Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Nonfiction Files

The Nonfiction Files is a weekly journal of my adventures reading my toppling piles of nonfiction books. I won't be posting reviews, but rather my thoughts about what I'm reading, while I'm reading it.

I'm joined in The Nonfiction Files by Jehara. If you would like to play along with us, let me know!

My current read is Brother, I'm Dying by Edwidge Danticatt.

Synopsis from publisher:

From the best-selling author of The Dew Breaker, a major work of nonfiction: a powerfully moving family story that centers around the men closest to her heart — her father, Mira, and his older brother, Joseph.

From the age of four, Edwidge Danticat came to think of her uncle Joseph, a charismatic pastor, as her "second father," when she was placed in his care after her parents left Haiti for a better life in America. Listening to his sermons, sharing coconut-flavored ices on their walks through town, roaming through the house that held together many members of a colorful extended family, Edwidge grew profoundly attached to Joseph. He was the man who "knew all the verses for love."

And so she experiences a jumble of emotions when, at twelve, she joins her parents in New York City. She is at last reunited with her two youngest brothers, and with her mother and father, whom she has struggled to remember. But she must also leave behind Joseph and the only home she's ever known.

Edwidge tells of making a new life in a new country while fearing for the safety of those still in Haiti as the political situation deteriorates. But Brother I'm Dying soon becomes a terrifying tale of good people caught up in events beyond their control. Late in 2004, his life threatened by an angry mob, forced to flee his church, the frail, eighty-one-year-old Joseph makes his way to Miami, where he thinks he will be safe. Instead, he is detained by U.S. Customs, held by the Department of Homeland Security, brutally imprisoned, and dead within days. It was a story that made headlines around the world. His brother, Mira, will soon join him in death, but not before he holds hope in his arms: Edwidge's firstborn, who will bear his name — and the family's stories, both joyous and tragic — into the next generation.

Told with tremendous feeling, this is a true-life epic on an intimate scale: a deeply affecting story of home and family — of two men's lives and deaths, and of a daughter's great love for them both.

My thoughts so far:

A year or two ago, for my mom's birthday, I got her this Surprise Pack from Bas Bleu. (p.s. if you haven't found Bas Bleu yet...well, you probably shouldn't start, because it is just too much fun.) One of the books that came in that pack was Brother, I'm Dying. I was interested right away, because I'd read The Dew Breaker and found it to be riveting. When she loaned it to me a couple of months ago, and then last month mentioned I should think about reading it soon due to the current situation in Haiti, I knew I had to make it a priority.

The memoir opens with an auspicious day - the day the author discovers she is pregnant. It is also, somewhat tragically, the day she learns her father is dying. Her father has suffered from pulmonary fibrosis, a persistent, degenerative scarring and hardening of the lungs, and he is now clearly in the last stages of the disease. Unaware that her father knows the seriousness of his condition, she is surprised when he sits the family down together to talk about what will happen after he is gone. At that family meeting, his son Bob asks a significant question: "Have you enjoyed your life?"

The author's family seems to be at home with death in a way that is unusual by society's standards. That's not to say they are callous, or do not grieve the death of loved ones - they just seem to view death as natural and inevitable in ways that I'm not used to reading about. Perhaps this comes from the attitude of Edwidge's Uncle Joseph, who would say this at funerals:

"Death is a journey we all embark on from the moment we are born. An hourglass is turned and the sand starts to slip in a different direction as soon as we emerge from our mother's womb...But if we weep at death, it is because we do not understand death. If we saw death as another kind of birth, just as the Gospel exhorts us to, we wouldn't weep, but rejoice..."

She describes the day when she and her younger brother, along with a cousin, discover their dead grandmother in her bed. Instead of running and screaming, they very methodically went about analyzing the situation: they put a mirror in front of her mouth, and when it didn't fog with breath, they gently opened her eye. After determining that she was truly dead, they just as carefully lowered the lid they had opened.

The author also begins to tell the story of her life in Haiti as a young girl. Left behind by her parents who had immigrated to America, she was raised primarily by her Uncle Joseph and Aunt Denise. She discusses the hardships her mother, who was initially unable to join her father in America, faced trying to raise two children on her own. It's a fascinating look at the lives of the families left behind when people immigrate - in theory, the immigrants are looking to better the lives of their loved ones, but often their abrupt disappearance leaves confusion and fear in its wake, especially in the lives of young children. And then, when the children have finally adjusted to the reality of their new life, the immigrants return, disrupting their lives again.

I knew this would be an excellent read, and I haven't been disappointed. I'm going to have a hard time not reading this one straight through.

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