Last semester, I taught a course in Modern World Literature. Designing my curriculum around four novels by women of color, I was frustrated to find that although these are celebrated works of literature, teaching resources for them were less readily available than I would have expected. I decided to publish the reading questions and assignment prompts I developed to serve as a resource for other instructors.
*** Note: my class met on a Monday / Wednesday schedule, so my assignment structure is set up to have longer readings and reflections due on Monday sessions, and shorter readings due on Wednesday sessions.
M: READ: Breath, Eyes, Memory – Pt I, Ch. 1-8
Consider the following questions to help you read carefully and critically; come to class prepared to discuss these questions, along with any other topics you would like to raise:
- How would you characterize Sophie Caco? What are your initial impressions of her, and how do you think her perspective influences the story?
- The story moves between different settings. How are these places conceptualized for us? How does the author describe them to us? What kind of mood, atmosphere, problems, or possibilities are associated with each one? How are the people we encounter in each place intertwined with the experience of being in that place? How does Sophie relate to these places, and how do they impact her character?
- What does Sophie learn from Atie about the feeling of chagrin? What types of experiences might be associated with chagrin? Why do you think the story introduces this idea at this point?
- Chapter 5 makes reference to the anti-Duvalier protest movement when it describes the demonstration Atie and Sophie encounter outside the airport. Why do you think Danticat includes this scene in the story, and why does she describe it in the way she does?
- What does Sophie learn from her mother about the circumstances of her conception? How do you think this knowledge affects Sophie? Does this knowledge help her (or us) to understand Martine better?
W: READ: Breath, Eyes, Memory – Pt II, Ch. 9-12
- What do you think of Sophie and Joseph’s relationship? What kind of bond do they have? What do you think it is about Joseph that attracts Sophie?
- Throughout the novel, storytelling has played an important role. In Part I, Atie is represented as frequently telling stories to Sophie. In Part II, two of the most traumatic moments of Sophie’s story are intertwined with other stories: her mother’s story of the Marassas and the story of the bleeding woman. Why do you think those stories are introduced in those moments? How might they connect with what Sophie and Martine are experiencing? Overall, why do you think storytelling has such a prominent place in the novel?
- What is your reaction to Sophie’s actions at the end of Part II? Is it a form of self-harm? Is it an act of defiance? Of independence? Why do you think she does what she does? Do you think she makes the right choice in her relationship with Joseph?
M: READ: Breath, Eyes, Memory – Pt III, Ch. 13-21
- Part III begins with the reader’s abrupt discovery that an unknown amount of time has passed, and Sophie is back in Haiti. (Contrast this to the movement from Part I to Part II, where some time has passed, but Sophie is still living with her mother as she was at the end of Part I, and she tells us exactly how much time has passed.) Why do you think Part III begins this way?
- How does Sophie view Haiti at this point in the novel? How has her perspective on Haiti and her family changed since Part I?
- One of the major events in this part of the reading is the death of Dessalines. Why do you think this episode was included? How might it be intertwined with the other aspects of the story? What are the different ways in which Dessalines’ death might be significant? (One to consider: the background of the Tonton Macoutes, as well as the origin of Dessalines’ name.)
- How would you characterize Atie’s relationship with Louise? How does the relationship affect Atie?
- The story is vague about what happened between Sophie and Joseph. What hints does it give to what has happened? What can we infer based on what we know of their relationship from Part II? What do you expect will happen to them?
Reading Reflection I
When we began reading the novel, we noted that the story moves between different settings. You were asked to reflect on how these places are conceptualized for us in the novel, including how they are described, what kind of mood, atmosphere, problems, or possibilities are associated with each one, and how the people we encounter in each place are intertwined with the experience of being in that place. We also raised the question of how Sophie relates to these places, and how they impact her character. Now she has returned to Haiti a very different woman. How has her perspective changed, and how does Haiti change for us, the readers, when compared with it’s representation in Part I?
Include specific details from the story to support your analysis, quoting at least one passage, and comparing details from Parts I and III (and other moments in the story, if you choose).
W: READ: Breath, Eyes, Memory – Pt III, Ch. 22-27
- In Ch. 23, Sophie references a folktale about “a woman who flew without her skin at night.” What did you think was the significance of that story? Why do you think Danticat included it? The details of the story parallel folktales about the soucouyant, a creature that resembles a vampire or succubus. Why would Danticat evoke this folklore tradition?
- Ch. 23 includes an extended passage where Sophie and her grandmother speculate about the experiences of a girl named Ti Alice. Why do you think this story is included? What does the story of Ti Alice represent for Sophie? We’re told that elements of the story “sent a chill through [Sophie’s] body.” What do you think is her grandmother’s attitude towards the experiences of Ti Alice? How do you know?
- Ch. 23 includes another story, about the rich man who married the poor girl. Does this story have anything in common with the other two stories told in this chapter? How are these different stories woven together?
- What does Sophie mean when she talks about the experience of “doubling”? How does her own experience of “doubling” intersect with the politicians Sophie describes, whose “doubling” allows them to commit terrible atrocities?
- At times, Grandmé Ifé seems to defend the practice of testing, claiming “I had to keep [my daughters] clean until they had husbands… You must know that everything a mother does, she does for her child’s own good.” But she also says, “My heart, it weeps like a river… for the pain we have caused you.” Do you think Ifé regrets testing her daughters? Do you think, if she had it to do over again, she would make the same choice? What about Martine — based on her words and actions when she sees Sophie, would she make the same choice again?
- What more do we learn about Martine’s character in Part III? Do you feel you understand her better?
M: READ: Breath, Eyes, Memory – Pt IV, Ch. 28-35
- We learn that both Sophie and her mother have struggled with different forms of disordered eating. How are these experiences represented? What do you think is the source of each woman’s relationship to food, and how does this connect with other aspects of her character?
- When Sophie questions Martine about her pregnancy, Martine responds, “…look at me. I am a fat woman trying to pass for thin. A dark woman trying to pass for light. And I have no breasts.” Why do you think Martine views herself as “passing” for something that isn’t really herself? Why does she feel these aspects of her character mean that she is “not an ideal mother”?
- After Sophie returns to Providence, Joseph is surprised to hear her refer to Haiti as “home”? In what sense is Haiti Sophie’s home? What has happened that has caused her to begin thinking of Haiti as home?
- In Part IV, we learn that Sophie has sought help to work through her trauma by joining a support group and going to see a therapist. What do you think of the portrayal of therapy in the story? If you’re familiar with clinical practice, how does it compare other models of mental healthcare that you know of? Does it seem to be helpful? Does the story seem to endorse or encourage seeking professional help to cope with emotional issues?
- Martine’s fate at the end of the novel is tragic and disturbing. Do you think her story had to end this way? Based on what we know of her character and her experiences, could it have been possible for her to find a way forward? Sophie seems to think so, and encouraged Martine to take steps to face and work through her trauma? What do you think prevents Martine from following Sophie’s advice? What prevents her from healing?
- What do we get out of the ending of the story? What do we imagine the future holds for Sophie, and what does the novel encourage us to take from her story?
Reading Reflection II
Consider what you think the novel is designed to communicate to us, and how you think we’re intended to relate to the characters in the story. How does Danticat use her novel to reflect on and communicate about the world (whether we’re talking about the geographical world the characters inhabit, or their social world, or their psychological or emotional world)?
Choose any angle on these questions that interests you. You can use the focus questions provided with the reading assignment as a prompt, but you may also choose to reflect on another aspect of the novel that interests you.
Include specific details from the story to support your analysis, quoting at least one passage.