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Edwidge Danticat 1969–-

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Haitian-born American novelist and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Danticat's career through 1999. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 94.

Though relatively new to the literary scene, Danticat has been the recipient of positive critical and popular attention since the publication of her first book, Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994). Drawing her subject material from her native land, Haiti (which she refers to as a “rich landscape of memory”), Danticat generates lush prose that appeals to the senses. She was the winner of the Pushcart Short Story Prize and in 1995, a finalist for the National Book Award (for Krik? Krak!, 1995).

Biographical Information

Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to Andre and Rose Danticat, Edwidge was separated from her parents at the age of four when they immigrated to the United States. She joined her family in 1981 in Brooklyn, New York, where she had difficulty fitting in with her schoolmates due to her style of dress, her accent, and her hairstyle. Though her parents wanted her to pursue a career in medicine, Danticat devoted herself to her writing, eventually earning a master of fine arts degree from Brown University in 1993. Recognized for her depictions of the Haitian experience both in Haiti and the United States, Danticat is described by Margaria Fichtner as a writer whose work “has much to say about what it is like to be young, black, Haitian, and female wandering in a world too often eager to regard all of those conditions as less than worthwhile.”

Major Works

Breath, Eyes, Memory, told through the eyes of Sophie Caco, details the lives of four generations of Haitian women as they struggle against poverty, violence, and prejudice in Haiti and the United States. Drawing upon contemporary Haitian history, the novel portrays the country's upheavals at the hands of the Duvalier regime and its brutal secret police, the Tonton Macoutes. While the stories of Krik? Krak! employ a wide range of plot types and characters, each story is, as Ellen Kanner explained, “part of the same tale. Women lose who and what they love to poverty, to violence, to politics, to ideals.” The Farming of Bones (1998) is a fictionalized first-person account of the 1937 massacre of Haitians in the Dominican Republic. The novel is narrated by Amabelle Desir, a Haitian housemaid in the home of Senora Valencia, a Dominican whose soldier husband has killed a Haitian field laborer in a hit-and-run accident. While Amabelle and her lover, Sebastien, contemplate revenge, they must escape the genocide facing the country's Haitian minority.

Critical Reception

Most commentators have found Danticat's works to be powerful fictions conveyed with sure-handed style. Breath, Eyes, Memory was praised by many critics for its lyrical language, which offsets and counterpoints the novel's often dire subject matter. Some reviewers of the novel suggested that Danticat did not display complete control of her material in the book, lavishing detailed descriptive passages on things and events that did not warrant them. Most, however, pointed out that this is a flaw common to many first novels. Krik? Krak! was lauded by critics for the diversity of narrative voices and literary styles presented in the stories. The collection brought Danticat praise for making serious subject matter readable and enjoyable through the skillful use of language. Critics noted that some of the stories reveal an overly self-conscious manipulation of form and structure, a false note of “preciousness” that detracts from their realism. Richard Eder, however, found that the “best of [the stories], using the island tradition of semi-magical folktale, or the witty, between-two-worlds voices of modern urban immigrants, are pure beguiling transformation.” The Farming of Bones generated predominantly positive reviews, with critics again praising Danticat's sensuous prose and depiction of Haitian life. Some, however, expressed disappointment when comparing The Farming of Bones with Danticat's earlier work. Michael Upchurch complimented Danticat's “considerable talents,” including her “descriptive prose,” but felt that the novel possesses “technical oddities … that detract from the power of Danticat's story,” and that “Danticat's storytelling was inhibited by the respect she has for the novel's historical sources.”

Principal Works

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Breath, Eyes, Memory (novel) 1994

Krik? Krak! (short stories) 1995

The Farming of Bones (novel) 1998

Edwidge Danticat with Margaria Fichtner (interview date 1 May 1995)

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SOURCE: “Author Edwidge Danticat Writes about Being Young, Black, Haitian, and Female,” in Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, May 1, 1995.

[In the following interview, Fichtner and Danticat discuss biographical elements that have influenced Danticat's work, some of her early writing experiences, and her legacy.]

It is 9:30 a.m., and the voice on the phone from Brooklyn—a voice that at times seems to brim with loss and longing—shudders a bit and then creeps slowly from the shadows of weariness and sleep. “This is Edwidge,” it says with the softness of a half-stifled yawn. “Sorry.”

The name is indeed Edwidge. Edwidge Danticat. Say it this way: “Ed-WEEJ Dahn-tee-CAH.” Remember it well.

When Haitian-born Danticat slipped onto the U.S. literary scene last year with her transcultural, transgenerational first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, critics hailed the book's emotional complexity and its resonant portrayal of the burdens history, politics and culture impose upon the lives and hearts of women. Though set in Haiti and New York and focusing on the beguiling narrator Sophie Caco, who arrives in New York for a reunion with her long-absent mother, the novel also has much to say about what it is like to be young, black, Haitian and female wandering in a world too often eager to regard all of those conditions as less than worthwhile.

And although it is premature to bestow upon Danticat the mantle of literary spokeswoman for the whole Haitian diaspora, last November, when Danticat returned to Haiti for the first time, she was among those invited to the palace by newly reinstalled President Aristide. She had been close once before. One Christmas years ago, Danticat and her cousins were almost trampled when the radio announced that Michele Duvalier was handing out free toys at the palace, and now here she was inside it, “a place my kind of poor people would never go.”

Also in November, the New York Times Magazine tucked the 26-year-old author among 30 young U.S. artists “most likely to (gulp!) change the culture for the next 30 years.”

And now, Breath, Eyes, Memory has been reissued as a Vintage paperback. And Soho, its original publisher, has just released Danticat's Krik? Krak!, a collection of interrelated stories celebrating Haitian home life, tradition and myth and the ennobled lives of people who have lost everything but a rich will to survive.

Still, she says, “I think my parents had two fears about my writing. One is that there's such repression in Haiti that it's dangerous to be a writer. When my father left to come here, most of the writers he knew were in prison. And then, I'm from a poor family in Haiti. There are certain luxuries we weren't used to people having, like painting all day or writing all day. But suddenly, there it was for me: the possibility of writing. ‘But would you be writing for 25 years and not earning money, and would you be doing something else?’ ‘Would writing be a hobby?’ That's always for my parents been very important. … They're always saying, ‘You have to have a career,’ … and the safest and most esteemed one they knew about was medicine. So I was always encouraged to go into medicine.”

But from childhood Danticat has known that there are other healing arts. The deprivations and upheavals of her Port-au-Prince childhood were leavened by Haiti's vibrant oral traditions. For a time she shared a bedroom with an aunt's mother, an ancient countrywoman who felt withered and restrained by city life.

“She was one of those people who loved telling stories even more than we loved hearing them,” Danticat says. “It was just like she was telling them to herself, and so there was this joy. It was the only time that she seemed to have joy, … and you knew she was telling you something special.”

Danticat is the eldest of four children. Her father left Haiti for New York when she was 2, and her mother followed two years later. Little Edwidge and a younger brother stayed behind to be cared for by relatives, “and I remember what made the separation so hard was that I didn't conceptualize that we'd ever be together …”

Photos, taped messages and monthly phone calls kept connections intact, but “even when we were talking, it was like they would be present for the moment, but then they were gone.” The family—which by then included two U.S.-born little brothers—was reunited when Danticat and her brother arrived in New York when she was 12.

“I was very, very nervous. I didn't know these people. I felt like I was adopted. And when I got off the plane I remember going through the doors …, and then there was this sort of huddle of people surrounding us. And not really knowing what to do, you kiss them and say hello, but what then? Imagine thinking, ‘Gosh, this is the rest of my life’ and feeling unsure about the whole thing.”

After living for a time in an apartment building, the family settled into its present house on a quiet street in East Flatbush. Danticat's father drives a cab; her mother is a factory worker. Her oldest brother is a teacher, and their younger siblings are still in school.

Danticat began to write as a child, starting with “some journals, …what would happen to my day.” An uncle bought her Ludwig Bemelmans' “Madeline” books, in French, about a little girl's adventures. “ …I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I could write this about me.’ …And when I was 9, I remember putting together these pieces of paper and making a notebook and sewing it together and trying to write my own Madeline stories. ‘Edwidge in School,’ even ‘Edwidge in the Country. …’ I would say, ‘She doesn't have these big mountains, but I do.’”

The first seeds of Breath, Eyes, Memory sprouted when Danticat was studying French literature at Barnard and sent 70 pages of the story to Soho, where an editor liked it but insisted that she write more. Later at Brown, Danticat picked the book up again as her master's thesis, “and when I turned it in, I did send (the editor) a copy. And then, like a week later, we were having a really expensive lunch. … I realize … it was a Cinderella story.”

NEXT: A NOVEL

“I'm talking about more than I'm working on,” about the 1937 massacre of thousands of Haitians along the island's border with Trujillo's Dominican Republic. As with all Danticat's work, the pain comes built in. Breath, Eyes, Memory ignited the ire of some middle-class Haitian Americans for its frank treatment of abusive Haitian virginity customs.

“People try to say to me, ‘Well, this happens with a certain class of people,’” Danticat says, mimicking a high-tone accent. “They just want to separate themselves from some things, and I won't let them off that easily. … People want you to celebrate more, but I say, ‘That makes for a very boring plot.’ And a lot of things are celebrated, but there are painful things, too.”

Early in Breath, Eyes, Memory, Danticat talks about women who must prove themselves “brave as stars out at dawn.” She says she dreams of leaving that sort of legacy.

“If I have a little girl, I'll name her Sophie, and little Sophie's descendants will say, ‘My grandmother came here when she was 12 and became a writer.’ My father, when he came here, the thing that drove him most was he wanted to have some land. … But for me, I always wanted to write things down, because I know that probably there'll be people who'll come after me in this family who'll be more American than Haitian … and this is the property that I can leave them. I'll write it on my grave so they won't forget: ‘My grandmother came here when she was 12, and she wrote books.’”

Edwidge Danticat with Renee H. Shea (interview date 17 January 1996)

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SOURCE: “The Dangerous Job of Edwidge Danticat: An Interview,” in Callaloo, Vol. 19, No. 2, January 17, 1996, pp. 382–89.

[In the following interview, Shea and Danticat discuss various aspects of Danticat's work, including mother-daughter relationships and imagery.]

[Shea:] Mothers and daughters are a central theme in your work, certainly in Breath, Eyes, Memory and in many of the short stories. This bond seems to be the very essence of women's lives, yet it is rarely a happy one. In Breath, Eyes, Memory, Ifé has a troubled relationship with both of her daughters, Martine and Atie, as does Martine with Sophie. Only in “Caroline's Wedding” does there seem to be any peace—at least with a living mother. Are you suggesting that this most intense and defining of relationships is bound to be, at best, an uneasy one?

