Mar 15, 2007

The Farming of Bones

Edwidge Danticat’s novel Farming of Bones (1998) is set in the Dominican Republic in October 1937 during the Parsley Massacre, the systematic slaughter of Haitian illegal laborers. Danticat writes the novel as a memory. The protagonist, Amabelle Désir (It is no coincidence that her name is désir/desire) is a young Haitian woman who survives the mass killing ordered by General Turjillo; around 30,000 people died.
The novel is a study in trauma: using sensuous language Danticat writes the body in pain. Like a patient in therapy, when the story is retold, the subsequent retellings of the story, four things happen.
  1. The body remembers.  Which is why Amabelle says, “This past is more like flesh than air; our stories testimonials …” (281).
  2. The story, as testimonial, repeated and retold differently and with divergent perspectives, with an occasional interpretation by the therapist is revisited. 
  3. The third consequence of this telling is recognition that the story is held in tension with the official story — here the story told by the Dominican victors against that which is held in the heart of survivors or lost forever with the dead.
  4. The language acts as a kind of counter-narrative to the anger and hatred against the black, coffee colored, bodies of the Haitians. 

Amabelle remembers through her body a time of pleasure, like her time with Sebastien, and remembers a time when this was ruptured by the Haitian massacre.  The Dominican body, along with the imported Spanish language is privileged over the Haitian black and its Kréyol derivation of Spanish. The history of bodies that we know, as historians and as readers, not ourselves being part of the first-hand action, is of an island nation that has been severed between the African Black and the Caucasian Spaniards, not only by race but by language.  A dividing line has been created between the two nations.  When this dividing line is blurred, violence is necessary to reestablish the borders (see Munro “Writing Disaster”).  The Dominican Republic is home to European hegemony and dominance.  The Haitians, although freed from slavery during a successful revolt in the 19th century, work as low income laborers on Dominican soil, still marked as coming from the primitive, dark recesses of Africa. Danticat writes the body as beautiful as a means to counter the white, Dominican notion that the black body is undesirable and alien.
But why write a novel of an historical event that seems to criticize hegemonic testimony?  Why put into fiction what has occurred in history and is warped by historical account?  Hasn’t the story been told, in the news, in history books, by fictive testimony?  What does creating a another story accomplish that these other modes of “telling” do not?  Obviously, Danticat’s novel is not a move to prove that people died.  There is not a majority outcry declaring the massacres did not take place.  The historical debate does dispute the number of people who died and the whereabouts of missing persons.  People did disappear without a trace.  People died.  Blood was spilled.  Lots of it.  The more blood spilt, the more the warrior is remembered?  Trujillo’s testimony will be remembered in history. Not the dead. We don’t like thinking of the intimate, detailed subjective lives of people who died horrible deaths; we rather not think of the suffering and the pain they endure.  We would much rather create stories of a happy death. Give a few statistics. Write a history. These facts and stories can be researched and found on EBSCOhost or JSTOR. Or you can read it in a book of Caribbean history.
The histories do not outrightly conceal the event.  It is written history.  Like any war, we know people died.  Lives were lost.  Families split apart.  Women raped.  The “other” — here, the Haitian “visitors” — were expelled and the border between the two countries established through violence.  The Haitians had become unwelcome.  As Tibon says, “The poor man, no matter who he is, is always despised by his neighbors.  When you stay too long at a neighbor’s house, it’s only natural that he become weary of you and hate you” (178).  The government at one point numbered the dead in the 100s, but in actuality it was more like 15,000.  Whether it is 100 or a 1000, any human being’s death, diminishes me, to quote Donne, for I am a part of humankind.  Human beings peeled off the face of the earth: somebody has lost a brother, a husband, a mother.  Is Danticat writing this novel as a way to fill in the gaps of stories not told?  In many cases there is nothing left — no body, no witness — to prove that they were ever even alive. It is a fact that people were slaughtered with machetes. Haitian migrant workers were forced to say the Spanish word for parsley, and if they could not pronounce the Spanish “r” with that distinctive roll or the consonant sound of the “j” it marked them as kréol and they were slaughtered.  Danticat includes this episode in her story.  One word can become exclusionary.  If the Haitian “other” didn’t know the password they were slaughtered.  They were slaughtered by their inability to pronounce a word, parsley, that they used everyday, to clean their insides and their outsides, to make food and to drink spiced teas (203).
Danticat mentions in the epigraph, this story is similar to the story in the book of Judges of a war between two semitic tribes, Ephraimites and the Gileadites.  Ephraimites were caught in a mountain pass and slaughtered if they could not pronounce the “sh” in the Hebrew word shibboleth, for “stream” or “torrent.”  What does literature do for this story and similar stories.  Why do we need a fictional account of the bloodshed wrought by the Dominicans upon the Haitians?  Is a story like Farming of Bones just a mere retelling of history?  If it were just a retelling of history, then it would not be needed.  Literature allows us to not only think of a historical events as distant, objective happenings, but turns the ears of our heart — to quote Benedict of Nursia — to the inner places of the heart of those involved.  Obviously, the characters Danticat presents for us in her novel are figments of her own memory work, her own knowledge, her own experience, possibly.  Even though these characters are creations of an artist’s mind they allow us to look at the stories that history attempts to obliterate.  Fiction gives a voice to people who otherwise would not be able to speak.  But the story is still not theirs.  For even in the fiction, the characters have difficulty relating to their own history.  Not only is there an incommensurability for us to reconcile the history that we are told and the private histories of real people involved, there is an incommensurability in the characters themselves to sort and sift through the detritus of their own memories to make sense of a ruptured past.  The beautiful passages that mark the beginnings passages of the book take on a haunted feel by the novel’s end.   For, Amabelle, the novel’s protagonist, her body responds to the massage of her lover, Sebastien, a sugar cane cutter, when he places his rough hewn hands on the small of her back and down her spine.  “His rough callused palms nip and chafe my skin, while the string of yellow coffee beans on his bracelet rolls over and caresses the tender places along my spine. The care Sebastien kneads her body is his way of reminding her, “even when you can’t place the balls of your eyes on me,” that he is with her.  The most beautiful prose poetry in Farming of Bones is when the body is described, even when the body is only implicit in the description of beauty.  For there is a desire here that is unresolved. Like her name, Desir, Amabelle desires that which has vanished.  Her desire for those that she loves appears to her in her dreams.  For Amabelle, this is better than being nothing at all (see 2).  The desire for Sebastien’s body, his scarred and rough hands, is a desire for that which can no longer be touch and felt. As Amabelle herself says, “I … felt and lived my own body’s sadness more and more every day” (276).  The longing and pain in the body desires that which came before the rupture.  The novel is told from the point of view of Amabelle after the trauma has occurred.  Any moment of pleasure, of recognition of another, is seen through hazy lenses because the moment has already passed.  The memory of Sebastien — even the memory of her parents, of her foster parents, of her time working in the Dominican Republic is a memory.  She has survived to tell her story.  So she revisits the memory.  This is what ineluctably happens to stories; they get retold.

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