Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory was published in 1994, and is set in Haiti. Danticat’s novel deals with questions of racial, linguistic and gender identity in interconnected ways. The narrator, Sophie Caco, relates her direct experiences and passive impressions from the age of 12 until she is in her twenties.
In Breath, Eyes, Memory, there are two main characters. Martine Caco is a Haitian woman who is raped and moves to the United States to escape her traumatic past. Both her and her daughter Sophie (the product of that rape) struggle to resist and survive devastating memories of their own and one another’s traumas.
Sophie has grown up in Haiti in the care of Martine’s sister — her Tante Atie —and at the beginning of the novel, at the age of twelve, she immigrates to New York to join her mother. It is clear that even years after the rape, when Sophie joins her mother in New York City, Martine is still haunted by her traumatic memories of the past.
Martine’s inability to forget is what defines her life. Her traumatic past is constantly with her, as is evidenced through the persistent, haunting memories that continue to permeate all aspects of her life, even once she has left Haiti for the US.
She finds it too difficult to relay the horrific details of her rape in words – telling Sophie it is simply ‘too much’ for her, and skirting over the specifics – but she recalls and relives the experience constantly throughout her life, bound in a continual repetition of her initial trauma:
‘I thought Atie would have told you… it happened like this.
A man grabbed me from the side of the road, pulled me into
a cane field, and put you in my body. I was still a young girl then…
I did not know this man. I never saw his face. He had it covered
when he did this to me.’
However, though Martine never sees the face of her attacker during the rape, she is forced to see his face every day once Sophie comes to live with her. This is because Sophie’s face resembles that of her (white?) rapist father (a possible Macoute). Thus, her presence serves as a constant reminder to her mother of past wounds.
‘When I look at your face I think it is true what they say.
A child out of wedlock always looks like its father.’
As a result of her rape, Martine comes to resent her own self and her body. When Sophie is a baby, she attempts suicide numerous times (which is the reason Sophie ends up living with Tante Atie).
Later, when Sophie resides with her, Martine suffers from persistent nightmares, which Sophie must wake her from:
‘Shortly after she fell asleep, I would hear her screaming for
someone to leave her alone. I would run over and shake her…
Her reaction was always the same. When she saw my face, she
looked even more frightened…. She would cover her eyes with her
hands. “Sophie, you’ve saved my life.”
Though Martine encourages her daughter to avoid men at all costs, Sophie falls in love with an older, neighbouring musician called Joseph. He is the first man to properly acknowledge her as a ‘woman’ in her own right. In fact, he is her first real encounter with a non-missionary male.
When Martine catches Sophie returning home late from a concert, she begins practicing the act of ‘testing’ her daughter. This traditional Haitian practice involves the insertion of a finger into the female child’s vagina, to ascertain whether or not she is still a virgin.
‘A mother is supposed to [test] her daughter until she is married.
It is her responsibility to keep her pure.’
‘From the time a girl begins to menstruate to the time you turn her
over to her husband, the mother is responsible for her purity.’
In Haitian culture, female virginity is fiercely encouraged and linked directly to virtuosity and purity. When Martine asks Sophie if she is a ‘good girl’, she is really asking ‘if [she] had ever been touched, if [she] had ever held hands, or kissed a boy.’
‘If I give a soiled daughter to her husband, he can shame my
family, speak evil of me, even bring her back to me.’
As Sophie is being tested, Martine relates stories to her: another tradition amongst Haitian women, who use this method to pass knowledge and life lessons down through generations.
‘She had told me stories while she was doing it, weaving
elaborate tales to keep my mind off the finger which… would…
one day… condemn me.’
‘As she tested me, to distract me, she told me, The Marassas were two inseparable lovers. They were the same person, duplicated in two. They looked the same, talked the same and walked the same… When they cried, their tears were identical… When you love someone, you want them closer than your Marassa. Closer than your shadow. You want him to be your soul. The more you are alike, the easier this becomes… The love between a mother and daughter is deeper than the sea. You would leave me for an old man… You and I, we could be like Marassas. You are giving up a lifetime with me.’
‘Tante Atie would tell me stories… One time I asked her how it was that I was born with a mother and no father. She told me the story of a little girl who was born out of the petals of roses, water from the stream, and a chunk of the sky. That little girl, she said, was me.’
‘The story goes that there was once an extremely rich man who
married a poor black girl. He had chosen her… because she was
untouched… [but on] their wedding night, the girl did not bleed…
So he took a knife and cut her between her legs to get some
blood to show… [and] got enough blood for her wedding gown
and sheets… an unusual amount kept flowing like water out of
the girl… Finally, drained of all her blood, the girl died.
Later, during her funeral procession, her blood-soaked sheets
were paraded by her husband to show that she been a virgin
on her wedding night.’
This combination of ‘testing’ and storytelling ensures that Sophie becomes her mother’s inheritor in more ways than one:
Firstly, she has become the inheritor of Haitian folklore, gaining knowledge and experience from the life lessons present in her mother’s (Martine), aunt’s (Tante Atie) and grandmother’s (Ifé) stories.
Secondly, as a young woman subjected to ‘testing’ (which leaves her feeling humiliated and degraded), she develops a complicated relationship with her body, like her mother. She finds that after she has experienced it, engaging in sexual activity is a traumatic and painful experience (accentuated by the wounds she inflicts to make it stop).
This act of ‘testing’ would arguably be classified as sexual abuse by Western feminists, very much like being raped, despite its apparent importance within the Haitian culture.
‘I have heard it compared to a virginity cult, our mothers’
obsession with keeping us pure and chaste.’
Martine: ‘The two greatest pains of my life are very much related.
The one good thing about the rape is that it made the testing stop.
The testing and the rape: I live both every day.’
The novel certainly stresses the psychological impact of ‘native on native’ gendered violence.
Not only is a parallel created between Sophie and Martine’s experiences of sexual abuse here, but also between the experiences of all the daughters of Haiti – all those affected by this tradition of ‘testing’ passed down from mother to daughter.
‘[Once] I got married… I had suicidal thoughts… I woke up in a cold sweat wondering if my mother’s anxiety was somehow hereditary… Her nightmares had somehow become my own.’
‘I closed my legs and tried to see Tante Atie’s face. I could understand why she had screamed while her mother had tested her.’
However, Mohanty would argue that the Western feminist tendency to group together the subjective traumas of Haitian women in this way is evidence of their attempted ‘homogenisation’ of third-world women.
The circumstances of both Sophie and Martine would undoubtedly be evaluated from the viewpoint of the white, Westernised, feminist intellectual. Because their own subjective position is automatically assumed to be the ‘norm’, Mohanty reasons that Western feminists, implicitly or not, ‘reinforce the third-world difference’ between themselves and the women made the ‘object’ of their study.
Instead of examining the specific cultural, historical and familial traditions that affect these Haitian women – or even the diverse heterogeneities present within this relatively small and closed society – all of the women are collectively reduced to the same basic concepts: a ‘third-world woman’ (black, lower-class, Creole speaker); and a victim of sexual abuse, suffering the psychological impacts of a gender-specific sexual trauma.
Thus, the combination of these two acts may appear, to Western eyes, to be detrimental and oppressive – reinforcing subjugative gender positions and justifying acts of inexcusable sexual abuse.
This was certainly the overriding perception of the American audience introduced to the novel through Oprah Winfrey’s televised ‘Book Club’ – a predominantly white, middle-class, Western audience (much like the authors of feminist academia Mohanty so fiercely criticises).
However, Mohanty might argue that, instead, this process demonstrates the construction of a framework for mutual support (the storytelling) to ease the suffering during an essential, traditional process (testing): that the intentions of those inflicting this suffering should be examined subjectively, instead of their actions and motivations being over-generalised in hasty judgments that demonstrate Western ignorance. The novel demonstrates an intricate intertwinement of love and harm.
Sophie is traumatised by these ‘tests’ of her virginity, and begins ‘doubling’ herself in order to cope:
‘I learned to double while being tested. I would close my eyes and
imagine all the pleasant things I had known… I mouthed the words
to the Virgin Mother’s prayer.’
Sophie associates this process of ‘doubling’ with her ancestors and ‘vaudou tradition’, describing how loving men with wives and families could enable themselves to ‘rape and murder so many people’ by doing this.
To prevent any further ‘testings’, Sophie mutilates her genitalia, using her mother’s spice pestle to break her hymen (thus giving the illusion that she has lost her virginity).
When she fails her mother’s test, Sophie is thrown out of the house. She then elopes with Joseph and they marry.
