IN THE MONTHS after my mother’s death, I received dozens of sympathy cards, letters, and prayers from loved ones, each a potential landmine in terms of my grief. So when a friend sent me the prayer “A New Sky,” I prepared to read it in the only way I could manage at that time: as though there were a wall between my body and the page.
I braced myself in anticipation of another painful reminder of all that I’d lost. I was not expecting the voice of a mother — the one voice for which I’d been yearning — to speak to me from the page. Its author, Edwidge Danticat, had written the prayer in tribute to her own mother, and, as with her other works — most notably her recently published contribution to Graywolf’s the Art Of series — the language stirringly marries heart and mind, beauty and precision.
In fact, “A New Sky” is included in The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story. In the penultimate chapter, Danticat describes the prayer as the words she “imagined her [mother] saying in her head during her final moments on this earth, during those minutes when she couldn’t speak anymore but could still hear a little bit, as she was drifting away.” Reading it for the first time, I felt understood by the author, transported however briefly to the before in which my mother was still alive. I experienced what Danticat calls a “shock of recognition” — a visceral reaction to art that speaks to your specific circumstance. That jolt notwithstanding, I would have tucked her prayer between the pages of my notebook for another reason (and this is the objective of the Graywolf series, after all): its craftsmanship. Danticat’s writerly skill is evident in her use of everyday imagery as a contrast to the magnitude of what is taking place: the speaker’s good wig, the $500 left in a tin can in the freezer, a perfectly good blender that just needs a new blade. But it’s the author’s depiction of the speaker’s state of mind, the material (and maternal) concerns this mother clings to in the face of death, that most resonates for this reader: “Let them say nice things about me at my funeral”; “Let them not bury me in an ugly dress”; “Let them not be talked out of a closed coffin.” As the dying woman sways between the concrete and the ephemeral, moving back and forth in this way, Danticat artfully mirrors her gradual transition from one life into the next.
Ostensibly a guide for writers and readers, The Art of Death, much like the author’s prayer, feels like an offering, a study born of devotion. Part essay, part memoir, part elegy, the book has numerous obsessions — lingual, mortal, and parental — that come together to compelling effect. Danticat — who has published novels, short story collections, a memoir, a children’s book, and a volume of poetry — combines these forms fluidly, in a meditation as instructive as it is moving.
“I have been writing about death for as long as I have been writing,” she says in her introduction. “I am writing this book in order to learn (or relearn) how one writes about death, so I can write, or continue to write, about the deaths that have most touched my life, including, most recently, my mother’s.” The works she’s chosen to discuss in this volume are deeply personal, and her interrogations of them are as rigorous as they are inspired. From chapter to chapter, she recalibrates the scope of her subject, walking us back to examine depictions of catastrophe, then drawing us in for a look at the smaller deaths that precede the ultimate one, the deaths of autonomy, individuality, and dignity.
Toward the beginning of the book, she asks, “So how do we write about [great misfortunes] without sounding overindulgent, self-righteous, self-piteous, melodramatic, sentimental, or a combination of some or all of the above?” Humor, she suggests, might be one way: to contrast gravity with levity, as writer and commentator Christopher Hitchens has done. In his final collection of essays, published a year before his death from esophageal cancer, Hitchens, as always, confronts his own mortality with intelligence, sarcasm, and, yes, humor — his way, perhaps, of minimizing death’s claim.
“I heard a soothing and capable voice saying, ‘Now you might feel just a little prick,’” Hitchens writes. “‘(Be assured,’ he adds: ‘Male patients have exhausted all the possibilities of this feeble joke within the first few days of hearing it.)’”
Hitchens is describing for us the seven-eighths of his “iceberg,” as Danticat calls it, borrowing the term from Hemingway. To write from the iceberg — the main part of which is submerged beneath the surface, hidden from view — is another way to write about death: to face off with fear, to document the process from within as it is happening, as Hitchens, Susan Sontag, and Audre Lorde have done.
Yet one more way to write about death might be to “spill one’s heart all over the page.” “After all,” the author writes, “death is one of life’s most spectacular events, one that surpasses all existing words and deeds.” She goes on to suggest how we might discover our own language for death, via what writer Brenda Ueland calls “microscopic truthfulness.” Danticat writes: “The more specifically a death and its aftermath are described, the more moving they are to me. The more I get to know the dying person on the page, the more likely I am to grieve for that person.”
Danticat also insists that “[w]e cannot write about death without writing about life.” In fact, the book might have been titled The Art of Living: “Stories that start at the end of life often take us back to the past, to the beginning — or to some beginning — to unearth what there was before, what will be missed, what will be lost.” Whenever possible Danticat offers histories and anecdotes, recollections and analyses of her subjects, and in one case, when she reaches the limits of her research with the death of a central character in Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, we are treated to excerpts of her correspondence with the author. Certainly this is one of the reasons why Danticat’s examinations are so exhilarating: her investment in the life before it is lost — another author’s, a character’s, her mother’s most of all — raises its value in our eyes.
Such examples abound: as when a character’s life is slowly “carved away”; or when victims of 9/11 fall through the air “un-boned”; when a final thought before dying is a “concentrated pleasure”; when death “enter[s] the room, pause[s], then move[s] past you before laying its hands on your loved one”; when a beloved character’s suicide causes the author to feel as though she’s conspired to murder, so intense is her guilt. Even the most difficult deaths, both imaginary and real — maternal filicides in Toni Morrison’s novels Beloved and Sula; the murder that opens Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones; the 2010 earthquake in Haiti; the suicide of a writer with whom Danticat was acquainted; and that of her mother, of course — are so closely and beautifully observed as to deliver them into new life.
On the very first page of The Art of Death, Danticat recalls teaching her mother to say in English, “My daughter wrote this book.” After practicing together many times, she herself starts to imagine this “daughter” as a common dream child that she and her mother might share. But it’s when her mother presents her oncologist with Danticat’s novel, in “a moment where your apparent value suddenly rises in the eyes of someone else, especially a person who has your life in his hands,” that the author understands the power of the words they’ve practiced together. It’s a brilliant opening: it names the stakes, paints a portrait of the relationship at the center of the book, and conveys the potential of language to affect who we are and how we think. In that way and throughout, Edwidge Danticat’s The Art of Death offers counterpoint, consolation, and a means of creation to readers and writers alike.
Tiffany Briere has been awarded a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and a Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared in Best American Essays, Tin House, The Cut, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere.