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The Art of Death

Edwidge Danticat

  The Art of SERIES


  The Art of series is a line of books reinvigorating the practice of craft and criticism. Each book is a brief, witty, and useful exploration of fiction, nonfiction, or poetry by a writer impassioned by a singular craft issue. The Art of volumes provide a series of sustained examinations of key, but sometimes neglected, aspects of creative writing by some of contemporary literature’s finest practitioners.

  The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot by Charles Baxter

  The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again by Sven Birkerts

  The Art of History: Unlocking the Past in Fiction & Nonfiction by Christopher Bram

  The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story by Christopher Castellani

  The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story by Edwidge Danticat

  The Art of Intimacy: The Space Between by Stacey D’Erasmo

  The Art of Description: World into Word by Mark Doty

  The Art of the Poetic Line by James Longenbach

  The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination by Carl Phillips

  The Art of Attention: A Poet’s Eye by Donald Revell

  The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long as It Takes by Joan Silber

  The Art of Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song by Ellen Bryant Voigt

  The Art of Recklessness: Poetry as Assertive Force and Contradiction by Dean Young



  Also by Edwidge Danticat


  Claire of the Sea Light

  The Dew Breaker

  The Farming of Bones

  Krik? Krak!

  Breath, Eyes, Memory


  Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work

  Brother, I’m Dying

  After the Dance: A Walk through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti


  Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation


  The Last Mapou

  Anacaona, Golden Flower

  Eight Days: A Story of Haiti

  Behind the Mountains

  The Art of



  Edwidge Danticat

  Graywolf Press

  Copyright © 2017 by Edwidge Danticat

  The author and Graywolf Press have provided this e-book to you for your personal use only. You may not make this e-book publicly available in any way. Copyright infringement is against the law. If you believe the copy of this e-book you are reading infringes on the author’s copyright, please notify Graywolf Press at:

  This publication is made possible, in part, by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board Operating Support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund, and through a grant from the Wells Fargo Foundation. Significant support has also been provided by Target, the McKnight Foundation, the Amazon Literary Partnership, and other generous contributions from foundations, corporations, and individuals. To these organizations and individuals we offer our heartfelt thanks.

  This book is made possible through a partnership with the College of Saint Benedict, and honors the legacy of S. Mariella Gable, a distinguished teacher at the College. Support has been provided by the Manitou Fund as part of the Warner Reading Program.

  Published by Graywolf Press

  250 Third Avenue North, Suite 600

  Minneapolis, Minnesota 55401

  All rights reserved.

  Published in the United States of America

  ISBN 978-1-55597-777-1

  Ebook ISBN 978-1-55597-969-0

  2 4 6 8 9 7 5 3 1

  First Graywolf Printing, 2017

  Library of Congress Control Number: 2016951195

  Cover design: Scott Sorenson

  For Rose Souvenance Napoléon and André Miracin Danticat, who led me here.

  We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves. I wish for all this to be marked on my body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography—to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books.

  —Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient


  Introduction: Writing Life

  Living Dyingly

  Ars Moriendi

  Dying Together

  Wanting to Die

  Condemned to Die

  Close Calls

  Circles and Circles of Sorrow




  Introduction: Writing Life

  My mother once gave her factory forewoman my first novel for Christmas.

  “I see her reading the newspaper all the time,” my mother said before leaving for work one December morning when I was twenty-five. “I’d like to give her your book.”

  I spent the day pondering an appropriate dedication for a woman I’d never know, except through a few details my mother had mentioned. Mary was Chinese, short, and patient.

  Finally, I scribbled, “To Mary, Merry Christmas. Thank you so much for being nice to my mom.”

  My mother asked me the best way to tell Mary, in English, Se pitit fi m ki ekri liv sa a, “My daughter wrote this book.”

  My mother and I practiced this sentence in English many times together. My daughter wrote this book. My daughter wrote this book. I imagined this daughter as a child my mother and I shared, our common dream offspring, whom I called Sophie, after the tormented narrator of Breath, Eyes, Memory, my first novel.

  Mary never said anything to my mother about my novel after my mother gave it to her. Maybe Mary didn’t like fiction, hadn’t enjoyed the book, or perhaps my mother’s gift had puzzled her. Maybe Mary hadn’t been able to decode my mother’s message in giving her the book: This is not all there is to me. Beyond the walls of this factory, I have a much bigger life. I have children and they’ve done wonderful things. One writes books.

  When my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer in early 2014, every time we’d go see a doctor more than once, she would ask me to give that doctor one of my books. She underestimated how embarrassing it was for me to seem to be bribing someone with something that was precious to me but that they might consider worthless. I would tell her I’d do it, then we’d quickly move on to the next doctor, and the one after that, each of whom would bring us more and more dire news, until my mother no longer considered them worthy of any gifts at all.

