Haiti has endured a legacy of suffering whereby slavery transitioned into one of the bloodiest wars in modern history. Despite winning their political freedom to this day the Western powers impose economic strangulation and denounce their nondiscriminatory citizenship, the legitimate form of democracy, of which Beckles asserts as a crime “greater than slavery”. From the trauma of history, Haiti has withstood debt, imperialism and dictatorship, of which all have imposed oppression and angst. Under the Duvalier’s totalitarian regime during the later half of the twentieth century, extreme measures were enforced so as to combat resistance from the government. These measures include, but are not limited to, the systematic rape and murder of numerous Haitian women to prevent communal resistance. Haitian women have been subjected to objectification and denied identity throughout the patriarchal nation-state. The female gender is perpetually denigrated by rigorous traditions and the male construction of the female identity.
In Breath, Eyes, Memory Edwidge Danticat depicts a twentieth century Haitian immigrant, Sophie that leaves her small village in Haiti at the age of twelve, to move to New York to be with a mother she has not seen since her birth. This act of migration sets in motion a series of traumatic experiences around which Sophie must construct her identity. According to Ashcroft, “a valid and active sense of self may have been eroded by dislocation, resulting from migration… Or it may have been destroyed by cultural denigration, the conscious and unconscious oppression of the indigenous personality and culture by a superior racial or cultural model” (9). Sophie’s sense of self, however has been debased then on both fronts: Firstly, her migration to New York alienates her from all the comfort she has ever known, Tante Ante and Grandma Ife and relocates her to a woman from whom she has been apart physically since birth. Secondly, Sophie’s cultural denigration is in fact the denigration of her gender; female identity is constructed entirely by and for male relations in Haitian culture, insofar as women are only given identities through marriage and the system of oppression that it entails.
Females reinforce this ideology by subjecting their own family members to virginal testing to ensure purity before marriage, which justifies this premium placed on virginity. “Danticat writes another version of Haiti’s political history by focusing on women’s bodies – and the stories embedded there” (Francis). In other words, the novel illustrates a lineage of violation and victimization of women that is subject to and intertwined with a broader national oppression and subjugation. Yet it is through this lineage that a shared identity is formed and is inextricably linked from one another, in all forms of space and time, because the suffering manifested by violence perpetuates it. Danticat seems to be suggesting that the violence against one Haitian is the violence against them all, and the violence done by one Haitian to another is the same as violence done to oneself.
Breath, Eyes, Memory blurs the traditional lines of history, allowing memory to serve as a present force, rather than as a historical fact. Time and history are nonlinear. Martine and Sophie suffer over a bond of their own migration to New York from Haiti, and the painful nostalgia manifests while cooking the food that has a history, identity and memory in Haiti. Both of these women are a construction of womanhood whereby cooking a traditional cultural- food represents the woman of that culture, the identity of the domestic servant that has been constructed for them. Therefore, when their communication is served, the Haitian food embodies a shared identity between the women that Sophie is rebelling from. It is with a painful sense of repression that both Martine and Sophie refuse to cook the food which forces the present lack of family to the fore. “I usually ate random concoctions: frozen dinners, samples from global cookbooks, food that was easy to put together and brought me no pain. No memories of a past that at times was cherished and at others despised” (Danticat, 151). The text also bonds the role of traditional ‘individual’ identity towards multiple others.
The women of the Caco family are inextricably linked to each other’s past, present and future. It is her mother’s past sexual violation that informs Sophie’s present, and it’s for Sophie’s future that her mother begins to sexually violate her own daughter. In fact, she is so connected to her family, Sophie asserts, “her nightmares had somehow become my own, so much that I would wake up some mornings wondering if we hadn’t both spent the night dreaming about the same thing” (Danitcat, 193). Sophie’s own identity is so connected to her mother’s, that she also becomes victim to her mother’s pain. Additionally, Sophie’s own identity is also connected to every other Haitian woman that has been victimized by males. Sophie recounts the tale of a rich man marrying a poor girl that was pure. Keeping with tradition, he prepared linens to be paraded in front of the neighbors to prove his conquest over her virginity. When his bride did not bleed, “he took a knife and cut her between her legs to get some blood to show” (Danticat, 155). She bled so much that she died. “The emphasis placed on the public display of evidence of a girl’s virginity illustrates the ways in which women’s bodies are used to service male desires” (Francis) specifically, in this case, at the expense of a woman’s life and sexual organs.
