Edwidge Danticat's memoir, Brother, I'm Dying, is on one level a very familiar, prosaic story of a family and its loves, lives, deaths and triumphs. The intimate tale of a group of people held together by love despite circumstance and geographic distance resonates easily.
But engaging as the tale is, it's much more than a family history. What sets it apart is its setting. Danticat and her younger brother were raised mostly in Haiti, by her remarkable aunt and uncle. At age 12, Danticat joined her mother and father and two new younger brothers in New York. The family's stories unfold against the backdrop of Haitian struggles and political upheaval under Duvalier and the murderous Macoutes.
Danticat reads from her 2007 National Book Critic's Circle Award-winning book as part of the Drue Heinz Lecture Series on Mon., Oct. 6. The author of fiction works including The Dew Breakers and Krik? Krak? will also be interviewed onstage by Ian Rawson, who spent time in Haiti as founder of Friends of the Hôpital Albert Schweitzer.
Brother, I'm Dying also functions as a view into "the immigrant experience," as varied as such experience is for each immigrant. Having been raised by her uncle and aunt for so many of her formative years, Danticat found life in New York strange: Although she is their flesh-and-blood, her parents, like the place, seemed deeply "other."
One of her American-born brothers, meanwhile, was skeptical that the future author and her Haitian-born brother were really kin. It took some creative storytelling on the part of her Haitian-born brother to solidify them as a unit. The children's Creole language skills weren't quite up to snuff, and their mother would sometimes ask them, "Sa blan an di?" or, roughly, "What did the foreigner say?" -- a reflection of how she felt estranged from the culture her own children were being steeped in. And much later, when Danticat learns she's having a baby, her father teases her uncle that his "daughter" told him first.
As her uncle's health fades -- the Baptist minister loses his voice to cancer, then regains it through use of a voice box -- the New York branch of the family begs him to join them, to leave behind the chaos of Haiti. He resists until his church is burned and looted, and he seeks asylum in Miami in 2004, at 81. He dies there, in detention, with a valid tourist visa.
With a life that's crossed the Caribbean with countless visits to Haiti to teach and write, Danticat presents a clear picture of a family that wants more for its children, traversing national boundaries and making big sacrifices for generations to come.
Drue Heinz Lecture Series presents Edwige Danticat 7:30 p.m. Mon., Oct. 6. Carnegie Music Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. $25. 412-622-8866 or www.pittsburghlectures.org