Wednesday, October 1, 2008

After the Dance by Edwidge Danticat

Well, Morrigan yesterday told me 'Dad, you've read too many books about Haiti.' So, I guess I'll have to pick a different topic for my next.

This is my first book by Edwidge Danticat, probably (thanks to Oprah Winfrey, who apparently has featured her books) the most popular Haitian-American writer, today. Altogether, it was a strange experience. I had picked up the book (after reading the jacket notes) with two expectation - that it would be a fairly earthy vicarious experience of the Haitian Carnival experience, and that it would feel like the confessions of an insider. Neither of these things turned out to be true - in fact, the story had a stragne sense of detatchment, throughout, as if it were written by someone who was there, but not quite there, and most of the book - including what I felt were the best sections - had only the slightest relation to Carnival.

After the Dance is less like a story, and more like a collection of essays. Ms Danticat was born in Haiti, and lived in Port-au-Prince until, I believe, she turned 12 - since then she has lived in the United States, more or less, I believe. It shows in her writing, she has some of the distance and wonder of an outside observer - but in many ways, she does write the insider's story, because when she writes about Haiti, she returns to when she was there, not just, often, in her stories, but in her self. She is filled with a spirit of a 12 year old Haitian girl, and somehow retains the subtle balance between wonder, awkwardness, pain and hope that a sensitive, lonely 12 year old might keep.

As a child, Danticat never attended Carnival - she lived with a Baptist minister, and Carnvial is not exactly a pious occaision in the American Protestantism sense of the word. Carnival, as a child, was presented as a terrifying spectacle. I did not really understand why she went back to experience it - because the desire seems very specific. She ggives reasons, but they feel awkward, incomplete. At first I felt like this was a weakness of the book, like she just needed to admit that her editor told her to write a book about carnival, or she wanted to get drunk, or whatever the reason was. But the more I read, the more I respect this vagueness - whether she, as a woman, knew why she was going, she as the narrator, did not. The moments of quiet become the most powerful moments in a book about a noisy thing - the moments in graveyards, or by a desolate, broken steam engine, or in a pine forest.

In many ways, there are three stories, paralleling each other here. The first is the obvious - it is the story of a city preparing for Carnival, a city preparing to be wild, happy, alive, in a world of oppresive sorrowful death. It is a festival where one dances at once with the dead, with demons, and with the old and new slavedrivers of the Haitian world - conquistadors, Papa Doc Duvalier, the American military, AIDS. But in the Carnival of Death, on the cusps of the graveyards, the Haitians dance, and sing, and laugh. This is a parallel to the country itself, a nation that might have been thought of as a historical abortion, as a nation that almost was but never quite managed to be. But, like the Zombie dancers that she talks about, the nation itself continues to plod along, the people survive, and live, and make joy, even as they stand up as examples of living corpses.

The last tale, perhaps she did not intend, but it was the most poignant of all for me, and the one that made the other two more than a mere political fable - in the midst of the story, is a voice of a little child, who left home at 12 years old to go to America, who never quite finished becoming one of her nation, in some way - a death before birth, of a cultural identity. But, even here, like Maman Brigitte in an Oak tree, or the Mary vines in the graveyard she describes, there is the face of life in Death, rebirth in marriage to death, the endless blooming of a thing that never blooms. Ms Danticat somehow manages to be both less than and more than the sum of the world around her, an eternal child, in all the tragedy and hope of eternal childhood - much like Haiti itself.
After the Dance: A Walk Through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti (Crown Journeys)
By: Edwidge Danticat
Amazon Price: $16.95


Amanda said...

How similar are Carnival in Haiti and Mardi Gras in New Orleans? Do they have the same origins?

Unknown said...

Carnival and Mardi Gras are more or less the same thing - Mardi Gras, technically would refer (as it literally translates I believe) to 'Fat Tuesday', the day before Ash Wednesday, and the final day of Carnival. In New Orleans, the entire festival is shorthanded to be referred to as Mardi Gras, but technically, it's Carnival. Mardi Gras is only the penultimate day of the festival.

Specifically, however, the National Carnival of Haiti is held in Jacmel the Sunday before Mardi Gras, I believe (possibly two Sundays before, I may be confused). But that's just the day they have a big parade. The Carnival season continues throughout, and as Ms Danticat states, pretty much goes from February through Fat Tuesday.

Trixie said...

When I spent some time in Louisiana several years ago, I learned that Mardi Gras wasn't the whole celebration.
Accourding to Wiki (http:// the three day period leading up to Ash Wednesday is celebrated. I just remember Monday is Lundi Gras, and there was something called a King Cake to eat.