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Your Next Essential Read: Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at USF chapter.

Breath, Eyes, Memory is a powerful novel written by Edwidge Danticat that explores themes of culture, femininity, and identity. The novel tells the story of Sophie Caco, a young Haitian girl who grows up in Haiti with her grandmother, before moving to New York to live with her mother. Throughout the novel, Danticat explores the cultural differences between Haiti and America, and how these differences shape Sophie’s understanding of herself and her place in the world.

Danticat delves into sexual assault and generational trauma without fear and very straightforwardly; when I first read Breath, Eyes, Memory, I was terrified to explore these topics, but I’m so grateful that I did, even though it was a tough read, I also couldn’t put it down. Danticat handles these subjects without fear but that doesn’t take away from the sensitivity and care she writes these scenes with as well. Reading this book opened my eyes to topics I believed were black and white and tilted my world on its axis, making me look at individual and cultural experiences in color.

One of the key themes of the novel is femininity. Danticat explores the ways in which women are expected to behave in both Haitian and American cultures, and how these expectations shape Sophie’s understanding of herself as a woman. In Haiti, women are expected to be submissive and obedient to men, and their worth is often measured by their ability to marry and have children. Sophie’s grandmother, who is a traditional Haitian woman, tries to teach Sophie to be obedient and subservient, but Sophie struggles to reconcile these expectations with her own desires and ambitions.

When Sophie moves to New York, she is exposed to a very different culture. In America, women are encouraged to be independent and assertive, and their worth is often measured by their professional accomplishments. Sophie is initially drawn to this idea of independence, but she soon realizes that this is not necessarily the key to happiness. Danticat shows how Sophie is torn between these two cultures, and how she struggles to find a balance between her own desires and the expectations of her culture.

Sophie and her mother have an extremely complicated and layered relationship; something I loved so much about it, even though it pained me like nothing before, is that Danticat forces you to look at these women as real people. They do bad things and they hurt each other, but they are each other. One of the main themes of the entire novel is the parallelism between Sophie and her mother and how they can pierce through the boundaries of real life and enter each other’s minds when they’re apart. I really appreciate how Danticat was able to portray the women of this novel as three-dimensional characters, with flaws, who’ve been deeply hurt, and project those fears and anger onto each other generationally, but she never turns them into helpless victims or irredeemable villains, something which happens to women characters quite often.

The theme of doubling is explored through Sophie’s experiences. Doubling refers to the way in which certain characters in the novel are split into two distinct parts, often representing different sides of the same personality or identity. Through the use of doubling, Danticat is able to explore complex themes of identity, trauma, and cultural conflict.

The most prominent example of doubling in the novel is seen in the relationship between Sophie and her mother, Martine. Martine is haunted by a traumatic experience from her childhood, which she eventually reveals to Sophie. This trauma has split Martine into two distinct parts: the carefree young girl she once was, and the damaged and broken woman she has become. Similarly, Sophie is torn between her Haitian identity and her American identity, which are often at odds with one another. The two parts of Martine and Sophie’s personalities are inextricably linked, and their struggles to reconcile these conflicting parts of themselves are at the heart of the novel.

Another example of doubling is seen in the relationship between Sophie and her grandmother, Atie. Atie represents the traditional Haitian culture that Sophie is trying to escape, while Sophie represents the new generation of Haitians who are seeking a better life in America. Through this relationship, Danticat explores the tension between tradition and modernity, and the conflict between the values of different generations.

Edwidge Danticat is one of the most powerful, tender, and visceral writers of the 21st century and Breath, Eyes, Memory is a story that I thought about every single day since I’ve read it. She doesn’t shy away from the brutality that women go through, whether it’s from a complete stranger or the comforting ups and deep, deep downs with the people we’re most close to. Danticat pours her heart open and bleeds onto the pages, letting her passion for writing, women, and culture form the words, and I think it’s an essential classic that should be quickly on your bookshelf.

Lily Barmoha (she/her) is a university student who is currently studying English and Creative Writing, as she has been doing at her performing arts middle and high school for the past seven years. She loves reading new fiction and classic literature, listening to music and going to concerts, and going to the movies. She especially loves writing reviews about pop culture events and hopes to one day work at an established arts and fashion magazine or start her own one day!