Table Of Contents
2. Background Information
2.1. Historical Information on Haiti
2.2. Biographical Information on Edwidge Danticat
3. Cultural Identity
3.1. National Identity
3.2. Ethnic Identity
3.2.1. Tradition: Family Structures and Voodoo Magic
3.2.2. Language: The Oral Tradition
4. The Necessity to Adapt
Krik? Krak! by the Haitian author Edwidge Danticat is a collection of short stories that has received wide recognition on the international book market and in literary circles. Danticat, who has already been awarded many literary prices in her young career, presents her native country Haiti in many facets, thereby conveying an impression of its beauty and cultural richness with all the positive and negative aspects. The title of the collection refers to “the Haitian tradition of the storyteller calling out ‘Krik?’ and willing listeners gathering around and answering ‘Krak’” (Atanasoski), which already suggests the importance of stories in Haitian culture, and furthermore hints at the Haitian way of life. Krik? Krak! offers a fascinating approach to this Haitian culture and the tradition of story-telling. Furthermore, the reader gains an insight into Haitian reality from very different, though mainly female, perspectives; Danticat’s writings emphasize the experience of Haitian women from all social levels.
All short stories in Krik? Krak! present interesting aspects of Haitian culture, but I have decided to refer exclusively to the last short story of the collection, “Caroline’s Wedding.” In contrast to the other short stories, the plot of “Caroline’s Wedding” takes place in the U.S., introducing to the reader a Haitian immigrant family living in New York. Apparently, the immigrant experience is central to many of Danticat’s writings. Beyond this, “Caroline’s Wedding” reflects on Haiti’s culture from a distinct cultural setting, which makes the story very suitable for an examination of cultural identity.
Generally, in order to understand why so many Haitians emigrate from their home country, and to understand Danticat’s allusions to incidents of the past, some information about Haiti’s history might be helpful. Moreover, the impact of the immigrant experience on Danticat’s life will be pointed out by giving some information about her biographical background.
In “Caroline’s Wedding,” Danticat touches upon many aspects of the immigrants’ situation in a foreign country, but the question of identity is certainly central to it. The story deals with three women who represent different stages of naturalization in the U.S., and different levels of identification with the U.S. and Haiti. This already indicates that a person’s cultural identity consists of national as well as ethnic identities; I will examine in how far the story presents aspects of both. Furthermore, ethnic identity will be further subdivided into an examination of Haitian family structures and the mythical tradition, and the importance of language for Haitian culture will be looked at more closely.
Finally, the fourth chapter will serve to point out what premises are necessary for a successful integration into the society of the host country, because life in the new country will add to the cultural identity of a person as well.
Despite the fact that Danticat’s writings have reached an audience worldwide, there is not yet much secondary literature available. Consequently, I searched the Internet and was positively surprised that there are a few articles. Nevertheless, this is the reason why I rely, with the exception of the primary source and one standard reference book, on secondary material from Internet resources only.
2. Background Information
The story of “Caroline’s Wedding” takes place in the contemporary U.S., but many of the other stories in the collection refer to Haiti at another period of time. Of course, the incidents of the past influence the life of the Haitians up to the present day; Haitian history, all the committed cruelties, have shaped their cultural self-understanding. Furthermore, knowledge about the recent history of Haiti helps to understand why so many Haitians emigrated from Haiti during the last decades, and sought refuge elsewhere, mainly in the U.S. Therefore, I will give a short summary of Haiti’s historical background until 2001.
Apart from this, I will give some information about Danticat’s biography. She writes about the immigrant experience first-hand, because she lived through it herself. It is always to difficult to judge in how far an author’s work mirrors her own experiences; definitely, “’Krik? Krak!’ embodies some of Danticat’s experiences as a child” (Helmers). Although it would be wrong to assume that “Caroline’s Wedding” is an autobiographical report, it cannot be denied that there are similarities between the life of Grace Azile and Edwidge Danticat. Consequently, some biographical information about Danticat might be helpful in order to better understand her writing, and help to get access to immigrant literature in general.
2.1. Historical Information on Haiti
Haiti and its neighboring state, the Dominican Republic, are situated on the island Hispaniola in the Caribbean Sea, which had been “discovered” by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Until the 20th century, the island saw the settlements of Spanish people, of French intruders, of American soldiers; on the island republics were established and destroyed again; it had elected presidents and junta regimes. In 1844, the eastern two-thirds of the island declared its independence as the Republic of Santo Domingo, now the Dominican Republic; today, it is a popular destination for tourists from all over the world. Up to the present day, the relation of Haiti and the Dominican Republic is tensed.
During the 19th and 20th century, Haiti’s historical development was still characterized by political instability and social struggles; the tensions between the black Haitians, who make up 95 per cent of the total population, and the mulattoes, who make up only the remaining 5 per cent, but nevertheless present half of Haiti’s elite, increased.
