Nation-Building, Orientalism, and Othering in Danticat’s The Farming of Bones

In October 1937, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina—one of Latin America’s most brutal dictators—directly ordered the execution of all Haitians then living in the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic. People suspected of being Haitian were asked to pronounce the Spanish word for parsley (“perejil”). If the suspect failed to pronounce the consonant ‘r’ and thus revealed their Creole accent, they would be shot on the spot. While the numbers are uncertain, it is estimated by historians that anywhere between 1,000 and 35,000 died in this manner (Ayuso 51). In her 1999 novel The Farming of Bones, Caribbean author Edwidge Danticat meticulously chronicles this event. While the plight of the Haitian people is the principal focus of the work, Danticat dedicates a substantial portion of the novel to the political climate of the Dominican Republic, which allowed this brutal massacre to occur. Danticat depicts Haitians and Dominicans as being locked in a discursively constructed binary, the sole purpose of which is to strengthen Dominican national identity and assuage the nation’s internalized racism at the cost of dehumanizing and eradicating Haitians—a purely dichotomous relationship that, in the spirit of Orientalist and Western philosophy, says more about the novel’s Dominican characters than it does its Haitian ones. I will begin by examining the tenets of nationalism and Orientalism and then explore how these separate ideologies work in tandem to compound the novel’s decidedly unique political scenario.

The terms “nationalism” and “national identity” have proven notoriously difficult to define. Etiene Balibar, in his essay “Racism and Nationalism,” argues that this difficulty arises in part because “the concept never functions alone [… it] is always part of a chain in which it is both the central and the weak link” (Balibar 164). Balibar claims that “[t]his chain is constantly being enriched (the detailed modes of that enrichment varying from one language to another) with new intermediate or extreme terms [such as] civic spirit, patriotism, populism, ethnicism, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, chauvinism, [and] imperialism […]” (164). Perhaps the best and most concise definition of nationalism as it is understood today can be found in Franz Fanon’s monumental essay, “On National Culture.” Fanon describes nationalism as the “passionate search for a national culture which existed before the colonial era”—a search motivated by “anxiety […] to shrink away from that Western culture in which [the formerly colonized] all risk being swamped” (Fanon 119). A national culture, according to Fanon, “is not a folklore, nor an abstract populism that believes it can discover [a] people’s true nature, [but rather] the whole body of efforts made by a people in the sphere of thought to describe, justify, and praise the action through which that people has created itself and keeps itself in existence […]” (120). In other words, national culture refers to the manner in which a nation comes to understand and eventually repair its own fractured identity.

But the question remains: How exactly does a nation create and subsequently maintain its national culture and identity? There are, of course, a variety of ways this aim can be accomplished. Fanon posits two, severely condensed methods: 1) by creating a national literature or a “literature of combat” in the sense that it “calls on the whole people to fight for their existence as a nation” and “moulds the national consciousness [by] giving it form and contours and flinging open before it new and boundless horizons”), and 2) by devising a mythology that “reinvents” a nation’s pre-colonial past as a glorious, utopian period of dignity and cultural pride—a claim that Fanon argues “rehabilitate[s] that nation and serve[s] as justification for the hope of a future national culture” (120). Balibar, however, introduces a third, more insidious method: the use of racist ideologies inherited from Western imperialist discourse in order to “produce a sense of national identity gained through the exclusion and denigration of others” (McLeod 133). That is, a false binary is created by privileging what a nation considers to be its “legitimate” subjects over those whom Balibar terms “false nationals” (133), thereby allowing the use of Orientalist representations that help to solidify these dichotomous roles.

Orientalism, as defined by Edward Said, is the system by which the West comes to understand the East by “making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it: in short, [… by] dominating, restructuring, and having authority over [it].” (Said 25). In other words, Orientalism as an ideology seeks to define the East and, by doing so, allows the West to exert authority over it. According to Lois Tyson, the purpose of Orientalism “[…] is to produce a positive national self-definition for Western nations by contrast with Eastern nations on which the West projects all the negative characteristics it doesn’t want to believe exist among its own people” (Tyson 402). Thus, “European culture [gains] in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self […]” (Said 25), a self “governed not simply by empirical reality but by a battery of desires, repressions, investments, and projections” (26). In the context of this essay, replace “Europe” with the Dominican Republic and “the Orient” with Haiti and the reader will start to develop an idea of how these political and cultural philosophies interact with and inform Danticat’s text.

