The cell is about 20 x 20 feet and holds 67 people. That’s about a 2 x 3 foot rectangle for each person, for 23 hours a day. To eat, to sleep, everything. What it can’t capture is the heat and the smell. It is easily over 100 degrees.
Bay kou bliye, pote mak sonje
He who strikes the blow, forgets; he who bears the bruises, remembers…
WE LIVED TO TELL…
The purpose of this paper is to offer my literary interpretation of The Dew Breaker. It is through three of the scenes that I have chosen to address the female/male and patriarchal stereotypes.
The Voices web site gave a synopsis of the author Edwidge Danticat who had been writing ever since she was a small girl of nine. While her parents thought that writing would never be more than a hobby for her and urged her to pursue another career, Danticat proved them wrong. She has received the 1995 Pushcart Short Story Prize and fiction awards from The Caribbean Writer, Seventeen, and Essence magazines, she is now widely considered to be one of the most talented young authors in theUnited States. Danticat was born inPort-au-Prince,Haiti, in 1969. When she was two years old, her father André immigrated to New York to be followed two years later by her mother Rose. This left Danticat and her younger brother Eliab to be raised by her aunt and uncle. It was during these early years that Danticat was influenced by the Haitian practice of story telling which developed because much of the population was not literate at the time. Danticat says, “That the memories ofHaitiare still extremely vivid in her mind, and that her love ofHaitiand things Haitian deeply influences her writing.” Danticat, staying much more within the realm of her own experience, dealt only with the torturers from Papa Doc’s time on. She draws on some famous cases which have appeared both in newspaper accounts and famous books onHaiti. State sponsored torture and brutality are a part of Haiti’s 200 year history. During the twenty nine year period (1957-1986) thatHaitiwas ruled by the father and son dictators, François “Papa Doc” and Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, referred to as rural chief, a brutal regional leader and torturer who killed dissidents under the regime.
“Papa Doc” President Duvalier’s dictatorship exploited the labor force of people and took control with the deception of handing power to the black majority, but in reality it was for himself, for his personal executioners called the Tontons Macoutes, and for the elite, who continued to prosper under his murderous governmental corruption. The country was considered a large prison where power, control, torture and murders were part of the everyday life. InHaitithere was a division between the people: those who supported the presidency and those who were opposed. Children grieved and lost their fathers who either fled the country or died disagreeing with the President.
Within the Caribbean diaspora views regarding its survivors and refugees are ambiguous regarding nationality, class, race,gender, sexuality, and political economy which lead to the concept that there isnot one diaspora but many. Diasporas are spread through out Haiti, not only in the oppression of men and women but also corruptpresidents leading to the transnational individuals who fled to find safety. This book is a representation of the unchanged history of gender oppression.
The Dew Breaker throughout the book was portrayed as a father/husband/barber/landlord/former torturer and has touched each character directly and/or indirectly in the country of his birth. His victims, his victims relatives, his daughter, and his wife each describe a different aspect of a man whose life was full of turmoil and contradictions. As I read it I tried to see the side of the oppressor, the protagonist. I imagined him being a torturer out of obligation, perhaps because he really did believe that an individual who opposed to the government was a threat to the country. I thought that he must have been so deeply enveloped in his ideology that he believed he was doing the right thing, a good thing. Or was it possible that he had no choice but to continue serving the government because it would have been difficult for him to flee, especially if he was involved in the fight from the beginning. He knew the consequences too well if he betrayed the regime. Vince (2004) declared, “The researchers identified situations where individuals feel provoked, stressed or taunted – such as during war – as conducive to causing aggressive acts. And they say that the need to conform to their peer group and obey those in authority – or act in a way that they believe their superiors would approve of – could lead individuals to behave in a way that they would usually consider unacceptable.” So when I read the last story, my opinion drastically changed. I saw that he didn’t really feel guilty when he “did his job” of getting rid of subversives, even though I tried to distinguish some signs of repent, anywhere in the book. But, he enjoyed the torturing of people too much as Danticat (2004) pointed out, “It was becoming like any other job. He liked questioning the prisoners, teaching them to play zo and bezik, stapling clothespins to their ears as they lost and removing them as he let them win, convincing them that their false victories would save their lives. He liked to paddle them with braided cowhide, stand on their cracking backs and jump up and down like a drunk on a trampoline, pound a rock on the protruding bone behind the earlobes until they couldn’t hear the orders he was shouting at them, tie blocks of concrete to the end of sisal ropes and balance them off their testicles if they were men or their breast if they were women.” (p.198).
By looking through the lenses of feministic criticism, the struggle for women’s rights, it became apparent there were patterns of hierarchical and patriarchal domination, control, power and tyrannical authority that bound these women to a sisterhood of oppression through poverty, illiteracy, violence, sexual abuse and death. Tyson (2006) reported, “Therefore, the promotion of sisterhood – psychological and political bonding among women based on the recognition of common experiences and goals – must include respect for and attention to individual differences among women as well as an equitable distribution of power among various cultural groups within the feminist leadership” (p. 106).
