NBCC Award Finalists in Autobiography: Edwidge Danticat’s “Brother, I’m Dying”


This is the fifth in a series of blog posts by NBCC board members covering the finalists for the NBCC awards. The awards will be announced on March 6, 2008, at the New School.

“Brother, I’m Dying,” by Edwidge Danticat, Knopf.

She is a lyrical yet clear voice of history, documenting the strengths and failings of humans by telling the stories of a small island nation and its people.

Her novels and short stories, essays and memoir speak not only of the desperation and bloody terrors of injustice but also of the enduring strength that springs from love of family and the glimmering hope of freedom. And she tells these powerful stories in a narrative style that never falters, remaining graceful, honest and unsentimental throughout.

It’s no surprise, then, that Edwidge Danticat, an immigrant who learned English only after the age of 12, is on prize lists and shortlists over and over again—including the one here.

Danticat has always burrowed into her own life, especially her early years in a Haiti ruled by a dictator, for fuel to power her fiction. In “Brother, I’m Dying,” she returns to the terrain of her inspiration – but this time, a mother for the first time and simultaneously mourning the loss of her father and her uncle in 2004, she is laid bare. There’s no fiction to hide behind; the story flows raw, the wounds fresh.

The wounds are also ours.

Danticat’s beloved Uncle Joseph, the clergyman who had raised her in Haiti, dies in a Florida immigration detention center, the victim of an unrelenting and bungling bureaucracy in which he becomes entangled when he asks for political asylum after Haitian gangs threaten to kill him.

Joseph cared for Danticat for eight years until her parents, immigrants in New York, were able to send for her and her brother. She weaves their days in Haiti with Joseph’s final hours in the detention center and the last days of her father, dying in New York of pulmonary fibrosis. Shadowing these stories is her own new life of hope with her husband and their new baby.

The result is a memoir of spare elegance, a moving paean to loss, and a cry for justice both in the old and new countries.

The NBCC is delighted to honor “Brother, I’m Dying”as a finalist in autobiography.—Geeta Sharma-Jensen

Review of “Brother, I’m Dying” in the Washington Post.

Review in the Los Angeles Times.

Review in the New York Times.

Review in the Christian Science Monitor.

Interview on NPR.