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Edwidge Danticat rescues Haiti from its Western labels

Haitian Author Edwidge Danticat in 2004.

Gino Domenico/Associated Press

Claire of the Sea Light
Edwidge Danticat
Knopf Canada

It is a truth commonly acknowledged – at least, in literary circles – that the best way to convey a universal experience is to tell a unique and particular story. This has certainly been the case for Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat, who was born in Port-au-Prince in 1969. Danticat's parents relocated to the United States, leaving her in the care of an uncle. From her particular experience of absent parents, she has fashioned a brilliant literary explication of Haiti's history of missing people.

In works like The Dew Breaker, Krik? Krak! and The Farming of Bones, Danticat dramatizes the perilous lives of ordinary Haitians attempting to survive brutish regimes. To date, she has welded her fiction to a cataclysmic history. But her first book since the earthquake seems eager to offer respite from the headlines, to rescue Haiti from a grand narrative dominated by environmental disaster, boat people, deadly politics, and the label of "poorest nation in the West."

Claire of the Sea Light is a collection of luminous interlocking stories – a novel, really – about the lives of rich and poor in the fictional seaside town of Ville Rose. Inhabitants, whatever their station, demonstrate deep love, usually for a child. They suffer crippling losses. The intimate relationship between life and death remains Danticat's profound theme.

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In the opening tale, a freak wave sweeps away a fisherman and his sloop, one more death to mark the birthday of Claire Limyè Lanmè Faustin. Claire's mother died in childbirth the day she was born. Ever since then, the child's doting but impoverished father has contemplated giving her away. He would like her to be adopted by the town's wealthy fabric vendor, who could provide Claire with a better life. But the fabric vendor is mourning the death of her own child; year after year, she rejects the offer. On her seventh birthday, Claire Limyè Lanmè believes that change is coming. That evening, she runs into the hills to avoid having to leave her father.

The ensuing stories retreat from, move toward or encircle the night of Claire's disappearance, during which neighbours comfort the dead fisherman's wife, organize a search party for Claire and rescue a young man who attempts suicide. Each story – there are eight – unfolds into the next, accruing characters and spinning a web of associations. Through the fabric vendor we are introduced to the elites of the town, including the owner of the funeral parlour who doubles as mayor, and the headmaster of the best school. We also meet the headmaster's lover, a talk-show host, and his son, Max Jr., a "dyaspora" who lives abroad. Max returns from Miami to face the pain of his past, most significantly the murder of his true love in the gang-infested ghetto.

Danticat's ironic handling of death is often deliberately heavy-handed. But mostly she gently surprises us by who knows who, and who said what, and what so and so is capable of. There is déjà vu in the air, as if we already know what will happen – only we have absolutely no idea. Gossip is a favourite past time in Ville Rose and so is talk radio, which offers round-the-clock entertainment.

Di Mwen (Tell Me) is the name of a popular talk show about ordinary people and the moment that changed their lives. One guest, a former maid, recounts a rape and a secret pregnancy, humiliating one of Ville Rose's esteemed families and stirring malicious delight in the poor. The ability to tell one's story turns out to be a great equalizer, allowing the powerless to take revenge.

Di Mwen brings together the stories of regular folks, much as Danticat does with Claire of the Sea Light. Indeed, Danticat's book is literally a collection of modern-day folk tales, filled with folk songs and folk rituals, primarily surrounding the care and remembrance of the dead. Allusions to fairy tales and voodoo enhance this theme. During pregnancy, the fabric vendor swallows a dead frog to strengthen her ailing fetus, while gang members favour a beverage made with blood from a pigeon's slit throat.

History remains in the background, but its presence is still felt. The fabric vendor is descended from the free coloured woman who established the town. The castle Napoleon built for his sister crumbles nearby. Despite the strange blend of the imaginary and supernatural that shapes Claire of the Sea Light, Danticat firmly grounds us in time and place, leaving us floating somewhere between this realm and the next.

Donna Bailey Nurse is the editor of What's a Black Critic to Do?

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