[Danticat:] Not at all. It's a complicated relationship even in ordinary relationships. Add to that separation, which, for me, is as strong a theme as the mother-daughter relationship. Sometimes it's forced separation, other times separation due to the problems that have to do with dictatorship; sometimes, it's abrupt separations, like death, often violent death. For me, the most fascinating thing is the absence and then recovery from that absence. People who grew up without their mothers for one reason or another and then find themselves reunited with them—this is a very strong theme in the lives of Haitian women my age who were separated from their mothers early on. Mine was immigration, but for others it was worse. It's not so much the relationships but the circumstances that shaped the fabric of the relationship. What interests me most is the separation and healing: recovering or not recovering: Becoming a woman and defining what that means in terms of a mother who may have been there in fragments, who was first a wonderful memory that represents absence.

“A Missing Piece” centers on a daughter whose mother died at the moment of birth and another character who is looking for a mother she believes has been killed. Are these also, then, kinds of separation?

Yes, because there are people who have mothers, but they have to share them with so many other strong circumstances, often just to survive. The absence then is inside. The mother might be there and not be there at the same time. In “The Missing Piece,” that sense of separation was there at the beginning for the one character. Often all we know about being women, we pick up from our mothers. What happens if the mother is not there? Then we mother ourselves, or we look for that in somebody else. I see this a lot, especially with very poor Haitian girls who not only have to mother themselves but might have to mother other children in the family if the mother is not there.

I heard Jamaica Kincaid interviewed the other day about her new novel [Autobiography of My Mother], and she said that the mother-daughter relationships in her work are often a metaphor for power. Then, she observed that it was “no accident” that under colonialism, one refers to “the mother country.” Does that idea apply to your work?

I can see the link. In Haiti, though, we don't have so much the feeling of “mother country.” Our occupation, if you will, ended early, and even though people have always felt the shadow of France so that they would go there for education, I've never, personally, felt us looking toward France as the mother country. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think it's much stronger for my friends who have grown up in the English-speaking Caribbean where England was such a powerful force in everyday life, or even my friends who grew up in Guadeloupe or Martinique. I've never felt that relationship as if Haiti has a mother country, but now I feel “motherland” because of having made this journey [to the U.S.]. People in America say, “my native land—my mother land is outside of where I am.” But this is very different from the mother country as a place where everyone is looking to as the model.

It's true that mother-daughter relationships are relationships of power, but I don't see that as a metaphor for mother country. I think it's an evolving relationship where sometimes the mothers see themselves mirrored. I'm not a mother yet, but I've observed that often, in the beginning, it's pure joy: the mother sees herself mirrored, and vicariously she is infusing her dreams into the daughter, especially in very difficult circumstances. Many of the mother's dreams are transported to the daughter who might do all the things she did not get to do. Suddenly, this person has a personality with different ideas. Then the mother, especially in a country like Haiti, feels powerless in the face of other influences. Our mothers—Haitian mothers or mothers of immigrant daughters who are growing up in this culture—often suffer because, in their daughters' eyes, they become an anachronism. I'm not sure if that happens to all mothers as time goes by, but the daughters say things that sound to their mothers like, “you foolish woman, you should know better.” They might feel diminished in that relationship then. If you're not a careful person, you might end up missing the wisdom that the mother has, the strength of that woman.

Martine tells Sophie [in Breath, Eyes, Memory] that she wants her to be her “very very good friend,” but that never seems possible. The sustaining friendships in your work are between women who are not blood-related—Louise and Atie, for instance. Can mothers and daughters be friends?

It's possible. In “Caroline's Wedding,” Grace is friends with her mother because she understands her mother's position. There are parts of Grace that are growing close to her mother; as she gets older, she realizes the pain that her mother has. Often, mothers and daughters are friends, but they can't have an intense conversation or disagree; they are friends in a way that is gleeful but not the same kind of relationship as with a friend you can have a fight with. It depends upon what the issues are in your family, whether there are a lot of barriers to overcome. When parents come from another country and are living in a place where their role is so different, then they have extra barriers to this friendship because you have not only generational problems but these cultural things. Then conflicts arise. A lot of parents want to live the way they did back home, but the children are living in a different time.

Grace understands both worlds because she had partly lived in the world her mother was from and then she lived in this world [the U.S.]. So, she is a bridge between Caroline, who is completely American, and the mother, who is completely Haitian: she's part of both. The friendship comes from understanding. As I've gotten older, I've gotten closer to my mother, and that comes from understanding things better.

I've heard critics as well as school kids comment on the color imagery in your work—daffodils and hibiscus, the name Caco meaning “a scarlet bird.” Can we assume the archetypal associations with color (like red for passion), or is the meaning more culturally determined?

Sometimes you gather different pieces of information, and then they all of a sudden join together and make this universe in your head. One of the things I remember reading somewhere a long time ago was about slave habitats. After people were transported from Africa to different parts of the islands, they had to build their own habitats. A lot of the places where they stayed were very small and built in a way to be dark because these were really places just to sleep in. Life was outside because they didn't have time to be in the place where they were living. When I think about that and look at places in the Caribbean—just the vast amount of colors—then I think of that darkness in contrast. I always imagine myself coming out of the dark into that color outside—the skies, the trees, the flowers. When you go to a place like Haiti, you are struck by color: everything is in technicolor!

So, the colors strike you a lot more because you're not used to seeing them, and I choose carefully so that they fit the scenery. But I also remember as a child hearing how flowers had a certain meaning—yellow friendship, red love—so they do act as sort of the normal symbol. They're such a strong visual draw, though, that I feel it's a shame not to use them. When I'm in Haiti and look at the hibiscus and the flamboyant, these are so strong for me. That's how they make their way into the story.

In Breath, Eyes, Memory, Martine tells Sophie about “The Marassa …two separate lovers [who] were the same person, duplicated in two.” Then, there is also this concept of “doubling,” which Sophie does when Martine tests her and that is thought common practice for politicians, according to vodou? Are these similar?

Marassa is actually part of the African tradition where there are twin deities. In the tradition of the Ibegi in Africa, twins are considered very special, in some cases to be very powerful. If one of the twins dies, the other will carry an effigy. Marassa in common language means twins. Often politicians, if they want to identify with someone, will say, “He and I are twins.” In Haiti, after Aristide came back, people were saying that he and Clinton were twins. Recently, they were saying that Aristide and Preval are twins. This is the same as saying that they are really close. I wanted to use all the connotations of twins in the story. Going back to the mother-daughter relationship, the idea is that two people are one, but not quite; they might look alike and talk alike but are, in essence, different people.

Doubling is a similar idea. I started thinking about this because I had often heard the story of our heroes, like Jean-Jacques Dessaline, who is considered the father of our independence. In the folkloric explanation, he was such a strong individual because he was really two people: one part of him could be at home and the other on the battlefield, or two of him could be on the battlefield at once. The idea is that someone is doubly a person but really one person—as opposed to the twins who are really two people.

So Sophie doubles during the testing to remove herself from a painful situation?

Sophie is saying, “I'll gain strength. This is my body, but I will go somewhere else. The core of me is somewhere else.” In her case, she thinks of pleasant things—she imagines being in Haiti. Sophie also thinks of doubling as an explanation for cruelty. How could these people who have wives and children they play with murder people? But with doubling they could have these two selves: the kind-hearted person and the evil side. Doubling acknowledges that people make separations within themselves to allow very painful experiences, but also the separation allows people to do very cruel things.

Words transform Atie in Breath, Eyes, Memory. Her learning to read and write seems to correspond to her growing sense of self, to use a cliché. Is the written word a mediating force?

I know many amazing and resourceful, incredible Haitian women, poor women who cannot read but who do extraordinary things—send kids to medical school, put all sorts of things together. Atie is one of them. When I was a girl in Haiti, I knew a woman about 50 who started learning to read; she always said that the fact that she didn't know how to read was a big mark against her, so she was determined to go to night school. There are a lot of people like Atie who are in literacy programs, and we don't know why or what drove them there. Her character represents women like that who, after a long day of doing many many things, show up with their books at school to learn. For Atie, I think learning to read was her chance to do something for herself, and she really fell in love with words.

A man was saying to me last night that he thought there was charm in the old ways and that people like Atie would not necessarily need to know how to read for the purpose of their lives. One of the things that I think many people do—and if you are in a position of power, this is really dangerous—is to romanticize the very poor people who live off the land, saying that they live these idyllic lives. Those are very dangerous arguments to keep people down.

In a New York Times article, you referred to your uncle in Haiti who had had a laryngectomy. You said, “I was the only person who could read his lips and understand what he was saying. Without me he would have had no voice.” That's such an extraordinary life-makes-art image! Did you think of yourself in those terms of being his voice?

My uncle, who was living in Haiti, came back to the States to have this operation, and when he returned, this man who is a minister all of a sudden couldn't speak. I could see his sadness. My uncle is one of the most amazing people I know, and he was so sad. I spent more time with him than other people, getting things for him, doing errands. I was ten. Slowly, I picked up what he was saying. He would move his lips, and I would figure it out. At first, he would write things down, but as he wrote them, he would also mouth them. I realized what he was saying, so he would take me everywhere with him. He would say things, and I would say them out loud. It's a bit presumptuous of me to say that I was his voice, but for a while, I felt like I was an extension of his voice.

At a reading last year, a Haitian woman commented that she thought that Martine was Haiti: she falters, she survives and comes back, but ultimately is lost. When she asked if you intended that meaning, you said no, but that it made sense. Have you thought any more about that idea?

It's wonderful how the work takes on a whole life by itself; it becomes different for different people. I thought that was a very interesting reading, but I don't see Martine as Haiti because I'm more hopeful for Haiti than that. There's the proverb that's in the dedication of Breath, Eyes, Memory that says, “We have stumbled but we will not fall.” It's a situation where we have stumbled a lot, but we haven't counted ourselves out yet. Haitians talk a lot about the glorious beginnings of Haiti, the revolution, being the first black republic, and having a slave revolt that inspired others around the world. Then, we have our heroes that are on these high pedestals but also have their dark sides. It's a complex history.

You've commented before about the influences of African-American writers on you, especially Maya Angelou and Paule Marshall. What about French and Haitian influences?

When I was in school in Haiti, we read mostly French writers, Victor Hugo, Proust. At that time, we didn't even read Alexandre Dumas, who I later found out was part Haitian. I'm always telling people, “The guy who wrote The Three Musketeers was Haitian! Please remember.” We read dead French writers. I find that, even now, my writing in French takes immediately the voice of French Romanticists because that's the literature I knew. When I came here, in my instant nostalgia, I started looking for Haitian writers. Jacques Roumain, who is read now in universities I think more than any other Haitian writer, was one. I found the Marcelin brothers, who wrote together, in translation [Phillippe Thoby-Marcelin and Pierre Marcelin]. But I really started reading Haitian literature in a personal quest once I was outside of Haiti. I started asking people coming back from Canada to bring me books. I remember reading an excerpt of one of Marie Chauvet's books (Love, Anger, Madness), and I just loved her. Her whole story, how she fought and fought to be published, was just amazing to me, and she has become one of my favorite Haitian writers.

Breath, Eyes, Memory has been translated into French [Le Cri de L'Oiseau Rouge, translated by Nicole Tisserand]. How did that come about?

In the ordinary publishing way: after the book came out, a French publisher bought it. After the man who was my French editor passed away, the house kept it and recently published it. When it came in the mail, I couldn't believe it!

Did you collaborate with the translator?

No, we've never spoken, but it's a wonderful translation. I can't read Breath, Eyes, Memory anymore; I can read some of Krik? Krak! still, but it's very hard after working on something endlessly for so long to read it again. I remember once Toni Morrison said that you feel like the work is never finished—you want to change this, make this better. But when the French one came, I read it and really like it. I liked it better! I was so thrilled about the idea of a French translation anyway because a lot of my relatives who don't read English could read it. It was nominated for a Francophone Caribbean prize, which I thought was kind of sweet because it was almost considered in the same way as a French book.

In an article in New York Magazine, you referred to English as your “stepmother tongue.” With all the negative connotations of Cinderella and her wicked stepmother, what does that description mean to you?

I didn't mean it to be negative. I once read an ad in Poets and Writers for an anthology called The Stepmother Tongue, and I remember thinking, “That's what it is to me. English is my stepmother tongue.” I don't mean it derogatively though; I never thought of those images of the bad stepmother. I thought of a stepmother tongue in the sense that you have a mother tongue and then an adopted language that you take on because your family circumstances have changed, sometimes not by your own choice. But I don't think of it as something ugly. I've always thought my relationship to language is precarious because in the first part of my life, I was balancing languages. As I was growing up, we spoke Creole at home, but when you go out, you speak French in the office, at the bank. If you didn't speak French at my school, the teacher would act like she didn't hear what you were saying. French is the socially valid and accepted language, but then the people who speak Creole are not validated and in some way are being told their voice isn't heard. So I've always felt this dichotomy in language anyway.

I've been reading Richard Rodriguez's book Hunger of Memory. I have disagreements with him, but I am really moved by his honesty. I'm still struggling with some of the same issues. People sometimes say to me, “Why do you write in English?” It's the circumstances of my life that led to this. If you grew up in the United States and ended up in Mexico and wrote in Spanish, is your doing that saying you are rejecting something else? It's not to say that if you write in English, you don't think Creole or French should be written in. This is where I am at this point, and a lot of the people I feel I'm writing for are like me.

Many people for whom English is not their first or family language intersperse their English writing with another language, like Sandra Cisneros with Spanish. You did some of this in Breath, Eyes, Memory. Will you do more in the new novel?

Some said I did too much of that in Breath, Eyes, Memory … Since part of the new novel happens in the Dominican Republic, I use some Spanish.

Do you speak Spanish?

Un poquito. But I find in this novel that I'm working on now that I use it when it is absolutely necessary. For certain terms, like los con gozos, which is a bad thing, like saying Sambo, I feel that I have to use that term. There are three languages in play—implied—in the novel: sometimes characters speak Spanish, sometimes in Creole, but it's all in English. Most of the first part takes place in the Dominican Republic in the border valley, so the main character, the survivor of a massacre, speaks Creole and Spanish. There's a doctor who works in the border hospital, and he speaks both Creole and Spanish. But I use the Spanish or the Creole only when it's extremely necessary.

If there is one overriding theme, or maybe presence, in both the novel and your short stories, it is death—not a preoccupation with death, not a fatalism, but a sense of death being another type of connection. Is that how you view death?

A lot of the older people I knew growing up had no fear of death. Many of them would buy the cloths for their dress and talk about their funeral. They were comfortable doing that. Also, because my uncle was a minister, I went to a lot of funerals when I was a girl. Being the minister's family, you would attend the funerals as a matter of respect. One of the things I loved about Rodriguez's book was when he talks about being an altar boy and being exposed to all the realities of life very early. I had moments to ponder death at a very early age. I remember experiencing the possibility of death when my uncle had his surgery, so I thought of all the ways of death very early. Also, I was raised in the Baptist Church with the idea that you have to earn your way in this life to the afterlife. Then I heard other beliefs about death where we would all be reunited in Africa. But always it was engraved in my mind that—whether you believe in Christian principles or something else—death is not the end.

James Baldwin wrote, “I think it's always dangerous for a writer to talk about his work. I don't mean to be coy or modest; I simply mean that there is so much about his work that he doesn't really understand and can't understand—because it comes out of a certain depth concerning which, no matter what we think we know these days, we know very, very little.” So are we doing something dangerous here?

I think he's absolutely right—but danger is part of the job! There could be greater dangers; you could be prosecuted and killed for writing in the first place. What he says is insightfully true, though. I was reading Joyce Carol Oates' Black Water recently, and there's a part where the senator says that you sound trite hearing your own voice over and over. Sometimes you think you are diluting something by talking about it, but I think I learn by talking about the work with other people and hearing their points of view. It's a little bit dangerous if you take it too seriously, but if you are open to sharing and learning from other people, it could also be a process of growth.

Myriam J. A. Chancy (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7698

SOURCE: “Léspoua fè viv: Female Identity and the Politics of Textual Sexuality in Nadine Magloire's Le mal de vivre and Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory,” in Framing Silence: Revolutionary Novels by Haitian Women, Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, NJ, 1997.

[In the following essay, Chancy examines the manner in which both Magloire and Danticat demonstrate the extent to which Haitian women have been rendered “invisible in a society itself typified through their sexualization and denigration.”]

Moon marked and touched by sun
my magic is unwritten
but when the sea turns back
it will leave my shape behind.

—Audre Lorde, “A Woman Speaks”

Je viendrais à ce pays mien et je lui dirais: “Embrassez-moi sans crainte. … Et si je ne sais que parler, c'est pour vous que je parlerai.”

[I would come back to this land of mine and say to it: “Embrace me without fear. … If all I can do is speak, at least I shall speak for you.”]

—Aimé Césaire, Cahier d'un retour au pays natal

Je n'ai plus le goût de vivre.

[I no longer have any desire to live.]

—Nadine Magloire, Le mal de vivre

The way to the square is fraught with danger. The dirt roads are rutted not from rain but from the weight of army trucks passing day in and day out. The roads are made of compacted dirt; they wind through the impossible brush, unpaved and unlit. In places, trees laden with leaves hover over the roads like the wild tentacles of many-fingered ogres. On a night like this one, dark like the inner chamber of an unexplored cave, nothing is as it seems in the day. Or so Solange thinks as she walks bravely down the middle of one such road trying to avoid the borders: the invisible line between her path towards the lit square and the dark abyss seems no different now from the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic where two of her cousins disappeared a month ago. Her mother told her they had been stolen to cut the sugar cane. Solange shivers as she feels the cool night air against her skin and imagines the cane leaves cutting through the youthful flesh, blood spilling against the whiteness of the sap oozing from freshly cut sugar stalks. Every noise about her, every whistle of wind, carries with it the sound of fear silenced by the burst of sudden light that comes with the so-early daybreak.

Solange walks quickly in the dark, keeping her eyes wide open. She has heard the stories of the girls and women dragged off in the middle of the night to be beaten and left for dead. But such events are not left only for the night. Solange is not blind. She has watched soldiers break down her neighbor's door and has heard the screaming; she does not know what goes on but it is something terrible, something she hopes will never happen to her. When the screaming stops, the soldiers drag the woman out and Solange watches her friend, the woman's daughter, cry over the heaving mass of her mother's body, and try to cover her where her dress has been torn, the tears forming rivers along the crevices of her sunken cheeks.

The walk to the square seems impossibly long. Solange has been warned about stopping, and cautioned to look out for the bogeymen. Bogeymen here are unlike those anywhere else: they don't live in your mind; they are real and breathing and carry guns in leather holsters against their hips. Here, their names begin with an “m” and they wear dark clothing and gold-rimmed aviator glasses. A few of them are women. The men walk through the crowded streets at high noon like they own everything in sight—even your soul.

The bogeymen smile at Solange from across the street when she gets out of school. Sometimes they try to walk her home as if she were a little sister. Sometimes they try to pull her into the bushes, and this is the moment in which Solange realizes that night and day are more alike than different, that she will never be safe. She wishes for the first time in her young life that she were a boy, that the bogeymen would look at her like they do her brothers, as potential candidates for their ranks. In that case, she could stop after school and join them across the way, learn how to polish the barrel of a gun with gleaming sweat.

Solange finally sees the light of the piazza before her. Her heart beats hard. She looks about; the square is filled with meandering people. She sees some of the schoolchildren already seated on the benches beneath the lights. She chooses the bench next to theirs and sighs heavily. She sits down and opens her book at the beginning of a chapter entitled “The Fight for Independence.” She is seeking answers, some sign that she might be able to leave in a few hours without fearing the long walk home.

DEFYING THE EROTICS OF HEGEMONY

In Haitian creole, the saying “léspoua fè viv” (“Hope makes (us) live”) is a timeless one, reflecting both the tenacious (yet wary) optimism of a populace that has been denied, to this very day, the fruits of hard-won independence. On the heels of that independence followed imperial colonialization in the early 1800s and the concomitant inescapable and harsh realities that continuous neocolonial subjugation bring into being: poverty, hunger, illiteracy. Hope, elusive and ethereal, often seems the only stable source of sustenance in a world where fully accessible and tangible economic and educational opportunity does not exist and where adequate social(ist) programs have not been put into place. “Léspoua fè viv” is a piece of common wisdom, of “mother wit,” which has, of late, been appropriated by those in a position to colonize in order to facilely stereotype the Haitian populace as being the prototype for a “generic” Third World stoicism. The politics of “restoring democracy” to Haiti has resulted in the perpetuation of hardships real people suffer by its rationalizing away the economic and cultural oppression of Haitians. The recent embargo, for example, has had the effect of increasing an already high infant mortality rate and decreasing an already horrifically low GNP: Haitians are hardy, goes the stereotype, so a little more pain, a little more death, justifies the end result, the push toward (Americanized) democracy. How, then, do we begin to unravel this continuously collapsing rhetoric (that which First World nations use in an attempt to impose their ideology on Haiti) so as to render visible the ways in which various subgroups resist their homogenization from without and articulate their positionality within a Haitian ideology? By focusing on the articulation of women's realities in Haitian women's literature we can arrive at an understanding of the ways in which Caribbean identity is not only multiple, along the lines of sex, race, and class, but is also undergoing constant flux in each of these categories.

Both Nadine Magloire's Le mal de vivre (1967) and Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994) demonstrate the extent to which Haitian women have been rendered invisible in a society itself typified through their sexualization and denigration. In this sense, the “othering” of women within Haiti is the means by which the privileged classes attempt to legitimate the myth of a Haitian national identity anchored in male martyrdom. Sexuality, in both novels, serves as a pivotal symbol of Haitian women's attempts to formulate empowering identities. Whereas the conventional sexual mores that Magloire's protagonist, Claudine, attempts but in the end fails to elude are imposed from the outside in Le mal de vivre, in Breath, Eyes, Memory, these mores are self-imposed and are, further, imposed by women on other women from one generation to the next. In this chapter, I will explore the ways in which both Magloire and Danticat use the novel form to demonstrate the extent to which Haitian women are subject to the same outdated Victorian codes of sexual behavior as their female counterparts in the United States and Europe. Although these two texts, separated by twenty-seven years, portray sexuality in different ways, the authors of both emphasize the necessity of creating a language and a frame of reference through which the Haitian woman can come to represent herself and her sexuality directly, without the need for translations.

