Illuminating Haiti’s Plight: A review of Claire Limyè Lanmè – Claire of the Sea Light, a novel by Edwidge Danticat

by Greg Dunkel (for Haiti Liberte)
A review of Claire
Limyè Lanmè – Claire of the Sea Light,
a novel by Edwidge Danticat, Alfred
A. Knopf, New York, 2013
This fine insight-filled novel interlaces characters ranging
from the 7-year-old girl whose name is the book’s title, to a well-off shop
keeper, the town’s undertaker and mayor, a radio journalist, the owner of the
local school, some gangsters, and the girl’s father, a poor fisherman. These
characters let Danticat examine a lot of issues that affect Haiti.
examines the issues of justice and violence, poverty and education,
environmental exhaustion, how the dead are buried, how children play, how
people celebrate, and the relations between Haitians in the diaspora (outside
Haiti) and those who haven’t left. Using her imagination to build the
connections, Danticat makes the reader experience Haiti on a personal level.
            In a real
sense, the town and the sea are characters in this novel, which change,
interact, and are affected by the poverty-stressed economy of Haiti like the
more conventional human characters.
            Set before
the earthquake, in the seaside town of Ville Rose, modeled on Léogâne, the home
town of Danticat’s mother, with elements from the other seaside towns Danticat
knows, the novel begins with Claire’s father deciding to give her to the
shopkeeper on her birthday so she can have a better life. Her birthday is the
day when she and her father go to the cemetery and visit the grave of her
mother, who died giving birth to Claire.
            Claire runs
away and doesn’t come back into the book until its end.
            The novel
is written in English, which is not Danticat’s mother tongue.  Whenever she wants to express something which
is essentially Haitian, she turns to kreyòl.
Limyè Lanmè is a revenan, a child
born as her mother dies. She plays wonn,
a children’s dancing game. The radio station that is an important element in
the story is called Radio Zòrèy,
Radio Ears. But the kreyòl flows much
more naturally than the English translation.
            There is a
classic Haitian novel called Gouverneurs
de la Rosée
(translated into English as Masters
of the Dew
), which Jacques Roumain wrote in French, a language with deeper
historical roots in Haiti than English, but which is still not the mother
tongue of almost all Haitians.
Roumain wants to depict the vodou rituals
that occur in his novel, which is set in the rural Haiti of the 1930s, he uses kreyòl to capture the flavor, the essence
of the scene.
            There are
other echoes of Gouverneur in Claire. Towards the end of the book,
when the mayor-undertaker visits his old friends the schoolmaster, he explains
his absence by talking about a meeting with the mother of a young man who got a
machete in his gut from a land dispute. This recalls the incident that starts
the struggle over land between two family factions in  Gouverneur,
an incident that was key to the whole structure of that novel.
novelists use their skills and imaginations to bring to their readers a serious
examination of the social conditions of Haiti – Roumain of course focusing on
the Haiti of the 1930s and ’40s, Danticat on Haiti today. In Gouverneur, the land is a character that
changes and interacts with the other characters. In Claire, it is the town of Ville Rose and the sea.
Roumain was one of the founders of the Haitian Communist Party and his book
reflects his political viewpoint. He lived in a Haiti, where Élie Lescot, the
president elected in 1943, gave him a job in the Haitian Consulate in Mexico.
            It is hard
to imagine the current Haitian president, Michele Martelly, offering a job of
any sort to Edwige Danticat. And even more unimaginable that she would accept
it. She might or might not share all of Roumain’s political outlook, but she
does certainly share his deep concern for the poor and working people of Haiti.
            Her book
illuminates their plight, their suffering, and the hopes that sustain them. It
is well worth reading.