Hannibal Free Public Library

Brother, I'm Dying

Edwidge Danticat

July 27, 2009

When she was four, Edwidge Danticat's mother left Haiti to join her father who had gone to New York two years earlier, leaving her and her younger brother, Bob, in the care of her father's brother, Joseph.  She came to think of her uncle Joseph as a second father.  When she was twelve, Danticat struggled to integrate herself into her parents' household.  Meanwhile, her uncle was absorbing the challenges of life in Haiti as its political situation deteriorated and violent gangs gained in power.  The story Danticat tells is often disturbing as the people she loves are exposed to misfortune, injustice, and violence, but ultimately, Brother, I'm Dying is reassuring in its expression of deep familial love and enduring bonds.

1.      Danticat tells us that she has constructed the story from the recollections borrowed from family members.   Discuss what this work of reconstruction and reordering means for the structure of the story she presents, as well as for her own understanding of what happened to the two brothers.

2.      What is the effect of her decision to end the book with her Granmè Melina's story about the girl who wanted the old woman to bring her father back from the land of the dead? How does the story reflect on the book as a whole, and on the act of writing?

3.      How does young Edwidge retain her loyalties to her parents, even though they are absent from her life for so many years? Is there evidence that she feels hurt or rejected by their decision to leave for the States? How does she feel when they come back to visit Haiti with two new children?

4.      If so few words are passed between Danticat's parents and their two children in Haiti , how were their emotions transmitted? Is there a sense in the book that Danticat is emotionally reticent even after her reunion with her parents?

5.      Danticat found a scrap of paper on which she had written, soon after coming to Brooklyn , “My father's cab is named for wanderers, drifters, nomads. It's called a gypsy cab.” [p. 120]  What does this suggest about how she understood, or thought about, her father's work and her family's status in America ? What does it reveal about a young girl's interest in the power of words?

6.      How does the family's engagement with Haiti 's political history affect Joseph's unwillingness to emigrate to the U.S. ? Why does he refuse to leave Haiti , or even to remove himself from the dangers of Bel Air?

7.      Consider the relationship between the two brothers, Mira and Joseph. There is a significant difference in age, and Mira has been away from his brother for decades by the end of the story. Despite this, they remain close. What assumptions about kinship and family ties are displayed in their love for each other? Are these bonds similar to, or stronger than, ties you would see between American-born brothers?

8.      Does what happened to Joseph while in custody in Florida suggest that racist assumptions lie at the heart of U.S. immigration policy? Is Danticat right to wonder whether this would have happened had he not been Haitian, or had he not been black? Does it seem that the family could have taken legal action against the Department of Homeland Security?

9.      Danticat says, “I am writing this only because they can't.” [p. 26]  As a girl, Edwidge was often literally her uncle's voice after his tracheotomy. Why is it important that she also speak for her father and her uncle in writing this memoir?

10.  What is your response as a reader when Danticat describes the death of her cousin, Marie-Micheline, or her uncle's list of the bodies he has seen on the street, or when she recounts the story of the men laughing as they kick around a human head, or the threat of the gangs to decapitate her uncle Joseph, or the looting and burning of his home and his church? How does this violence resonate against the warmth and love that are so clearly expressed by the feeling of Danticat's extended family members for each other?

11.  How does Danticat convey a sense of the richness of Haitian culture? What are the people like? What are their folk tales like? How does their use of both Creole and French affect their approach to language and speech? How does she make us feel the effects of the violence and poverty that the Haitians endure?

12.  Yvonne Zipp commented about the book in The Christian Science Monitor, “If there's such a thing as a warmhearted tragedy, Brother, I'm Dying is a stunning example.”  Do you agree?

Questions adapted from:  www.randomhouse.com