An exploration of either text can only be understood, however, in the context of the politics of publishing in the Caribbean and the politics of Caribbean/postcolonial literary criticism. Caribbean women writers have, historically, had difficulty publishing their works and what literature they have succeeded in getting published has received little attention from Caribbean and postcolonial literary critics—this state of affairs explains why issues of literacy, economics, and feminist social intervention feature so largely in literature produced by Haitian women.

In the literature of Caribbean male writers, such as Derek Walcott, René Depestre, Wilson Harris, and Aimé Césaire, women appear as elusive figures who represent cultural loss: they function as symbols of the feminized Caribbean landscape that has undergone pillage and violence. The cultural and geographical “rape” of a feminized Caribbean is linguistically and imagistically rendered in a way that has the effect of sublimating and denying the violence perpetrated against women in both “public” and “private” spheres; Caribbean male writers attempt to represent a “whole” culture, a Caribbean culture that struggles to define itself against European norms and, in so doing, replicate the same hegemonies as those present in colonial thought (the bipolarization of race, sex, class, etc.). Colonial hegemony is constructed as gendered to delineate the colonized (passive, hence female) from the colonizing (active, hence male). Thus, Antonio Benitez-Rojo is able to write in The Repeating Island:

Let's be realistic: the Atlantic is the Atlantic … because it was once engendered by the copulation of Europe … with the Caribbean archipelago; the Atlantic is today the Atlantic … because Europe, in its mercantilist laboratory, conceived the project of inseminating the Caribbean womb with the blood of Africa; the Atlantic is today the Atlantic …because it was the painfully delivered child of the Caribbean, whose vagina was stretched between continental clamps, between the encomienda of Indians and the slaveholding plantation, between the servitude of the coolie and the discrimination toward the criollo, between commercial monopoly and piracy, between the runaway slave settlement and the governor's palace; all Europe pulling on the forceps to help at the birth of the Atlantic. … After the blood and salt water spurts, quickly sew up torn flesh and apply the antiseptic tinctures, the gauze and surgical plaster; then the febrile wait through the forming of a scar: suppurating, always suppurating. (5)

The cannibalization of Africa results in the erotics of hegemony whereby all of the Caribbean is feminized and, consequently, abused: Benitez-Rojo's use of language replicates the historical, colonial moment he describes in which “woman” is made the “other” and colonized, because she is there, useful, and the site of self-replication. This, in the midst of advancing a useful and necessary theory that revolves around the way in which the Caribbean has been annexed to serve the needs of an exploitative global capitalist economy. Such uses of the metaphor of woman as landscape has led to a textual romanticization (even when garishly construed, as in the above) of Caribbean women, which denies them a sense of identity separate from that of island-nations. They are, in fact, denied the possibility of articulating identities divorced from but still relevant to the politics of colonialism.

It is no surprise, then, that, though recent scholarship in the area of Caribbean and postcolonial studies has begun to focus on literature produced by women (Carole Boyce Davies and Elaine Fido's Out of the Kumbla and Selwyn Cudjoe's Caribbean Women Writers are salient examples), women writers continue to be underpublished, as well as underrepresented in the general study of Caribbean literature. In no Caribbean country has this been more true than in Haiti. As I have alluded to above, in comparison with the publishing patterns of women writers in Martinique and Trinidad, Haitian women writers find themselves represented only one-fourth as frequently as women writers in either of these islands. The fact that Haitian male writers such as Jacques Roumain have accrued considerable recognition since the emergence of the indigénisme movement in the 1920s—popularized by the publication of Aimé Césaire's Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (1947), the “seminal” text of négritude—has not resulted in the fostering of female literary talent in Haiti. …

SEARCHING FOR THE MOTHER/GODDESS

In Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory, Haitian women are represented through images drawn from folk traditions. The subtext of the story of three generations of the Caco family involves a careful subversion of Haitian tropes of identity. Danticat uses the symbol of the marassa, the cult of twins in vodou, to highlight the divisions that are created between women who have been brought up to deny their sexuality as well as each other. In invoking vodou traditions, she strives, moreover, to disassociate them from their prevalent use as tools of state control during the Duvalier years of terror. Danticat also makes use of the principles of palé andaki, a practice of code switching particular to Haitian creole, to underscore the complex dimensions of Haitian women's survival in varied social contexts. Danticat thus engages the challenge of Haiti's cultural doubleness in order to emphasize the need to reformulate the traditional Caribbean novel genre to reflect the particularities of Haitian women's lives.

In Breath, Eyes, Memory, narrative acts ironically as a metaphor for the absence of writ social existence; in this way, the physical text becomes the manifestation of the social forces at work in Haiti over the span of three generations of Haitian women. It also provides a vital link to indigenous languages while using the vehicle of literary production to supply the context for female liberation. The Cacos of Danticat's novel are a family of women from the working classes who struggle both to maintain continuity from one generation to the next, and to reshape through education the fate of the younger generation, represented by the narrator and protagonist, Sophie. Throughout the novel, education, and, more specifically, literacy, are posited as the only means to salvation; ironically, access to literacy is connected to a life of exile, to a move from valley to city for the older generation within Haiti, from Haiti to the United States for the younger. Resisting this movement, the older generations, represented in part by Sophie's grandmother, cling to their sense of Haiti's “glory days,” an invisible African past that is textualized in the novel through the oral folk tales the older generations tell to the younger ones. It is through the thematization of secrecy that the damage resulting from generational disruption is unveiled. The language of the ancestors, which grows increasingly difficult to access, is the key to each woman's freedom.

Sophie is alienated from her natural mother by the latter's memory of the rape of which she is a product, an act that is duplicated by her mother who abuses her sexually in adolescence under the guise of protecting her from future harm. Martine, who wants to make sure that Sophie remains sexually “whole,” persists in describing her acts of sexual abuse in terms of a spiritual “twinning” of souls. Presented as a ritual enacted between mother and daughter through the generations, the “testing” that scars Sophie for life is a product of the suppression of female sexuality and the codification of women's bodies as vessels for male gratification in marriage. The Cacos perpetuate this ritual, although none of the women in the family has ever married, in what Danticat terms a “virginity cult.”

It is because she has internalized the ideology of female inferiority that Sophie's mother is capable of abusing her daughter. Taught to despise the female body for itself and to covet it only as a means by which to acquire a male mate, Sophie's mother commits incest against her daughter, rationalizing her behavior as necessary to her daughter's survival. Social worker and therapist E. Sue Blume notes in Secret Survivors that it is rarer for women to incest their children than it is for men. She writes: “Incest often manifests itself in a manner consistent with gender socialization: for a man, the abuse is generally overtly and directly sexual; for a woman, it may be more emotional, more focused on relationship and bonding, or perhaps manifested through care of the child's body, her primary domain” (7). The incest motif overwhelmingly present in the literature by women of the African diaspora—in the works of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Joan Riley, Maya Angelou, to name the most notable—clearly demonstrates that Danticat's portrayal of incest between mother and daughter should not be taken as evidence that Haitian women are any more apt than other individuals to commit acts of incest against their daughters and that men are hapless bystanders to such abuse. Rather, Danticat demonstrates (as do the aforementioned women writers) through this aspect of her text the extent to which the subjugation of women has led to one mother's sexual oppression of her own daughter. The effect of this subjugation is that the mother believes that she is taking “care of the child's body” when she is in fact subjecting it to very abuse from which she is hoping to save it.

After having been raised for most of her early life by her mother's sister. Tante Atie, in Haiti, Sophie is summoned to New York by her mother. The community rejoices at what appears to be a “natural” turn of events, the reclamation of a daughter by her mother. As grandmother Ifé says to Sophie: “You must never forget this. … Your mother is your first friend” (24). Sophie, however, knows her mother only as an absence; she reacts to her dislocation by withdrawing from the world which until this time had seemed so familiar, so unchangeable. When she is told that she will have to leave Haiti for her mother's New York, she says: “I could not eat the bowl of food that Tante Atie laid in front of me. I only kept wishing that everyone would disappear” (14). Only later do we learn that her inability to eat the bowl of food is symptomatic of what will become a cycle of bodily abuse; once she is in the United States—a place her mother describes to her as a sort of paradise—Sophie becomes bulimic.

For Sophie, the United States is not a garden of Eden; instead, it is a place in which she hungers for the comfort of her true mother, Tante Atie, whom she honors in a poem as a brilliant, delicate, yet nonetheless hardy, yellow daffodil. That image is connected to Erzulie who is the “Goddess of Love, the divinity of the dream. … [t]o Haitian women, the goddess …signifies escape from a life in which women carry a greater share of work and suffering” (Steber 110). Thus Sophie recalls:

As a child, the mother I had imagined for myself was like Erzulie, the lavish Virgin Mother. She was the healer of all women and the desire of all men. She had gorgeous dresses in satin, silk, and lace, necklaces, pendants, earnings, bracelets, anklets, and lots and lots of French perfume. She never had to work for anything because the rainbow and the stars did her work for her. Even though she was far away, she was always with me. I could always count on her, like one counts on the sun coming out at dawn. (59)

Sophie's mother can never be Erzulie, who is herself most often imaged as a mulatta of the upper classes (Desmangles 132), and whose power—defined as both erotic and sexual—is derived from these combined class and race distinctions. She nonetheless seeks Erzulie's elusive powers, attempting to transcend Haitian barriers of class, race, and color by exiling herself to the United States, where she appears to find love with Marc Chevalier, a lawyer and a member of the Haitian elite. “In Haiti,” she explains, “it would not be possible for someone like Marc to love someone like me. He is from a very upstanding family. His grandfather was a French man” (59). Marc idolizes Erzulie and decorates his home with small busts of her image (56); it would appear that Sophie's mother has begun to access Erzulie's world. Danticat, however, quickly undermines the association of the mother with Erzulie.

In The Faces of the Gods, Leslie Desmangles writes that “[i]n combination with Damballah, Ezili guarantees the flow of human generations,” and that “[s]he is believed to have given birth to the first human beings after Bondye [the supreme Being] created the world” (131-132). Erzulie, or, as Desmangles writes, Ezili, is the mother of us all, that is, of all Haitians, male and female; as such, she is all-powerful and all-controlling. Her power over men is legendary, as is her power over other vodou loas [gods] (Desmangles 133). She is often shown wearing a crown or a halo, “a symbol of her transcendent power and of her radiating beauty” (Desmangles 144). It is crucial to note that Erzulie's power is defined in terms of her relationships, primarily to male deities and human male subjects: she is concubine to all but subjugated to none; she is beyond containment. As much as she seeks to transcend temporality by emulating Erzulie, Sophie's mother is bound to self-negating mores of womanhood embedded in nineteenth-century ideals; for this reason, Sophie is the painful memory of what she perceives to be her failure as a woman.