The narrator of The Farming of Bones, Amabelle, is a young Haitian woman employed as a domestic servant in the home of a prominent officer in the Dominican army. By placing the narrator in this position, Danticat affords her readers the opportunity to observe the complexities of Dominican/Haitian race relations. The effect is initially a subtle one: The alert reader will notice tiny details such as Señora Valencia’s disappointment when she beholds her newborn daughter Rosalinda’s dark skin: “Amabelle,” she says, “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?” (Danticat 12). Likewise, Señor Pico, Valencia’s husband, ignores his newborn daughter when she reaches for him, regards her with a “stinging expression of disfavor [that grows] more and more pronounced […] each time he lay eyes on her” (112), and can’t be bothered to stop his car after accidently hitting a Haitian cane working, knocking him into a ravine and effectively killing him. To the historically conscious reader, Pico’s connection to Trujillo and the Dominican Army should instantly raise red flags concerning his role in the novel. This is not an unfounded supposition: Pico later becomes a key figure in the Parsley Massacre and is undoubtedly responsible for numerous deaths of innocent Haitians.

Pico does not represent a singular case. Such figures flourished under the Trujillo regime, whose political philosophy made it very easy for nationalist fervor and anti-Haitian sentiments to ferment in the minds of patriotic Dominicans. In The Farming of Bones, Trujillo, referred to simply as “the Generalissimo” for the majority of the text. is depicted as a formless and pervasive presence that, despite his prominence in the narrative, never manages to fully materialize. The closest the reader comes to a physical representation is through Trujillo’s broadcasted speech in Chapter 18, which temporarily gives the reader a glimpse into the driving force behind the Dominican political psyche: “Tradition shows as a fatal fact […] that under the protection of rivers, the enemies of peace, who are also the enemies of work and prosperity, found an ambush in which they might do their work, keeping the nation in fear and menacing stability [Emphasis mine]” (Danticat 97). There is an obvious binary here: If the European-identifying Dominican Republic has represented itself as peace and prosperity incarnate then it logically follows that Haiti, the side of Hispaniola more in tune with its African roots, must be defined in opposition to this image in order to validate the national identity of the former. Consider this passage from later in the novel, spoken by a character who can do little else but mindlessly reiterate the propaganda he had been fed while held captive by Trujillo: “Our motherland is Spain; theirs is darkest Africa […]. They once came here only to cut sugarcane, but now there are more of them than there will ever be cane to cut […]. Our problem is one of dominion. [….] How can a country be ours if we are in smaller numbers than the outsiders? [….] We, as Dominicans, must have our separate traditions and our own ways of living. If not, in less than three generations, we will all be Haitians. In three generations, our children and our grandchildren will have their blood completely tainted unless we defend ourselves now, you understand?” (Danticat 260-61). This is little more than hatred disguised as patriotism. According to Mónica G. Ayuso, the aptly-named Massacre River, where the majority of the Parsley Massacre victims met their demise, became “the stage on which Dominicans more clearly defined their national identity by contrasting themselves with Haitians” (Ayuso 51).

With the Parsley Massacre, Trujillo ultimately proved he would go to any length to preserve the purity of his country’s Spanish (i.e. White) blood while simultaneously denying their (and his) own African heritage. In Danticat’s portrayal of this troubling episode of Caribbean history, Dominican Republic’s internalized shame at their own racial heritage subsequently led them to suppress that part of their history and define themselves in contrast to the dark-skinned Haitians, who represent everything the Dominican Republic fears most about itself, in the process becoming what Etienne Balibar called “false nationals.” This is ultimately no different from the Orientalist ideology that permeated much of Western civilization during the height of the British colonial power. One of Said’s main analyses of the “idea” of the Orient is that it functions as a blank slate on which the West can project its own insecurities and repressed fantasies. Likewise, by representing Haiti as a racial and national “other,” Danticat’s Trujillo unintentionally belies the anxiety of an entire nation that simply cannot come to terms with its own ethnic and racial heritage.Works Cited

Ayuso, Mónica G. “”How Lucky for You That Your Tongue Can Taste the ‘r’ in ‘Parsley'”: Trauma Theory and the Literature of Hispaniola.” Afro-Hispanic Review 30.1 (2011): 47-62. Academic Search Complete [EBSCO]. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.Balibar, Etienne. “Racism and Nationalism.” Nations and Nationalism: A Reader. Ed. Philip Spencer and Howard Wollman. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers UP, 2005. 163-72. Print.Danticat, Edwidge. The Farming of Bones. New York: Penguin, 1999. Print.Fanon, Franz. “From ‘On National Culture’ and ‘The Pitfalls of National Consciousness’ in The Wretched of the Earth.” Trans. Constance Farrington. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. Ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2006. 119-22. Print.McLeod, John. Beginning Postcolonialism. 2nd ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010. Print.Said, Edward. “From Orientalism.” The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. Ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2006. 24-27. Print.Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 2015. Print.