Everything Inside: Stories
In Edwidge Danticat’s new short story collection Everything Inside, we are given eight powerful tales of diaspora (or “dyaspora” as her characters spell it), love, loss, and in some cases, redemption. These are not easy stories but neither are they as redolent of violence and despair as some of Danticat’s previous and powerful work. Instead, we are given the intimate daily life experiences of those who struggle on the margins in Little Haiti (Miami’s Haitian-American neighborhood) and those who also, although more privileged, still struggle for a sense of belonging.
Danticat’s writing is language stripped bare which lets her stories and characters breathe. There is a rising intensity in these stories from the first sentence of the first page that draws the reader in and demands we pay attention: “Elsie was with Gaspard, her live-in renal failure patient, when her ex-husband called to inform her that his girlfriend, Olivia, had been kidnapped in Port-au-Prince.” The compassion we might feel for the kidnapped woman or her partner (Elsie’s ex-husband Blaise) evaporates when we learn of the deep betrayals these two have enacted on the hard-working and barely surviving woman they have wronged. But even when confronted with their betrayal, Elsie seems to hold out hope. On the outer door of her small rental are the remains of a former tenant’s notice to any possible intruders: “Nothing Inside Is Worth Dying For” but on the inside of the door is a different message, “Everything Inside Is Worth Dying For” and despite her heartbreak, we hope that Elsie believes this at the end of her story.
A young woman in “In The Old Days” flies from New York to Miami to see her father–– a man she has never met––as he lies dying. Her parents split before she was born, her father wanting to return to Haiti and her mother refusing. When the narrator arrives in Miami, she travels to a house filled with strangers and is confronted with her father on his deathbed; she strives to find some reflection in his face but cannot find a trace of herself. Throughout the story, she struggles to find a central truth in the varying narratives of the past that she has been given: her mother gives a very different version of “the old days” than the version told by her father’s wife. Haiti appears in each version as a heavy presence that colors all relations and perceptions of the present. The grief and loss of homeland, past, and family is palpable, rising to a peak and then ebbing gracefully into a newfound sense of community at the end of the story.
“The Port-au-Prince Marriage Special” is both a harsh critique of privilege and an intimate glimpse of the devastation wrought by AIDS in Haiti. Mélisande is a young woman working in a Haitian hotel as a nanny for the hotel owners’ young son. Mélisande had been spending time with “particular guests…the fat, white nongovernmental-organization-affiliated ones” with all that implies. Diagnosed with AIDS in a downtown clinic, she believes that she is going to die. Her employer sees herself as compassionate, “This was money Mélisande might not be making if she were in school and not working for us” and tries to find appropriate treatment for her young employee. She finds a Canadian doctor who can supply them with retroviral drugs but he turns out to be a charlatan and the drugs placebos. Because of the fear of disease, Mélisande is no longer allowed to care for her employer’s young son but instead is left in the care of her own mother, Babette, who rails at her continuously. The division between the narrator––a woman married to a successful man––and Babette is striking, as outlined by Babette in one fraught conversation: “You’re a mother who can provide not only for your own child, but mine, too…We’re not the same.”
In “The Gift,” a story focused on past love and present loss, the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake of 2010 is painfully present. Anika is meeting with her former lover, Thomas, on the Fourth of July at an elegant restaurant overlooking Florida’s Biscayne Bay. It had once been “their” restaurant but no longer. Instead it becomes a reflection of all that has been lost. In this story of love and betrayal, the loss of family and the terrible devastation of the earthquake underlie the more traditional narrative of ex-lovers meeting again after a time. Thomas’s loss is etched into his skin “his gaunt face was full of nicks and scars” and Anika has to lie when she compliments him. She has suffered her own devastating loss and is seeking connection, but ultimately she fails in her effort to reconnect with Thomas or with her past happiness. Instead she ends her evening recalling a traditional ritual she attended at Miami-Dade after the earthquake, an attempt at community and comfort in the face of devastation.
“Hot Air Balloons” is a deftly wrought critique of privilege focused on two young women, roommates in college in Miami and their different experiences of diaspora. Neah is a child of privilege––her father is an “esteemed Trinidadian linguistic anthropologist” and a powerful figure. Seemingly desperate for connection, after a one-week volunteer trip to Haiti, Neah has decided that she will drop out of college to work full-time for Leve, an organization that cares for women victims of violence. For the narrator, Lucy, a child of migrant farm workers, college is an opportunity that she “couldn’t afford to fail.” Lucy considers herself “‘left side of the hyphen’ Haitian” and has no desire to see the Haiti represented by Leve—a Haiti that is not the idyllic scenes her parents describe but instead one of violence and grinding poverty. At the end of the story, the two young women find resolution and a sense of belonging through friendship partly due to Lucy’s compassion and partly due to Neah’s self-realization that she is “too easily swayed by stories”
Like the other narratives in the collection, the final three stories focus on diaspora, community, life, love, and loss. In “Sunrise, Sunset” a young mother, Jeanne, struggles with postpartum depression while her own mother slips further into dementia. A moment of near-violence creates a crescendo that brings Jeanne into a realization of what she has lost and what she has gained. In “Seven Stories” a writer, Kim, visits a childhood friend, Callie, who is now married to the new prime minister of an unnamed island nation. The two had been friends briefly while Callie’s mother was staying in Park Slope following her husband’s murder. Callie reconnects with Kim after reading an essay she wrote about their brief time together. The trip to the island for Kim is somewhat surreal—she feels disconnected from Callie and the ostentatious wealth of the ruling class which contrasts starkly against the poverty she witnesses on the island. But Kim’s compassion allows her to see beyond Callie’s wealth to the destruction wrought on her through exile and the death of her father, “The difference between her and them was as stark as the gulf between those who’d escaped a catastrophe unscathed and others who’d been forever mutilated by it.”
In the closing story of the collection, “Without Inspection,” an undocumented worker, Arnold, is falling from scaffolding into a cement mixer. The short narrative is the story of his escape from drowning as one of many on a raft of migrants and how he met and courted a woman who becomes his love and his wife. In the six and a half seconds it takes him to fall 500 feet, Arnold thinks about his son, Paris, and his kindergarten graduation and his deep love for his wife Darline and how she had, quite literally, saved his life. The story and the collection both end with tragedy and the uplift of love. As we are told at the end of Arnold’s story: “There are loves that outlive lovers” just as there are stories that transcend place and culture while remaining deeply rooted within both.
This is a masterful collection, beautifully wrought and elegantly told.