This essay by Dylan Landis originally appeared on Brevity on 2/7/15.
In a scene that is central to Edwidge Danticat’s novel Breath, Eyes, Memory, eighteen-year-old Sophie Caco’s mother guides her gently to her bedroom and “tests” her for virginity—with a finger, just as Sophie’s grandmother tested the mother and her sister every week.
It’s an invasion that shatters Sophie’s sense of boundaries and will make her loathe her body and sex, much as she loves the man she marries. But Danticat makes an interesting choice: She never describes the test itself, only the mother telling a mythical story to distract her daughter.
And during the test Sophie says nothing of her emotions. Afterward, she pulls up the sheet and thinks that now she grasps why her Tante Atie used to scream when she was tested.
Why would Danticat leave out those charged words that get right to the point, words like terrified, invaded, enraged? Early drafts (at least mine) and student writing are often marked by descriptions of strong feeling. Characters gaze at each other with overt love. They feel proud, ashamed, joyous and heartbroken, and the writers come out and say so.
What could be wrong with that?
Chekhov, in two letters he wrote in 1892, critiqued a story for a writer named Lydia Avilova, and told her exactly what was wrong with that: “When you describe the miserable and unfortunate, and want to make the reader feel pity, try to be somewhat colder—that seems to give a kind of background to another’s grief, against which it stands out more clearly. Whereas in your story the characters cry and you sigh. Yes, be more cold.”