"His name is Sebastien Onius. Sometimes this is all I know. My back aches now in all those places that he claimed for himself, arches of bare skin that belonged to him, pockets where the flesh remains fragile, seared like unhealed burns where each fallen scab uncovers a deeper wound."
The Dominican Republic and Haiti. Two countries sharing the same islandone poor, the other poorer. For decades, Haitians attempting to escape their country's abject poverty have streamed into the Dominican Republic to work as laborers in the sugarcane fields or as domestic help. In 1937, longstanding hostility between the two countries erupted, and Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo Molina decreed the slaughter of all Haitians on Dominican land. This is the historical backdrop for The Farming of Bones.
Amabelle, the heroine of Edwidge Danticat's haunting new novel, and her lover Sebastien are two such Haitian laborers who find themselves caught in the massacre of 1937. Amabelleorphaned at a young age when her parents drowned in the river that separates the two countriesis a housekeeper for Seora Valencia and her husband General Pico, who is supremely devoted to Generalissimo Trujillo. Sebastien cuts cane, the act from which Danticat draws the title of her book. It is called "the farming of the bones" because after a day in the searing heat of the fields, anticipating snakes and rats, brushing up against the razor sharp edges of the cane, the workers find their skin is shredded, their bones closer to the surface than the day before.
Indeed, The Farming of Bones abounds with complex shades of meaning. In the first few chapters of the novel, Amabelle helps Senora Valencia give birth to twins. When the doctor finally arrives to check on the newborns' health, he says to Amabelle, "Many of us start out as twins in the belly and do away with the other." Once again, Danticat has deftly teased out the duality of language. Haiti and the Dominican Republic, vying for resources on the same island, are much like twins in the same belly. The most horrifying example of language play in the novel is, of course, the treatment of the word perejil, or parsley. In order to prove to soldiers that they are Dominican, a person must be able to trill the "r" in the word for parsley. To fail this test is to become a victim of the slaughter.
While the story that Edwidge Danticat tellsthat of Amabelle's journey back to Haiti during the massacreis nightmarish indeed, it is undeniably transcendent. Amabelle's erotic dreams about Sebastien break through the carnage, and the narrative is enriched by profound meditations on life, love and survival. Danticat adeptly portrays the shock of having one's world disrupted by life's violent capriciousness. Just days before the massacre begins Sebastien and Amabellelovers who have just begun to help one another heal from earlier tragedybecome engaged. Separated from Sebastien by the military mayhem, Amabelle is left to wonder whether or not he has been killed, and to contemplate love's resiliency. Never knowing her lover's fate, she struggles to discover peace. She seeks respite in her relationship with Sebastien's friend Yves, and finds that the massacre has turned his heart to stone. She searches out Sebastien's mother, Man Denise, who is a shell of a woman without her son and daughter. Man Rapadou, Yves' mother, is a pillar of strength. Still, she too is "farming" her own bones, digging up and confronting demons from years past. Danticat vividly depicts the strangeness of the survivor's plightthe gaps left by unanswered questions, the dreams, the lost time. One must wonder: is Amabelle a survivor, or did she perish at the river along with her fellow travelers, with the poor cripple Tibon, with Odette and Wilner, and with the countless others who, unable to trill the "r" in perejil, were pushed from cliffs into the abyss? Indeed, how does one survive? For Amabelle, living becomes an act of healing. Each stitch she sews into a piece of fabric brings her closer to the word survival. And she expounds the power of testimony. Near the end of the novel, Amabelle listens to a Haitian tour guide discuss Henry I's citadel. "Famous men never truly die," he says, "It is only those nameless and faceless who vanish like smoke into the early morning air."
You do not die if someone remembers your name. And if there is one thing that Amabelle passionately resolves to accomplish in the aftermath of the massacre, it is remembering names. For if she forgets, she knows that all of their stories will be like "a fish with no tail, a dress with no hem, a drop with no fall, a body in the sunlight with no shadow." She will remember names. Most of all, she will remember Sebastien's.
Edwidge Danticat's work illuminates the lives of people who have been displaced and injured by harsh, unpredictable political situations. And much like the survivors in her novels and short stories, Danticat's own life was detoured at a young age by the unstable politics in her homeland. Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, she was only four when her mother was forced to leave her and her brother behind to join her husband in the United States. Danticat did not arrive in America until she was twelve, and when she finally did settle in Brooklyn with her parents, she spoke only French and Creole. Still, she began writing stories in junior high school, and by the time she entered high school was ready to begin working on the school newspaper. She went on to get a degree in French from Barnard College and a master's degree in fine arts from Brown University. Her master's thesis became her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, which was published to great acclaim in 1994 and selected by Oprah's Book Club four years later. In 1995 her collection of stories, Krik? Krak!, was enthusiastically received and nominated for a National Book Award.
All of Edwidge Danticat's work is rich with her love of the storytelling tradition in Haiti, where "kitchen poets" would gather to trade stories of their lives. Steeped with uncommon wisdom yet fresh with sharp, youthful observations, her poetically resonant writing about Haitians past and present, in Haiti and in America, has moved hundreds of thousands of readers.
Which of your books do you perceive as being your finest work? Which was the most difficult to write? Why?
All three of my books have a special place in my heart. They were all written out of a certain compulsion, a great desire to tellin each case a story that has haunted me in some form or another for a long time. I can't really judge which one is my best work. However, The Farming of Bones was the most difficult of the three books to write because it takes place more than sixty years in the past, during a time in which I had not lived. I had to work harder at trying to recreate the setting, the events, the characters, the story. I feel like I became a better writer while in the process of writing this book.
Many critics express astonishment at the wisdom present in your work and surprise that, being a young woman, you have achieved such insight. Can you comment on this? Where do you think you gained such wisdom?
I think we are all born with a certain kind of intuition. I have always felt a bit older than my years, even when I was a child. However, I think my "insight," if indeed that's what it is, comes from spending time with a lot of the older women in my family when I was a child. I was always intrigued by the bond between older women who gathered together and the things they told each other. A lot of the stories I have written, including the story of The Farming of Bones, came out of listening to those female family conversations, which Paule Marshall so wisely calls "kitchen poetry."
Who are your greatest literary influences? What are you reading now?
My first "literary" influences were actually oral: my grandmothers and aunts and the stories they told, both in the structural forms of folktales and in the informal conversations they had with each other. I was also influenced by some very wonderful Haitian writers such as Marie Chauvet, Jacques Roumain, J. J. Dominique, and Jacques Stephen Alexis, whose own novel on the 1937 massacre, Compère General Soleil has just been translated into English as General Sun, My Brother. The works of Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Maryse Condé, and Jamaica Kincaid have also had a great impact on me. Right now I am reading Michele Wucker's Why the Cocks Crow?, Bob Schacocis' The Immaculate Invasion, and Assoto Saint's Spells of a Voodoo Doll, all related in some way to Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
What kind of reaction did you encounter in your historical research for The Farming of Bones? What type of information did you find most useful?
For me the most important part of the research was actually going and looking at the places where some of the events in the book took place, for example the river Massacre itself and the small towns along the Haitian-Dominican border. I would just stand there, in those places, and ask the voices from the past to speak to me. I tried to imagine what it was like sixty years ago both during the massacre and after. It was during one of those visits that the line from the book, "Nature has no memory" came to me.
It was also an exceptional experience to speak to the family members of the massacre survivors and the few people from these towns who had lived during the time of the massacrethey are very old now. It's hard to forget even the smallest details of what they say and do when you're talking to them.
Many people have called you the "voice of Haiti." Are you comfortable with this? What kind of reaction does your work get from the Haitian community?
It's wrong to say that anyone is the voice of such a large and diverse community. I am one of the many voices of Haiti, and we have many amazing voices. As far as reaction from the community, some people like my work and others do not. It's another example of the great variety of our tastes and reactions.
What parts of Amabelle do you react to most?
I identify very much with Amabelle's innocence, her purity of heart, her thoughtfulness, her attention to the small details of the heart, her desire to believe in the good in all people. I relate to her vulnerability to love, her feeling that being loved is such an exceptional gift. I identify with her feeling of uprootedness, of belonging to many different places at once, and not belonging anywhere at all.
An important theme in The Farming of Bones is that of survival. What do you think it means to survive? It is more than simply living through a chain of events, or does it imply a quality of life?
We have learned by now that the burden of the survivor is a great one. People who survive catastrophes are perceived by others as "lucky," but they carry of a lot of the survivor's guilt with them. Amabelle wonders a lot why she survived and why others did not, and for the rest of her life she has to figure out a new purpose for herself. She always lives with the fear of danger. "Breath, like glass," she says, "is always in danger." She is trying to understand whether she is meant to completely move away from what has happened to her or spend the rest of her life honoring it. Why was she chosen to live? Understanding this becomes a way of life for her, as well as for the other survivors.
How has your own emigration informed your fiction?
I think being an immigrant, you get to look at both your own culture and the culture you come to with fresh eyes. This is a great point of observation from which to examine both cultures, a very good space from which to write. I write both about Haiti and the United States as an insider/outsider. This makes me work harder to understand both cultures. I take nothing for granted about either place. Everything I write starts with my own personal quest for a better understanding of both places and their different cultures.
What are you working on now?
I am editing a book of personal essays by Haitian-Americans. I am also going back to writing short stories and articles, which I enjoy very much.