Women were tortured and killed as the political servants took control using their power over what was considered the less significant class and gender. Tyson (2006) wrote, “That is, patriarchy treats women, whatever their role, like objects, women exist, according to patriarchy, to be used without consideration of their own perspectives, feelings, or opinions. After all, from a patriarchal standpoint, women’s perspectives, feelings, and opinions don’t count unless they conform to those of patriarchy.” (p.91).One woman fled to the United Sates because she was tied up in a prison and had the bottoms of her feet whipped until they bled, all for declining a date with one of the Tontons Macoutes, Danticat (2004) wrote, “He asked me to go dancing with him one night, Beatrice said, putting her feet back in her sandals. I had a boyfriend, so I said no. That’s why he arrested me. He tied me to some type of rack in the prison and whipped the bottom of my feet until they bled. Then he made me walk home, barefoot. On tar roads. In the hot sun. At high noon.” (p. 132). The women were considered to be objects like mindless creatures placed there for their pleasure. Tyson (2006) stated, “Women are also oppressed by what Guillaumin calls “direct physical appropriation,” by which she means “the reduction of women to the state of material objects” (74) and which she compares to slavery and serfdom.” (p. 99). Thus, the patriarchal state, as they knew it kept women dependant of men within their society. All acts of social interaction would mandate approval or be conceded by the male authority which was a constant reminder of submission that inhabited them.
In “The Book of the Dead,” an artist had been convinced that her father was a prison inmate inHaitifor a year, and had been driven by her respect and pity for him to sculpt him repeatedly in positions of powerlessness as he was considered the “other” and inferior. Tyson (2006) stated, “The word woman, therefore has the same implications as the word other. A woman is not a person in her own right. She is man’s Other: she is less than a man; she is a kind of alien in a man’s world she is not a fully developed human being the way a man is.” (p.96). The character had been subjected to patriarchal programming and was in search of a perspective beyond the ideology. Tyson (2006) wrote, “For example, related to the problem of the possibility (or impossibility) of getting beyond any ideology that dominates the way we think is the problem of one’s own subjectivity: one’s own selfhood, the way one views oneself and others, which develops from one’s own individual experiences.” (p. 95) She had the capability of interpreting the negative space within artwork and in life as Danticat (2004) wrote, “Ka, he says, “when I took you to theBrooklynMuseum, I would stand there for hours admiring them. But all you noticed was how there were pieces missing from them, eyes, noses, legs, sometimes even heads. You always noticed more what was not there than what was.” (p.19). Her artwork had shown the oppression that her father endured in her mind during his struggles in prison as the prey when in reality he was the hunter. To take it one step further, her artwork showed a part of her father that was not present, that could not be seen: powerlessness.
When the president escaped in exile, all his supporters were hunted down. The Haitian man who killed people for the government fled the country and started a new life inAmerica.
In “Book of Miracles,” the Haitian-American community organized a form of activism to try to uncover Emmanuel Constant, the Duvalier era war criminal who was allowed to relocate toNew York Cityafter the fall of the dictatorship. It was Anne’s story that unfolded as she was the wife/mother and victim of The Dew Breaker whose suppression of her anxiety was apparent through her religious beliefs and longing for miracles as she donned being the devoted wife to a reformed murderer. The threat of revealing the past lingers and haunted her as she walked the streets and passed fellow transnational individuals. She never knew when a gathering against “Baby Doc” or some other conflict might surface categorizing the man who holds her heart, the hardworking barber, the kind father of their daughter. Miracles to this character represented the hoping to confirm the transformation of her husband and the love she held for him considering her half brother the Catholic priest, was the last man her husband killed. Danticat (2004) stated, “It was always like this, her life like a pendulum between forgiveness and regret, but when the anger dissipated she considered it a small miracle, the same way she thought of her emergence from her occasional epileptic seizures as a kind of resurrection. (p. 86). She was the balancing force of forgiveness and was considered the “good girl” as her virtues were associated with the aspects of patriarchal femininity and domesticity. She was self sacrificing, patient and nurturing. Tyson (2006) stated, “Clearly, according to patriarchal thinking, the woman occupies the right side of each of these oppositions, the side that patriarchy considers inferior-heart, mother, nature, palpable, moon and passivity – while it is assumed that the male is defined by the left side of each opposition, the side that patriarchy considers superior: head, father, culture, intelligible, sun and activity.” (p. 100). Anne had reinforced the patriarchal stereotypes prevalent to the book when it was written, “My mother is whispering now, as though there’s a chance she might also be overheard by my father. “You and me, we save him. When I meet him, it made him stop hurt the people.” (p.25).
In “The Funeral Singer,” a group of three young Haitian women meet in a high school equivalency class inBrooklynfind themselves struggling to pass the GED test, which two of them consistently fail. The women met regularly at a restaurant one owned on theUpper West Side. The sisterhood was shared through the experiences of intertwined horrific memories stemming from the wrath of their oppression.
