Grieving the Imaginary: Immigration and Loss in Edwidge Danticat's Brother, I'm Dying

Every immigrant knows years and even decades can pass before loved ones see each other again, much happens in the absence of the emigres, family members die and new family members are born. The people at home and the people in the diaspora grow old, life continues to happen. At the end of his life, Edwidge Danticat’s father suffers from a terrible chronic illness. Together, Danticat's father and uncle navigate the inevitability of death, and the different types of loss experienced by immigrant families.

Brother, I'm Dying is an autobiographical book by Haitian American writer Edwidge Danticat. Danticat's parents moved to the United States leaving her in the care of her father's brother and his wife Uncle Joseph and Tante Denise until the age of 12. Edwidge Danticat and her younger brother Bob eventually joined their parents in the United States, leaving behind a tight knit extended family. This is as much a story about two brothers as it is a story of a daughter's brave attempt at filling the gaps of time spent apart.

I held a book club meeting to discuss this book a few hours after I finished the book. Days later, I’m still processing. I’m an immigrant, I have not seen my family in years, my mother passed away, while I was thousands of miles away, from a chronic illness, I had been there when she was first diagnosed, got better, got worse, and when she oscillated between these two arbitrarily, but I was not there when she passed.

More must change in the world, proximity to whiteness and wealth is not justice or the ultimate reward for those who have suffered under white supremacy, capitalism and neocolonialism.

The political instability that plagues Haiti reminds me of my own teapot shaped country. We have our own version of Duvalier's macoutes. That’s why many of us have left. We all know elderly family members who could not imagine being anywhere else, and that the long arm of oppression can kill us even when we are far from home. We have left voluntarily and under duress at the same time. Danticat's uncle is one of the ones who stayed behind. The love of one's country is a nuanced and complex manifestation of both reality and fantasy, as seen by the way Edwidge Danticat remembers her departure and in the way Danticat's uncle imagines the future. In an interview, the President of Multicultural Women's Press, Marlene Racine Toussaint asks Edwidge Danticat why she is still so connected to Haiti even though she left the country at a very young age. Danticat responds by saying, "This attachment comes from these sort of..this sort of pull of that departure...I think that attachment is I just felt like, I just...I always had that feeling that feeling when I left that, one more day, I wanted one more day, and every time I go back to Haiti it's like trying to get that one more day." I've thought a lot more about that in the context of this book about grief. Brother, I'm Dying is not only about the physical loss of loved ones, but it echoes the loss of home felt by Edwidge Danticat.

This book was also particularly raw for me, in the wake of Chadwick Boseman’s passing. Brother, I’m Dying is a book about two loving father figures, one of whom suffers from a chronic illness to which there is no cure. I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to the experience of losing an icon whom we had come to view as a leader, the first major Black Superhero, a father to a nation that we can only dream of, this utopia we yearn for amidst our own reality of violence and oppression. I couldn't help but think of the pain he experienced in the eyes of those who loved him. The title 'grieving the imaginary', also speaks to how we grieve what Chadwick Boseman represented.

There is another element of grief that also emerged. It also reminded me of the tweet I read about benevolent and loving father figures by @shlatz

I also grieved the laughter I wish I had grown up hearing from paternal figures in my family. In this sense, I am incredibly jealous of Edwidge Danticat and yet grateful of this representation of loving black fathers. This review is somewhat disjointed. I can't quite bring myself to say the things I would like to say, partly because I don't think this is a feel-good story, there is no lesson in this book. Bad things happen to good people. I don't know if my mind knows how to process a story that has no fairytale ending. I feel seen but I also want to feel hope. In spite of her loss and maybe due to it, Edwidge Danticat has become a successful writer. My friend said something very profound regarding Danticat's success, our success does not compensate for the pain our parents have suffered. This book is about the struggle of our parents and their parents against unfair systems, and it is not our success that will liberate them, our success is not justice. More must change in the world, proximity to whiteness and wealth is not justice or the ultimate reward for those who have suffered under white supremacy, capitalism and neocolonialism.