After the Dance: A Walk Through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti
Edwidge Danticat’s After the Dance weaves together exquisite details about Carnival, entrenched in the historic culture of Haiti. As a memoir/narrative/travelogue, Danticat propels readers into the very magic at the heart of her homeland, spinning lyrical words into tales which help to make Haiti’s very essence more understandable for those of us who have never visited. Danticat chronicles the adventures in her homeland as she experiences the world of Carnival that was once forbidden to her by her family since they regarded the celebration as alluding to inappropriate behavior, especially for women. We don’t just receive the facts about this special holiday, but we journey with her into the sights, sounds, and smells of Carnival which leave a more impressionable experience with us. Within this sensory exploration, Danticat shares with us the concepts and purposes of Carnival, especially the deeply-rooted historical and cultural performances that contribute to the overall celebration. The opening lines of the text, spoken by Michelet Divers, sums this up perfectly: “During Carnival, Jacmel is not a town or a city. It is a country.” Drawing parallels between Carnival and Haiti itself, Danticat invites us in to see that the dancing, singing, and laughing is a celebration of survival; the survival of the country and its people, the living joy of a nation that has been historically oppressed within it’s very struggle for survival.
In Danticat’s short story Caroline’s Wedding, we also see a loyalty to tradition and culture working in the lives of Haitian women who are living in America. This story reminded me of the cultural conflict that many parents and children of emigration experience. The parents who come from their homelands to the U.S. are still very much rooted in their traditions and cling to the last remnants of their country as their only remaining connection to the homeland. Children born in the U.S. from parents who have emigrated are usually caught in a cultural binary; struggling with their own identity and experience while still trying to appease their parents and their traditional duties to their culture. For Caroline’s mother, Haitian tradition was ultimately important, even more so than attempting to reconcile the two seemingly-opposing cultures of Haiti and the U.S. Tradition was all she had left to unify her mind and soul to the land she had left many years before. Carrying on these traditions meant continuing to acknowledge where she came from and who she was. For Caroline, self-identity came from the blending of two cultures, incorporating traditions from both lands, even if it meant disappointing her mother. Becoming attached to culture and tradition is a way for people to remember since historical memory is deeply entrenched in certain rituals, acts, and celebrations. By inviting us into Caroline’s home and observing what could be a true account of many Haitian families living in the U.S., Danticat allowed us to bear witness, and grasp the meanings of ritual, within the context of Caroline’s wedding and her mother’s internal battle with history, culture, and memories.
Edwidge Danticat is a Haitian-American award-winning author. She received her BA in French literature in translation from Barnard College and her MFA in creative writing from Brown University. In addition to teaching creative writing at New York University and the University of Miami, Danticat also helps with projects on Haitian art and documentaries about Haiti. In 2009, she participated in the film Poto Mitan: Haitian Women Pillars of the Global Economy, a documentary about the impact of globalization on five women from different generations. She has won numerous awards for her writing work over the years.