Updated: Nov 5, 2020
Martine carries Sophie to Flatbush Avenue, a street that reminds Sophie of Haiti. Haiti Express, a business transporting things to Haiti, is the first place they visit. It is described as ‘a small room packed with Haitians.’ The Haitian-based/Haitian-culture based businesses in New York throughout the novel are always described as small or being within small areas. This implies the few and far between areas abroad that connect people to their homelands and their culture. In this case, it is the demonstration of the scarcity of such places that connect back to Haiti. The small room is also said to be packed with Haitians, which conveys more of the underlying theme of migration. The Haitians in the room would be sending things like money and keepsakes back to their families to support them and feel connected, “trying to squeeze all their love into small packets to send back home.” Thus, having left their families in Haiti to live and work in New York, this is how they remain in touch and care for their families despite being so far away. The high volume of Haitians in this room (especially at such a random moment on a given day) shows how many have left in search of greener pastures in New York.
Martine sends an envelope containing a cassette to Atie, and Sophie wishes to be able to shrink herself and slip into the envelope. Sophie misses Atie deeply, and despite her acceptance of New York’s challenge, she still yearns to return home.
Martine tells Sophie that she must learn English quickly, otherwise “the American students would make fun of [her] or, even worse, beat [her].” This introduces the idea of discrimination in this new atmosphere; Martine believes Sophie must conform to American standards like its language in order to prevent savage abuse from American students. However, Martine also tells her about the skirmishes other children got into simply as a result of prejudice against their Haitian heritage. They were accused of having ‘HBO- Haitian Body Odour,’ a slightly clever play on words but a very unkind and upsetting stereotype to apply to these people. They were also accused of having AIDS due to the 4 H’s heard on television, which declared that only Heroin Addicts, Haemophiliacs, Homosexuals and Haitians got AIDS. This unfair classification of Haitians as diseased and malodorous is severely discriminatory, and makes Sophie afraid of attending school. However, interestingly enough, she knows that only an excuse tantamount to death or severe sickness could ever cause her mother to excuse her from school. Sophie, even after one night with Martine, has become acquainted with her strictness and her unwavering resolution in Sophie’s education. Martine’s strictness is seen more and more throughout the novel, and it begins to confine Sophie- but more on that later.
Martine also stops by a woman named Jacqueline, who is also Haitian. It is evident, that even in New York, the Haitian community has come together and seems friendly in their casual creole greetings. Martine purchases a face cream to ‘make her skin lighter.’ This practice, commonly known as ‘bleaching’ of the skin, appears to be Martine’s attempt at blending in with New York. Her skin colour is a direct badge of her heritage, and it seems she hopes to escape that association and conform to America and its people.
They visit Marc Chevalier in a different neighbourhood (which is described as quiet and containing large yards, a direct contrast to the loud area they were in before). His relationship with Martine is unclear at that point, save for a picture of them together on his desk, implying a close relationship at least. It is later learned that he is Martine’s ‘lover’ of sorts. Marc carries them to a Haitian restaurant (Miracin’s) in Asbury Park, New Jersey. The restaurant is “at the back of an alley, squeezed between a motel and a dry cleaner.” Sophie and Martine have to squeeze themselves between the table and the wall to get to their seats, and the room is packed with other customers engaged in a heated political discussion. Thus, this small, cramped and packed description of places allowing people to connect to Haitian culture continues. This restaurant is in New Jersey, nearly an hour and a half drive from New York, showing the distance one must go in order to seek out small lifelines to their roots when abroad. Martine, in a passing comment, says that Marc loved his mother’s cooking so much, he would get her out of her grave to cook for him again if he had the chance. Food, as was established in the first chapters with the potluck and the visit with Ife, is a cornerstone of warmth and familial bonding in Haitian culture. Marc’s seemingly limitless love of his mother’s cooking attests to this.
The discussion eventually leads to a point where Marc is being insulted by a woman after she combats his overgeneralization that the smart people who stay in Haiti are all ‘crooks’ by bringing up her sister, a nurse with the Red Cross. She continues to berate Marc, saying “she was tired of cowardly men speaking against women who were proving themselves, women as brave as stars out at dawn.” Martine smiles as she hears the woman, and even though it was ‘her turn’ to defend Marc, she remains silent. Marc is looking at her expectantly, but she is indifferent and seems to find no need to argue on his behalf. This could be for several reasons. However, it is most likely that she doesn’t counterattack the woman because she agrees with her. Breath, Eyes, Memory is somewhat of a black Haitian feminist reading of history and the silent lives of these women. Thus, the strength of the women of the Caco family are constantly put on show as a symbol of the wider strength of Haitian women and to articulate the power and the ability they hold to survive. The specific line here “women as brave as stars out at dawn” is an important one, which emphasizes the power of these women- these mavericks who valiantly continue to shine despite the creeping overwhelming brightness of morning. In this way, they are able to forge their own identities and exhibit formidable strength in spite of seemingly inextricable oppression. Martine probably acknowledges this matrilineal strength and thus, has no reason to intervene. The line “as brave as stars out at dawn” is actually repeated at the end of the book after Martine’s burial, where Sophie says “my mother was as brave as stars out at dawn.”
When Martine introduces Sophie as her daughter to the waiter, he spends a long time trying to identify some form of resemblance or common feature that related them. Sophie is made uncomfortable by this. Her unmistakeable lack of resemblance to the other women of her family alienates her, and she is made to feel even more out of place than she already feels in an unfamiliar environment.
As the meal continues, Sophie tries to pretend as though she can’t see Martine and Marc locking eyes lovingly with some sort of explicit intent. It is in this that Sophie realizes the dualism of Martine. She has two lives, one here in New York, and another, long gone in Haiti. Marc is the representation of this new life. Sophie is simply a ‘living memory from the past.’ Her saying this is a sort of foreshadowing of what she will soon learn. Apart from literally being a daughter she left many years in the past; Sophie is a living product of the rape she was subjected to long ago.
When Marc asks Sophie what she wants to be when she grows up, she says that she wants to be a secretary. Marc is comically unimpressed. He, like everyone else back in Haiti, acknowledges the abundance of opportunity in New York. Aspiring to be a secretary is like spitting in the face of the blessing she has been given, at least to Martine and Marc. Martine interjects quickly, saying that Sophie is too young to know and that she is “going to be a doctor.” She has no regard for Sophie’s thoughts in this. Sophie will be a doctor, according to Martine, who has seemingly made the decision for her. This obviously reflects her care for Sophie and the desire she has for her to reach the greatest heights possible, but is also insinuates two other interrelated ideas associated with Martine that will become more and more prominent throughout the story. Firstly, it continues to reinforce Martine’s strictness. She makes it clear on their first night together that Sophie will work hard there, and now, she makes it clear that Sophie’s occupation will be one that approves of, a doctor. Secondly, it gives the impression that Martine wants to live through Sophie. If you remember the pseudo-monologue Martine has about her and Atie’s aspirations on their ride home from the airport in chapter 6, she says “we were going to be the first women doctors from my mother’s village.” And, in this chapter, Sophie’s undisputed career will be as a doctor. Sophie has a chance to do the things that they wanted to, become the person they wanted to become, and Martine refuses to let the opportunity pass by. Thus, when she says later in chapter 6, “you have a chance to become the kind of women Atie and I have always wanted to be,” it represents not only faith and hope in Sophie, but also her wanting to live her aspirations out through Sophie. Her strictness on her daughter is directly linked to this desire to live and succeed through her, as “if [she makes] something of [herself] in life, [they] will all succeed.”
Marc is a little more lenient in Sophie’s decisions for her career path, and says that she “still has some time to think.” When Marc asks Sophie if she has a boyfriend, Martine doesn’t even let Sophie answer before she cuts in. “She will have a boyfriend when she is eighteen,” she says, unironically being the image of a strict Caribbean parent. She is insistent on Sophie only getting into a relationship at the age of 18, as shown when Marc asks “what if [Sophie] falls in love sooner” and her response is that Sophie “will put it off until she is 18.” We later learn her insistence on this is due to the sexual violence she was subjected to in Haiti (the rape) and an obsession with purity instilled by patriarchal standards for women in Haiti.
This whole interaction is concluded with the following:
“We washed down our meal with watermelon juice. Tante Atie always said that eating beets and watermelon would put more red in my blood and give me more strength for hard times.”
This may seem a bit out of place, as it abruptly ends the entire interaction. However, if something seems out of place, it’s usually because it has a separate meaning that doesn’t need to conform to the context in the way you expect. This section essentially foreshadows harder times for Sophie, as she has been introduced to the austere Martine who has unwavering expectations for Sophie’s education, occupation and romantic involvement.