Rézia’s story began living in a brothel with her aunt, a woman who was active in the labor force and was the keeper. It unfolded tragically as a Tontons Macoute uniformed man utilizing his patriarchal manipulation and power, raped her. During the brutal and horrendous act, her aunt had no choice but to close her eyes and allow it while she was in another room. Tyson (2006) claimed “In other words, if one is born with the biology of a female, one’s place in society is accorded few rights – particularly the right to own and control one’s body sexually, both in terms of the kind and number of sexual relationships one will have and in terms of abortion and contraceptive rights – than if one is born with the biology of a male.” (p. 103). These two women were vulnerable, inferior and could have been sent to prison or worse. Danticat (2004) wrote, “I can always make myself faint when I’m afraid, Rézia says, fanning the smoke from the pots away from her face. When I woke up in the morning, my panties were gone. My aunt and I never spoke about it. But on her deathbed she asked for my forgiveness. She said this man had threatened to put her in prison if she didn’t let him have me that night.” (p. 173). It was obvious that the patriarchal culture and fear within the character and her aunt led to an unavoidable position of being the substandard ones. Irigaray (1985) wrote, “…women have two choices: (1) to keep quiet (for anything a woman says that does not fit within the logic of patriarchy will be seen as incomprehensible, meaningless) or (2) to imitate patriarchy’s representation of herself as it wants to see her (that is, to play the inferior role given to her by patriarchy’s definition of sexual difference, which foregrounds men’s superiority).” (Tyson, 2006, p. 101)
Another survivor, Mariselle, described the details of the events leading to her husband being shot and killed after painting an unflattering portrait of “Papa Doc” Duvalier. After his death, she was invited to sing at the national palace and refused. As per her mother’s request, she fled. The third, Freda, a daughter of a fisherman, told of her father who owned a fish stall that had been over powered by the Macoute and then taken and physically beaten only to return with a mouth full of blood and no teeth. He took his boat out to sea, never to be seen again. At his funeral she sang “Brother Timonie,” taught to by her father long before he was tortured.
The name of the song meant “steersman” and soon after she was in demand at other funerals. Danticat (2004) wrote, “The first time I ever sang in public was at my father’s memorialMass.I sang “Brother Timonie,” a song whose cadence rises and falls, like the waves of the ocean. I sang it through my tears, and later people would tell me that my sobs reminded them of the incoming tide. From that moment on I became a funeral singer.” (p.175). The women communicated, drank and sang explained by Danticat (2004), “…Brother Timonie, Brother Timonie, we row on without you. But I’ll know we’ll meet again.” (p.181) The psychological trauma lived within their hearts which was expressed by the author, “And for the rest of the night we raise our glasses, broken and unbroken alike, to the terrible days behind us and the uncertain ones ahead.” (181).
None of these women were able to leave behind the tortured island of their birth yet, each was in search of a way to release it. Each woman was subject to patriarchy in a different manner, no two experiences were identical. Paul-Austin (2007) had written, “Not discouraged, nor demoralized, Haitian women would reveal themselves to be resilient and resistant to male domination and the patriarchal manner of regulating social, economic and political life.” Beatrice was formerly a funeral singer inHaiti, and decided she must return home in order to fight against the causes that lead to the Dew Breaker’s reign, which is what caused her to sing for so many senseless deaths. She had reinforced the French feminist Beauvoir (1972) theory maintaining, “…that a woman should not be content with investing the meaning of their lives in their husbands and sons, as patriarchy encourages them to do.” (Tyson, 2006, p.97).
In reviewing the various theories I believe Womanism closely recognized the battles of these women as Ebunoluwa stated (2009), “The triple oppression of Black women wherein racial, classist and sexist oppression is identified and fought against by womanists, as opposed to the feminism main concern with sexist oppression.”
In conclusion as the book continued to unfold the characters began to portray more of a unitary gender system. Both men and women were being prosecuted. It made no difference if an individual was a male or female the oppression went across the board. Helliwell (2000) explained that many societies view the gender differences as non existent, “Gerai people see no differences between men and women.” (Tyson, 2006, p. 111) and neither did this dictatorship.
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Danticat, E. (2004). The Dew Breaker.New York; Vintage Books.
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Paul-Austin, M.C. (2007). Status of women inHaiti: Why women have been excluded. Retrieved February 10, 2010, from http://www.haitiwebs.com/forums/relationships/43018-status_women_haiti.html
Regents of theUniversityofMinnesota. (2009) Retrieved February 13, 2010, from http://voices.cla.umn.edu/artistpages/danticatEdwidge.php
Tyson, L. (2006). Critical theory today; A user –friendly guide. New York, Routledge.
Vince, G. (2004). Everyone is a potential torturer. Retrieved February 10, 2010, from http://www.windowsonhaiti.com/windowsonhaiti/w99101.shtml