Updated: Nov 5, 2020
The news of their imminent separation sullies the joy of the following morning. Atie can neither produce laughter from Sophie nor herself when telling a funny story. Sophie cannot understand why Atie can’t come to New York as well, however, Atie says ‘it is not the time yet.’ This echoes what she said in the previous chapter when questioned by the women of the community why she’d never gone to New York, ‘perhaps it is not yet the time.’ We can see that she uses ‘yet’ in each instance, showing that she believes there may be a time in the future when she can join her sister Martine in this foreign land. However, as soon as Sophie leaves, Atie must go to take care of her mother, Ifé- she had only been in Croix-des-Rosets to facilitate Sophie’s schooling.
In truth, as we learn here, Atie’s role as othermother was always intended to be temporary. Martine had left Sophie in her care while she entered the unknown hinterland of New York, a land of which she knew nothing and a place with which she wanted to take no chances with her child. This explanation could be completely truthful, or it could be somewhat manufactured by Atie or Martine. Selected misinformation by Atie could be to avoid resistance from Sophie, while such an explanation coming from Martine could be to give another motivation other than escaping the trauma that lies in Haiti for her (as we later learn).
“She doesn’t want you to forget who your real mother is,” Atie says. The line brings into question the idea of a real mother and what exactly Sophie can forget. Sophie has never met her mother, so there is nothing for her to forget. Of course, Martine is Sophie’s biological mother, but is this the only determining factor of a real mother? Martine has been abroad for the first 12 years of Sophie’s life. Atie has filled the role of mother, but is not her biological parent.
Breath, Eyes, Memory as a tale of love is displayed prominently here; Atie says that everything she loves in Sophie, she loved in Martine first. She says she couldn’t fight Martine on keeping Sophie here, and she definitely doesn’t want Sophie to be at odds with Martine once she arrives. This instance of separation and reunion is characteristic of many Haitian immigrant families, where a family member leaves to work in a foreign country, supporting the family by sending home some money and the interim and then only sending for the child when they can afford it.
However, Atie also sees beyond the veil of sadness in their separation, as Sophie has, quite literally, the opportunity of a lifetime. Atie says that they are a family with dirt under their fingernails, meaning they are uneducated field workers by lineage.
“Your mother and I, when we were children, we had no control over anything. Not even this body,” Atie says. This calls back to the cane fields and the idea of slavery as a cultural trauma. Atie and Martine, along with their parents, had no choice but to work; and therefore, had no control over their own bodies- no agency of their own. In saying they had no control over their own bodies, Atie also brings light to something that becomes more and more evident throughout the novel. Firstly, it slightly foreshadows the reveal of Martine’s rape, as in that interaction she had no control. But it also highlights the idea of the lack of control of a girl in Haitian culture when her purity is seen as paramount and to be protected through rigorous ‘testing’ by the mother. Hence, their control over their own bodies in those instances are limited.
It is at this point that I want to draw your attention to the colour yellow as a recurring symbol and its meaning, even throughout the first two chapters. The entire book opens with the line “a flattened and drying daffodil.” Daffodils, we learn later on from Atie, are loved deeply by Martine (as well as Sophie). Martine’s love for these flowers is because of their resilience and versatility in being able to ‘grow in a place they are not supposed to.’ European flowers originally, they adapted to the warm weather in Haiti and flourished, inheriting the bronze tinge from the people of the island.
If you simply watch the presence of the daffodil throughout chapters 1 and 2, you will realize it’s significance: when Sophie hopes to give the card to Tante Atie, the daffodil is present on the front; but when Tante Atie is resolute in sending it to her mother, she crushes the daffodil underfoot. Also, in the opening pages is the mention of the image of her mother chasing her in a field of daffodils, and the poem Sophie writes of her mother as a daffodil. However, the daffodil as a symbol of hope and resilience is only one aspect of the recurring colour yellow. Danticat doesn’t arbitrarily use the colour yellow, but it is meticulously used to convey warmth, cheeriness, joy, action, optimism, happiness, idealism, summer, hope, imagination, sunshine and youth. In the beginning of chapter one, children are seen to be jumping in piles of dried yellow leaves. Everything Sophie owns is yellow. Thus, Haiti, hope and happiness are associated with the colour yellow. We will continue to analyse the presence of the colour yellow throughout the rest of book as it directly relates to Sophie’s emotions and the changing environment around her.