Friday, March 23, 2012

You can go home again

The only reason (right now the only reason) I would consider getting an e-book reader would be to avoid book overpacking while out of town. You know book overpacking: You're going away for five days, so you pack six books just in case you run out of something to read (horrors!).

Sorry, I'm going to digress here because I still remember the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach: I ran out of reading material in Hawaii in 2006, having finished Here Be Dragons (which I didn't like very much) the night before leaving. I had a good six hours of flying to get back to Portland. No worries ... I'll find something at the airport, but I soon discovered the Maui airport is not the Portland airport where there's a fully stocked Powell's Books! I spy a newstand with a metal rack of books and I am despairing, panicking ... omg is my only choice Danielle Steel?? I find it, at the bottom, behind Danielle Steel ... Carl Hiaassen! Skinny Dip! I had never read any of his adult books before, but since then, Hiaassen has pretty much become my gold-standard for what to read while flying.

Anyway, the e-reader. Good for always having something to read (if you can actually find something to read in your library's way-oversubscribed e-book service).

So that's the long way of saying that I recently had the nothing-to-read problem with audiobooks (that is so ridiculous a statement that I must explain the extenuating circumstances ... I needed something short to take up the few listening hours before I went on vacation). Fortunately, I'm now working in a library building where it's just a short trip downstairs to some fully stocked shelves. And that's how I came to listen to Edwidge Danticat's Krik? Krak! (Is there something a little off with a blog post that mentions both Edwidge Danticat and Danielle Steel?)

Krik? Krak! is a collection of nine short stories about contemporary Haitians. Haitians who endured the privation and fear of the Duvaliers' military dictatorship, Haitians who attempted to escape the island, and Haitians who did escape and resettled in the United States. The stories are mostly about women, as their men often did not survive. The title derives from Haitian storytellers, who will begin their tales by asking their audience Krik? (pronounced creek) [do you want to hear?]. The audience enthusiastically shouts Krak! (pronounced crahk) [speak!]. It is women, Danticat says, who must ensure that the stories -- the truth about the regime's horrors -- are passed on.

Four of the stories really stuck with me. Two are lengthy, and tell an involved story of families and relationships. In "Children of the Sea," a man and a woman each relate the story of their separation -- he is on a leaky boat hoping to make it to Florida, she has fled the capitol with her parents. Their love story will break your heart. The final story (almost a novella) is "Caroline's Wedding," and is your classic tale of immigrant parents insisting that cultural traditions be maintained by their Americanized children. Grace's younger sister is marrying a Bahamian, and their mother is taking steps to ensure that it doesn't happen. While preparing for Caroline's wedding, Grace tells us the story of how her parents emigrated from Haiti, but were unable to leave the traditions behind.

Two other stories are these little gems, snapshots almost, of a moment in time. "A Wall of Fire Rising" tells the story of Guy and his family, whom he can't support. Guy sees a hot-air balloon and longs for the freedom of flight. Freedom is not what Guy finds. Princesse meets a sophisticated artist, Catherine, visiting her homeland in "Seeing Things Simply." Catherine asks young Princesse to model nude for her, but then leaves without saying goodbye. Princesse may become an artist too.

The true power of these stories lies in Danticat's language, which has the rhythm and lushness of a tropical place, a place where voodoo holds as much sway as the Catholic Church (often right alongside the Catholic Church), a place where everyone suffers the indignities of want or persecution. I appreciated the order of the stories -- which start in Haiti and gradually include the influence of the United States until they finally take place entirely in the U.S., only to have the last story touch briefly on the events of the first one. Despite the misery Danticat describes to us, we feel hopeful by the end.

Robin Miles and Dion Graham narrate here. Miles, a narrator I've never heard before, does the lion's share of the work and she is very good, skillfully using her voice to deliver all the pain and sorrow and odd moments of joy that Danticat's women experience. I particularly enjoyed her work as Grace, the quiet older sister of "Caroline's Wedding." Graham narrates just three of the stories, but his longing for his lover in "Children of the Sea" and Guy's despair, hopelessness, and impatience with his wife and son in "A Wall of Fire Rising" are vivid. Both readers use accented English to tell some of the stories -- both in dialogue and in the narrative portions, and they sound at ease with the French and the Creole patois.

Danticat concludes her collection with "Epilogue: Women Like Us" where I think she is aligning herself with the women of her stories. She is assuming the responsibility of sustaining their history. Reminding us that their stories are our stories. She describes writing: "It's like braiding your hair. Taking a handful of coarse strands and attempting to bring them unity." Beauty, I might also say. Danticat has succeeded in making some pretty good braids.

[The top photograph is of vodou paraphernalia for sale in Port-au-Prince's Marché en Fer. It was taken by Doron and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. The braiding is titled, "Culture exchange on Playa del Alcudia, Mallorca, Spain, 2009." It was taken by Bengt Nyman and also retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat
Narrated by Dion Graham and Robin Miles
Recorded Books, 2007. 5:00

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