During World War I, The United States invaded Haiti; they feared the increasing influence of France and Germany on Haiti, and thereby on the security of the Panama Canal. After the Marines had left, Haiti’s history was again marked by unstable politics and social inequity, and despite its natural beauty and resources, Haiti is still the poorest country of the Western Hemisphere.
Of great negative impact on Haiti’s development was the president ship of Francois Duvalier, also called “Papa Doc.” In 1957, he declared himself “President for life.” Duvalier organized the “Tonton Macoutes,” an armed force that assisted him to rule over the country with oppression, terror and violence. It was a very dark period of Haitian history. Although Duvalier’s regime was at least a stable government, it did not manage to stabilize the economic situation of Haiti. On the contrary, the economic situation got worse, causing many Haitians to leave their home country. “Then the biggest immigration from Haiti was in the 1960s when Papa Doc was in power. He drove a bunch of people out when he was dictator. Especially people who were professional. Some went to Africa, some came to France, but most came to the United States” (Danticat in Laurence).
In 1971, after Duvalier’s death, his son Jean Claude, called “Baby Doc,” took over the presidency. Still, the economic situation did not improve, and emigration numbers increased. “Poorer people left in the 1970s, when my parents left, then you had boat people in the 1980s. Then you had the military, and economical and political pressures” (Danticat in Laurence). The ever-increasing number of emigrants from Haiti finally drew international attention to the regime. In 1986, Jean Claude Duvalier fled Haiti because of rising opposition. His rule was followed by a junta regime.
Officially, Haiti is a presidential democracy since 1987, but for a long time, no elected president succeeded in establishing his power before a junta took over again. In 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide won a landslide victory in internationally supervised presidential elections. Aristide claimed himself to be an “advocate for the poor,” and his elections raised many hopes in Haiti’s population. He was inaugurated in 1991, but was ousted by a military coup some month later. The process of restoring him to office took years and brought with it severe UN-sanctions against Haiti’s new military regime, from which the Haitian population suffered extremely. Consequently, more Haitians tried to leave the country, but “[o]f the thousands of Haitians who attempted to flee to the United States, more than half were sent back to Haiti by the U.S. Coast Guard” (Tata). In 1994, the UN finally forced the military regime to turn over power to Aristide, and “[o]n September 19, a force of 20.000 U.S. troops arrived in Haiti to oversee the transition from dictatorship to democracy” (Tata). The rightfully elected president Aristide returned, and millions of dollars in international aid were spent for the improvement and stabilization of Haiti. In 1995, René Prèval, a friend of Aristide and his designated successor, won the presidential election. In 2000, the last U.S. troops left the country. Afterwards, Haiti still received massive international assistance to establish a government capable of acting, but it never achieved a status of full power to act. In 2000, presidential elections were held again, and Aristide was reelected president, but the international community questioned the legitimacy of the election, and the opposition parties continue to demand new elections. Unfortunately, Haiti has not yet arrived at a functioning democratic system.
2.2. Biographical Information on Edwidge Danticat
On January 19, 1969, Edwidge Danticat was born in Port-au-Prince; she was the first child of Andre and Rose Danticat. The family was poor, and finally, the hopeless economical situation and the increasing political pressure under Duvalier’s rule drove the parents to leave Haiti and seek a better life in the U.S. In 1971, “her father left the country . . . to find work as a taxi driver in New York City; when Danticat was four, her mother also left for America to find work as a textile worker” (Farley). While the “father came out the normal way with a visa and stuff” (Danticat in Laurence), her mother had to wait until the father sent for her. Afterwards, it took another eight years before the parents could afford to make Danticat and her brother join them in the U.S. The fact that the parents were willing to leave their children for such a long time makes clear how desperate their situation and future prospects in Haiti must have been. Meanwhile, Danticat and her younger brother were raised by an aunt. Danticat recalls that “even though I understood, I think, early on the great sacrifices that my parents were making, I still missed them very much” (“Behind the Books”); this experience shaped her personality as well.
Nevertheless, Danticat’s memories about her childhood in Haiti are positive, and “[i]t was during these early years that Danticat was influenced by the Haitian practice of story telling which developed because much of the population was not literate at the time” (Atanasoski). Although Danticat still lived in poverty, she says that she does not “remember being poor. I just remember kid stuff and going to the countryside in the summer when it was really beautiful” (Laurence). Danticat preserved this love for Haiti, and it influenced her further life; she says “that the memories of Haiti and things Haitian deeply influences her writing” (Atanasoski).
Danticat was twelve years old when she was finally reunited with her parents and two new brothers in New York. Suddenly, she was thrown into a completely different surrounding, exposed to a completely foreign culture. This cultural clash was hard for her, and she explains that “I felt very lost and I withdrew into myself, became much more shy than I already was. I found solace in books, read a lot . . . . I think it’s very difficult for every child who comes here from another culture” (“Behind the Books”). But during these “difficult times, she found support from her family and the Haitian community in Brooklyn” (Atanasoski). To have at least a piece of Haitian culture around her must have alleviated the process of assimilation.