Petals of Kouraj

Edwidge Danticat, Claire of the Sea Light (New York: Knopf, 2013); 238 pages; ISBN: 9780307271792 (hardcover).

• October 2014

“Kouraj, courage” is the mantra of Edwidge Danticat’s first book-length fiction in nine years (since Dew Breaker in 2004). Claire of the Sea Light is framed by the personal battles with courage that each inhabitant must undertake in the mythical Ville Rose in Haiti. A tiny sea-side town of eleven thousand people, Ville Rose is filled mostly with poor fishermen, seasonal cane workers, and farmers, along with their families. Danticat’s town is shaped within the garden of Haiti’s imagination—a rose with thorns (epines) that form the avenues throughout the village—a consistent reminder that in every garden there is splendor along with scratches of brutality, should one forget the process from which a rose is born. Life and death are mirrored in each character who finds a voice in this layered narrative of ordinary, everyday people.

The novel begins with the seventh birthday of Claire Limye Lanme Faustin (Claire of the Sea Light), daughter of Nozias Faustin, a local fisherman who continues to mourn his wife, who died in childbirth with Claire. Nozias desires for Claire to have a better life, and the only way he feels that can happen is if she becomes the adopted daughter of Gaelle Lavaud, the local wealthy fabric vendor. Nozias choses Gaelle perhaps because she is a widow and has watched her own daughter die from a traffic accident, or maybe it is because of the tenuous relationship Gaelle had established with Claire’s mother while both were pregnant—the reasons are never clear. What is clear: they share the bond of losing love and feeling the bottomless pit of grief. On Claire’s seventh birthday, Nozias witnesses a freak wave from the ocean that kills one of the local fishermen. During the community’s search efforts on the beach, Gaelle finally agrees to take Claire as her own. But, not wanting to leave her father, Claire runs away, and this unraveling creates the sinuous threading of the eight chapters. Each chapter has the ability to stand alone as a short story, but it is with Danticat’s fine quilting that we see how the chapters become the petals of her Ville Rose.

The characters whose voices we become intimately familiar with must take up the challenge of having courage rather than despair, and the story of Maxime Ardin Senior, the local school headmaster and an established, wealthy resident of Ville Rose, links many of the other characters.

Max Junior (Ardin’s only son), accustomed to a life of comfort, in childhood befriends the poor Bernard Dorien. Hidden in the world the two create, youthful dreams are whispered and interlock with trust and love. As Max’s heart is captured by Bernard, he is forced to prove his manhood in the face of a father who will not accept the truth of his affections. It is without courage that Max Junior brutalizes and impregnates the young maid, Flore, who lives in his home. In the aftermath of this violence and shame, Max Junior disappears for years to the United States, leaving behind the child, Pamaxime.

In the relationship between Max Junior and Bernard, Danticat shows her tenure as a writer. To tackle the taboos of homosexuality, in all its subtlety, within Haitian culture—Caribbean culture, at that—is a testament to Danticat’s ability to reach into the human experience and give voice to the near-silent corners that whisper stories few want to witness. The act of not being courageous results in Max Junior losing Bernard, siring a son he has no relationship with, and becoming self-exiled for years. In his return home after ten years, Max Junior is forced to apply “kouraj,” which he must summon from the depths of his spirit. As his past swirls around him, it is to the beach he goes, the place of secret happiness that he shared with Bernard and where his fate is decided.

Danticat’s spectacular talent is also made apparent in her humor. Laughter at the outrageousness of the inhabitants of Ville Rose shifts this novel away from her previous works, many wrapped in fragility, history, despair, and hungering dignity. In Claire of the Sea Light, Louise George, age fifty-five, is the everywoman of the novel, and with her, Danticat fractures the stereotype of the oppressed, silent Haitian woman who is at the feet of patriarchy. With bleeding gums and thin limbs, Louise (Max Senior’s occasional lover) is the “Oprah” of Ville Rose. She writes stories about the people in the town, piecing together tidbits of gossip over the years in a book she calls a collage a clef. She runs a radio show entitled Di Mwen (Tell Me), on which she becomes the conscience and voice of the town. Louise is also the propagator of much scandal and enacts local justice for scorned lovers and abused workers among the generally downtrodden. It is Louise who convinces Flore, the mother of Max Junior’s son, to come on the show and tell her story of being paid off by the Ardins, proud members of the elite in Ville Rose. Being courageous enough to tell is in itself an act of justice, of living.

Bernard Dorien and his parents reside in the slum Cite Perdue (Lost City) on the outskirts of Ville Rose. Their daily lives are encumbered by the reality of gangs, police corruption, and political injustice. Bernard nurses a fragile desire to be on the radio, like Louise George, telling the stories of everyday people, even the gang members who eat (and plot) at his parents’ restaurant. It is these same people who sacrifice him in the name of vengeance and exacting justice. The uncertainty of life is not owned by just the poor and disenfranchised, Danticat warns; it is also the property of the well-to-do. No one escapes his fate.

It is the ordinary business of life that this novel highlights. This is the Haiti that Danticat creates and seeks to remind her readers of: Haiti is a place of everyday people who are born, live, love, and die, as does the rest of the world. It is within the ordinary that the beauty of the human experience is fully manifested. Shying away from the media’s hysteria attached to all things Haitian, Danticat shines the light on these characters whose stories are shared in retrospect over a decade and get resolved in one day—the day of Claire of the Sea Light’s seventh birthday. Danticat embraces the textures of nature—the garden and the sea—as metaphors for living. The sea light, with its mysterious tint, illuminates the fire from within the people of Ville Rose as they each accept a life with or without courage. Danticat expertly examines the content of their character and the flaws in the human spirit that are ultimately celebrated as evidence of the timeless cycle of life.

 

Natasha Gordon-Chipembere holds a PhD in English from the University of South Africa. Her edited collection Representation and Black Womanhood: The Legacy of Sarah Baartman was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2011. Gordon-Chipembere has a number of publications, including articles in scrutiny 2, Agenda, and Changing English. She is a coeditor of the AfroLatin@ Diasporas Series by Palgrave. Her current scholarship focuses on seventeenth-century slavery in Costa Rica. She is an associate professor of English at Medgar Evers College, CUNY, and is currently on sabbatical in Costa Rica (2014–15).

 

 

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