Ka, the daughter of a Haiti migrant is an artist; sculptor-or in her words an obsessive Wood-carver-whose only single subject so far is her father Pa. She immortalised in a Sculpture which Gabrielle a Haiti born TV star desires to purchase. Ka and her Pa, set out to deliver her work to the Gabrielle, an Avid art collector but Pa, alters the plan midway by running off with the Sculpture to an unknown place. The panic created by his disappearance welcomes a reader into this novel.
Missing Pa reappears with a request that the sculptor be not sold as he has offered it to the water. Ka’s cherished sculpture now lay plunged at the bottom of the Lake as Pa explains that he is undeserving of being immortalised with a past which he is not proud of, but will eternally be reminded of by long pitted scar on his right cheek. That scar only disappears with a smile but Pa’s past in which he was not a Prey but a Hunter, continues to haunt any smile that even Ka his good angel can bring to his face.
But Ka forgives him, indulging him for her fear that he might be eradicated from her life. She reminisces on her father’s love for art. His obsessions with the Brooklyn Museum as he is mesmerised by the golden masks, the shawabtis, schist tablets, Nefertiti and Osiris in the ancient Egyptian’s rooms which are his favourite is shared; Pa particularly liked how the Egyptians grieved by mummification and in like manner had thought of being buried with his sculpture.
Ka’s story gives way to that of other characters like Nadine and the nameless couple who makes the novel a projection of the fragmented lives of migrants from Haiti who settled in New York. In Nadine, a reader gains insight into the carnival of thoughts burning in a migrant’s head, the barters with their gods and the interminable distance they have to deal with as they are caught between two worlds; home and the green land. To get a green card, they make the hard choice of living in a space with conflict of language and culture, taking jobs that are unrelated to their home profession; sometimes, two, three or more jobs just to meet the expectations of the people at home and manage the noose of love around their neck, while enduring the fear of deportation. But as I read on, I learnt not just how migrants survive, but also the backstories of why they migrated.
Pa’s comparison of Haiti to Egyptians who fought amongst themselves and where ruled by Pharaohs who were like the dictators he had fled from, would have hinted me of the politics ahead, but it was indeed the mention of Emmanuel Constant, the leader of Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti that made the book shift from the personal to the political.
The writer Edwidge Dandicat did not bother to fictionalise Constant’s name or character from the notorious real life leader of a Haiti militia FRAPH, who was then wanted for crimes against the Haitian people. Pa’s reaction to Constant’s name reveals Pa as being an important political migrant. He was not just the quiet distant man who only came alive while standing with Ka at the Museums in the mornings of her childhood viewing the ancient Egyptian status, he was not the old barber who ran a barber’s shop and lived a rather isolated life with his wife Ann and daughter Ka. Early in the book, a sober Pa had tried to share this with his daughter in monologues and proverbs, but it didn’t sink.
‘You see Ka, your father was the hunter, he was not the prey…I was never in prison…I was working in prison… It was one of the prisoners inside the prison who cut my face in this way…this man who cut my face, I shot and killed him, like I killed many people.’ Pa said
Pa, was the dew breaker, a child prey who became a hunter; a revered member of the Tonton Macoutes a special paramilitary unit notorious for serving the totalitarian regime of Francois Duvalier a.k.a. Papa Doc. They committed systemic violence and human right abuse. Pa was responsible for killing and abuse, the last of which was a beloved preacher, the dapper looking step-brother of his wife Ann, who left a scar on Pa’s face just before Pa killed him. This incidence caused Pa to flee with Ann to America where he buried his old identity and took on a new one.
Unlike Emmanuel Constant-a younger leader of the Haitian death squad FRAPH in a later regime-whose name and picture was placed on flyers as a Wanted Person for crimes committed such as the Raboteau Massacre, Pa seemed safe.
‘He’d discovered that since he’d lost eighty pounds, changed his name, and given as his place of birth a village deep in the mountains of Leogane, no one asked about him anymore, thinking he was just a peasant who’d made good in New York.’
But his hopes that his victims such as the Preacher will never be able to speak of him is threatened by the fact that preys often don’t forget the face of their hunter. Unbeknownst to him, Beatrice the bridal seamstress whom he abused could still recognise him, Michel the night talker who lives in the basement flat beneath him was the young child whose parents he killed and blinded his Aunt Estina, he could never forget the murderer who destroyed his family. Ka’s Pa was the Dew Breaker, one of those Haitian torturers that broke the golden dew of sleep; just when the day is pure with its power of refreshing, he and his likes came to shatter the serenity of the dew on the Haiti grass.
With her cycle of short stories woven into a whole, Edwidge uses her beautiful prose to give insight into Haiti’s bitter history using characters like the real life Haitians who are haunted by a bloody past that wouldn’t let them go. It would not be wrong to imagine from this story that most Haitian immigrants working on the streets of New York are wounded spirits. When compared to a history book, it is in fact difficult to tell that you are reading a fiction story as it has been classified. Edwidge presents to readers the painful legacy of Haiti’s violent history, establishing through different intersections exactly why the personal and the political are inseparable for us all.
This Jig-Saw puzzle piece of stories which can stand on their own and yet make a whole is similar to the style of novelised anthologies used in One More Tale for the Road, and reminds me strongly of the book Ghost of Sani Abacha by Chuma Nwokolo which like the Dew Breaker has captured fiction love and life stories of Nigerians as they emerge from the despotic regime of Sani Abacha whom like Francois Duvalier (his son and successor Jean Claude Duvalier amongst other dictators )had systemically killed and destroyed the people in their aspiration to become Presidents for life. From Francois Duvalier, Sani Abacha, Hissene Habre to all other tyrants, I never understand how a single person is made sovereign, given the power to destroy lives after lives after lives…
To Haitians, as you continue to raise your glasses both broken and unbroken alike, I offer to your future threads of red cloud as omen of good luck. And to the writer Edwidge Dandicat, I think it will be right to say you are one of the most splendid flowers of Haiti, Thanks for giving us another way of looking at things.
Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye