Edwidge Danticat | August 27, 2019
Richly idiosyncratic characters and acts of tortured intimacy abound in Edwidge Danticat’s spellbinding new collection, Everything Inside. The gentle gaucheries of a nightclub owner in Miami’s Little Haiti become a form of salvation for a woman whose husband and best friend have run off together. A grandmother, suffering from the onset of dementia, sternly reprimands her daughter for the postpartum depression that arrived with the birth of her son. An artist paints her lover’s dead wife and son as two resplendent birds. The well-heeled daughter of Haitian immigrants quits college to work for a rape recovery clinic in Haiti and later gets, as a souvenir, a tattoo that resembles two hot-air balloons.
The curt, glittering poetry of Danticat’s 1996 short story collection Krik? Krak! has evolved in Everything Inside to a newly sober mode of storytelling that, for the most part, eschews the breathtaking in favor of the intensely personal and irredeemably particular. The relative simple premises in Krik? Krak! give way to reticulated plots stamped with so many amply realized characters that it seems a miracle when Danticat manages to wring coherence from their interweavings. Gone are the fervent accretions of metaphor, the airy style, and the mythic quality that typified her early work; in their place, Danticat doles out prickly investigations of transnational identity that are thickened by circumstance and mucked up by globalization. The bountiful, heartrending stories are circumfused with the impossibilities, grand and small alike, of lives lived in two places. Danticat restlessly interrogates the longings of distance, the disjunctions of diasporic experience, and the unsteady palimpsests of emotions that dwell in her characters’ hearts.
In the collection’s first story, “Dosas,” Elsie, a nurse’s assistant in her late thirties, is betrayed by her ex-husband, Blaise, and her best friend, Olivia, who run off to Haiti together and, after concocting a false tale of kidnapping, successfully extort from Elsie most of her life-savings. As with all of the stories in Everything Inside, the plot moves along crisply, weaving back and forth in time, progressing steadily and inevitably, like a schooner gliding across a calm sea.
Elsie’s current assignment is Gaspard, a renal-failure patient and Haitian immigrant whose condition gradually worsens over the story’s course. The act of caretaking, which recurs throughout the collection, is a condign subject for Danticat’s pen, precisely because—strangely permeable and indeterminately personal—it functions as a relatively clean correlative for the diasporic experience. When Elsie receives a phone call from Blaise falsely informing her that Olivia has been kidnapped, Gaspard and his daughter Mona are humane and understanding, accustomed to the swift hammerfall of bad news from the old country, while later in the story Elsie reflects that “caretaker” is also an apt description of her relationship with Blaise, a spottily committed musician and inveterate losel.
Ultimately, the story is concerned with teasing out the strange relationship between Blaise, Elsie, and Olivia. To explain this difficult geometry, Danticat employs the story’s tile, dosa, which she glosses as “the last, untwinned, or surplus child.” After spending a night together in bed with Olivia and Blaise, Elsie ponders the complexity of their tripartite love: “They were no longer sure what to call themselves. What were they, exactly? A triad? A ménage à trois? No. Dosas. They were dosas. All three of them untwinned, lonely, alone together.” Dosahood, as a modus essendi, seems to mark many of Danticat’s characters, perpetually untwinned by their doubly anchored hearts, which pine uncertainly for both Haiti and America, and it’s no surprise that the most stunning passages in Everything Inside tend to derive their potency from the resultant tangles of emotions. The incredible complexity of these emotions is a stunning reminder of the intricacies of the binational experience, of the sheer weight of material factors that make claims on the heart—the safety of loved ones, the finances of one’s own, the friendships one cleaves to in isolation.
But Danticat’s stories are careful to elude any totalizing of the immigrant experience. In “The Port-au-Prince Special,” a well-off family returns to Haiti to run a hotel, and the mother ends up lightly criticizing a woman named Babette about her treatment of her own daughter: “I knew what she was thinking. These half-assed outsiders, these no-longer-fully-Haitian, almost-blan, foreigner-type people, these dyaspora with their mushy thinking…” Similarly, in “Seven Stories,” the experience of exile is painfully differentiated. Callie, the daughter of an unnamed island nation’s prime minister who was assassinated when she was a child, finds herself married, years later, to the island’s new, dashing, millennial prime minister. After the death of Callie’s father, we learn, the island’s elites had swiftly and safely evacuated, but Callie’s mother had been left alone with her child—in order to escape, she was forced to give herself to an official at the airport. “The difference between her and them,” the story’s narrator explains, “was as stark as the gulf between those who’d escaped a catastrophe unscathed and others who’d been forever mutilated by it.”
Curiously, Everything Inside ends with a sudden infusion of magical realism—an opportunity, as it were, for the collection’s countless frustrated passions and curtailed plans to finally take shape. In “Without Inspection,” Arnold, a Haitian immigrant who recently arrived by boat, takes up with Darline and her son Paris. Their life together becomes a repetition of a common tragedy—Darline and Paris’s father had likewise traveled to America on a leaky boat, but the father had drowned along the way. One day, Arnold, working at an ill-tended construction site, plummets from his workstation into a cement mixer, where he ponders the sky:
“From where he was lying inside the cement mixer, he saw an airplane cut across the clear blue sky. And that was when he realized that he was dying, and that his dying offered him a kind of freedom he’d never had before. Whatever he thought about he could see in front of him. Whatever he wanted he could have, except what he wanted most of all, which was not to die.”
In the crepuscular moments preceding his actual death, he visits Darline as she works in a Haitian restaurant, sweat dripping from her brow. He visits Paris at school and shouts to the boy’s unhearing ears as he goes about folding paper boats by rote. Arnold’s angelic election is, in one sense, a dream of fulfillment, a fantasy of being able to bid farewell. The closure of contact, so often denied to Danticat’s characters, is bittersweet when it finally arrives. Danticat’s hand, bewitched by her own tremendous gifts of empathy, applies a balm that, in its belatedness, only underscores, once again, the private histories of fracture and scission that have gone before.