Historical and Biographical Approach in the Work by Edwidge Danticat

April 28, 2022 by Essay Writer

All I want to do is 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 (Danticat 266) “The Farming of Bones” is Edwidge Danticat’s novel about Amabelle Desir. She is a Haitian migrant in the Dominican Republic during the 1937 Haitian massacre. It is extremely heartbreaking and beautiful. More than anything, it’s an exploration of grief, of how loss can define the concept of people’s lives. It is also an investigation of the idea of borders, of how a particular river can divide one country from another, and the living from the dead. Amabelle is familiar to that border, the dividing river. She exists as the river does, in a half-life between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, between life and death. And the author tells us something history should have already taught us: at borders, there are only stories of loss.

Since the beginning of her career, Edwidge Danticat’s works have introduced and exposed the multiple facets of the lives of Haitian people to the world. Her fiction and non-fiction print work, documentaries via collaborations with other activists, and her own political activism also work to reveal the general lack of awareness about the complex histories, culture, socioeconomic and political experiences of this group of people who inhabited an island less than 700 miles from the American east coast. As a result, over the last two decades, Danticat has proved to be an important and powerful voice within and for the Haitian community. Her works have received multiple accolades not only from the Haitian community but from the national and global community, including the National Book Award and the MacArthur Fellows Genius Grant. Danticat focuses on the treatment of Haitians abroad and in Haiti itself, where political and economic growth and development improves at a glacial pace. Haiti’s rich history stands in stark juxtaposition to contemporary economic and political realities. Danticat’s ability to capture this paradox gives a timeless quality to her works. Danticat’s body of work, in its ability to depict the beauty and ugliness of Haitian culture, consistently challenges readers to enter a role of responsibility and raises the question: 2 should readers get involved? Should they do something to address the injustices brought about by history, memory, color, race, and class issues plaguing Haitians?

Moving to the United States at the age of 12 from her native Haiti, undoubtedly had an effect on Danticat’s writing and how she views the world and the treatment of Haitians. In a 2004 interview, when asked about the lack of news exposure about Haiti and the tendency to reduce such complexities to sound bites, Danticat stated, “People think that there is a country [where]…these people are only around when they are on CNN…at moments when there’s not a coup, when there are not people in the streets, … the country disappears from people’s consciousness” (The Morning News). Haiti is usually only presented to the global audience to show the effects that disasters have had on the country, whether they are natural disasters, disease outbreaks, or political turmoil. Danticat’s works can be seen as a vehicle the author uses to get readers and listeners to “see” Haitian people beyond these moments. Danticat’s exposure shows both the beauty and the ugliness of Haitian experiences, a balancing approach not regularly covered by Haiti’s often one-sided portrayal in the media through its disasters.

In her book Create Dangerously, Danticat questions what it means to be an immigrant writer and what it means to “create dangerously” in this journey of revealing and uncovering hidden realities. She concurs with the French philosopher, Albert Camus, and poet Osip Mandelstam, that creating dangerously “is creating as a revolt against silence, creating when both the creation and the reception, the writing and the reading, are dangerous undertakings, disobedience to a directive” (11). Danticat essentially creates dangerously with the subject matter of her novels, the articles written, the interviews given, and the documentaries she has chosen to narrate, all of which work against the grain and challenge readers to re-see Haiti, not as a site of normalized disaster, but to engage the country in all of its complexities as a place which necessitates global social justice. Danticat has spoken publicly about a number of Haitian related concerns, including the role of women in Haitian society, Haiti’s involvement in the global economy and political struggles before and after the disastrous earthquake in 2010, and, the racist and unequal immigration policies adopted against Haitians throughout the Haitian diaspora.

n the 2009 documentary Poto Mitan, for example, as the writer and narrator, she braids a story about the connection between a grandmother, a daughter and a grandchild against the documentary’s depictions of the struggle for Haitian women to become educated and self-sufficient in a global economy that exploits Haitian labor for profits. The central narrative depicts Haitian women and their treatment by fellow Haitians and foreign factory owners. The film urges its viewers to consider the cost of the goods they consume which are produced in countries like Haiti against the wages, sacrifices, and exploitative conditions of the very people who produce them. In addition, Danticat has also written articles to express concerns about what can be done for Haitians in the years following the 2010 earthquake. She has written a fictional children’s book and has given multiple interviews about the earthquake all to remind readers that the people affected by the earthquake and their issues are still salient and relevant. Their stories and their struggles have not come to an end, as the earthquake has had residual, long-lasting effects on their lives. These conditions and experiences contribute to the continued influx of Haitians immigrating to other places, such as the United States, where Haitian people are often met with further injustices.