Sophie's mother never comes to term with the fact that the man who raped her in her late teens robbed her of her sexual autonomy; she perceives herself as “damaged,” incapable, in fact, of being Erzulie, because she is no longer “virginal,” or “chaste,” a status the Caco women associate with social mobility. It is through marriage that freedom from poverty, and endless toil, can be achieved; marriage, however, is an institution that, historically, has been socially constructed in such a way as to benefit men and deny women their autonomy. Thus, Danticat's protagonist recalls the story of a man who bleeds his young wife to death in order to be able to produce the soiled, bloody sheets of their first marriage night: “At the grave site, her husband drank his blood-spotted goat milk and cried like a child” (155). On the surface, it seems as if Sophie is being led away from such a tragic fate. In the United States, she will be freed from the constraints of class that attend marriage in Haiti; she will gain an education and no man will be able to reject her as one Mr. Augustin rejected her Tante Atie because of her illiteracy. That possibility, however, is as elusive as Erzulie's loyalties, for Sophie knows only what she is in the process of losing. As she leaves Haiti behind, she imagines the friend/twin she has never had: “Maybe if I had a really good friend my eyes would have clung to hers as we were driven away” (31). Sophie has no point of contact, no shared sight, with another human being who can complete for her her sense of self. Identity, Danticat appears to say, is inextricably linked with community, and the image of the twin, the true friend, is the vehicle for communal (re)identification.

VODOU AND THE EXPLOITATION OF WOMEN'S SEXUALITY

In vodou culture, the marassas are endowed with the power of the gods. Twins are mystères (mysteries), who, since they can never be deciphered, must be held in high esteem and revered. As Alfred Métreaux writes: “Some even contend that the twins are more powerful than the loas. They are invoked and saluted at the beginning of the [vodou] ceremony, directly after Legba.”18 This is no small thing, for Legba is the sun god, the keeper of the gates; he is thus associated with Christ and, as the “guardian of universal and individual destiny” (Desmangles 110), with St. Peter as well. Twins are believed to “share a soul”: “Should one die, the living twin must put aside a bit of all food he [sic] eats, or a small part of any gift given him [sic], for the other” (Herskovits 204). Sophie's inability to eat, then, can be understood as having been caused by her separation from the unknown twin, the best friend she wishes she had had in Haiti. On the other hand, because she has been deadened by her loss of family, Sophie can in some sense be regarded as the twin who has died. Her “living twin” on this reading would be the Haitian landscape to which she had last looked to for comfort in her departure from Haiti; it stores away its resources while awaiting her return. Sophie's mother, however, insists on figuring herself as her daughter's marassa. The image of her mother as her marassa only serves to terrorize Sophie and alienate her from her identity, which becomes both sexualized and demonized in its association (by the mother) with vodou.

In the United States, when Sophie has her first love affair, clandestine and innocent, with an older man, Joseph, her mother suspects her of ill-doing; this is the occasion for Sophie's first “test.” Characteristically, Sophie prays to the “Virgin Mother” Mary/Erzulie while her mother tells her a story about the marassas, “two inseparable lovers … the same person duplicated in two” (84). At first, the story seems to be a warning to Sophie to resist her desire for sexual union with a man. Her mother says: “When you love someone, you want him to be closer to you than your Marassa. Closer than your shadow. You want him to be your soul. The more you are alike, the easier this becomes.” In the story, then, the union between man and woman is presented as a bond that can only be a pale imitation of the union between the marassa, who are described as reflections of oneself: “When one looked in the mirror, the other walked behind the glass to mimic her.” The story, as does the testing, ends chillingly as Sophie's mother tells her:

The love between a mother and daughter is deeper than the sea. You would leave me for an old man who you didn't know the year before. You and I we could be like Marassa. You are giving up a lifetime with me. Do you understand? There are secrets you cannot keep. (85)

Secrecy is central to the image of Haiti created by Danticat, suggesting that holding on to a sense of renewed options is a narrow, almost non-existent possibility. Secrecy, in the above passage, refers to Sophie's inability to keep her body to herself: it is positioned as her mother's reflection and is consequently not her own. But the truly unkeepable secret is the act of abuse itself, which Sophie attempts to exorcise through the only thing she feels she can still control: food.

Sophie's bulimia is a manifestation of her sexual abuse. As E. Sue Blume explains, eating disorders are manifestations of the ways in which women who have been abused attempt to regain control over their bodies; ironically, these attempts at regaining control perpetuate the cycle of abuse. Blume writes: “Most men can achieve mastery in the real world, but many women can exercise total control only over their own bodies. Additionally, rigid social expectations define women through their appearance. Body size relates to power, sexuality, attention, self-worth, social status and the aftereffects of incest” (151). Unlike anorexics, who try to rid their bodies of the sex characteristics they feel (consciously or unconsciously) have led to their victimization, bulimics attempt to maintain the sex characteristics they feel they must possess in order to achieve a “perfection” which will put a stop to their abuse (Blume 152–153). Sophie becomes the prototypical sexual abuse survivor described by Blume as she attempts to control her body—which remains the only socially sanctioned site for her rebellion—precisely because it has fallen beyond her control. She binges and purges in an effort to cleanse herself of her violation.

Sophie's eating disorder will not, however, erase the abuse she has suffered. Through the “testing,” Sophie loses her mother a second time and instead of becoming her twin becomes her victim. She clings to an elusive image of perfection, of Erzulie, which neither she nor her mother can attain. Like Nadine Magloire's protagonist Claudine in Le mal de vivre, Sophie cannot reclaim her identity because her Haitiennité demands that she deny her desires as well as her need for sexual autonomy. This implicit denial of self, as I will demonstrate below, leads Danticat to reject those cultural markers most associated with Haitian Afrocentricity, such as vodou and matriarchal family structure, because they signify oppression rather than liberation; this is not to say that, in so doing, she abandons what those markers represent. Rather, Danticat shows that in order to reclaim the landscape of the female body and of Haiti, both must be redefined. Thus, the novel introduces at its start a set of seeming dichotomies that will be reshaped and reimaged as the plot advances: mother versus daughter, food versus starvation, language versus silence, ritual versus violation, marassa versus life partner. Each of these seeming dualities reflect the rigid sex roles Haitian women are taught to desire, even though they defy those social sanctions through their very acts of daily survival.

As Ira P. Lowenthal points out in his essay “Labor, Sexuality and the Conjugal Contract,” Haitian women of the rural working classes appear to have some power equity due to the fact that many are market women (handling booths at the market, money, trade) while their male counterparts work the fields. Lowenthal writes: “men make gardens for someone and that someone is invariably a woman. … she is a socially recognized spouse of the man. The control of produce, then, as opposed to production itself, falls to women—as men's gardens mature” (18). Lowenthal points out that this seeming inversion of sex roles does not guarantee women's economic autonomy. Instead, it suggests a potential that is never realized because male and female sex roles are maintained in such a way as to prevent an equal division of labor. Women continue to have to sustain the home even as they manage the commerce: “domestic labor is overwhelmingly the responsibility of women and … [w]hen men cry out, as they sometimes do—especially when actually faced with the unsavory prospect—that they ‘can't live without a woman’ … it is to these basic domestic services provided by women that they primarily refer” (20). Put more bluntly, in Haiti, as in other parts of the Caribbean, even though a quasi-matriarchal system seems to be in place, it is one “that represses women” (Kurlansky 135): “women are stuck running the household, and if they are tough and strong it is because their children would starve if they weren't” (Kurlansky 134). The Caco women thus represent the sort of matriarchal family formation that has been celebrated in many Caribbean women's writings (most notably in Audre Lorde's Zami and Michelle Cliff's Abeng, both semi-autobiographical novels), but which, in most Haitian contexts, is one born both out of necessity and out of the legacy of African social formations where quasi-matriarchal societies did indeed flourish and empower women.19

In the Caribbean context, where identity resides at the crossroads of creolization or métissage, matriarchal society is a product of a disrupted society (or societies). Sexuality takes on a striking importance in a repressive matriarchal society for it is the ultimate site of women's subjugation and is, by extension, the site of possible empowerment. As Lowenthal explains,

[f]emale sexuality is here revealed to be a woman's most important economic resource comparable in terms of its value to a relatively large tract of land. Indeed, when discussing their relations with men, adult women are likely to refer to their own genitals as interèm (my assets), lajan-m (my money), or manmanlajan-m (my capital), in addition to tèm (my land). The underlying notion here is of a resource that can be made to work to produce wealth, like land or capital, or that can be exchanged for desired goods and services, like money. (22)

Lowenthal insists, however, that, just as women wield full control over the goods balanced precariously in weaved baskets upon their heads for sale at market, they have full control of the ways in which their bodies are exchanged or marketed. Yet, if women did, in point of fact, have full control over their bodies and their sexuality, one would expect that they would be endowed with power in whatever social strata in which they were born; this, of course, is not the case. Thus, when women attempt to control their sexual interactions with men, they do so precisely because social and sexual power is taken out of their hands from birth: theirs is an unrelenting struggle.

Danticat's very carefully exposes this truism as one would expose a frame of film to light. The result is not often clear or pleasing to the eye, but it reveals part of what has been obscured by inadequate representations of the difficulties faced by women in Haiti and elsewhere. Haitian women are not immune to what Catharine MacKinnon has called the “body count [of] women's collective experience in America,” by which girls are taught to suppress their own ambitions in order to fulfill the sexual needs of men (23). As Danticat shows, even in a family in which men do not “exist,” the threat of sexual violence and subjugation remains a reality too immediate to be ignored.

LEARNING THE MOTHER TONGUE

In many ways, the novel's true heroine is Tante Atie who gains a sense of self and identity only as she grows older. Rejected by a suitor, Augustin, because of her illiteracy, Atie's social role becomes that of caretaker to her aging mother, Ifé. Nonetheless, Atie rebels against her position in the family, and when she has to give up her role as Sophie's surrogate mother-figure, she begins to construct for herself a new life. Her life is reactivated through her being taught to read and write by a market woman, Louise, with whom she develops a strong love relationship. Although both Atie and Ifé have worked diligently to give Sophie and her mother the means to escape the endless cycle of work, poverty, and exploitation, Ifé strongly resents Atie's newfound independence at the same time that she covets it. Through Atie, Danticat presents literacy as a metaphor for the fulfillment of identity and yet she also demonstrates that freedom for the Haitian woman cannot be achieved solely through education; she must also be able to control the passage of her body through a society that rejects her presence and demonizes her sexuality.

