A stranger offers Edwidge Danticat a nostalgic gift: the primer that taught her the magic of words.
Not long ago, while attending a conference in my native Haiti with my 3-year-old daughter, I woke up to an unexpected knock at the door of the hotel room where we were staying. My visitor was a stranger named Raphaelle Cardozo Baker, who had read my books, heard that I was in town, and wanted to meet me. She had brought with her as a gift for my daughter a copy of one of the Ti Malice reading primers, a series of learning-to-read books that her mother, Jacqueline Cardozo, had written several decades ago. Looking down at the bright, colorful little primer, I was instantly transported to my own childhood, when I first became enthralled by Ti Malice and the power of storytelling.
One of my earliest memories is of being walked to a rigorous preschool at age 3 by my mother. There I was introduced to Cardozo's perennial Haitian reading primer, Ti Malice au pays des lettres (Little Malice in the Land of Letters), which chronicled that cunning boy's encounters with a lively alphabet, the letters of which were drawn to look like many adults I knew. The letter A, for example, was a hippy woman who was always angry and would rebuff others by saying "Ah!" as in "Ah non, leave me alone." The letter I on the other hand was a thin, happy man who, much to my delight as a child, was always laughing. I would spend hours contemplating, among others, the hippy woman's crankiness and the happy man's laughter, already seeing in them the range of characters lying in wait for a future reader of books.
> At home, I would encounter Ti Malice again in other stories, this time oral ones told by my aunts and grandmother in which the hilarious and clever Ti Malice spent a lot of his time outsmarting his dumb uncle, Bouki. In one characteristic story, a mean Ti Malice convinces Bouki not to wear a pair of brand-new shoes during a long journey on roads filled with razor-sharp rocks. When Bouki returns from his trip, his feet bloodied and shredded, Ti Malice compliments him on his decision to travel barefoot, adding, "See what would have happened to your beautiful new shoes had you worn them!"
At some point during that year of absorbing Ti Malice's oral and written exploits, the lively alphabet of letters shaped themselves into mesmerizing and magical words, and I became, at 5 years old, an excellent reader. My reading was not always for myself. I also read for and to the adults in my family. I read their personal letters, sometimes filled with secrets and intimacies. I read birth, marriage, and death certificates. I read directions on prescription bottles, land and house deeds. I read what my elders could not. Growing up in a poor family in Haiti, reading was not something we took for granted. In fact, in a family like mine, the young were a lot more likely to know how to read than their elders, in whose towns and villages were few, if any, schools. Now, so many years later, reading Ti Malice stories to my American-born bilingual daughter, I experience the beginning of a childhood different from yet in this way similar to mine. I tell her about hippy Mrs. A and skinny Mr. I, and together we laugh and laugh. And I am stunned by the impossible circularity of it all—as though in reading and telling her these particular stories, I am also telling her my own.