  The one doctor she insisted on—aside from my friend Rose-May, who had become her primary physician and already had my books—was her oncologist, Dr. Blyden. One day, while I was drilling Dr. Blyden with my Internet-research-inspired questions, he asked what I do for a living. I told him I am a writer.

  My mother wanted me to give Dr. Blyden a copy of my 2007 memoir, Brother, I’m Dying, in which I describe, among other things, my mother’s early years with my father, who’d died of pulmonary fibrosis in May 2005. Instead, I gave him my most recent novel, Claire of the Sea Light. My mother smiled as I handed Dr. Blyden the book. She even smiled at Dr. Blyden’s two observing medical students.

  As he walked out of the room, Dr. Blyden looked back at my mother, and I imagined him seeing her in a slightly different light. Until then, I hadn’t quite understood the power of a moment like this. A moment where your apparent value suddenly rises in the eyes of someone else, especially a pers
on who has your life in his hands. During subsequent visits, though, Dr. Blyden never mentioned the book.

  The last time my mother and I were in Dr. Blyden’s office, we told him that my mother had decided to stop chemotherapy and let nature take its course.

  “Tell him it’s up to God now,” my mother said in Creole, using me yet again as her translator.

  After a long pause, the doctor agreed that at her age, seventy-eight, the type of vigorous treatment she would now need might considerably reduce her quality of life. Lingering longer than usual, Dr. Blyden told us about a patient of his who was the same age as Mom and had the same diagnosis. That patient had also decided to stop treatment after one round of chemo.

  “Where is she now?” my mother asked after I’d translated this for her.

  “On a cruise,” the doctor said.

  Dr. Blyden had told us this story, I realized, to show his support for my mother’s choice, and for that my mother seemed grateful. At least that other dying woman was feeling well enough to go on with her life, I imagined her thinking.

  As my mother and I were leaving Dr. Blyden’s office that day, I heard him tell one of his medical students something that made me understand even better why my mother had made me a one-woman bookmobile on her behalf.

  “This is a special woman,” Dr. Blyden said, referring to my mother. “She raised an author.”

  My mother beamed. The big, broad smile on her face that day made me want to run from the doctor’s office and shout, irrationally, to everyone in my path: “My mother is dying and I write books!”

  Writing has been the primary way I have tried to make sense of my losses, including deaths. I have been writing about death for as long as I have been writing. Spoiler alert here: the mother of the narrator of Breath, Eyes, Memory commits suicide. (Maybe Mary’s silence had something to do with that.) Dozens of people fleeing political persecution in Haiti drown, just as they did in life, in my second book, a short-story collection called Krik? Krak! My third book and second novel, The Farming of Bones, recounts the 1937 massacre in which thousands of Haitians were methodically slaughtered on the orders of Rafael Trujillo, a dictator from the neighboring Dominican Republic. While much of my work is based on actual events, I chose those particular subjects in part because, early in my life, before anyone close to me had died, I was so afraid of death that I wanted to desensitize myself to it. Now that my father and mother and many other people I love have died, I want to both better understand death and offload my fear of it, and I believe reading and writing can help.

  “We die,” Toni Morrison eloquently states in her 1993 Nobel Lecture. “That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

  Over the years, I have read and reread many writers who have managed, and even triumphed at, the art of writing death. This is not an objective grouping but a deeply personal one. The works I discuss here are novels, stories, memoirs, essays, and poems that, both recently and in the past, I have found myself returning to when living with and writing about death. These authors have provided me with hints, clues, maps that I hope might lead me to some still-undiscovered and undefined “other side,” which is often mislabeled as closure. I am writing this book in order to learn (or relearn) how one writes about death, so I can write, or continue to write, about the deaths that have most touched my life, including, most recently, my mother’s.

  Living Dyingly

  More and more of us are writing our own obituaries. Some of us meticulous planners write a few paragraphs that we hope will be printed in our local newspaper or on our funeral programs after we die. However, most of us are creating detailed digital narratives every day, sharing images and words that will remain available long after we’re gone. There are websites devoted to memorializing the dead, virtual cemeteries where our life stories continue. These days, when we say the dead are always with us, we are hardly being metaphorical. Hundreds of images of the dead, or some previous version of them, can be as close to us as the smartphones in our pockets. Facebook accounts that remain open after someone has died continue to receive messages, many of which are addressed directly to the dead.