Atie defies social convention by severing her relationship to her mother (whom it is supposed she will take care of as she ages since Atie is yet “single”) in order to have a primary relationship with Louise. Her relationship with Louise is, in fact, subtly coded as a lesbian love relationship. Although there is the merest hint that the two are not sexually involved, suggested through numerous scenes in which Louise leaves at sundown and in which the two only come together at daylight, theirs is undoubtedly an erotic relationship. They embody the power of the erotic as theorized by Audre Lorde who writes:

The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experience it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves. (54)

This reflects Atie's experience with Louise as she grows in her “sense of self,” escaping the strict confines of her role as dutiful daughter and becoming more literate in her own (woman's) language. Access, through education, to both the past and to the future provides an increasingly empowering double-sightedness imaged through the twinning of these two women. Louise's descriptions of her relationship with Atie imply as much. She says: “We are like milk and coffee, lips and tongue. We are two fingers on the same hand. Two eyes on the same head” (98). In the end, these two women are the true marassas of the novel. Danticat deftly and subtly inverts the linguistic terms with which relationships between women can be described in the Haitian context in a manner akin to that involved in palé andaki (as described more fully below), the process of code switching within creole (the equivalent, perhaps, to what Zora Neale Hurston has defined as “specifyin” in Black English). Through this code switching, Danticat appears to reject the identifiable markers of vodou and to reformulate them in terms which are inclusive of its origins but that also encapsulate the exigencies of working-class and impoverished women. Creole is the mother tongue that links these two women to their Haitian identity, and, thus, to each other, through the process of literacy. Through creole, that literacy retains its oral roots.

Why should literacy be linked so explicitly to Haitian women's process of self-actualization? The languages in which we speak, write, and communicate are signifiers of the societies and/or cultures we live in. Haitians, male and female, have, since Haiti's tragic beginnings, been made to feel as if our ways of speaking are deficient. Creole, to this day, is often referred to as a “bastard” tongue, “denigrated as a lesser language of French” (Lawless 100), even though it has certainly always been the “dominant” language of the country despite efforts to enforce French as the language of the polished, accomplished, upper classes. For the last several decades, creole has been taught in the schools and used as the common language of the untutored in various literacy programs. It is a living language that is continuously changing; it accurately reflects a culture that is constantly in flux both socially and politically.

Cultural sociologist Ulrich Fleischmann notes in his article, “Language, Literacy, and Underdevelopment,” that in rural Haiti, where the older Caco women live, creole culture distinguishes itself from those “recognized” in Western contexts in that it “cannot be considered as culturally integrated …for each member is in some way aware that his [sic] culture seen from a socially more elevated position appears as a ‘lower variant’ of the dominant culture.” Haitians are acutely aware of the ways in which linguistic creolization is perceived to be a deviation, but they are also ardently opposed to assimilating.

Fleishmann describes oral creole as follows:

[T]hough a nationwide intelligible form of Creole speech exists, there is a continuous change and generation of meanings in the narrow local context. Therefore, Creole speech can take on double and even multiple meanings. The information it conveys can vary considerable according to the social context. The diligent use of contradictory explicit and implicit references, for instance, is a highly esteemed art which Haitians call palé andaki. (109)

In effect, Danticat's novel is speaking andaki to those who are open to the possibilities of cultural doubleness. A little more than halfway through the text, readers are made aware that they have been reading in another language. When Sophie's mother comes to Haiti to reclaim her daughter for a second time, Ifé and Atie complain about their use of English. “Oh that cling-clang talk,” says Ifé, “It sounds like glass breaking” (162). What should, in effect, be broken in the reader's mind is the illusion that s/he has been reading an English text; the narrative reveals itself to be a masquerade, and the unevenness that is palpable in the passages of dialogue between the Caco women (between those who have stayed in Haiti and those who have emigrated) can be seen as evidence that the text is in fact a creole one.20

Danticat's Atie becomes the translator of the camouflaged text, a translator to rival the Dahomean god Eshu, the trickster figure who has become the focus of some phallocentric, Afrocentric criticism, such as in Henry Louis Gates' The Signifying Monkey. Like the poeticized women of Dahomey in Audre Lorde's poetry collection, The Black Unicorn, Atie embodies a marginalized ancient African woman-identified culture in which “[b]earing two drums on my head I speak / whatever language is needed / to sharpen the knives of my tongue” (Lorde 11). Atie's language is one of covert resistance as she appropriates the French language through creole translations when she learns to read and write and as she appropriates the image of the marassa to constitute her own Haitian female identity.

As she becomes literate, Atie creates a new language in order to write down her thoughts in her notebook; Louise “calls them poems” (103). At times, Atie reads to the family from her notebook; one of her most significant creations is an adaptation of a French poem, which remains unidentified in the novel, given to her by Louise. Her poem serves a dual function—one can assume, first, that it is in creole, and secondly, it tells the same story as that of the young husband who kills his young bride because he wants to prove her virginity, or purity, to the community. The important difference, of course, is that the story is now told in Atie's voice:

She speaks in silent voices, my love.
Like the cardinal bird, kissing its own image.
Li palé vwa mwin,
Flapping wings, fallen change
Broken bottles, whistling snakes
And boom bang drums.
She speaks in silent voices, my love.
I drink her blood with milk
And when the pleasure peaks, my love leaves.

(134-135)

The line Danticat leaves untranslated suggests the interconnectedness of like spirits: she speaks my voice, thus, she is my voice. And since Atie's tongue is creole, it can never be entirely translated, nor does her love attempt that transmutation. The last two lines of the poem echo the traditional tale except that Atie has taken the place of the male hero; she occupies his position but is not male-identified.

This latter distinction leads us to the key element of Atie and Louise's relationship: the partings that figure so prominently in the text are metaphors for the non-acceptance of their union in their community, which denies that women can choose one another as their primary sources of emotional and erotic support. This societal rejection is verbalized by Atie's mother, Ifé, who continuously opposes the relationship, saying “Louise causes trouble” (137) and “the gods will punish me for Atie's ways” (167). But Atie defies her mother and the community: “After her reading, she and Louise strolled into the night, like silhouettes on a picture postcard” (135). And after Louise hears that one of her fellow market workers has been killed, Danticat chooses to reveal the women's closeness in an overtly erotic image: “Their faces were so close that their lips could meet if they both turned at the same time” (138). Their lips “could meet” but do not; what keeps the women from “turning” at the same time is the overt misogyny of Haitian society that Danticat exposes in the shattering of Martine (Sophie's mother) and Sophie's own life; their lives are kept out of view, and silenced. The many departures that occur in the novel symbolize, like the last line of Atie's poem, these women's stifled desires. Their partings culminate in Louise's emigration to the United States; she leaves without saying goodbye to Atie, an event that surprises Sophie (171). Atie, however, speaks the same language as Louise: there is no need for the articulation of goodbyes, for she knows already the loss she is about to experience: “I will miss her like my own second skin” (145). For Atie and Louise, options are few. They are denied all but each other, but cannot live for and with each other in Haitian society and expect to survive the consequences of that transgressive choice.

In the end, Nadine Magloire's Le mal de vivre and Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory resist the romanticization of the Caribbean, and of Haiti specifically, as a culture within which the infinite play of meaning, of subjectivity, can be achieved through the recognition of cultural creolization and/or métissage. Magloire reveals the novel genre as inadequate for the textual representation of Haitian women's lives at the same time that she convincingly represents the social and psychological mores that prevent her protagonist from being able to express her own identity. Claudine occupies a position at the crossroads of cultures but is not enabled by that positionality; hybridity, then, can only become a useful force if it is used in the service of disrupting rather than maintaining social and class privilege. Magloire's novel reveals that Claudine's inability to survive is ultimately a function of her being a woman in Haiti; as a woman, she is denied most privileges, and it is for this reason that she clings so fiercely to those privileges that class alone can provide. Similarly, Danticat's Sophie is caught between her memories of happiness in Haiti among women immobilized by their illiteracy and her exile to the alienating U.S. landscape, which will alleviate the oppressions that attend female existence in Haiti. Danticat's use of andaki strategies of doubling within the novel form also underscores the need to reformulate the traditional Caribbean novel genre. It is up to us, as readers, to realize that both Magloire's and Danticat's heroines lose “le goût de vivre” because Haitian/North American culture has relegated them to the margins of a text they cannot forcibly rewrite. In that resounding silence, in the absence of textual representations of identity that reflect a vision of hope, we should hear the “cri du coeur [cry of the heart]”21 of all Haitian women whose bodies are subject to endless commodification in art, in literature, in everyday domestic life. If we fail to do so, then perhaps not even their shapes upon the sea shores will be left behind; their magic will remain as yet unwritten.

Publishers Weekly (review date 8 June 1998)

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SOURCE: A review of The Farming of Bones, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 245, No. 23, June 8, 1998.

[The following review offers a positive assessment of The Farming of Bones.]

The almost dreamlike pace of Danticat's second novel (Breath, Eyes, Memory, 1994) and the measured narration by the protagonist, Amabelle Desir, at first give no indication that this [novel, The Farming of Bones,] will be a story of furious violence and nearly unbearable loss. The setting, the Dominican Republic in 1937, when dictator Trujillo was beginning his policy of genocide, is a clue, however, to the events that Amabelle relates. She and her lover, Sebastien Onius, are Haitians who have crossed the border. Amabelle is a servant to a patrician family, while Sebastien endures the brutal conditions of work in the cane fields. The lovers each have poignant memories of parental deaths, and other deaths enter the narrative early, subtly presaging the slaughter that is to come. Haitians in the DR, always regarded as foreigners, are “an orphaned people, a group of vwayaje, wayfarers.” When a military-led assault against them does erupt, it is a surprise, however, and as Amabelle barely survives a massacre by soldiers and an equally bloodthirsty civilian population, the narrative acquires the unflinching clarity of a documentary. In addition to illuminating a shameful, little known chapter of history, Danticat gives us fully realized characters who endure their lives with dignity, a sensuously atmospheric setting and a perfectly paced narrative written in prose that is lushly poetic and erotic, specifically detailed (the Haitians were betrayed by their inability to pronounce “parsley”) and starkly realistic. While this novel is deeply sad, it is infused with Danticat's fierce need to bear witness, coupled with a knowledge that “life can be a strange gift” even when memory makes endurance a difficult task.

Michael Upchurch (review date 27 September 1998)

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SOURCE: “No Room for the Living,” in New York Times Book Review, September 27, 1998.

[In the following review, Upchurch offers a mixed assessment of The Farming of Bones.]

Hallucinatory vigor and a sense of mission—these are what, in her best moments, the Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat brings to her sobering novel about “two different peoples trying to share one tiny piece of land.”

The setting is the border country of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola and the year is 1937, a place and time when the longstanding hostility between the Dominican Republic and its neighbor, Haiti, is about to erupt into bloodshed, carefully orchestrated by the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo Molina. But Amabelle Desir, the Haitian housemaid who is the novel's narrator, gives little credence to the rumors of imminent violence. Instead, her focus is on the worries of her immediate household.

Amabelle's Dominican mistress, Senora Valencia, is still recovering after giving birth to twins, then quickly losing one of them to crib death. In addition, a field laborer from a nearby sugar cane plantation has been killed in a hit-and-run accident, and the Senora's soldier husband is the culprit. As Amabelle and her Haitian lover, Sebastien Onius (who witnessed the killing), are drawn into the funeral arrangements for the dead man, they must consider the matter of avenging his death. And facing this crisis also means acknowledging what they mean to each other. In short, there's drama enough in Amabelle's immediate vicinity to distract her from whatever larger fate the Generalissimo has in mind for his country's Haitian minority—until the slaughter begins, and she and Sebastien become separated in their efforts to escape it.

