The New Yorker Reader: “Ghosts,” by Edwidge Danticat

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11/20/2008 10:00 AM |

When I met you in the restaurant…

It’s really only at the very end that this story provides any sort of kick, but it’s a decent one.

Within the world of the story, what we have is a final and long-delayed
twist, less of the plot than our stomachs. Danticat establishes the
young protagonist as apart from the Haiti slum life she’s depicting:
his parents are horrified by many of their clients; the young man
identifies most closely with his expat brother, and at his job at a
radio station thinks of himself more as an emissary from the street
life than a product of it. (And perhaps with her third-person
narration’s careful attention to the class gradations of different
neighborhoods and families, Danticat is suggesting the importance of
minute differences in status.) Here, at the very end, a debt to a local
drug lord made clear, he finally becomes involved, complicit, trapped.

But it’s more than that. The thug has just had him wrongfully
imprisoned and then shadily released; he tells him upon his release:
“You wanted to know what it’s like for us… I just thought I’d give
you a taste.” The “taste” is police brutality and a corrupt justice
system, and our hero is now battered, his fate tied up with a
criminal’s. What’s interesting how the stab of the ending is phrased as
an accusation against cultural tourism: the protagonist had wanted to
do a radio show focused on the street life — showing “what it’s like
for” them (and being impressive for his proximity to it).

The cruelty with which Danticat treats this sort of blinkered forced
empathy is especially interesting given what her story seems like up
until its final moments: namely, a New Yorker story that exists to put
a human face on developing-world poverty via clear attractive prose and
a coming-of-age narrative. It’s a story in disguise, asking us to Care
in the way that such stories do, without much literary merit beyond
good intentions — and then questioning the nature and value, the very
possibility, of this kind of Caring and the art that would enable it.

One Comment

  • yeah, and the guy becomes like the carrier pigeons that his family raises. The symbolism isn’t that apparent or is well disguised, I didn’t really see it until you pointed it out. I think that’s because for all those details this story rings pretty true. I read a few her stories in the past and a New York writer writing about the immigrant experience, set in NYC, and getting published in New Yorker, that is a good thing.