The title “Everything Inside” could not be more apt for this collection of eight short stories that expose the hidden machinery inside all of us — those intricate psychosocial cogs and wheels and power supplies that make us what we are.
The people in these stories are Haitian, all members of the Haitian diaspora of those who fled the poverty created in their island by political and climatic disasters. Often living in communities such as Miami’s Little Haiti, these first- and second-generation immigrants are rooted in family and connected by social ties with compatriots, who have lived through similar experiences, and who share the need to deal with all of that while making a life and a livelihood in America.
But for all their connections and similarities, the characters in these stories are distinct individuals with their own personalities, their own places in their community and their own ways of making a living. Elsie, the central character of “Dosas,” is a nurse’s assistant, her husband a mechanic turned musician. Kim, the narrator of “Seven Stories,” is the daughter of two pediatricians; her friend Callie is the daughter of one prime minister and the wife of another. In “Without Inspection,” Darline, a cook, came to the United States only because her husband insisted. He drowned while crossing as an illegal immigrant; she survived because she had to save her son, Paris, so-named because it was his father’s dream to visit the capital of France.
Dreams and aspirations give many of these admirable Haitians their strength. Lies and tricks and betrayals — sometimes committed by other Haitians — confound them, sometimes finally, but often only until they marshal their resources yet again and begin to claw their way back.
Their personalities determine their responses to the hand life deals them. In a metonymy for all behavior, Elsie reflects “Some people just want to go home, no matter what the cost,” She herself does not pine to return permanently to Haiti, but for good or ill, she and her husband, Blaise, and friend Olivia behave as they do because of their natures. “They were dosas. All three of them. Untwinned, lonely, alone together.” Elsie suffers enormous losses. Yet, had she and Blaise’s mentor been able to act just slightly differently, their lives would probably have worked out much better.
Some writers could have made a novel-sized meal out of the material in “Dosas” with its sharp focus on four characters, its back stories of several lives, its pairing of betrayal in one plot with devotion in a sub-plot. Typically, the always eloquent Edwidge Danticat strips the fat from her narrative to zero in on her characters. She is kind to them but not indulgent. She tells it like it is.
The most dramatic example in this volume is, perhaps, Carole, a new grandmother losing the memories and abilities that have sustained her as she drifts into Alzheimer’s. In “Sunrise, Sunset,” her daughter, Jeanne, is scarcely better at coping, spending days in bed, unable to mother her 7-month old. But Carole, for all her mental losses, reflects astutely “Her daughter’s psyche is so feeble anything can rattle her. Doesn’t she realize that the life she is living is an accident of fortune? Doesn’t she know she is an exception in this world, where it is normal to be unhappy, to be hungry, to work nonstop and earn next to nothing, and to suffer the whims of everything from tyrants to hurricanes and earthquakes?” Alzheimer’s notwithstanding, Carole acts vigorously to focus Jeanne’s attention on her baby’s needs. “Sunrise, Sunset” — the beginning and ending of lives — captures not just the dramatic results when someone steps way beyond the normal limits, but also the ways in which each moment is a link in the long chain of moments that becomes a life.
This is another striking instance in which the narrative is shaped by a decisive action — an action that, even in her decline, Carole had to take because she has devoted herself to her family’s success in a new country. And so, it is in all the stories: Character drives the plot, or rather, more specifically character is the plot: What happens — the events recounted in the stories — springs from the way a character must inevitably respond to other characters or events.
This collection comprises eight lucid and profoundly moving mini-masterpieces of the storyteller’s art. The stories are like crystals. Polished by Edwidge Danticat’s brilliant prose, each facet is sparklingly clear, as she turns them to show us her people and their situations in different lights.
• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Massachusetts.
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By Edwidge Danticat
Knopf, $25.95, 241 pages
Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC.