Literary Heritage Haiti is a country long marked by its political unrest and economic depravity as a result of years of dictatorship, government corruption, and a large gap between the wealthy elite and profitable cities and the poverty-stricken non-industrial provinces.
A written or recorded literature was never a priority in Haitian culture, therefore, the number of internationally recognized Haitian authors is understandably few. In addition, Haitian women writers are rare due to the secondary positions they hold within the society, remaining mostly in the home or in non-professional occupations.
Although fiscally poor, Haiti is a culture rich in its language, folktales, customs, and community. The Haitian people often looked to their families and friends not only for support but also for forms of entertainment. In a sense, it was the effects of poverty and illiteracy that made the practice of storytelling an important and favorite pastime, allowing this craft to endure throughout the generations, preserving the nation’s culture and history.
Haitian literature was not known outside its borders until well into the 1960s, when the Civil Rights and Women’s movements pushed for social reforms and gave the Haitian people an impetus to search out and explore their voices. Still, it was not until the 1990s that Haiti and Haitian literature started to receive the attention it deserved. As more and more nations began to learned of Haiti’s oppression and the violence its people faced under the Duvalier government, the call for information about the country and its people increased. New emerging writers began to meet this demand, describing the horrors as well as the jewels of this besieged nation. These writers were creating a literature of social consciousness that demanded acknowledgement from the outside world. Their writing also served as a mirror in which to look back and examine their own background and culture.
When Haitian-born writer Edwidge Danticat began to write and record her memories of Haiti, fictionalizing them in her books, her writings became an extension of the oral tradition of her culture, capturing in print what was natural to her at an early age. What is present in Danticat’s work is Haiti’s painful history but also its uniqueness and beauty. It is this beauty and cultural lushness that are making people more open to Haitian literature and leading to changes in its presence and proliferation.
The Massacre River In an essay in Kreyol, describing a 1995 visit to the river, Danticat writes, ‘‘Between Haiti and the Dominican Republic flows a river filled with ghosts.’’ The Massacre River was named for a seventeeth-century bloodbath, but as Danticat makes clear, it has continued to live up to its name. The river divides the small Caribbean island of Hispaniola into the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Because the countries are so close, their fates have historically been intertwined. The Farming of Bones begins in the Republic, during the regime of General Rafael Trujillo.
Trujillo's Regime From 1930 to 1961, the Dominican Republic was ruled by General Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, whose ascension to power was inadvertently aided by American efforts to bolster stability in the Caribbean. American leaders were interested in the Caribbean because it was a gateway to the Panama Canal, central to U.S. shipping and trade interests, and the U.S. wanted to keep the area stable and free from European intervention. Because the nations in that area were poor, politically unstable, and, in the case of the Dominican Republic, still recovering from past Spanish rule, the U.S. took over Dominican finances, occupying the country from 1911 through 1916.
The harshness of this occupation offended Dominicans, and...
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when the American marines left the island in 1924, they left behind an armed National Guard. Trujillo, one of the officers of the guard, used his military connections to foster a coup six years later, remove then-President Vasquez from office, and establish his own dictatorship, which lasted over three decades.
Once in office, Trujillo killed anyone opposing him and sent his thugs through the countryside, armed with machine guns, to terrorize the population. Money and ownership of land was funneled to him, resulting in widespread poverty and uprooting of entire communities. Mail was censored, telephones were monitored, and citizens needed government permission to move or practice any profession.
In 1931, a devastating hurricane struck Haiti and the Dominican Republic, killing 2,000 people and injuring many more. Trujillo used the destruction to his advantage, taking absolute power in the crisis and controlling all medicine and building supplies. He imposed ‘‘emergency’’ taxes, never repealed. Naturally, resentment against him grew, and he murdered, tortured, or imprisoned anyone he suspected of disloyalty.
During this period, many Haitians crossed the border into the Dominican Republic, seeking work in the wake of the devastating hurricane. Their sheer numbers began to make some Dominicans uneasy, and there was a racist tone to this unease. As the book notes, 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.’’
Trujillo Orders Genocide In 1937, to stop this tide of humanity and implement these ‘‘measures,’’ Dominican troops killed between 10,000 and 15,000 Haitians. As Scott Adlerberg remarked in the Richmond Review, ‘‘None of those killed is anyone famous, nearly all the slaughtered are poor Haitians working as cheap labor in the neighboring country.’’ Danticat also notes that there is often no difference in color between the two sides, despite the insistence that ‘‘our motherland is Spain, theirs is darkest Africa.’’ Language is the only differentiating feature, and Dominican troops use the Haitians' inability to pronounce the trilled Spanish ‘‘r’’ in perejil, the word for parsley. ‘‘Que diga perejil,’’ the soldiers demanded, and anyone who answered ‘‘pewejil’’ would be shot as a Haitian.
Pace Danticat's story begins slowly, told with a languid, measured pace, set in a traditional agrarian society, and the first scene, after a dreamlike encounter between Amabelle and her lover Sebastien, involves the birth of twins, a boy and a girl, to her wealthy employer. At first, the book seems very much like many weighty classics of nineteenth-century literature, which begin with the birth of the protagonist.
Danticat turns this expectation upside down, however: the real hero of the story is not either of the children, but Amabelle, the servant, who midwifes them using half-remembered skills taught by her healer parents. Tinges of violence creep into the story: the twins’ father kills a sugar cane worker when he runs into him with his car, but is never officially brought to justice, because the cane workers’ lives are considered expendable and because he is a ranking military officer. In addition, Amabelle and Sebastien have both lost one or both parents at a young age, hinting at the precarious nature of their lives—or, as Danticat makes clear, everyone's life: no one is exempt from the possibility of violence that lurks in every person and every society.
As the story moves on, the violence escalates, along with the pace. Rumors of an impending slaughter of Haitians begin circulating. One of the twins, the boy, dies of crib death. Haitian workers begin telling stories they've heard of other workers who were killed in recent weeks. Amabelle is almost killed by a stray bullet from her employers’ target practice. And when the genocide begins, people are stabbed, shot, drowned, crushed by trucks, forced to jump off cliffs, and choked with bunches of parsley—because their inability to say the word properly in Spanish marks them as Haitians.
Point of View Throughout, Danticat's narrator Amabelle tells the story in the first person. She is there, she suffers through all these events, and Danticat's choice of this point of view, and her vivid imagery and sensory detail, gives everything an almost choking immediacy. Amabelle's narrative style is flat, almost documentary in style, as in the following paragraph:
Her face flapped open when she hit the ground, her right cheekbone glistening as the flesh parted from it. She rolled onto her back and for a moment faced the sky. Her body spiraled past the croton hedge down the slope. The mountain dirt clung to her dress, her arms, her face, her whole body gathering a thick cloud of dust.
Danticat deliberately avoids depicting too much emotion in the body of the book, capturing the numbness inherent to the survivors of catastrophes. Instead, she presents the scenes and allows the reader to view them and fill in the emotional impact of the slaughter, torture, and dislocation of the refugees. This participation on the reader's part makes the scenes hard to dismiss, and hard to forget. As Danticat said in an interview with Calvin Wilson in the Kansas City Star, ‘‘The things that I have written so far are things that almost give me nightmares.’’
Separation of Emotions In the beginning and end of the book, Danticat allows Amabelle to speak more openly of her feelings in short sequences, in which she describes her dreams, her memories of her departed parents, her wishes, and her fears. These sequences are deliberately separated from the main story of the book, since Amabelle only feels safe to express them when she is alone, enclosed, in a secret cave where she hides with Sebastien, or at the end of the book, when she has reached some measure of peace with his loss and is able to come to terms with her life as a survivor apart from him. As she says, ‘‘I sense that we no longer know the same words, no longer speak the same language. There is water, land, and mountains between us, a shroud of silence, a curtain of fate.’’
Sources Adlerberg, Scott. ‘‘The Farming of Bones,’’ in Richmond Review (online), 2000.
Charters, Mallay. ‘‘Edwidge Danticat: A Bitter Legacy Revisited,’’ in Publishers Weekly, August 17, 1998, p. 42.
Cryer, Dan. ‘‘The Farming of Bones,’’ in Salon (online).
Danticat, Edwidge. ‘‘A Brief Reflection on the Massacre River,’’ in Kreyol (online), May 19, 1999.
‘‘The Farming of Bones,’’ in Publishers Weekly, June 8, 1998, p. 44.
Rooney, Megan. ‘‘Danticat MFA ‘94 Reads from The Farming of Bones,’’ in Brown Daily Herald, October 5, 1998.
Van Boven, Sarah. ‘‘Massacre River: Danticat Revisits Haiti,’’ in Newsweek, September 7, 1998, p. 69.
Wilson, Calvin. ‘‘Edwidge Danticat’s Prose Floats in Realm of Sadness and Eloquence,’’ in Kansas City Star, September 22, 1999, p. K0779.
Further Reading Acosta, Belind. ‘‘The Farming of Bones,’’ in Austin Chronicle, January 19, 1999. This discussion of Danticat’s book also has comments about her writing in general.
Brice-Finch, Jacqueline. ‘‘Haiti,’’ in World Literature Today, Spring, 1999, p. 373. Brief review of The Farming of Bones in the context of Haitian history.
Farley, Christopher John. ‘‘The Farming of Bones,’’ in Time, September 7, 1998, p. 78. Farley discusses Danticat’s writing career and her books.
Gardiner, Beth. ‘‘Writer’s Work Evokes Experience of Haitian Regime, Emigration,’’ in Standard-Times, April 12, 1998. Explores Danticat’s experiences in Haiti and how they fuel her fiction.
Gladstone, Jim. ‘‘Breath, Eyes, Memory,’’ in New York Times Book Review, July 10, 1994, p. 24. Brief review of the book.
Jaffe, Zia. ‘‘The Farming of Bones,’’ in The Nation, November 16, 1998, p. 62. Brief review.
Shea, Renee H. ‘‘An Interview between Edwidge Danticat and Renee H. Shea,’’ in Belles Lettre, Summer, 1995, pp. 12-15. Shea and Danticat discuss her life and works.
Hewett, Heather. “At the Crossroads: Disability and Trauma in The Farming of Bones.”MELUS 31, no. 3 (Fall, 2006): 123-145. Examines Danticat’s use of symbols with respect to the mythology of voodoo and the themes of disability, death, and healing.
Hicks, Albert C. Blood in the Streets: The Life and Rule of Trujillo. New York: Creative Age Press, 1946. An American journalist’s contemporary account of the 1937 massacre of twenty thousand Haitians in the Dominican Republic. Danticat calls this the most powerful book that her research uncovered.
Lyons, Bonnie. “Edwidge Danticat.” Contemporary Literature 44, no. 2 (Summer, 2003): 183-198. Offers a brief history of Danticat’s life in Haiti and the United States, as well as background for the continuing tensions of the novel.
Shemak, April. “Re-membering Hispaniola: Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones.” Modern Fiction Studies 48, no. 1 (Spring, 2002): 83-112. Particularly fine, wide-ranging discussion of how the continued mutilation of Haitian bodies symbolizes the repressive nature of Dominican nationalism.
Trescott, Jacqueline. “Edwidge Danticat: Personal History.” The Washington Post, October 11, 1999, p. C2. Excellent short article exploring Danticat’s life and the culture that motivated her.
Wucker, Michele. Why the Cocks Fight: Dominicans, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola. New York: Hill and Wang, 1999. Colorful study of social and racial relationships between the two nations, including a chapter on the 1937 massacre and a helpful glossary of Haitian and Dominican terms.