Friday, May 23, 2014

Hope in Danticat's Claire of the Sea Light

Edwidge Danticat’s Claire of the Sea Light (2013) is a collection of interconnected narratives set in the fictional Ville Rose, an impoverished seaside village in Haiti.  The title character’s story—conveyed most directly in the first and last chapter of the text—frames and connects the other narratives included in the volume.  We meet Limyé Lanmé Faustin, translated to Claire of the Sea Light, on her seventh birthday, a day that is both celebratory and sorrowful for Claire and her father, Nozias, as it marks the seventh anniversary of both Claire’s birth and her mother’s death.  In the evening, Claire’s father, a fisherman, arranges to give his beloved daughter to Gaëlle Cadet Lavaud, a middle-class widow who lost her own young daughter in an automobile accident exactly three years ago, on Claire’s fourth birthday.  Guilt-stricken from arranging for the murder of her husband’s supposed killers and in mourning for her daughter, Gaëlle has long resisted Nozias’s proposal that she take the girl and provide her with a better life than he can, but, tonight, she has finally decided that she wants to care for Claire.  When Claire hears that Nozias and Gaëlle have officially agreed that she will leave the seaside shack where she and her father now reside, she runs away toward Món Initil, where the villagers believe that the ghosts of their slave ancestors reside.  Later, from her position on a hill above the town, she sees Nozias and Gaëlle performing basic life support on a nearly drowned man on the beach.  After she notices that Nozias is calling for more light, Claire rushes back to the seaside. At the end of the book, we can assume that Claire will act as a “sea light,” or lighthouse, aiding Nozias, Gaëlle, and other community members in their rescue efforts.  Indeed, in this scene, and throughout the text, Claire represents a beacon of light in the darkness of postcolonial Haiti: the possibility of perseverance in the face of oppression and grief, the necessity of healing after trauma, the emergence of new life from death.

Significantly, Claire is a “revenan, a child who had entered the world just as her mother was leaving it” (16).  According to Ville Rose folklore, revenans are inclined to “follow their mothers into the other world,” to “[chase] a shadow they can never reach” (16).  In some ways, Claire does experience her dead mother as a shadow, sometimes feeling “another presence around her” (235-36).  Claire also seems to be drawn to death.  She “wonders what people would have said if she and her mother had died on the same day” (215).  Claire’s favorite song for the wonn, or the circle game that she plays with the other little girls in Ville Rose, is the Lasirén song, including the lyrics, “Lasirén, The Whale / My hat fell into the sea” (219).  Reflecting on this song, Claire notes its relevancy to the lives of Ville Rose citizens: “She was surprised that the granmoun, the adults, were not singing this song all day long.  So much had fallen into the sea.  Hats fell into the sea.  Hearts fell into the sea.  So much had fallen into the sea” (220).  Here, Claire alludes not only to her own loss of her mother, whom she associates with the sea in other passages, but also to the despair of an entire community, descended from slaves and now dependent on an unreliable and dangerous fish trade to feed and shelter themselves.  Even as a seven-year-old, Claire is astutely aware of the oppression and grief that the community has undergone.  Fittingly, when Claire runs away from Nozias and Gaëlle, she heads for Món Initil, where, according to legend, masses of fugitive slaves died in pursuit of their freedom.  Just as the townspeople predicted by naming her a revenan at birth, Claire seems to pursue the shadows of her own past as well as a communal past.

Rather than join her mother in death or the ghosts of escaped slaves on Món Initil, however, Claire ultimately returns—running and gleeful—to the land of the living, ready to help the people gathered around the man on the beach and then to “becom[e] Madame Gaëlle’s daughter” (238).  On her way home, she imagines that “this too could make a good song for the wonn”: “She had to go home / To see the man / Who’d crawled half dead / Out of the sea” (238).  In this version of a wonn song, Claire focuses on a man’s triumph over the sea instead of the sea’s power to take and to kill.  For the moment at least, she shifts her attention from death to life and despair to hope.  This shift is reflected in the Nozias and Gaëlle’s efforts to save the man on the beach; despite the fact that their own “sorrows could have nearly drowned them,” the two “take turns breathing into this man, breathing him back to life” (238).  At this moment, they choose to contribute to life instead of wallow in death.

