- More than Hunter or Prey: Duality and Traumatic Memory in Edwidge Danticat’s The Dew Breaker
In The Dew Breaker (2004), Haitian American writer Edwidge Danticat continues her engagement with the troubled history of her home-land, investigating how this history affects the Haitian people both in Haiti and in diaspora. This short story cycle focuses on the aftermath of the brutal reign of dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, which lasted from 1957 to 1971. The fragmented form of the text mirrors the fragmented and scarred Haitian people, whose nation has been fraught with political instability and violence nearly since its founding in 1804. However, Danticat writes beyond Haiti’s historical victimization to model alternative ways of responding to the nation’s troubled past. “The Book of the Dead,” the opening story of this work, offers a metaphor for the crisis in Haiti’s historical representation. A father, exiled from Haiti, uses a traditional proverb to confess to his American-born daughter, Ka, that he was not a victim of Duvalier’s state-sponsored violence, but was a perpetrator, a Tonton Macoute1: “We have a proverb. . . . One day for the hunter, one day for the prey. Ka, your father was the hunter, he was not the prey” (21). This proverb articulates a dichotomy between those with the power to inflict harm and those vulnerable to receive it. The father indicates with remorse that he once aligned himself with the predatory Duvalier regime in opposition to his people. Nevertheless, underlying this proverb is the possibility that one day the oppressed may have the upper hand.2 Although the father may see that day of reversal as a day of reprisal for his past actions, this interpretation of the proverb suggests a fluidity in the dichotomy, causing Ka to wonder if her father’s “past offered more choices than being either hunter or prey” (24).
While the full text of The Dew Breaker presents the enduring impact of one man’s violent career on the lives of his victims, three stories focused on the Bienaimé family—the former Macoute, his wife Anne, and his [End Page 177] daughter Ka—explore how the reformed torturer and those closest to him work through and develop alternative means of addressing their traumatic history. “The Book of the Dead” opens in the present moment of the larger text on the day of Ka’s father’s confession. The fourth story, “The Book of Miracles,” depicts the family in the recent past and explores the challenges and cost of keeping the father’s secrets. The text ends with the eponymous story “The Dew Breaker,” which gathers the fragments of Ka’s parents’ past to create a textual body that coheres and re-members the family’s traumatic history from their origins in Haiti to the day of the father’s confession. The story cycle ends where it begins, but between these terminal points, it reveals how Bienaimé and his wife create twin narratives to hide their experiences from their daughter. It further demonstrates how crucial their willingness to narrate and bear witness to their traumatic experiences is to healing the wounds of the past and making meaningful connections to their daughter. When Ka, a child of postmemory who suffers the trauma of being raised by traumatized parents, finally hears her father’s confession about his history in Haiti, her life-long quest to understand and represent her father’s tortured past is renewed and possibly redirected. The text ends with a representation of that troubled past that goes beyond the dichotomy between hunter and prey to reveal a third option, a model of righteous resistance to oppression that reimagines Haiti’s history of victimization.
Ka’s relationship to her parents’ traumas is best understood as post-memory, a concept Marianne Hirsch conceived to explain the experience of people like herself: those raised by Holocaust survivors whose lives have not been touched literally by that trauma but have nevertheless been dominated by it due to their intimate connection to parents who pass residual traumas on to their children through verbal and nonverbal means. Although the child of postmemory’s relation to the...