  A few years ago, an artist I was acquainted with died of lung cancer when he was in his early thirties. Each year on his birthday, he still gets a slew of new messages on his Facebook wall. People tell him how much they love him and miss him. Some of the messages make it seem as though he were traveling.

  “I know you’re in a better place,” a family member writes, “but I still miss you.”

  In the past, only close relatives might have had access to notes or letters left behind in sealed boxes in attics or basements. Now everything we write online or share on social media becomes potential fodder for our eulogies or obituaries. Still, it’s easier to draft a self-eulogy or obituary when one is healthy and well, when death is still an abstraction rather than a constant companion. When people are sick or dying, the act of putting together final thoughts about oneself is much more laden with emotion, and one fluctuates daily, sometimes hourly, between all five stages of Elisabeth Kúbler-Ross’s grief cycle of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance.

  My mother spent several weeks before she died recording a series of monologues on a handheld audio-cassette player she’d had for years. On the cassette, she leaves detailed funeral instructions and advice for my brothers and me on how to treat each other and raise our kids.

  On the cassette, she never quite says, “I know I am dying.” Instead, she says, “Be patient with your children and love them, like I loved you.”

  She never told me she was recording this cassette. She must have done it late at night when she was alone with her thoughts. She was possibly struggling with her fear of dying, which, to borrow from Ernest Hemingway’s “iceberg principle”—in which, like an iceberg, one eighth of a narrative is clearly seen or “above water”—must have been the other seven-eighths.

  “I’m not necessarily dying either today or tomorrow,” she says, showing a gradual evolution toward acceptance. “But we all must die one day.”

  I was surprised to learn, a few years ago, that many newspapers prewrite obituaries for public figures. Though my mother was not a public person, I wish I’d prewritten her obituary while she was dying. I wish I had been courageous enough to crack the iceberg and ask her what she wanted said about her at her funeral. I suppose she might have mentioned something on her cassette if it had been that important to her. After all, she told me what kind of shoes I should wear to her wake. (No open toes.) In addition to the “iceberg,” humor would have been one of my mother’s tools if she were writing her death.

  I don’t know very much about my mother’s childhood, because she never liked to talk about it. The fact that I know so little about her early life means that I will not be able to fully reconstruct her on the page. But I have already created fictional versions of my mother, taking the bits I know and morphing them into different women, some who are like I imagined her to be, some who are like I wanted her to be, and others who represent the worst-case scenario, the worst mother I could possibly have had. My mother has given birth to more women than me, and perhaps in her death she will breed even more.

  After my mother died, I called her two younger sisters, my aunts Grace and Thérèse, and asked them to tell me some interesting details about her childhood that I could include in her eulogy. My aunts ended up telling me some of the few things I already knew: that my mother was the sixth of nine children, that her lifelong hobby was sewing and embroidering, and that as a young woman she made extra money by embroidering elaborate trousseaus for brides. Each time my mother designed and embroidered a tablecloth or a sheet for one of her clients, she also made one for herself, so by the time she met my father, she already had everything she needed to set up her own house. Still, I want more. I want more than my mother was willing to leave me in words. But even if my mother had also retold me these exact same things, I still wish
I’d heard them again, one final time, from her.

  My mother did not leave behind an obituary, but she left behind her cassette.

  “I love you okay” is all she says in English, even after having lived in the United States for over forty years. The rest of the cassette is in Haitian Creole. And to me, she keeps saying, “Met fanm sou ou.” “Be your own woman”; “Be a strong woman.”

  I fill in the rest of that phrase, knowing that this is what she must have been thinking: Be the woman I raised you to be.

  When you’re young, your parents can seem immortal, then they get terminally ill and they remove the possibility of either you or them being immortal. When they die, you realize what it’s like to suddenly occupy an ambiguous space in the world. If both your parents, who are the people who created you, can die, then you too can die. With this in mind, you become acutely aware that we are all “living dyingly,” as the writer and commentator Christopher Hitchens calls it in Mortality, a collection of the essays initially published in Vanity Fair magazine the year before he died of esophageal cancer.

  “My chief consolation in this year of living dyingly has been the presence of friends,” Hitchens writes. “I can’t eat or drink for pleasure anymore, so when they offer to come it’s only for the blessed chance to talk.”

  Unlike ordinary talk, which can become routine, this kind of talk is pressing, urgent. It has an expiration date, of which those who are caught up in the regular routine of life are not yet aware. My mother, I imagine, used her cassette as her own blessed chance to talk. And like Hitchens’s lyrical, clever, and sometimes sarcastic essays, Mom’s monologues were much more about life than death. Her blessed chance to talk, like Hitchens’s blessed chance to write, was in itself a kind of hopeful story.