Danticat has been quoted as saying that she structured Claire of the Sea Light after the pattern of movement in a game of wonn:  

Wonn is a children’s game that is a lot like “Ring a Round the Rosie.” Kids, often little girls, get together, hold hands, make a circle, and run clockwise, or counter clockwise while singing. One child is in the middle while the others are singing and they switch places during different moments in the song. This game mirrors the structure of the book in that the book moves back and forth through time and circles back to different characters.  (Dowling)

Just as the stories in the text shift and connect with each other as the participants in a game of wonn, the narrative that the text conveys overall resembles the narrative of a wonn song, relaying the history and spirit of a community through fragmented narrative and stories that repeat, with a difference, details previously conveyed.  Indeed, it is possible to read the text as an expansion of the wonn song that Claire invents as she runs back to her beachside home.

Tellingly, the narrative conveyed in the text contrasts sharply with the stories that Claire recalls being read to her at school: “In Madame Louise’s stories, everything was organized in a certain way; everything was neat.  Things would start out well, but would end up being bad, then would be well again” (214).  Louise George works at a local radio station and volunteers at Claire’s school.  She also suffers from a rare and untreatable condition that causes blood to stream from her mouth when she is menstruating.  Louise structures episodes on her radio program, Di Mwen, translated to Tell Us, much like the stories that she shares with the Claire and her classmates.  On Di Mwen, Louise interviews members of the community who have undergone some kind of hardship or trauma.  Instead of calling for social action to address the oppression in people’s lives, she finds opportunities to lighten the mood with “little remarks in the middle of a painful story” meant to “[make] people in the listening audience laugh” (173-74).  Louise also shapes each episode to produce “the part where the horrible story began to take a positive turn” (178), shaping her guests’ stories into narratives that follow a traditional story arch, to conclude happiness, stasis, justice.  Not surprisingly, “Claire didn’t believe stories like [Madame Louise’s], even when she felt like they were aimed at her, even when they were meant to defend her or teach her a lesson” (214).  In fact, Claire distrusts language in general, saying that she wishes people were like trees because “talking wasn’t everything” (213).  Some narratives are false, damaging, even violent, as symbolized by the blood that flows from Louise’s mouth.  The story that Claire composes in her wonn song—and the narrative of Claire of the Sea Light—defies the traditional story arch structure and, thus, challenges the narrative oppression of stories meant to contain and sanitize the struggles of Haitians. 

In fact, Claire of the Sea Light is more in the vein of the stories that Bernard Dorien wants to air on the radio, where he works with Louise before he is falsely accused of killing Gaëlle’s husband and then murdered by the men that Gaëlle hired to enact justice for her loss.  From Cité Pendue, the part of town where gangs run rampant, “Bernard imagined himself becoming the kind of radio journalist who’d talk about what he preferred to call the ‘geto,’ from the inside” (67).  Specifically, Bernard is interested in the young men of Cité Pendue who participate in gang activity, men the townspeople of Ville Rose call “ghosts” (68).  He believes that “[w]e can’t move forward as a neighborhood, as a town, or as a country . . . unless we know what makes these men cry” (68).  In Claire of the Sea Light, stories of the oppression and despair felt by Ville Rose citizens of all social strata are aired, although not in the way that Bernard might have imagined.  In the end, Claire turns from the ghosts of the past and the present to begin a new life.   Danticat’s wonn song conveys continued struggle, as the characters not only fight to save a man’s life on the beach but also contend with personal trauma and communal oppression.  But the story ends with hope, with Claire of the Sea Light returning to the community to help with the rescue effort.

Works Cited

Danticat, Edwidge.  Claire of the Sea Light.  Knopf Doubleday, 2013.

Dowling, Brendan.  "Maneuvering Myself Around a Scene: A Conversation with Edwidge Danticat." Public Libraries Online.  21 Oct. 2013.  Web.  23 May 2014.

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