Mama’s Nightingale: a Story of Immigration and Separation

Mama's Nightingale

For one of 2015’s most perfect picture books, I pick Mama’s Nightingale by Edwidge Danticat, illustrated by Leslie Staub. Danticat’s novels for adults, including a book I adore, Claire of the Sea Light, express longing, often of a child for a parent, and the endurance of her characters to keep on loving in the face of seemingly irreparable loss. From Mama’s Nightingale’s subtitle, A Story of Immigration and Separation, you know that Danticat again explores this child hunger.

A small girl, Saya, listens to her mother’s greeting on the telephone answering machine in the night when her father’s asleep simply to hear the sound of her mother’s voice. The message is in her mother’s Haitian Creole, “Tanpri kite bon ti nouvel pou nou! Please, leave us good news.” Her mother is in “a prison for women without papers.” Saya is bereft. When she visits her mother in prison: “I sit on her lap and breathe in the smell of coconut pomade in her hair as she and Papa talk.” When her mother sends Saya an audio tape of her telling a Haitain folk tale, illustrator Leslie Staub captures Saya’s joy in hearing her mother’s voice: a painting of her mother with the nightingales of her story fill the pages. Each week Mama sends a new story tape and Saya bares her grief. With her mother’s voice being the key to Saya’s strength, it’s natural that her own voice leads to the story’s climax. Danticat herself was separated from her parents who were living in the U.S. and trying to get the papers to bring their children. She writes in her author’s note, “As children in Haiti, my brother and I sometimes played writing games, making up passports, visas, and other documents that might one day reunite us with our parents.” In showing a child in grief for a parent, Danticat shows us another way we are all alike. She colors the story of deportation with deep hues of humanity.

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