief by his infant daughter: during her first day of life, he realizes that he cannot kill himself because doing so would mean abandoning the child. Worries over her—what to feed her, how to protect her from malaria and dengue—compete with the ache in his heart. Both Gaëlle and Nozias take casual lovers to pass the nights, and neither has notable siblings, other children, or family nearby.

Nozias’s quest to feed his daughter on the first day of her life leads to Gaëlle’s gate, for nearly everyone in town knows that Gaëlle has not yet weaned three-year-old Rose. Gaëlle gives the swaddled, newly born Claire her first nourishment. Afterward, Nozias thinks of Claire and Rose as milk sisters, and Gaëlle reinforces the familial link by offering Nozias space for his wife’s body in her family’s cemetery plot.

Such echoes shoot through the book, which begins on Claire’s seventh birthday and then dips into the pasts of its other characters. The final chapter returns to Claire’s birthday, a circle closed. On that day, two children run away from their fathers, both slipping off while their fathers’ faces briefly turn from them. Bernard, familiar with the gangs and brutalized at the police station, can’t help but notice that the police and the gang members punch, laugh, and taunt the same way. “They could all have switched places and no one would have noticed.”

As in Haiti, death comes close to life. They inhabit the same temporal space. Claire’s birthday is “also a day of death”: her mother died in childbirth, Rose died the day Claire turned four, and the freak wave capsizes a fisherman on her seventh birthday. Sometimes death and life inhabit the same person, as with Claire’s mother. Before she became pregnant, she washed corpses at the mortuary. Though some people would neither touch her hands nor eat the food she cooked, Nozias believes that his wife’s compassion for the dead would have made her a good mother.

Life also comes close to death. The last chapter is a reverie told from Claire’s point of view as she runs up a mountain that frightens her toward the lighthouse that was likely her namesake. Angry at having been forsaken by her father, Claire thinks of herself as a maron, a runaway slave, and anticipates living in caves and sneaking down to the beach for the occasional snack. As she approaches the beacon, she sees that the village below has come alight in a search for her, with “so many people calling her name that their voices made their way all the way up the hill.” Claire remains quiet and hidden, determined to stay away.

What eventually draws Claire back to her father at the end of her long seventh birthday is the sight of him and Madame Lavaud trying to resuscitate a man who has washed up, half-drowned, on the beach. It is then, perhaps, that Claire catches a glimpse of this book’s wonder: how her mother created her and died for her, how she saved her father’s life, and, eventually, how Gaëlle and Nozias and she might save one another. “She had to go back,” Danticat writes,

and see her father and Madame Gaëlle, whose own sorrows could have nearly drowned them. She had to go down to the water to see them take turns breathing life into this man, breathing him back to life. Before becoming Madame Gaëlle’s daughter, she had to go home, just one last time.