Danticat—the author of one earlier novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, and a story collection, Krik? Krak!—capably evokes the shock with which a small personal world is disrupted by military mayhem. Even the title of The Farming of Bones reflects this duality, referring both to the grueling work that takes place on the sugar cane plantations and, implicitly, the massacre to come. Despite this complex shading, the novel doesn't consistently achieve the nimble intensity of Danticat's strongest work in Krik? Krak!

The trouble, perhaps, is that Danticat's storytelling invention has been inhibited by the respect she has for her novel's historical sources. It is surely telling that the prickly yet affectionate servant-mistress bond between Amabelle and Senora Valencia (Amabelle always refers to her as “Senora,” even though the women grew up together) feels more astutely observed than the relationships among the Haitian characters, who are too uniformly noble to be entirely convincing. It also feels contrived when, in a flashback, Danticat orphans the young Amabelle on the Dominican-Haitian border during peacetime, although the account of her parent's death is unsettling enough to work.

There are technical oddities as well that detract from the power of Danticat's story. The novel opens with what appear to be two alternating narrators—suggested by different typefaces and contrasting prose styles. Yet it soon becomes clear that both voices belong to Amabelle, a device that seems miscalculated and unnecessary. More worrying are moments when the book's dialogue smacks of historical-epic-speak. (“Do you know that you can trust him who offered this place to you?”)

Thankfully, there's no such creakiness in most of the descriptive prose. Danticat knows the value of understatement in bringing nightmarish scenes to life, and a spare, searing poetry infuses many of the book's best passages. The randomness of death; the second-guessing about where safety lies; the silence after an act of butchery in a remote mountain farm: all are eerily evoked, as is the fluid heedlessness of a crowd's hysteria when Trujillo appears in a border town at the height of the violence.

Some readers will wish that Danticat had supplied more information on the wider context of Haitian-Dominican animosity, including the two countries' long history of mutual invasion. But her primary concern is to depict the unfortunate lot of the Haitian migrant laborers who have only “the cane to curse, the harvest to dread, the future to fear,” and who have no politics beyond an instinctive clan loyalty and the need to seek work wherever it might be.

The Farming of Bones doesn't end with the massacre. Rather, Danticat probes its aftermath in scenes that, although lacking the momentum of the book's earlier chapters, vividly convey the strangeness of the survivors' plight and the sense of unfinished business in what is left of their lives: the marriages that might have been, the savings that went up in smoke. At times, the novel reads like a small-scale “Gone with the Wind,” retold from the servants' point of view. It also provides an unnerving reminder that the appalling rationale and logistics of “ethnic cleansing” have been with us for a very long time.

Not surprisingly, given her subject matter, Danticat's customary wry wit is present only in small doses—as when Amabelle, a spur-of-the-moment midwife helping to deliver Senora Valencia's second twin, remarks, “I was feeling more experienced now.” Later there is also a hideous dark humor in the absurd minutiae of persecution: the pronunciation test given to suspected Haitians whose inability to trill the Spanish “r” in “perejil” (“parsley”) could result in a death sentence.

In these and other passages, The Farming of Bones offers ample confirmation of Edwidge Danticat's considerable talents. Yet her finest work has led us to expect even more.

Zia Jaffrey (review date 16 November 1998)

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SOURCE: A review of The Farming of Bones, in Nation, Vol. 267, No. 16, November 16, 1998, p. 62.

[In the following review, Jaffrey offers a positive assessment of The Farming of Bones.]

With Hurricane Georges devastating the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and the beating of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima by members of the NYPD a recent memory, Edwidge Danticat's new novel, The Farming of Bones, feels particularly timely. Its subject is the overnight massacre, in 1937, of between 15,000 and 18,000 Haitians, at the secret instructions of Gen. Rafael Trujillo Molina, the military dictator who ruled the Dominican Republic for thirty-one years. But because the large themes of trauma and collective memory are in the hand of a gifted fiction writer, the novel cannot be summarized by casual reference to genocidal fact. Indeed, some of the most interesting writers today—Toni Morrison in Paradise, Caryl Phillips in Cambridge—are blending history and fiction, imparting information, in the manner of nineteenth-century novelists, without seeming to.

The Farming of Bones opens with a fragment of intimacy, offset in bold, between the as-yet-unnamed narrator, Amabelle, and a young man named Sebastien Onius. The short sequence feels almost modern, Kundera-esque, except that its diction, with its lack of contractions, indicates that the novel is set in the historical past. Amabelle is having a recurring nightmare about her parents drowning in a river, an event, we later learn, that she witnessed at the age of 8; Sebastien, a Haitian sugarcane cutter whose father died in a hurricane, is trying to console her, almost like a therapist. In their enclosed space, he tells her: “Take off your nightdress and be naked for true. And when you are uncovered, you will know that you are full awake.” Their relationship is one of familiarity and trust. Amabelle tells him that she is “grieving for who I was, and even more for what I've become.” Sebastien sees her as a “woman child, with deep black skin, all the shades of black in you.” “I can still feel his lips,” Amabelle says after he leaves, in what has become the author's signature poetic prose, which characterize her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory and a short collection, Krik? Krak!—“the eggplant-violet gums that taste of greasy goat milk boiled to candied sweetness with mustard-colored potatoes.”

Only with Sebastien does the narrator allow herself to be vulnerable, young; the next chapter reveals Amabelle to be sagacious, mature beyond her years of 25. We learn that she has been adopted by a Spanish family living in the Dominican Republic; her contemporary, Senora Valencia, is about to give birth. While they are waiting for the family doctor, Amabelle is unexpectedly called upon to deliver the baby. It's a boldly evoked, realistic scene: After a “coconut-cream colored” son is born, they await the birth of the placenta:

“What do you feel, Senora?”

“The birth pains again.”

“It is your baby's old nest, forcing its way out,” I said, remembering one of my mother's favorite expressions. The baby's old nest took its time coming out. It was like another child altogether.

But instead of the placenta, another head pops out: a baby girl's. Amabelle removes the umbilical cord from around the infant's neck, saving her life, something she learned from her parents—herb healers and midwives in Haiti. The infant takes her “dusky rose” color “from the mere sight of your face,” Senora Valencia lovingly tells Amabelle, but as she coos over her newborn, she worries: “Do you think my daughter will always be the color she is now? My poor love, what if she's mistaken for one of your people?”

The themes of class and race, and the history of the relationship between the third of the island that is Haiti and the rest that is the Dominican Republic, are thus gently introduced. When the Spanish conquered the island in the late eighteenth century, they ignored the Haitian side, which became a base for French and English buccaneers. By the seventeenth century the French had colonized Haiti, importing African slaves to cultivate their sugarcane, plantations. Though 95 percent of Haiti was black, its dominant culture was French—its ruling elite, by the nineteenth century, mulatto. On the Dominican side, the dominant culture was Spanish, with a mixed population.

If “shade” is the issue among the Spanish-speaking, who want to keep their line light, there are subtle “shades” of difference between Amabelle and Senora Valencia: Though she has been adopted by Valencia's father, whom she intimately calls “Papi,” she still calls Valencia “Senora.” She has been raised almost as an equal, in that she is cherished; but “nearly everything I had was something Senora Valencia had once owned and no longer wanted.” Because she is Haitian, Amabelle eats in the kitchen with Haitian domestics and is akin to a servant: “Working for others, you learn to be, present and invisible at the same time, nearby when they needed you, far off when they didn't, but still close enough in case they changed their minds.” Like Amabelle, Senora Valencia lost her mother long ago; they have grown up almost like sisters, except that Amabelle is both mother and father to herself.

These racial hierarchies are never rendered ideological in Danticat's prose; her characters are well rounded, varied. It is the Dominican family doctor, Doctor Javier, who suggests that he can find Amabelle well-paid work as a midwife at a clinic in Haiti, where he sometimes works; and it is Papi, Senora Valencia's father, with whom Amabelle feels most closely allied. He, like she is a moral observer: “He felt himself the orphaned child of a now orphaned people. Perhaps this was why he often seemed more kindly disposed to the strangers for whom this side of the island had not always been home.” Papi grew up poor in Valencia, Spain, the son of a baker: “There are times when he gave bread to everyone in our quarter to everyone for nothing,” Papi says. “He would never let me eat until everyone else had eaten.” Papi fought in Spain's wars over its colonies, but left for a more peaceful life because he didn't believe in them. Though he has allowed Valencia to marry a soldier, who has risen under Trujillo's increasingly ruthless dictatorship, he has little respect for the government and for his son-in-law: “Do I like the way things are conducted here now, everything run by military men?” He looks up at Senora Valencia's spectacularly large portrait of the Generalissimo. “No,” Papi says. “I don't like any part of it.”

Politics and personal lives soon become intertwined in The Farming of Bones: Valencia's husband, Senor Pico, while racing home to greet his newborn twins, hits a Haitian laborer on the road but does not bother to find out what happened to him; Sebastien, with his friend Yves, who was walking along with the laborer, now enters the main narrative, in the Spanish household, like an illegal alien. He tells Amabelle, with yams in his hands for her and bruises on his face, that their friend Joel is dead—he couldn't see who was driving. The passages among the Haitian sugarcane laborers, who work at a mill nearby, give us the title of the book: “the cane life, travay te pou zo, the farming of bones”—bare traces, in Danticat's prose, of African literature, of Achebe and Soyinka, in their choral sensibility, a respect for elders, a sense of belonging to a colonized class. Conflict and character are not defined solely in individual terms but as they relate to the larger community, trying to understand Joel's death. Bathing in a stream, using parsley to wash themselves, the youngsters speak in quiet, worried voices, and keep a respectful distance in the water from Kongo, Joel's mourning father. A feeling that the Dominicans are out for blood is growing; some of the cane workers band together to protect their people. As if by divine retribution, Senor Pico's twin boy dies and he can no longer bear the sight of his surviving, dark-skinned daughter; but he is soon called away to take part in a “new border control operation.” The Haitians' premonitions have been both wrong and right: The unnamed operation is the killing of all Haitians on the Dominican side of the island.

Danticat's brilliance as a novelist is that she is able put this event into a credible, human context In Amabelle's case, Doctor Javier warns her that the border patrol operation is genocidal. He and a leftist Haitian priest, Father Remain, are organizing to smuggle Haitian workers out of the Dominican Republic: Will she go? She, in turn, warns Sebastien and his sister, Mimi, who agree to meet at the chapel at: the appointed hour. Others, like Yves, do not believe it, or choose not to see it; still others, like Kongo, prefer to die in their homes. Rumor becomes an invisible character. Truckloads of Haitians are rounded up, hurled from cliffs into the sea, shot by civilians, macheted. Poor Dominican peasants are asked to catch and bring Haitians to the soldiers. This we learn only indirectly, far later in the novel, through survivors and eyewitnesses, as they try to piece together what happened.

