A young writer like Edwidge Danticat —still in her 30s, with her first child born in 2004—shouldn't have to write a memoir about death. But Brother, I'm Dying, her emotional recitation of the illnesses suffered by her father in New York and her uncle in Haiti, reads like a simultaneous protest against the Grim Reaper and acceptance of his egalitarian embrace. In spare, well-crafted prose, Danticat travels in and out of her own life to tell the stories she experienced as well as those she missed: her parents' flight to America, her father's tribulations as an immigrant cab driver, the tracheotomy that silenced her preacher uncle, the gang violence and U.N. inaction that roiled Port-au-Prince in the early 21st century, a reunion in New York with the siblings she'd never met, and her father's precipitous decline due to incurable lung disease.
The first three quarters of her tale sketch a picture of Haitian perseverance and unpredictability. While Danticat and her brother stay behind in Haiti with their Uncle Joseph, watching coup follow coup, business fortunes rise and fall, and family members leaving and returning, she draws strength from the blunt fatalism of her grandmother's fables about the afterlife. When the children finally move to the States to live with their parents, her uncle's voice, restored via a mechanical box, connects her with the tumultuous urban neighborhood where he stayed behind with his evangelical flock. Years later, as she prepares to give birth in Miami, she wonders whether her daughter's first breath will steal the last bit of air from her father's enervated chest.
When Uncle Joseph finally flees Haiti at age 81, Danticat's account takes a dark turn into the bowels of the immigration bureaucracy. Suddenly her pages are filled with transcripts of official interviews, notations on disposition forms, and the casual cruelty of a system that ignores her uncle's age, health, and narrow escape from murderous gangs, instead reflecting how undesirable Haitian asylum-seekers are to the U.S. government. Yet here as well, in the detention centers and cramped interview rooms where her uncle waited on the brink of freedom, Danticat struggles to sustain her belief that the ties which pulled them back together haven't been severed with his death or her father's. Her powerful memoir affirms the depths of those connections, stretching across the sea toward a distant island where everyone will someday find a welcome.