Tortured history
Novelist Edwidge Danticat's 'Dew Breaker' raises ghosts of Haiti's violent past and present

By STEVE BARNES, Arts editor
First published: Sunday, April 25, 2004

The title character of Edwidge Danticat's new novel, "The Dew Breaker," has no name, just roles. In chapters set in the New York of the recent past and today, he is father, husband, barber, landlord -- a man who lives a blameless if isolated life in a Haitian immigrant community in Brooklyn.

In the Haiti of 35 years ago, however, he was a terrifying figure: a torturer and member of the Tontons Macoutes, a volunteer army of henchmen and enforcers for the despotic Duvalier regimes. The torturers were called "dew breakers" because, one character says, "They'd ... come before dawn, as the dew was settling on the leaves, and they'd take you away."

Knowing just one word, torturer, as you start the book casts a spell of fear and suspicion. The man's past lurks in the background of chapters in which he never appears, and you fear he'll suddenly pop up, like one of the bogeyman that bedevil Haitian children's fairy tales and gave the Tontons Macoutes their name.

"He's a ghost that haunts every story," confirms Danticat, on the telephone from Milwaukee during the book-publicity tour that will bring the 35-year-old author to the New York State Writers Institute on Monday. "You're not sure whether he'll be there or not."

Interconnected stories

The structure of her book furthers that sense of dread by delaying a full portrait of the title character until the final chapter. The previous eight chapters -- really more like interconnected short stories -- focus on different characters affected, directly or indirectly, by the Dew Breaker. They are, as one character observes, "men and women whose tremendous agonies filled every black space in their lives" and are "chasing fragments of themselves long lost to others."

In the opening chapter, a 30ish sculptor named Ka has traveled to Florida with her father -- whom she has always believed was a victim of the Macoutes, not one of them -- to deliver a sculpture to a client. She awakens one morning to find her father and the artwork, a mahogany carving of him, gone. He later admits to throwing the sculpture in a lake. "I don't deserve a statue," he tells her, then explains why: "(Y)our father was the hunter, he was not the prey."

Subsequent chapters look at other characters: a seamstress driven mad because the man who brutalized her in Haiti has for years lived near her in Brooklyn; a man who, after fleeing Haiti as a child after his parents were killed, returns to tell the aunt who raised him that he has rented a room from the Dew Breaker and intends to kill him; and women in an English-as-a-second-language class who share drinks and stories of Haiti.

Finally, the title story offers an unflinching portrait of how a young man from rural Haiti became a monster and, after a last act of violence, meets the woman who will become his wife.

No answers

That woman is eventually asked by Ka, her daughter, "How do you love him?"

"That is the central question of the entire book," Danticat says. "How does one love someone like that? ... The book doesn't attempt to answer that question, but it ... shows the process by which both the mother and the daughter attempt to go about answering it for themselves."

Danticat herself says she could neither love nor forgive the Dew Breaker. Paraphrasing the deranged Kurtz in "Heart of Darkness," she says, "I am of the mind of ... execute all the brutes."

But, she says, "It's interesting to explore these impossible situations." The book grew, she says, out the first story, "The Book of the Dead," in which Ka and her father travel to deliver the sculpture. Questions raised in that story -- "How do you love him?" -- and characters and situations it describes suggested additional stories.

Airing the traumas

Haiti is a country whose 200 years of independence, being celebrated this year, have seen dozens of coups and seemingly endless cycles of bloody violence. It has never had a full airing of the traumas inflicted on its people. Danticat thinks such reflection, in the manner of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is not yet possible, because such national self-analysis requires several years of internal peace and security. Haiti's traumatic upheavals continue still.

"I really wanted to explore whether it's possible at all to forgive, and whether it's possible at all for these types of characters to redeem themselves," she says.

As each tells his or her story, the cumulative effect is of testimony, an accounting of crimes.

Danticat, born in Haiti, came to the United States in 1981 at 12 to join her parents, who had immigrated years earlier, in Brooklyn. She learned English by watching "Sesame Street" -- and learned it well enough to eventually go to Barnard College, then to Brown University to study fiction writing.

"The Dew Breaker," her fourth work of adult fiction, follows three widely heralded books: "Breath, Eyes, Memory" was chosen for Oprah Winfrey's book club in 1998; "The Farming of Bones" won an American Book Award in 1999; and her 1995 collection of stories, "Krik? Krak!," was a National Book Award finalist.

After her book tour for "The Dew Breaker" ends, Danticat will return to her home in Miami's Little Haiti district, where her husband runs a translating business. Her next book is a work for young readers about Anacoana, a 15th-century female leader of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, now split between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. It's already finished.

Something new

"One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was to try to start work on something new before you have any response to the thing you just finished," she says. That way, neither self-satisfied complacency from rave reviews nor despondency over critical savagery will keep you from continuing to write.

She'll promote the new book soon, she says, then set out to write another novel.

"The process begins all over again," she says. "I have to sit down and bang my head against and start from scratch."

For additional material, and to visit family and friends, she returns to Haiti every three or four months, most recently in January -- just before the beginning of this year's violence, which ultimately led to the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

"Things hadn't unraveled yet when I was there," Danticat says. "The demonstrations had started ... but you didn't know what kind of storm was coming. There were pro-Aristide demonstrations and anti-Aristide demonstrations. It was sort of going back and forth, and I couldn't tell how it was going to end."

Because her new novel and its attendant publicity tour coincided with Aristide's unseating, Danticat often finds herself, as a respected Haitian-American novelist whose subject is her native county, asked to explain and interpret what's going on. But, she says, the role of commentator ill suits her.

"I don't have any idea, and I'm not afraid to say that," she says. "I don't have the big picture -- first of all because I live here, and second because I'm a fiction writer. My best reaction is my fiction, and that takes some time and reflection and nuance."

Further, she says, she's incapable of the sound-bite assessment that is useful for journalists. "The situation is so complicated anyway, and I don't have the luxury of declaring somebody totally evil or somebody totally saintly. ... So I say I do not know."

Steve Barnes can be reached at 454-5489 or sbarnes@

'Like any other job'

An excerpt from Edwidge Danticat's "The Dew Breaker," in which the title character is working as a torturer for the Duvalier regime in Haiti:

The way he acted at the inquisitions in his own private cell at Casernes eventually earned him a lofty reputation among his peers. He was the one who came up with the most physically and psychologically taxing trials for the prisoners in his block. He was suffering, he knew it now, from what one of his most famous victims, the novelist Jacques Alexis, had written was the greatest hazard of the job. Tu deviens un veritable gendarme, un bourreau. It was becoming like any other job. He liked questioning the prisoners, teaching them to play zo and bezik, stapling clothespins to their ears as they lost and removing them as he let them win, convincing them that their false victories would save their lives. He liked to paddle them with braided cowhide, stand on their cracking backs and jump up and down like a drunk on a trampoline, pound a rock on the protruding bone behind their earlobes until they couldn't hear the orders he was shouting at them ....

When one of the women who had been his prisoner at Casernes was interviewed three decades later for a documentary film in her tiny restaurant in Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood, the gaunt, stoop-shouldering octogenarian, it was said, would stammer for an hour before finally managing to speak, pausing for a breath between each word. She couldn't remember his name, nor could she even imagine what he might look like these days, yet she swore she could never get him out of her head.

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Edwidge Danticat