In this award-winning novel Danticat constructs women’s social and national identity by valuing the memory of their experience and by giving them voice. The narrative of the novel presents an analytical reflection of Amabelle who experiences the attacks and devastating effects of massacre longing for her self and identity. At the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Danticat invites her readers to explore the intersections of Ambelle’s trauma, who undergoes a lot of toils and turmoil to construct her identity. Danticat states: “I tried to reduce the massacre to one person, through whose eyes we can experience it” (78). The post-colonial condition is depicted in this novel by the means of the examination of issues raised by the characters’ crossing and re-crossing of national, geographical and linguistic borders and the forces that mould their personal, social and national identities. Though it was published nearly 20 years ago, Edwidge Danticat’s 1998 novel, The Farming of Bones, still speaks to the racial tensions that exist between Haiti and its neighbor, the Dominican Republic. The Farming of Bones is a historical fiction that explores the 1937 massacre ordered by Dominican Republic’s dictator at the time, Rafael Trujillo. In this novel, as in her other works, Danticat challenges readers to empathize with the characters in the novel through her mixture of history and fiction. The Farming of Bones, a historical novel which operates as a testimonial, to bring the complicated concerns surrounding Haitian culture and ethnicity, identity, and social factors out of the darkness.

The Farming of Bones is based on the events surrounding the brutal slaughtering and massacre of Haitians in the Dominican Republic during the rule of Rafael Trujillo in 1937. Both Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the same island – Hispaniola. The novel tells the story of how Haitians migrate to the Dominican Republic to escape poverty and to work as laborer in the sugarcane fields, an experience which constructs their social identity. They are alienated and devalued in their native society because of their poor economic condition. They do not have enough opportunity in Haiti to avail even the common means of life. That is why they migrate to the Dominican Republic crossing the boundary that symbolically makes them nothing but ‘other’ and ‘inferior’.

The narrative of the novel presents an analytical reflection of Amabelle who experiences the attacks and devastating effects of massacre longing for herself and identity. The political tensions of this period had their roots in centuries of conflicts between the two nations. They are confounded by the dissimilarity of the two cultures residing in close proximity to one another: the Dominicans a predominantly Spanish speaking, Catholic population, and the Haitians largely black and Creole speaking. Being poverty stricken they cross the border. It is also known by history that, in the nineteenth century, Haiti invaded the Spanish side of the Alegria Island twice, and the unpleasant experience of Haitian occupation has become fixed in the Dominican national memory. So when Haitian workers start migrating to the Dominican Republic, Trujillo takes it as an opportunity to take revenge. The Dominican ruler imagines Haitians as a threat to his economy and national sovereignty. He attacks the Haitians as if the people of the Dominican Republic have been threatened by Haitians. The Generalissimo treats them as: “the enemy of work and prosperity” (Danticat), which is based on nothing but mere prejudice. Dominicans think that their national identity and individuality are being hampered by Haitian immigrants and Haitians feel like: “They say some people don’t belong anywhere and that’s us” (Danticat 56). So Trujillo declares to terminate all Haitians on his land. Indeed, he constructs a Dominican national identity and individuality by applying the policy of exclusion. Richard F Patterson states, “Like Hitler, [he thought] he could purify his race” (225). It is known from history that Trujillo’s mother was Haitian. Therefore, his idea of purification makes little sense in light of the mixed racial composition of the Dominicans themselves. Yet he wanted to form a totalitarian state. To him, the fantasy of elimination is an important base in the establishment of his absolute control of the country. This idea of exclusion is a normal picture of every colonial society.

Language becomes an issue of life and death for Haitians. Martin Munro states, “It was in language that slave was perhaps most successfully imprisoned by his master” (210). We can see the reflection of this idea when Haitians are being killed in the night “because they could not manage to trill their ‘r’ and utter a throaty ‘j’ to ask for parsley, to say perejill” (Danticat 114). The utterance of pewejil rather than perejil would reveal a kreyol accent and thus proves that individual as a Haitian national. Amabelle refuses to pronounce the word, as parsley is forced into her mouth, literally taking away her ability to speak. And yet she says she could have said the word “properly, calmly and slowly” (Danticat 193) as she had learnt it from Alegria. But, she does not bother about it. She realizes the absurdity of how mere pronunciation can divide an island into two opposing sides. In other words, she could have saved herself from violence, but instead she remains silent. So a state of voicelessness that the entire narration seeks to negotiate is that Haitians’ inability to utter the word is a sign of exclusion and an excuse for violence. When Amabelle’s companion Odette is subjected to the test, she shows pride in her national identity and challenges Trujillo’s linguistic cleansing:

With her parting breath, she mouthed in Kreyol “pesi”, not calmly and slowly not questioning as if demanding of the face of Heaven the greater meaning of senseless acts, no effort to say “perejill” as if pleading for her life. The Generalissimo’s mind was surely as dark as death, but if he had heard Odette’s “pesi” it might have startled him, not the tears and supplications he would have expected, no shriek from unbound fear, but a provocation, a challenge, a dare. (Danticat 203) Whatever Trujillo has done and no matter for what purpose, in Danticat’s narrative his identity is to be taken as a dictator and a psychopath who has turned his country into a wasteland of the spirit. His inability to control his bladder serves to reinforce the notion of a pervasive corruption that has emerged from the country itself. He has degraded the image of his land to the world and has achieved nothing but a bad impression worldwide. He was killed, but Danticat knows that to kill him is not enough; he has to be brought back to life, so that he can be unmasked and rewritten. Thus he is disempowered through the strength of her art.


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