by Greg Dunkel (for Haiti Liberte)
A review of Claire Limyè Lanmè – Claire of the Sea Light, a novel by Edwidge Danticat, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2013
This fine insight-filled novel interlaces characters ranging from the 7-year-old girl whose name is the book's title, to a well-off shop keeper, the town's undertaker and mayor, a radio journalist, the owner of the local school, some gangsters, and the girl's father, a poor fisherman. These characters let Danticat examine a lot of issues that affect Haiti.
She examines the issues of justice and violence, poverty and education, environmental exhaustion, how the dead are buried, how children play, how people celebrate, and the relations between Haitians in the diaspora (outside Haiti) and those who haven't left. Using her imagination to build the connections, Danticat makes the reader experience Haiti on a personal level.
In a real sense, the town and the sea are characters in this novel, which change, interact, and are affected by the poverty-stressed economy of Haiti like the more conventional human characters.
Set before the earthquake, in the seaside town of Ville Rose, modeled on Léogâne, the home town of Danticat's mother, with elements from the other seaside towns Danticat knows, the novel begins with Claire's father deciding to give her to the shopkeeper on her birthday so she can have a better life. Her birthday is the day when she and her father go to the cemetery and visit the grave of her mother, who died giving birth to Claire.
Claire runs away and doesn't come back into the book until its end.
The novel is written in English, which is not Danticat's mother tongue. Whenever she wants to express something which is essentially Haitian, she turns to kreyòl.
Claire Limyè Lanmè is a revenan, a child born as her mother dies. She plays wonn, a children’s dancing game. The radio station that is an important element in the story is called Radio Zòrèy, Radio Ears. But the kreyòl flows much more naturally than the English translation.
There is a classic Haitian novel called Gouverneurs de la Rosée (translated into English as Masters of the Dew), which Jacques Roumain wrote in French, a language with deeper historical roots in Haiti than English, but which is still not the mother tongue of almost all Haitians.
When Roumain wants to depict the vodou rituals that occur in his novel, which is set in the rural Haiti of the 1930s, he uses kreyòl to capture the flavor, the essence of the scene.
There are other echoes of Gouverneur in Claire. Towards the end of the book, when the mayor-undertaker visits his old friends the schoolmaster, he explains his absence by talking about a meeting with the mother of a young man who got a machete in his gut from a land dispute. This recalls the incident that starts the struggle over land between two family factions in Gouverneur, an incident that was key to the whole structure of that novel.
Both novelists use their skills and imaginations to bring to their readers a serious examination of the social conditions of Haiti – Roumain of course focusing on the Haiti of the 1930s and '40s, Danticat on Haiti today. In Gouverneur, the land is a character that changes and interacts with the other characters. In Claire, it is the town of Ville Rose and the sea.
Jacques Roumain was one of the founders of the Haitian Communist Party and his book reflects his political viewpoint. He lived in a Haiti, where Élie Lescot, the president elected in 1943, gave him a job in the Haitian Consulate in Mexico.
It is hard to imagine the current Haitian president, Michele Martelly, offering a job of any sort to Edwige Danticat. And even more unimaginable that she would accept it. She might or might not share all of Roumain's political outlook, but she does certainly share his deep concern for the poor and working people of Haiti.
Her book illuminates their plight, their suffering, and the hopes that sustain them. It is well worth reading.