Once she and Joseph are married, though, Sophie begins to feel frustrated and confused, by both her bodily anxieties and matrimonal (i.e. sexual) responsibilities. Sophie struggles in her roles as ‘woman’, ‘wife’, ‘mother’ and ‘daughter’ as an after-effect of her trauma. She also suffers great physical discomfort during sex, because of her self-inflicted injuries.
She continues to sleep with her husband, in order to ‘keep’ him, but just as Sophie practiced ‘doubling’ when she was being ‘tested’, she begins to do so whenever engaging in sexual relations with her husband:
‘After I was married, whenever Joseph and I were together,
‘The tests [are] the most horrible thing that ever happened to me.
When my husband is with me now, it gives me such nightmares
that I have to bite my tongue to do it again.’
“With patience, it goes away.”
‘No, Grandma Ifé, it does not.’
To get away from it all, she flees to Haiti along with her infant daughter, without a word to her husband, Joseph, who is away touring.
The falling action is when her mother, Martine, also comes to Haiti. It is during that trip to Haiti that both mother and daughter reconcile.
The female members of the family once again share stories of their heritage:
‘Our family name, Caco …is the name of a scarlet bird.
A bird so crimson, it makes the reddest hibiscus… seem
white… When [the Caco bird] dies, there is always a rush
of blood that rises to its neck and wings, they look so
bright you would think them on fire.’
‘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.
Her ten fingers had been named for her even before she was born.
She wished she had six fingers on each hand so she could have
two left for herself.’
Once they have returned to New York, Sophie continues this process of storytelling, but in a more Westernised form: through her therapy group.
The focus is placed on repetition and interaction in the initial ritual – ‘I am a beautiful woman with a strong body’ / ‘We are beautiful women with strong bodies’ (repeated by the other women) – mirrors the traditional African method for beginning a story:
‘Crick? / “Crack.” / ‘Honour?’ / “Respect.”
The women here use affirmative language (‘I am a beautiful woman with a strong body… because of my distress, I am able to understand when others are in deep pain… since I have survived this, I can survive anything’) and focus on the restorative power of retelling the stories of personal trauma.
‘Buki [an Ethiopian college student] read us a letter… to the dead grandmother who had cut off all her sexual organs and sewn her up in a female rite of passage… “You sliced open my soul… because of you, I now carry with me an untouchable wound… I can’t [hate you] because you are a part of me. You are me.”
Through voicing her own personal story, Sophie begins the healing process. Martine, too, seems well, until she becomes pregnant by her fiancé, Marc. It affects her badly.
‘Now… I look at every man and I see him… le violeur, the
rapist. I see him everywhere… When I thought of taking
[the baby] out, it got more horrifying.’
‘It spoke to me. It has a man’s voice… I am going to get it
out of me… He calls me a filthy whore. I never want to see
this child’s face… what if there is something left in me and
when the child comes out, it has that other face?’
Martine commits suicide before she can have her abortion – ‘stabbing her stomach with an old rusty knife… seventeen times’. Her partner, Marc, tells Sophie it is because ‘she could not carry the baby’.
Sophie decides to bury Martine wearing a crimson two-piece suit, the same shade as the Caco bird that shares their family name, though ‘it was [undoubtedly] too loud a colour for burial’.
Sophie realises at the close of the book, during preparations for her mother’s funeral, that there is something inherently Haitian about the mother-and-daughter motifs present in their stories and songs.
‘[There] was something… essentially Haitian [in] the mother-and-daughter motifs to all the stories they had told and songs they sang. Somehow, early on, our song makers and tale weavers had decided that we were all daughters of this land.’
At the close of the book, after Martine’s funeral, Sophie runs from the sight of dirt being thrown onto her mother’s body. She runs to the cane fields where her mother was raped, and proceeds beating a sugar cane stalk until her hands are bleeding.
This is meant as an act of release and liberation, as well as an expression of pain. Earlier in the text, when Sophie has returned to Haiti, she is given this advice: ‘You cannot carry the pain. You must liberate yourself.’
Sophie’s grandmother’s call of ‘Ou libéré?’ (are you free?) requests Sophie’s affirmation that she can let go of her mother’s pain.
‘There is a place where women are buried in the colour of flames,
where we drop coffee on the ground for those who went ahead,
where a daughter is never fully a woman until her mother has
passed on before her.
There is always a place where, if you listen closely in the night,
you will hear your mother telling a story, and at the end of the
tale, she will ask you this question: “Ou libéré?” Are you free,
my daughter? … Now, you will know how to answer.’