Themes of Remembrance, Racism, and Hope

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1782

In her afterword to The Farming of Bones, Danticat writes:

In The Farming of Bones , Amabelle is similarly obsessed with the loss of the past, and the unrecorded or forgotten stories of thousands of lives cut short or stunted. Even before the slaughter, she ritualistically tells herself the...

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In her afterword to The Farming of Bones, Danticat writes:

In The Farming of Bones, Amabelle is similarly obsessed with the loss of the past, and the unrecorded or forgotten stories of thousands of lives cut short or stunted. Even before the slaughter, she ritualistically tells herself the story of her parents’ drowning, keeping alive every word and gesture; but she realizes that the older she gets, the more her memories of them are fading. At the end of the book she knows, painful though it is, that her memories of her lost lover Sebastien will fade in the same way.

She is not the only one who believes in the importance of stories and memory. The Haitians in the book share their stories, and Amabelle comments: ‘‘This was how people left imprints of themselves in each other's memory, so that if you left first and went back to the common village, you could carry, if not a letter, a piece of treasured clothing, some message to their loved ones that their place was still among the living.’’

Later, after the slaughter, in a refugee camp run by nuns, the survivors call out their stories, testifying to what they have seen, telling tales of wanton killing and destruction. Desperate to tell what happened to them, they interrupt each other, ‘‘the haste in their voices sometimes blurring the words.… One could hear it in the fervor of the declarations, the obscenities shouted when something could not be remembered fast enough, when a stutter allowed another speaker to race into his own account without the stutterer having completed his.’’

Later, she hears that the government supposedly will give reparation money to the survivors of the massacre and record their stories. Amabelle and Yves go to see the Justice of the Peace and tell about their experiences, and find over a thousand other people waiting. They wait for several days, and in the end, find that their story will not be recorded and no money will be paid; the government simply does not have the resources to deal with everyone who was affected. Amabelle and Yves are more upset by the fact that no one will listen to them than by the loss of money: money disappears, but stories, if recorded, endure forever.

But, as they see, listening and recording all this suffering is an arduous and painful task; even when Amabelle goes to visit the priests of the cathedral, they tell her that they too have stopped listening to the survivors’ tales, since they can do nothing to bring back those who have died or to change the suffering that people have already experienced. ‘‘It was taking all our time, and there is so much other work to be done,’’ one priest tells her. He is focusing on the future, not the past, an act that Amabelle later realizes is the only thing that can be done.

The only way to reconcile these two conflicting urges—to constantly keep the past alive, and to move beyond it into the future—is to record the past in a safe place, somewhere outside an individual's memory, some place where facts will remain and not fade, but where the person won't have to carry the memory daily. Amabelle says, ‘‘The slaughter is the only thing that is mine enough to pass on. All I want to do is to find a place to lay it down now and again, a safe nest where it will neither be scattered by the winds, nor remain forever buried beneath the sod.’’

That safe place, Danticat invites readers to say, is this book.

In addition, The Farming of Bones, in telling the stories of so many ordinary people whose lives were disrupted or destroyed, tells us that this could happen to anyone. No one is safe from disaster, grief, or pain. Even before the genocide, many people have been uprooted by a hurricane that devastated the island. Amabelle's parents die on a routine marketing trip across the river. Throughout the book, Danticat makes clear that everyone is born to suffer and that no one can afford to be complacent.

This applies especially to the beaten-down workers in the cane fields, but also to the wealthier, more established Haitians, the ones who don't have to work in the cane fields, but have houses made of wood or cement, with metal roofs, beautiful gardens, and fruit trees. ‘‘We all regarded them as people who have their destinies in hand,’’ Danticat says, but when the genocide begins, it's clear that they don't, that in fact there is no difference between their fates and those of the poor laborers. Even before the slaughter, some of these people begin to realize that the Dominicans regard them as alien and unwanted, that they don't have Dominican identification or birth certificates, and that they could be pushed out of their settled existence at any time. People begin telling stories of poor Haitians who have been killed. As Amabelle notes, ‘‘Poor Dominican peasants had been asked to catch Haitians and bring them to the soldiers. Why not the rich ones too?’’

And Danticat doesn't stop there. She makes it clear that no one—not even the Dominicans—is exempt from suffering. Some Dominicans are slaughtered or injured, as the killers mistake them for Haitians. Even for those who are not attacked, the changes wrought by the massacre are so far-reaching and all-encompassing that when Amabelle revisits her Dominican neighborhood, nothing there is recognizable. Haciendas have been transformed into guarded fortresses surrounded by walls topped with broken glass and metal spikes; the landscape is so changed that she can't find her old home, and the people are so changed that she sees no one she recognizes, and no one recognizes her until she tells the story of her parents' drowning.

As a man who was shot and left to die in a pit full of dead bodies says, ‘‘It is no different, the flesh, than fruit or anything that rots. It's not magic, not holy. It can shrink, burn, and like amber it can melt in fire. It is nothing. We are nothing.’’

This existential despair touches everyone, Dominican and Haitian—after all, the division between the two nations is false, an arbitrary marker—the river—and both sides suffer. They share the same island, Hispaniola. This false division and misplaced hatred is made apparent in Pico Duarte, the racist military officer, whose wife has twin children. One is ‘‘coconut-cream colored, his cheeks and forehead the blush pink of water lilies.’’ The other is ‘‘a deep bronze, between the colors of tan Brazil nut shells and black salsify,’’ and this child's grandfather remarks that she got her color from Duarte's side of the family. There is no such thing as racial purity, and the island cannot be neatly divided into two sides, one white, one black. Both sides are a mix of many skin colors and many heritages; in hating people of African descent, Duarte must also hate himself and his child. Each time he sees the baby, he displays a ‘‘stinging expression of disfavor growing more and more pronounced ... each time he laid eyes on her,’’ despite the fact that she looks like him.

In the same way, Danticat points out, there is also no such thing as moral purity. Most of the characters are guilty of many sins: Amabelle murders another refugee and shows little remorse, brushing it off as something she had to do in order to survive; Man Rapadou, a respectable matriarch, reveals that she killed her own husband to prevent him from becoming a spy; Kongo, the honorable old carpenter, reveals a senseless prejudice against a perfectly good woman simply because her grandfather once stole a hen, and he fears that thievery is in her blood; the refugee Tibon tells Amabelle that when he was ten, he almost killed a Dominican boy simply to make him say that even if he lived in a big house, he was no better than Tibon was. Sebastien seems to understand this complexity of the human heritage, both physically and spiritually; as he strokes Amabelle's skin, he tells her he sees ‘‘all the shades of black in you, what we see and what we don't see, the good and the bad.’’

In the same way that some Haitians are capable of evil acts, some of the Dominicans are capable of good. Some pity the Haitians instead of hating them, and others hide them from the killing mobs. Valencia in particular hides many refugees, even though her husband is involved in the slaughter. She does this out of remembrance and friendship for Amabelle, whom she grew up with, and whom she believes is dead.

So how, Amabelle and others in the book ask, can one escape this feeling of existential despair and fear? The only way out of suffering, Danticat shows, is not to forget the past, but at the same time, to renew one's relationship with the flow of life. Father Romain, who is tortured and brainwashed by the Dominicans so severely that he becomes insane, is eventually healed—not by the church, but because he marries and has three children. Holding their lives against his heart, loving his wife, he finds something to live for, despite his grief for all those who were lost. He has acknowledged the loss, but is now more invested in the future. We have to let go and go on, his healing shows.

Amabelle also learns this lesson at the end of the book, when she goes to the river, thinking that if she visits it enough—the site of her parents' deaths, and the massacre—that she will find some answers to the questions that torment her: why people die, why people suffer, why she has survived. In the end, she realizes, nature has no answers, but she literally lies down in the river, surrendering herself to its flow, ‘‘looking for the dawn,’’ in faith that someday, she will be at peace.

It's a lesson Danticat knows well, as she wrote in Kreyol. When she visited the river in 1995, and saw no sign of the slaughter, her hope for the future was renewed by the sight of people from both sides—Dominicans and Haitians—washing and fishing in the water. To her, they seemed to be ‘‘part of a meaningful celebration. Not only of the continual flow of a boundless body of water, but essentially of the resilience of life itself.’’

Source: Kelly Winters, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000. Winters is a freelance writer and has written for a wide variety of academic and educational publishers.

Bookmarks

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 660

‘‘El Corte,’’ the cutting, it was called—a euphemism akin to ‘‘ethnic cleansing.’’ It was one of the worst massacres of modern times, though much of the world seems to have forgotten about it. It took place in the Dominican Republic in 1937. Raphael Trujillo, a military leader and former sugar plantation guard (and former hoodlum) who had been trained by U.S. Marines during the 1916-1924 U.S. occupation of his country, managed to get himself elected president in 1930 (there were more votes than eligible voters). Seven years into his rule, Trujillo secretly ordered the killing of thousands of immigrants—most of them sugarcane cutters—from Haiti, the country with which the DR shares the island of Hispaniola. In his view, the Haitians, whom he considered inferior beings, had simply become too numerous. The military police were instructed to use machetes in their murdering, in the hope of putting the blame on civilians. Some Haitians were given a choice, however, of jumping off a high cliff rather than being hacked to death.

The novel The Farming of Bones, by Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat is set in that terrible time, but while politics, race and class are among its subjects, it is far from being an ideological tract. Danticat writes a poetic, evocative prose that is replete with vivid human details, and her characters are distinctive, fully realized individuals. In this work, history and fiction are interwoven in a seamless and compelling fashion.

Amabelle Desir, the novel's Haitian-born narrator, is a servant in the home of a prominent Dominican family—a family that has raised her since the age of eight, following her parents’ death by drowning (an event she observed helplessly from the riverbank). When Senora Valencia, the mistress of the house, is about to give birth, Amabelle unexpectedly has to serve as midwife. The senora has twins—a boy, who shortly dies, and a dark-skinned daughter. At one point she says to Amabelle—in words she no doubt thinks are inoffensive: ‘‘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?’’ Senor Pico, the twins’ father, a colonel in service to ‘‘the Generalissimo’’ (as Trujillo is referred to throughout), cannot bear even to look at his swarthy daughter after her twin brother dies.

Mature for her 25 years and remarkably confident despite her servant status, Amabelle allows herself to show a more tender and vulnerable side only in the presence of her lover, a canecutter named Sebastien Onius. When the crackdown comes and Amabelle and Sebastien realize they must flee for their lives, circumstances separate the two, and Sebastien is arrested (by Senor Pico, we learn much later) along with Father Romain, a liberal priest who had arranged to smuggle a group to Haiti. Eventually Amabelle finds out that Sebastien has been executed. She and Sebastien's friend Yves do manage to escape, and after a harrowing odyssey (including a near-fatal ordeal that leaves Amabelle disfigured) they finally reach Haiti. Amabelle survives, working as a seamstress, but she never marries, and she remains troubled by her painful memories. At age 50—after the Generalissimo has been assassinated—she returns to visit the senora, but communication is awkward and difficult between them after so many years. The senora tries to apologize—and make excuses—for her husband's role in ‘‘El Corte.’’

Danticat's semi-autobiographical first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, was an impressive debut, but The Farming of Bones is a richer work, haunting and heartwrenching.

Tensions continue between the Dominican Republic and its much poorer and culturally different neighbor. Just last year, for example, at least 14,000 Haitians were repatriated in many cases minus possessions and paycheck. One faint sign of hope: also last year, direct mail service was established between the two countries; previously mail between them had to be routed by way of Miami.

Source: Dean Peerman, ‘‘Bookmarks,’’ (book review), in The Christian Century, Vol. 116, Issue 25, September 22, 1999, p. 885.

Haiti

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 546

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; Black Shack Alley) and Simone Schwarz-Bart in Pluie et vent sur Telumee Miracle (1972; 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.’’

Source: Jacqueline Brice-Finch, ‘‘Haiti,’’ (book review) in World Literature Today, Vol. 73, Issue 2, Spring, 1999, p. 373.

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