Thursday, November 20, 2008

The New Yorker Reader: "Ghosts," by Edwidge Danticat

Posted By on Thu, Nov 20, 2008 at 10:00 AM

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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.

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