A Letter to Edwidge Danticat

Breath, Eyes, Memory is one of my favorite books. I read and reread parts of  it throughout my undergraduate years at Princeton because, in many ways, the text nourished and empowered me. At the very end of my senior year, about a month before graduation, I wrote Edwidge Danticat a letter. I never sent her this letter, and I don’t think I ever will. But it deserves to be shared…

Dear Edwidge,

I am writing you this letter while sitting in the middle of Prospect Gardens, an oasis of serenity amid the chaos and stress of Princeton. In this place resides an array of vibrant summer flowers, a carnival of color that bursts with orange lilies, burgundy and blue iris asters, and yellow tulips. Each blossom dances in the sunlight, gently moving its body to the rhythmic gusts of the wind. Ensconced in the shade of the giant statue that looms largely in the center of the garden lies a small bed of daffodils. As I look at these daffodils, I recall a conversation between Tante Atie and Sophie in Breath, Eyes, Memory. Before Sophie leaves Croix-des-Rosets to join her mother, Martine, in New York, Tante Atie tells Sophie that Martine has had a deep love for daffodils, the flowers that “grew in a place where they were not supposed to grow.” Reflecting upon this moment, I wonder whether I, like Sophie and Martine, possess the resilience of a daffodil. I wonder whether I, like Sophie and Martine, can thrive in a place that was not created for me.

When I arrived at Princeton, when I walked into this space, I was cognizant of the fact that I brought many communities with me.  When I arrived at Princeton, I brought with me the voices, fears and aspirations of intersectional, diasporic communities that have been historically exiled and silenced. When I arrived at Princeton, I quickly realized that Princeton was not made for me.

My blackness, a transatlantic blackness, a global blackness, a blackness that acknowledges difference but also claims something grander than a particular nation-state, was not meant to thrive in this space. My feminism, an intersectional feminism, a profound love and care for my black womanhood born not of academic theorization, but cultivated by the lived experiences of my own mother, was not meant to thrive in this space.

Edwidge, as I write you this letter, I reopen wounds that have never healed. I relive the moments in which I felt the most profound isolation, the most profound hurt. I recall the very instance in which I discovered my invisibility, the instance in which I discovered that I moved through this space unseen, unheard and unknown. But this trauma is familiar to you, Edwidge. You know it all too well. For just as Sophie carried the aborted hopes and dreams of the Caco women on her shoulders, I too struggle to balance the burden of inheritance. Just as Sophie embarked upon a search for liberation from the violence of her past—although Sophie and I have grappled with very different forms and magnitudes of pain—I too yearn to make peace with the generational trauma I carry with me. Just as Sophie fought to cherish and nurture her womanhood in a world that continually attempted to invalidate her existence, I too seek affirmation and a sense of belonging.

And this is why I am writing to you, Edwidge. This is why I have committed these words to page. Through your inspiring language, through the beautiful marriage of English, Kreyòl, and French that marks so much of your writing, I uncovered a narrative that was written for a woman like me. In writing Sophie’s story, you provided me with a vector for understanding my own. In this text, you unapologetically rendered visible women whom our world treats as invisible, the women who moved from the impoverished hillsides of Haiti to the impoverished ghettoes of New York. You created a space to discuss the unspoken, a space to acknowledge and confront uncomfortable, dark truths. You showed how generations of diasporic black women have found in each other systems of support when society has left them behind. You removed barriers and filters to show the joys and pains of intimacy, the multidimensionality of love. You created portraits that gave me fragments and pieces of understanding, portraits that showed me how to carve out a space to define and embrace all my identities.

I do not mean to say that you gave me fairytales. The people of our diaspora have lived lives that are marked by histories, systems of oppression and relations of power far too large to have made our realities anything but idyllic or simplistic. No, Edwidge, you did not give me fairytales. Indeed, you gave me stories that made me cringe, stories that provoked floods of tears, stories that made my heart immeasurably heavy with sorrow. But your stories also gave me hope. They were cultural artifacts, poignant documentations of love, survival and resilience. Your stories reminded me that we are not a monolithic people, that our existence is not reducible to a flat morphology. In your writing, I found both a motive and a method for living freely, fearlessly and truthfully in an environment as stifling as the one I have struggled to call home over the past four years. Through your writing, I learned how to be a daffodil, how to thrive in a place that was not created for me.

And so I hope you continue to share your gift, Edwidge. Your craft is a blessing, and your words have inspired many. We need you.

As I conclude this letter to you, I wonder if I will find myself in this garden sometime in the near or distant future. I remember Sophie’s return to Croix-des-Rosets, her return to the site in which so much of the Caco women’s generational trauma is rooted. I remember Grandmè Ifé calling out, “Ou libére,” asking Sophie if she has found freedom and peace. I wonder about the migration(s) that I will have to make, the places to which I will inevitably have to return in order to answer the same call. As I write this letter to you, I thank you for reminding me of the enduring human spirit and the resilience of the black soul. Thank you for inviting me on this journey and helping me forge my own path.

 

With immense love and gratitude,

Sarah Yerima

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