If one thinks of Nazi Germany, of Rwanda, Bosnia, Guatemala, East Timer, Cambodia—sites of genocide—in the end, mass slaughter comes down to individuals—luck, cunning, a critical word uttered or a silence kept—and the rest is a backward turning, a traumatized narrative to reconstruct events: where one was, who was there, what one saw, told over and over again, like a recurrent nightmare. The book's present now becomes its past, as the words “farming the bones” take on another meaning.

I was there … when they forced more than two hundred off the pier in Monte Christi. …

I was there in Santiago … when they shut seven hundred souls into a courtyard behind two government houses. They made them lie facedown in the red dirt and shot them in the back of the head.

Amabelle learns that all those who gathered at the chapel on time—Sebastien, his sister, Doctor Javier, Father Romain—have been arrested. Her journey is now with Yves, as they try to cross the mountains. Randomly they meet refugees and survivors, most of whom end up dead. At the border, Dominican youths beat Amabelle and Yves and force her to eat parsley until she almost dies. “Tell us what this is,” one taunts her. “Que diga perejil.” The issue is the trilling of the “r,” the pronunciation of the “j”—the Spanish way of saying the word or the now stigmatized Kreyol way. With two Dominicanas (those of mixed Haitian and Dominican origin), Odette and her husband, they swim across the river to Haiti. Soldiers begin shooting; Amabelle reaches for Odette, sensing that she is about to scream, and clamps down on her mouth and nose “for her own good.” Odette dies on the shores of Haiti, mouthing the word for parsley—“pesi”—in Kreyol.

From now on, Amabelle, disfigured, her jaw permanently askew, lives in the past, in the land of the “shades.” Her flesh is “a map of scars and bruises.” Those who survived “El Corte”—“the cutting”—stumble on, their gazes numb, the narrator looking for Sebastien, without conviction or faith. Testimony is taken as victims line up for sixteen days, then are suddenly turned away by Haitian officials. “I dream all the time of returning to give my testimony to the river, the waterfall, the justice of the peace, even to the Generalissimo himself,” confides Amabelle. I would go back with Odette to say her ‘pesi’ to the Generalissimo, for I would not know how to say it myself. My way of saying it would always be—however badly—‘perejil.’ For somewhere in me, I still believe that perhaps one simple word could have saved all our lives.”

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of living under any fascist regime is the uncertainty—not knowing what has happened to loved ones; but as Sebastien's mother tells Amabelle, she wishes that people would stop telling her that her children are dead, that they saw them shot, that before they died they asked others to relay the information to her—because then she could still have hope. When Amabelle learns that the priest, Father Remain, who was imprisoned, is still alive, she visits him, hoping for news of Sebastien. She finds a broken man, imbecilic, into whose psychotic mouth Danticat puts the ideology of General Trujillo, overheard in fragments before, but never quite so horrifically apprehended:

“On this island, walk too far in either direction, and people speak a different language,” continued Father Remain with aimless determination. “Our motherland is Spain; theirs is darkest Africa, you understand? They once came here only to cut sugarcane, but now there are more of them than there will ever be cane to cut, you understand. Our problem is one of dominion. Tell me, does anyone like to have their house flooded with visitors, to the point that the visitors replace their own children? How can a country be ours if we are in smaller numbers than the outsiders? Those of us who love our country are taking measures to keep it our own.”

“They forced him to say those things,” his sister explains. In this shocked world, we recall the opening sequences of the book. It's all we ever got to know of Sebastien, and of Sebastien and Amabelle, and it exerts a pressure, as we slowly realize that their intimacy, if initially somewhat cloying, is, in fact, a “remembered” history—a memory of a memory—now seen from beyond hi death. “At times Sebastien Onius guarded me from the shadows. At other times he was one of them,” Amabelle had said. The book has all along been a meditation on the effects of trauma. It began with a repeating nightmare—a child who had seen her parents drown, having crossed the river to the Dominican side to buy cooking pots. And it has been Amabelle's voice that has been the book's strength; but it also becomes its main flaw. She too often resembles an omniscient narrator; as a result, she is free to see believably, but not to act believably. Though Danticat conceived her as precocious—and as frozen by trauma from the beginning—one wonders if she might have had more force and credibility as a third-person character, a “she.” An inability to imagine Amabelle in three dimensions makes her choices—such as taking Odette's nose in her hand in the river—seem implausible. Amabelle sometimes also sounds too avuncular and stilted in her speech: “You are a miracle, Father.” “Mimi's only a child,” she says, speaking of a woman only four years younger than herself; “Courage, dear one,” she tells Joel's lover. She is the character—the “shade”—who is hardest to grasp. Still, it is an interesting flaw, not a fatal flaw, in a beautifully conceived work, with monumental themes.

Amabelle survives. She grows old, doesn't marry. At 50, she returns to the Dominican Republic and meets Senora Valencia, but the divide between their experiences is too great. Senora Valencia tells her that she hid “many of your people,” thinking of Amabelle, during the slaughter. “Pico merely followed the orders he was given,” she says guiltily. “He was told to go and arrest some people who were plotting against the Generalissimo at the church that night.” “We were like two people passing each other on the street,” Amabelle observes, “exchanging a lengthy meaningless greeting.”

At the Haitian border, a homeless professor, who lost his mind after “El Corte,” watches Amabelle on the banks of the river. “I wanted to ask him, please, to gently raise my body and carry me into the river, into Sebastien's cave, nay father's laughter, my mother's eternity. But he was gone now, disappeared into the night.”

“It is perhaps the greatest discomfort of those trying to silence the world,” Amabelle had said, speaking of Father Romain, “to discover that we have voices sealed in our heads, voices that with each passing day, grow even louder than the clamor of the world outside.”

Matthew Rothschild (review date December 1998)

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SOURCE: A review of The Farming of Bones, in Progressive, December, 1998, p. 44.

[In the following review, Rothschild offers a positive assessment of The Farming of Bones.]

This year, I failed to conserve much time for the rambles of fiction and poetry. But one novel I highly recommend is Edwidge Danticat's The Farming of Bones (Soho Press, 1998). Set in the Dominican Republic in 1937 during the regime of General Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, the book is told through the voice of Amabelle, a Haitian servant who falls in love with a Haitian sugarcane worker on the plantation.

Danticat's writing is lush. “I can smell his sweat, which is as thick as sugarcane juice when he's worked too much,” Amabelle narrates. “I can still feel his lips, the eggplant-violet gums that taste of greasy goat milk boiled to candied sweetness with mustard-colored potatoes.”

This is a doomed love story, dashed upon the shoals of dictatorship. Danticat has Amabelle recount Trujillo's massacre of more than 12,000 Haitians that year, a massacre that her lover did not survive and that she only barely does.

Amabelle's harrowing account of her escape and the stories of other survivors mark the second half of the novel. Amid the horror, Danticat inserts evidence of how people cling to the life raft of memory.

Amabelle meets a man who “had been struck with a machete on the shoulder and left for dead. When he awoke the next morning, he found himself in a pit surrounded by corpses.” At that moment, he had an incongruous flashback to his wedding night, when his bride had awakened him in the middle of the night screaming because she'd never been away from home before and she didn't know where she was. The man in the pit told Amabelle, upon recalling this, that “in spite of all the corpses, I smiled.”

Amabelle and other survivors demand that their testimony be heard. They seek out priests and justices of the peace to take down their stories. “It is perhaps the great discomfort of those trying to silence the world to discover that we have voices sealed inside our heads, voices that with each passing day, grow even louder than the clamor of the world outside,” Amabelle says.

At the end, Danticat has Amabelle take a half step toward forgiveness—not of Trujillo, but of the senora she served on the plantation, whose husband led one of the massacres. “Go in peace, Senora,” she says.

Jacqueline Brice-Finch (review date Spring 1999)

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 564

SOURCE: A review of The Farming of Bones, in World Literature Today, Vol. 73, No. 2, Spring, 1999, p. 373.

[In the following review, Brice-Finch offers a positive assessment of The Farming of Bones.]

Readers of Caribbean literature are no strangers to the harsh conditions of the cane field, particularly in the French Antilles during the early twentieth century. Joseph Zobel in La Rue Cases-Negres (1950; Eng. Black Shack Alley) and Simone Schwarz-Bart in Pluie et vent sur Telumee Miracle (1972; Eng. The Bridge of the Beyond) graphically related the degradation that workers endured to eke out a subsistence living. However, it is the second novel by Edwidge Danticat, The Farming of Bones, which is the focus of another aspect of the history of cane workers, the massacre of Haitians in the Dominican Republic in 1937.

Due to a growing xenophobia under the rule of Generalissimo Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, the Dominicans were told:

Our motherland is Spain; theirs is darkest Africa, you understand? They once came here only to cut sugarcane, but now there are more of them than there will ever be cane to cut, you understand? Our problem is one of dominion. …Those of us who love our country are taking measures to keep it our own.

Thus, a wave of genocide which decimates the Haitian emigre population is justified. What is striking about this historical fact is how relevant the situation is to current immigrant backlash in many countries around the world. While the workers were initially welcomed to build or to create a thriving infrastructure, they become an encumbrance when they choose to stay in the host country. This story of emigres is particularly revolting because the slavelike conditions endured by the Haitians are imposed on them by their neighbors sharing the island of Hispaniola. Danticat is careful to illumine just how perverse is the prejudice. Color is not the determinant, for the melanin is apparent in both groups. Only language separates these people. For example, while Dominicans could trill the r in parsley, in response to the question “¿Que diga perejil?,” many Haitians could only voice “pewegil.” Thus, when Trujillo ordered their roundup, Haitians would be spared if they “knew as well how to say the Spanish ‘pesi’ as to say the French ‘perejil.’”

The Farming of Bones is a stark reminder of the massacre as well as a tribute to the valor of those Haitians who escaped the terror. The love story of Amabelle Desir and Sebastien Onius frames the novel. After her parents drown, Amabelle becomes a maid to the Dominican officer Pico Duarte and his wife. Sebastien, her Haitian lover, works in the Duarte cane field. During the roundup, Amabelle manages to escape, but Sebastien dies, presumably shot by Duarte's regiment. Many of the pursued are forced by soldiers to jump from cliffs; others face being beheaded or beaten to death by civilian thugs before reaching their homeland.

While Danticat's novel is a searing indictment of Dominican barbarism, the Haitian government also merits some censure. In the aftermath, Haitian President Stenio Vincent dispatched government officials to various sites only to record the testimonies of victims and to give them stipends. The citizens wondered why the Haitian government did not avenge the slaughter of its people. By writing her vivid account, Danticat memorializes this farming of human bones and all those “nameless and faceless who vanish like smoke into the early morning air.”

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 100

CRITICISM

Houston, Robert. “Expecting Angels.” New York Times Book Review (23 April 1995).

Review of Krik? Krak!

Smolowe, Jill. Review of The Farming of Bones. People Weekly 50, No. 11 (28 September 1998): 51.

Brief review of The Farming of Bones.

Van Boven, Sarah. “Massacre River.” Newsweek CXXXII, No. 10 (7 September 1998): 69.

Review of The Farming of Bones.

Additional coverage of Danticat's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 29; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 152; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 73; Major 20th-Century Writers, Vol. 1; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 1; and St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers.

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