Growing up in Haiti, Danticat had a second father—her uncle Joseph, who raised her for eight years while her parents worked in order to bring the family to the U.S. In 2004, within the span of a few months, both fathers died and Danticat’s daughter was born. This triangle of events frames the family’s story in Brother, I’m Dying.
The final chapters detail the days leading up to Joseph’s dying unexpectedly while he was detained by the U.S. How did you research this?
It was difficult. We wanted records from the detention center and [the U.S.] Customs and Border Protection agency, and they wouldn’t give them to us. We had to file a Freedom of Information request and even a lawsuit. There were so few answers for us, so I began writing the book with that in mind—a better understanding of his last days, of what it means to live and die away from home, of what he might’ve wanted to say.
When you were growing up, much of your correspondence with your parents was in letters. Your uncle, who had a laryngectomy, relied on a notepad for years before he had an electronic voice box. Did this influence you as a writer?
When I’m struggling with ideas now, it’s similar to when I was watching my uncle trying to say something, or when I was writing those letters. You have to be careful—what you say can last for weeks, and there’s even the possibility that each conversation could be your last, especially when the political situation is so dismal. And all this was happening in the middle of an abundance of words. People in my family process events by reaching for folktales that echo the situation. The stories and letters trained me to sort things through in this way.
Previously, you’ve described your fiction as “emotionally biographical.” What was it like writing about your family in a book-length nonfiction narrative for the first time?
You still get nervous, but for different reasons. With fiction, a lot of writers like me are sometimes obligated to say, “This character is an individual, not an entire community.” With this book I was sometimes nervous about what my relatives would think, more so than the general public. I couldn’t have written this story as fiction. I really wanted to benefit from the truly cathartic element.
Has storytelling taken on a different significance since you’ve become a mother?
Absolutely. Sort of like the way the book is structured, you’re thinking back and forward at the same time and then imagining what you want to pull out of the past. Also, my daughter is two now, and the mere repetition of things for a child this age is just extraordinary.