The fear of red knickers

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The Independent Culture
KRIK? KRAK! by Edwidge Danticat Abacus pounds 5.99

In these stories, Edwidge Danticat initiates her readers into the conflicts and mysteries of her native Haiti by careful degrees. The predominant colours of her palette are reds and blacks, the background scents are of heady flowers and corruption, but the combinations are skilled and subtle.

With her opening story, we are at once in the presence of an appalling military regime, yet through Danticat's narrative we tune in to the heartfelt love-duet of a young refugee fleeing Haiti by rickety boat, and his lover left behind with her terrorised family. The lad scribbles in his notebook about a 15-year-old girl giving birth at sea (and throwing herself overboard after her infant when it dies), while his beloved describes the latest official torture in Port au Prince, where sons and mothers, fathers and daughters are forced into incestuous intercourse at gunpoint. And yet somehow the harmony of the young lovers, as they reach out in hopeless devotion to each other, drowns out the other horrors.

So often in the stories there is a bitter underside to sweetness - or a sweet one to bitterness. In "Between the Pool and the Gardenias", a woman bereft after several miscarriages finds a beautiful baby abandoned, Moses-like, in the city streets, but soon even her frequent and tender bathings cannot wash away the smell of death she tries to deny. A prostitute creates a world of angels and enchantment for her son, thanking the stars that at least she has her days free from "suitors". A lavatory cleaner makes a bid for escape by suicidal hot-air balloon. Even a luscious hibiscus is not all it seems: a woman snatches one from her granddaughter's hands and throws it to the ground - "Those things grow with blood on them."

Though the word "voodoo" is uttered only once, there is a rich seam of ritual and magic running through this peculiarly female Haitian culture. The women who survived the Dominican assault in 1937 at Massacre River created a secret code and were believed by many to be witches who could fly. Alluring wangas, or charms, can be set by enemies to trap the unwary. The dead like to visit in dreams, in brief glimpses of other people's faces, or in the whispers of someone else's voice. But they are discouraged in various ways: by piling large rocks around their former homes or by making sure their female relations are wearing red panties, which the dead are said to find terrifying.

Such lore both haunts the characters and makes them laugh. Even in the final two stories, set among Haitians now settled in Brooklyn, no one draws defining lines around what are tall tales for bedtime, what are superstitions, and what are codes to live by. If a mother thinks she can steer her family right with a particular "bone soup" recipe, who is going to take away her spoon?

Danticat has fathomless respect for her culture and reveals less of the fearfulness than the love in it. Yet despite having been shortlisted for the National Book Award and named as one of Granta's Best of Young American Novelists, Danticat explains in an epilogue that writing is not highly regarded in Haiti. It may be politically dangerous for men and is considered offensive, if not simply irrelevant, for women. Women who cook and write are called kitchen poets, and it was women such as these who inspired her. The result is a cuisine of highly flavoured delicacies, and it is very satisfying.

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