SEPTEMBER 18, 2019
IN “SEVEN STORIES,” the penultimate tale in Edwidge Danticat’s latest fiction collection, Everything Inside, a Brooklyn-based culture writer arrives on an unnamed Caribbean island on New Year’s Eve, invited by the prime minister’s wife. The writer and the wife knew each other briefly as little girls, and the governing couple and their security detail whisk the writer through sparkly holiday festivities enjoyed by the island’s millennial elite; it is sequined ball gowns, tropical fountains, and dinner with oligarchs. The island’s youthful prime minister gives lip service to an egalitarian vision of prosperity, but old problems crack through the facade. Beyond shantytowns splashed with bright pastel paint, a starker reality: silenced generations of women, xenophobia and colorism, the staggering gap between the island’s rich and poor, and unspoken hints of election fraud.
“Seven Stories” is an allegory. The old year ends with shedding the past, and the new year begins with a wedding and promise for tomorrow. Two of the island’s governing jet set — nicknamed Finance and the Runner for their respective achievements — get married at a seaside wedding in a small fishing village. The prime minister delivers a beachfront toast of fiery hope even as his wife whispers to the narrator the personal horrors she and her mother endured years before when they fled the island.
Danticat is a two-time National Book Award finalist, MacArthur Genius fellow, Neustadt laureate, and winner of scores of other prestigious literary honors. One hallmark of her mastery of prose is a gift for juxtaposition, the way she coaxes beauty from pain. Like one of her most famous characters, a Duvalier-era torturer known as the Dew Breaker, she soothes, then wounds with words, nudging the expectancy of pregnancy against the defeat of dying. “Literature thrives on suffering,” she tells us in her 2017 book of essays, The Art of Death. “What creates tension and conflict in most works of fiction is some type of useful, even if initially seemingly senseless, suffering.” Layering unsentimental, clear writing with resonant symbolic imagery, situation, and occasional Creole interjections, Danticat makes her characters suffer to useful effect. With it, she delivers elegant gut-punches of irony.
In “Seven Stories,” juxtaposition abounds in the layering and alternating of the prime minister’s positive message against his wife’s unveiling trauma, but one word contextualizes the story. It’s the name of the idyllic Caribbean fishing village where the New Year’s wedding between Finance and the Runner takes place, between “rolling dunes and sea-grape-lined promenade, framed by towering limestone cliffs rising out of the turquoise water.” The name of this stunning village is Maafa.
What may be unknown to some readers: Ma’afa is not a name on the map. Ma’afa is the Kiswahili term meaning “Great Disaster,” introduced in the ’90s by Africanist and anthropologist Dr. Marimba Ani to refer to the European enslavement of African peoples, the Middle Passage, and the pathological legacy of white supremacist power. Ani’s books Let the Circle Be Unbroken and Yurugu explicate what she refers to as an African-centered paradigm prioritizing spiritual wholeness in the diaspora. She used terminology borrowed from Akan, Swahili, Dogon, ancient Egyptian, and other African languages to self-define while delivering scathing and sweeping critiques of European cultural thought and behavior. Ani’s books are out of print, but Ma’afa defined as the “Black Holocaust” is widespread on the internet. So, this beautiful, whirlwind wedding marking the union between the island’s rich, young, and talented occurs in a picturesque Great Disaster.
At the end of “Seven Stories,” the morning after the wedding, the writer-narrator watches the sunrise over the beach in Maafa, the dawn looking “as though clouds were pouring liquid gold into the surrounding headlands and cliffs.” Everything happening — the promise of a new day, the beauty, the riches, the cracks, the scars that remain — exists within the context of the Great Disaster that came before. As the prime minister’s wife tells the writer, whose published essay about their brief time together as children sparked the initial invitation for the writer to visit the island, “No story is ever complete.”
Such is the point as well as the burden of Everything Inside, Danticat’s 21st volume, which includes her fiction, nonfiction, books for young readers, and the anthologies she’s edited. If no story is every complete, how can and should the artist, the writer, and the privileged among us respond creatively to another’s suffering? How do we appropriately witness someone else’s pain? Danticat ponders such questions through her discussion and analysis of Haitian and world art and literatures in her essays in The Art of Death and Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, and their fictionalized echoes appear within this volume, especially in “Seven Stories” and “The Gift,” whose narrators are writers and artists, and in “Hot-Air Balloons,” in which Rimbaud’s famous Je est un autre — “I is an other” — appears in a character’s botched chest tattoo.
The protagonist of the “The Gift,” an artist whose lover lost his wife, his daughter, and his leg in the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti ponders the appropriate artistic response to tragedy:
When you paint an earthquake, do you paint soil monsters devouring the earth? Shattered houses? Bloody, lifeless bodies? Random personal items — T-shirts, dresses, shoes, hair combs, and toothbrushes — scattered above the rubble? Do you paint cemeteries and grave markers and distraught mourners weeping over them? Do you paint crosses, wilted dust-covered flowers, or vibrant bright red ones, for hope? Do you write messages on your canvases, in case anyone misses the point? Or do you sketch your lover, his dead wife, and their dead baby daughter?
The artist in “The Gift” doesn’t quite get it right, drawing her lover’s dead wife and daughter as birds with human faces and legs; her attempt to memorialize them horrifies the man she is trying to comfort. Bearing witness is no easy task.
Another strong selection with a similar theme is the satisfying coming-of-age story “Hot-Air Balloons,” the story with the botched Rimbaud tattoo. The narrator is the child of migrant laborers who has made it to college, thanks in part to a world-class educational summer program. The narrator’s college roommate, on the other hand, had a privileged background as the daughter of the chair of the Caribbean Studies department at the college. While the narrator longs for economic stability, she is frustrated by the one-note stereotype of Haitian poverty she sees reflected in the United States rather than the rich complexity of Haiti’s landscape and culture. Meanwhile, the roommate drops out of college to work at a women’s organization that runs a rape recovery center in a poor area of Port-au-Prince. It’s a bittersweet story as the young women try to understand each other and almost do.
“Everything Inside,” the book’s title, alludes to a stop-sign-shaped security sticker on a character’s apartment door in the first story, “Dosas” — not the South Indian lentil pancakes stuffed with potatoes, but un-twinned extra children born after twins in Haiti. The sticker says, “NOTHING INSIDE IS WORTH DYING FOR.” However, “NOTHING” has been scratched out and replaced with “EVERYTHING” to read, “EVERYTHING INSIDE IS WORTH DYING FOR.”
As in Danticat’s oeuvre overall, death as a theme is never far from the center in Everything Inside. This is existentialist fiction: everyone is exiled in their own suffering, we can’t fully know another’s pain although we can touch it briefly, and our full essence — everything inside — is not manifest until the moment of death.
While the first three stories, “Dosas,” “In the Old Days,” and “The Port-au-Prince Marriage Special,” detail characters defrauded, conned out of money, sold fake medicine, tricked into travel, or falsely promised marriage, these scenarios feel less intimate, less rich than the last few stories. They are also less immediate than Danticat’s early novels, less profound and affecting than either her brilliant essays or Brother, I’m Dying, an exquisite memoir about the deaths of both her father in Brooklyn and her uncle who raised her to the age of 12 in the Bel Air neighborhood of Port-au-Prince.
Danticat has in the past written about her guilt after receiving criticism from some members of the Haitian-American community about the virginity testing her female characters underwent in her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, as well as her “reluctance to speak for the collective,” as when the media contacts her to comment in response to Haiti appearing in the US news cycle. This may explain why her nonfiction, in which she mines the material of her and her family’s experiences, is more intimate than her recent fiction, imagining lives of community members or compatriots — albeit invented ones — and why the allegory on an unnamed island in “Seven Stories” is one of the stronger selections in the book.
If a few of the stories feel distant, this is not the case for the powerful final piece, “Without Inspection,” in which Everything Inside’s existence-precedes-essence philosophy plays out literally. The story unfolds during the six and a half seconds it takes the protagonist to fall 500 feet from a construction scaffolding into a cement truck, and die as his crushed body sinks into the cement. Think Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, but instead of cataloging mundane daily life during an escalator ride, the protagonist, a Haitian boat refugee rescued from immigration police on Miami Beach by a woman whose husband had previously drowned, spends his final seconds of life recalling the beautiful new family he gained in the United States. It is the only story in “Everything Inside” that centers on immigration, a subject Danticat returns to in some of her most compelling fiction and nonfiction.
While in “Seven Stories” the Sun rises again with golden possibility after the Great Disaster, in “Without Inspection,” love and beauty are shimmering reveries at the very end of life. Each of the eight stories in Everything Inside is tragic in its own way. The last two stories are the strongest, the best showcases for Danticat’s talent, but the finale, “Without Inspection,” brought me to tears.