Sophie’s own identity is equally connected to the dead bride’s: her ‘identity’ is constructed entirely by and to service male desires. It is by this acknowledgment that Sophie can remove some of the accountability of her own violation from her mother; “I knew my hurt and hers were links in a long chain and if she hurt me, it was because she was hurt, too. It was up to me to avoid my turn in the fire. It was up to me to make sure that my daughter never slept with ghosts, never lived with nightmares, and never had her name burnt in the flames” (Danticat ,203). Sophie acknowledges lineage of sexual violence that was both perpetuated against and perpetuated by her mother and her grandmother before her. In refusing to participate in violation that victimizes her own daughter, Sophie identifies her mother as a victim, but most importantly, as her violator. Sophie understands Haitian culture, that in her own failures and successes are inextricably linked to her families; that her own failure reflects the failure of her family, “If your child is disgraced, you are disgraced… If I give a soiled daughter to her husband, he can shame my family, speak evil of me, even bring her back to me” (Danticat, 165) and that “if you make something of yourself in life, we will all succeed. You can raise our heads” (Danticat, 44). Therefore, despite her marginalized dislocation, she still feels duty toward her family and her family’s honor.
Her mother, subject to violent nightmares that force her to relive her rape every night, forced Sophie to wake her up “before she bit her finger off, ripped her nightgown, or threw herself out of a window” (Danticat. 193). And when Sophie woke her she always said, “Sophie, you saved my life” (Danticat, 81). When Sophie begins to have her own suicidal thoughts, “some nights I woke up in a cold sweat wondering if my mother’s anxiety was somehow hereditary or if it was something that I had “caught” from living with her. Her nightmares had somehow become my own” (Danticat, 193). Her mother has an equal dependency on Sophie, and during the first of her virginal tests, tells the story: “The Marassas were two inseparable lovers. They were the same person, duplicated in two. When you love someone, you want him to be closer to you than your Marassa. Closer than your shadow. You want him to be your soul… Wouldn’t you scream? The love between a mother and daughter is deeper than the sea. You and I we could be like Marassas” (Danticat, 84-85).
Throughout the text, there is a theme of doubling; it is Sophie’s own doubling during her mother’s testing that gives her solace during her own violation. However, Sophie also illustrates the nation’s suffering: “There were many cases in our history where our ancestors had doubled. Most of our presidents were actually one body split in two: part flesh and part shadow. That was the way hey could murder and rape so many people and still go home to play with their children and make love to their wives” (Danticat, 155-156). Doubling is used for both the victim and the victimizer. Internalizing her own “embodied protest” (Susan Bardo), Sophie doubles as she mutilates herself with a pestle to prevent her mother’s testing. Sophie becomes her own victimizer, one that sexually violates her own self to create autonomy from her mother’s sexual violation. Her own sexual trauma from her mother’s testing forces Sophie to double during intercourse with her husband: “he reached over and pulled my body towards his. I closed my eyes and thought of my Marassa, the doubling” (Danitcat, 200). Sophie brings forth her Marassa – who doubles as her mother and her perpetrator of her trauma.
