NOAH ADAMS, host:
Three years ago, a frail, elderly, Haitian minister named Joseph Danticat sought asylum in United States. He ended up in shackles in an American detention center, and he died there in custody. The story briefly caught the attention of the press, and was a shattering event in the life of his niece, Edwidge.
Edwidge Danticat is a novelisst and a short story writer. Her uncle's death led her to write a memoir called "Brother, I'm Dying." It tells the story of her life in Haiti, where she was raised by her Uncle Joseph until she was 12; and her life in America, where she was finally able to join her immigrant parents. Our colleague Jacki Lyden spoke with her about the new book.
JACKI LYDEN: Edwidge Danticat, your memoir begins with you learning that you're pregnant and your father and dying on the same day. And this theme of life and death is at the heart of your book - extraordinary to have both those things in the palm of your hand in the same day.
Ms. EDWIDGE DANTICAT (Novelist, Short Story Writer; Author, "Brother, I'm Dying"): Oh, it was just staggering because you sort of hope when you find out something like that, or you think that, you know, one will mitigate the other. And that the announcement of the birth will make this death sentence hurt less. But what happens is that each have their monumentous compartment in your heart, and they end up being two things that you're struggling to comprehend at the same time.
LYDEN: Let's back up just a little bit. You were born in Haiti. Your father, Mira, and your uncle, Joseph, were often separated. Tell me, please about the relationship. Joseph was older and your father must have believed in him very, very deeply, to entrust him with the care of you and your younger brother.
Ms. DANTICAT: Well, my Uncle Joseph was the patriarch of our family. And from the time that he was very young, he was always left in charge of his siblings. He was - there were 12 years difference between him and my father. And when my father left and when my parents left Haiti, they left us in his care. It was, you know, he was a minister. He had a church. It just seemed like a good environment for us.
LYDEN: Let's jump forward a little bit. We're in Brooklyn. Your uncle is visiting your father, who's ill. And they have a conversation about those days when you were a child. Will you please read that passage?
Ms. DANTICAT: (Reading) Then glancing at me, my father asked my uncle. Do you remember when you wrote me that letter saying that a boy had beaten Edwidge in school? Remembering neither beating nor boy, I asked when was that? You must have been six, my uncle said, in primary school. I was so mad, my father said, turning over in his side of the bed. I wanted to get on the plane right then and there - forget everything and go back home to my children. That's when I stopped reporting all their cuts and scrapes, my uncle said. More please, I wanted to say, please tell me more - both of you, together, tell me more about you, about me, about all of us. But my father began coughing so my uncle leaned over and whispered, hush, Mira. Just rest.
LYDEN: Your childhood in Haiti seems absolutely pervaded with rich stories and fables. And your uncle would sometimes, on a rare occasion, take you shopping for used children's books. Your Grandma Melina(ph), at age 100, would tell you these fantastic folk tales, some of which you weave in and out of this book. I wondered if you could please tell me the one about Father God and the Angel of Death.
Ms. DANTICAT: Well, Father God and the Angel of Death is about a visit that a woman receives from God and the Angel of Death. And God and the Angel of Death have this competition going to see who is more loved by the people of the world. And so they knocked on this woman's door and asked her for some water. And Father God said, I'm thirsty. Can I have a glass of water? And the woman said, no, I'm only giving my water to the Angel of Death. And God asked for an explanation and the woman said, well, God, the Angel of Death is a lot more fair than you. He takes everyone. But you, you put some people in war zones; and you give some peace; you give some money; you let some be poor. You give some water and you don't give us water. So it turns out that the Angel of Death wins the competition and so this woman has a long life.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LYDEN: Your Uncle Joseph was a minister. But he was also the son of a soldier. And he followed politics very, very closely. And he lived in the epicenter of a lot of political violence and gang activity, but he didn't want to leave Haiti. Why did he want to stay?
Ms. DANTICAT: During his visits to United States, I think he saw how my parents worked. My parents worked very hard. My dad drove a cab for most of the day. And my mother was working very hard in the factory. But he also felt that, in Haiti, he was doing some good and that's where he wanted to be.
LYDEN: He's a documentarian, in the sense that he keeps little notebooks of all the people who have been killed in a violence. He writes down their names. Eventually, what happens to him had a terrible symmetry. He's burned out of his church and his home. Even as your father's health is failing, and the 81-year-old Joseph Danticat leaves for America, and when he declares he wants temporary asylum instead of just using a tourist visa, he's put in leg shackles. And all the while, you're about to give birth. Can you pick up the story and tell us what happened?
Ms. DANTICAT: Well, in the fall of October 2004, there was some demonstrations and some gang activity in Bel Air. And the Haitian riot police and the U.N. came to the neighborhood. And they got on the roof of my uncle's church and shot at some people. So when they left, the gangs came and threatened my uncle. And so he fled. And when he got here, clearly now having nothing to go back to, he knew that he would stay longer than the visa allowed. And so he asked for temporary asylum. And he was detained and put in the Chrome Detention Center in here Miami, where - and his medication was taken from him. And he fell ill and died 24 hours later.
At the same time, my father and I were sharing information back and forth. I was - because I'm - of my proximity here, just in charge of the whole operation of trying to get him out and how to give these reports to my father. I guess you would say this was the beginning of telling these stories, these things that I had to gather to tell my father about what was happening with my uncle. And so it became a kind of juggling act and sort of I'm parceling(ph) out news pretty much in the same way that we did with one another, when we were writing those letters.
LYDEN: He dies while in custody, and so many questions are raised about this. In fact, his name was reported in an NPR investigative story a year or so later. What was you father's reaction? I mean, he had found a new life in this country. And your uncle was denied one.
Ms. DANTICAT: I think my father, like all of us, was stunned. First of all, the idea that my uncle was 81 years old, was going to jail for having said that he wanted asylum was just unbelievable to him. After we came home from my uncle's funeral, he said he shouldn't be here because my uncle was buried in Queens because of continued threats in Haiti. So my father said, well, he shouldn't be buried here. You know, none of us should be in our country where given a chance and became like a country like in the other note, none of us would live or die here. And I think what was happening to my uncle to him, almost felt like a betrayal.
LYDEN: There is a lovely redemptive note at the end of this memoir. Your daughter, Mira, who named for your father, is able to meet him.
Ms. DANTICAT: I am so grateful the that was able to happen because that's one fear that I had throughout the whole pregnancy, that he would not get to see her, and that she would not, at least, get to touch him. And so they had a wonderful month together after she was born. And after I had to return to Miami, three days later, he died.
LYDEN: Edwidge Danticat. Her new book is called "Brother, I'm Dying."
Thanks so much for speaking with us.
Ms. DANTICAT: Thank you so much for having me.
ADAMS: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Noah Adams.