Fact and Fiction in Edwidge Danticat’s “Children of the Sea”

“Children of the Sea” by Edwidge Danticat is a short story that I read last semester in Maria Lima’s 203, Reading Transnationally. It is a fictional piece about the experience of two teenage lovers who are separated during the violence of “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s despotic dictatorship in 1950s-70s Haiti—one has fled from Port-au-Prince to a small town, and the other is on a small boat headed to Florida. In this braided narrative based on exchanged letters, the balance between elements of fiction and nonfiction are what make this piece so striking. Danticat is Haitian, and she herself was not around during the regime, but her fiction is based on true historical events of this horrific time in Haitian history, making this piece a real blend of “fact” and fiction.

It’s quite apparent that this piece does a lot of work with “fact”, being that it is a historical piece based on the experiences of Haitians during this time. Having learned about the regime in a history class, with my limited knowledge I can confirm that state terror and rape as a means of control were tactics widely utilized in the twentieth-century military regimes of the Caribbean and Latin America. The story goes into the tactics of the “Tonton Macoutes”, or the police force that would terrorize citizens in order to maintain control, often by forcing family to rape each other as others watch. Although horrific, these are the realities of state violence. These jarring and vivid scenes are illustrated throughout the piece, such as when female narrator describes why her uncle sometimes sleeps at her house:

“they have this thing now that they do. if they come into a house and there is a son and mother there, they hold a gun to their heads. they make the son sleep with his mother. if it is a daughter and a father, they do the same thing. Some night papa sleeps at his brother’s, uncle pressoir’s house. uncle pressoir sleeps at our house, just in case they come. that way papa will never be forced to lay down in bed with me, uncle pressoir would be forced to, but that would not be so bad.”

Fictionally, I found that the braided narrative was one of the most striking aspects of this piece. The use of the braiding brings a very personal aspect to the fiction, showing characters in their true raw thoughts. The narratives of the two lovers are artfully executed in the way that they are each characterized so carefully, even when it comes to the style of the prose—the girl’s narrative lacks punctuation and capitalization, giving a sense that she is rushed and nervous. This makes sense because she is the one that has fled to a small town, still in Haiti and reeling from the recent rapes and murders of her neighbors. The boy’s narrative differs starkly—his is meditative and paced, which relates to the fact that he is writing these letters on a boat with no sense of time or direction, and he is eager to do anything to pass the time in limbo. As the male speaker comes closer and closer to the realization that the boat will sink and that everyone on it probably will die, his writing only increases in its concentration and somber pace, starkly contrasting the nervous writing of his lover who is so eager to know if he still alive.

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