Even Sophie’s bulimia functions as an articulation of violence. It is both her violence toward herself and the hatred of her body that has been victimized and her violence against all those who committed violence against her. She is attempting to express agency over her own body. Bulimia, however, is well known to be a disease that the subject does not control. The bulimia symbolizes Sophie’s lack of autonomy over her own body despite her attempts. She is therefore fixing a cycle of suffering. She is perpetuating a system that causes her own violence to herself under the delusion of her own agency. Tante Atie never marries, and therefore, cannot be defined through her husband, and as a result, is never identified, “my life, it is nothing…The sky seems empty even when I am looking at the moon and stars” (Danticat 136). Atie bares only part of the intergeneration conflict. Women are only defined through their husbands, and are constructed at birth to be a domestic servant. “Haitian men, they insist that their women are virgins and have their ten fingers. According to Tante Atie, each finger had a purpose. It was the way she had been taught to prepare herself to become a woman. Mothering. Boiling. Loving. Baking. Nursing. Frying. Healing. Washing. Ironing. Scrubbing. It wasn’t her fault, she said. Her ten fingers had been named for her even before she was born” (Danticat 151).
As identity is only to given to married females, and is limited to that, other females subscribe to this larger ideology of the female economy (i.e. marriage market) and reduce their own daughters to their genital organs by practicing virginal testing. Sophie understands how the testing functions as a lie; her grandmother performed it on both her mother and Tante Atie, and her mother’s virginity was forcibly taken, while Tante Atie never married, rendering the trauma from the tests useless. Sophie’s comprehension of the construction of the testing gestures to her knowledge of patriarchal oppression, rather than blame her grandmother she says “it was very hard to be angry at my grandmother. After all she was only doing that made her feel like a good mother. My mother too” (Danticat, 208). Sophie is implying that the accountability lies within the nation-state, with the patriarchal regime.
Sophie understands herself as “a living memory from the past” (Danticat, 56). Her mother’s past trauma is tied congruently to her own past, present and future. She previously notes that she was “born out of the petal of roses, water from the stream, and a chunk of the sky” (Danticat, 47). In order to reclaim the stake in her own autonomy she must claim her mother’s pain. She finally acknowledges: “My father might have been a Macoute. He was a stranger who, when my mother was sixteen years old, grabbed her on her way back from school. He dragged her into the cane fields, and pinned her down on the ground. He had a black bandanna over his face so she never saw anything but his hair which was the color of eggplants. He kept pounding her until she was too stunned to make a sound” (Danticat 139). By looking toward her origin, she can look past her victimized family, and arrive at her own identity. The women of the Caco family endure the same identity due to their suffering and trauma.
This identity is constructed by the patriarchal regime that refuses any identity to women but the role of domestic servant. Even this can be denied, however, to the unmarried woman. Women are denied any voice in society. Sophie is literally silent from the moment she discovers she is being physically dislocated which only further deepens her feelings of alienation, “I felt closer to tears with each word I thought of saying, so I said nothing” (Danticat, 18). Her grandmother reminds her that “people have died for saying the wrong things” (Danticat, 118), and so Haitian women are subjected to silence by “the Tonton Macoute [who] was a bogeyman” (Danticat, 138), and historically enforced the extremely oppressive and totalitarian dictatorship of the Duvaliers, and by larger societal expectations that construct women in only one role: the domestic servant. She is thus taught that she is to endure in a displaced silence. Indeed, even Sophie’s mother was literally silenced by her society, by her rapist who “kept pounding her until she was too stunned to make a sound” (Danticat, 139).
Ashcroft, Bill. The Empire Writes Back. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Danticat, Edwidge. Breath, Eyes, Memory. New York: Vintage, 1994.
Francis, Donnette A. “‘Silences Too Horrific to Disturb’: Writing Sexual Histories in Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory.” Research in African Literatures 35.2 (2004): 75-90. Web. April 1 2012.
Sarthou, Sharron Eve. “Unsiliencing Defiles Daughters: Overcoming Silence in Edwidge Danicat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory”. The Global South 4.2 (2010): 99-123. Web. April 1 2012.
Nicole Billitz Professor Russell LIT 4192 1 April 2012
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