Krik? Krak!

“Krik? Krak!”  by Edwidge Danticat

    Krik? Krak!  Somewhere by the seacoast I feel a breath of warm sea air and hear the laughter of children.  An old granny smokes her pipe, surrounded by the village children…  “We tell the stories so that the young ones will know what came before them.  They ask Krik?  We say Krak!  Our stories are kept in our hearts.”

Sal Scalora, White Darkness / Black Dreamings, Haiti: Feeding the Spirit

I like to read a wide variety of world fiction, and one of the ways I do this is to frequently choose as my next book a book that is completely different from the last one I read.  For example, if I have just read the much-hyped book by the new young hot-shot United States writer, my next book will probably be a classic novel at least 200 years old from another country.  If I notice that several of my recent books have been by men, I will make a special point of looking for a book by a woman, and vice-versa.  If I’ve just completed a 700-page novel, I’ll usually take a break with a book of short stories.

I recently finished “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf, so I was faced with what to read next.  I came up with “Krik! Krak!”, a book of short stories by Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat. Both Virginia Woolf and Edwidge Danticat are woman writers, but on the face of it, it would seem difficult to come up with two more different writers than these two.  Virginia Woolf was a member of the Bloomsbury Group, the collective of intellectuals, writers, and artists in London in the 1920s and 1930s.  Woolf herself came from a family of acclaimed intellectuals.

Edwidge Danticat was born in Port au Prince, Haiti in 1969.  According to Wikipedia, Haiti is the poorest place in the western hemisphere, and that was before the recent earthquake.   Both her parents emigrated to New York when she was very young, leaving her to be brought up by an aunt and uncle.

But one thing that Woolf and Danticat have in common was a strong vocation to write.  Danticat started writing at age 12 and published her first story at age 14.

Another quality that Woolf and Danticat share is a profound understanding of the importance of mothers within their families.  In Woolf’s novels, the men are so busy with their academic skirmishes, they have little time for the children.  Thus it is up to the mothers, like Mrs. Ramsay in “To the Lighthouse” to take care of the children.

In Danticat’s stories the men are frequently missing, victims of all-pervasive physical violence in Haitian society.  For example there was the TonTon Cahoute, a private volunteer group of farmers beholden to Haitian dictator ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier who murdered anyone who expressed disagreement with the government.  At another time Trujillo, the dictator of the adjacent Dominican Republic, issued an order to murder all Haitians living there. Estimates range from 10,000 to 20,000 Haitians were murdered.

Danticat’s stories, in order to accurately depict Haitian society, necessarily contain severe acts of violence.  In one story, TonTon Cohoute members return the decapitated head of a son to his mother.  In another story a woman is murdered trying to make it across the border to escape Trujillo’s soldiers.  Another story is about the Haiti boat people where a huge number of people over-crowd a boat in a desperate attempt to escape Haiti.

But violence is only one side of Danticat’s stories.  One of the stories I liked best is the longest story in the book, ‘Caroline’s Wedding’  In this story a family consisting of Haitian emigre’s living in New York, a mother and two daughters, prepare for the wedding of the younger daughter.  This is the traditional story where the daughters laugh behind their mother’s back about her funny old ideas, only to find out that she knows a lot more than they thought she did.

One can contrast the two societies of Woolf and Danticat, upper class English academic Bloomsbury and modern-day poverty- and violence-ridden Port au Prince.  But Virginia Woolf’s life and her altruistic suicide (she didn’t want her husband to have to go through another round of her severe mental illness) show that even among the upper classes life still isn’t perfect.  At the same time, Danticat’s Port au Prince shows that even under the worst conditions, love and strong values persist.

“Krik? Krak!” was a National Book Award finalist.  It was a fine read, although it probably will not make my end-of-year list.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. I was happy to see your thoughts on Danticat. I have only read her The Farming of Bones, a novel set during the 1937 massacre by Trujillo which you reference. I thought it was very good and almost picked up Krik? Krak? several times, but never did. After my first encounter with Danticat, I wanted to read something else she had written but, over ten years later, I have not. This review reminds me that I need to put another Danticat on my shelf. She is a very good writer who offers a unique perspective.

    I really enjoyed how you compared and contrasted Woolf and Danticat, bringing both authors and their strengths to life. Excellent review.

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  2. Hi Kerry,
    Thanks for your comments. The Farming of Bones does look like it might be an interesting read. It wasn’t available when I was looking for a book by her, so I read Krik?Kak! instead. I wonder if Danticat will deal with the earthquake in her next book. Huge responsibility being the official writer of an entire country.

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  3. “Huge responsibility being the official writer….”

    Yes, it is a shame we do that to some writers. I suppose it can be good for book sales for some “officials”, but what freedom for those who are not the official spokesperson for any particular country, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc., etc.

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    • I looked in Wikipedia under Haitian novelists, and there were 26 listed. I hadn’t heard of any of the others besides Edwidge Danticat. I hope some day she writes a personal, somewhat autobiographical, novel.

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