Sunday, October 21, 2007
Here is a picture of some Malawian children and me, downloaded from my friend Baina's collection, which is up on Picassa. Yesterday I went to G's house where he had the software and the high resolution computer needed to open up the CD of pictures she had sent me. He and I looked at them, one by one, but did not even get through half--there were hundreds of beautiful photos, taken with her very discerning eye. Seeing them brought back so many warm memories...
I just finished Edwidge Danticat's memoir, Brother I'm Dying, with tears streaming down my face. I'm definitely going to use this book when I teach Memoir and Testimony at New College again this next winter/spring.
I am moved and amazed at Danticat's restraint, the way she conveys so much about the way her family loves each other without resorting to gushing, just letting the gentleness and consistency of their actions speak for themselves. There's no ego in this book--she doesn't present herself as either fatally flawed or saintly or terrifically accomplished (even though she is,)or anything else. She is present and accounted for, in the most unassuming way. Meanwhile, the portraits of family members leap off the page.
In the book, her uncle dies at Krome, a detention center in the Everglades that houses (imprisons) thousands of Haitian refugees. Inadequate food, health care, santitation, legal representation. I was there twenty-seven years ago, when I worked in Miami as a VISTA volunteer. Because I speak Creole, I went to Krome once or twice, to help the Haitian Refugee Center's American lawyer communicate with his clients. He had a huge caseload and no resources, and then as now, people hardly ever got out. The mistreatment of Haitians, both in Haiti and when they are refugees in this country, will go down in history as shameful.
Danticat's book rekindled my homesickness for Haitian culture and desire to return to Haiti, even though the country sounds much more dangerous and turbulent than when I last visited, in 1981. Then, it was still under the rule of Baby Doc Duvalier, who was a despot and a thief, but at least you could walk the streets safely. There were no guns going off, and no houses being torched, or roving gangs. In this book, Danticat describes a reign of terror from which there is no escape for thousands of ordinary people caught in the crossfire between gangs, the military, and U.N. "peacekeeping" troups.
C gave me this book for my birthday, Friday, when I turned 49. It was a quiet birthday, marked by some playing in the morning at Interplayce, some pampering in the afternoon, and then a good dinner and a movie (Elizabeth, with Cate Blanchett. Blanchett was fantastic; the movie flawed but interesting sent us to wikipedia that night to learn more about the real story of the Spanish Armada and Elizabeth's reign.)
I feel grateful, chastened and humble to have reached this age. What have I actually accomplished besides write a lot of poems and a few articles, and teach a lot of people? What have I been doing with my time here? While I was at the hairdresser's (the pampering part of the day,) I read in her current issue of People Magazine, about a woman who had fostered hundreds of disabled and seriously ill children, and adopted half a dozen of them. She also is forty-nine.
I admire this woman even though I don't know her. I admire Danticat for being able to write such a clear-eyed memoir in the midst of what must be great personal pain. I did work with Haitians, not just in Miami for that one VISTA year, but for years afterward, teaching English as a Second language in Boston. I did not go on and get a social work degree, or learn the medical skills necessary to go back to haiti as an aid worker, or even just continue slogging it out in ESL work. I knew I was burned out and I wanted to be an artist. I took another path.
I remember decades ago, being a sophomore in college and taking a walk with my then ten-year-old youngest brother.
"Do you know what you want to do when you grow up?" he asked me.
"I'm torn," I said. "I want to be a writer, but I also want to help people."
"When you write, you are helping people," he said.
"Yeah! You're expanding their minds!"
Out of the mouths of (admittedly very precocious) babes.