Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Port-au-Prince and Ville Rose in Krik? Krak!

The Haitian cities that Edwidge Danticat describes in her stories, Ville Rose and Port-au-Prince, are unlike the cities that most of us have experienced. While Ville Rose seems to be the least evil of the two cities, both are afflicted with pain and strife. Danticat does not go into a lot of detail about the physical description of the cities, but the reader is made aware that the cities are poor and that most of their inhabitants live in squalor. For example, the house of Guy and Lili is not described in great detail, but the reader learns that Lili collects water in old gasoline cans and her family eats from a “trio of half gourds on the clay floor” (53). Like the narrator of “Night Women,” Guy and Lili eat and sleep in the same room, and their children also sleep in the same room. The cities depicted in Krik? Krak! are destitute. There is a wealth gap in Port-au-Prince, just as there is in Lagos, as described by Chinua Achebe in No Longer at Ease. In Achebe’s book, villagers starve while the government builds “ministers’ houses at a cost of thirty-five thousand each” (Achebe 61). Sam Okoli has a radiogram that he purchased for “two-seventy-five pounds” (62), while Obi’s parents subsist on a two pound per month income (Achebe 50). A similar social gap exists in Port-au-Prince and Ville Rose. In “Between the Pool and the Gardenias,” Monsieur and Madame have a house with a pool, paintings and a large television system (96), while most villagers live as Guy and Lili do. However, the government workers do not seem as affluent in Haiti as they are in Lagos. The soldiers in “The Missing Peace” do not seem as though they are particularly wealthy, although they are probably better fed than the villagers. Whereas the government in Lagos maintains power because of its financial dominance, the government in Port-au-Prince maintains power through sheer brutality and terror. Port-au-Prince is disturbed by violence and coups; soldiers torture and humiliate the Haitian people mercilessly. In the opening story, “Children of the Sea,” soldiers make sons sleep with their mothers and make fathers sleep with their daughters (12). The soldiers’ methods of torture are sickening and completely devoid of any regard or value for human life. The soldiers torture Madan Roger because she will not tell them anything about her dead son’s associates in the youth federation. The narrator recalls, “you can hear the guns coming down on her head. It sounds like they are cracking all the bones in her body” (16). In “Nineteen Thirty-Seven,” the narrator recalls, “The policemen made no efforts to stop the mob that was beating my mother. ‘Lougarou, witch, criminal!’ they shouted” (39). The violence perpetrated by the soldiers arouses violence between citizens as they look for scapegoats for their suffering.

The physical atrocities suffered by the Haitian soldiers are horrific, but the damage inflicted upon human dignity and spirit is even more reprehensible. In “Children of the Sea,” Madam Roger shouts, “I’m dead already. You have already done the worst to me that you can do. You have killed my soul” (16). The narrator’s mother says that “hope is the biggest weapon of all to use against us” (19). The government breaks its people down spiritually by arousing their hope and then quickly and violently crushing it. Without hope, the people have nothing to live for. They cannot provide for their children. In Port-au-Prince, “they throw out whole children…anywhere: on doorsteps, in garbage cans, at gas pumps, sidewalks” (93) and Papa in “Children of the Sea” feels helpless because he cannot protect his family. In “A Wall of Fire Rising,” Guy remembers his father as a man “struggling…a man I would never want to be” (75). There is no hope for Guy to be anything else but a struggling man so he commits suicide rather than live with that hopelessness. The Haitian cities are cities in that they are groups of people coexisting, but they are not civilizations as we think of the term in America. The narrator of “Children of the Sea,” writes that her family will “drive quick and fast until we find civilization” (13). Civilization implies something beyond people living together. It suggests that the people are able to make progress and that they are able to hope and look to the future. It implies that people are civilized, that they treat one another as human beings. Civilization as we know it does not exist in the cities of Krik? Krak!

The circumstances existing in the Haitian cities are almost unintelligible to me. In “The Missing Peace,” Emilie says, “I became a woman last night…I lost my mother and all my other dreams” (121). In American society, becoming a man or woman involves the seeking and fulfillment of dream—not their destruction. It is not until the book reaches New York in “New York Day Women” that the city becomes something recognizable again. Another story set in New York City is “Caroline’s Wedding.” The mother in this story struggles to hold onto her Haitian identity, encouraging her daughters to marry Haitians. Haitians in Port-au-Prince struggle against oppression by a brutal government; immigrant Haitians struggle against oppression by dominant American society. The oppression in New York is different from the oppression in Haiti. There are threats to one’s heritage, but there are no threats to one’s life. People in Port-au-Prince face starvation, torture, and stagnation, while people in New York are encouraged to grow and dream—even if this same growth threatens to obscure individual ethnic identity.