By Aileen Ford and Micaela Machicote
Edwidge Danticat is a Haitian-American author who was born in Haiti in 1969 and spent her childhood years growing up there. In 1981, at the age of 12, she journeyed to the U.S. to reunite with her mother and father who had previously migrated to New York City. As an adolescent in a Brooklyn junior high school, Danticat often turned to writing about her native Haiti to escape the isolation she felt among her new peers. Rather than study medicine, as her parents had hoped, she went on to earn a degree in French Literature from Barnard College, where she won the 1995 Woman of Achievement Award, and later an MFA from Brown University.
Danticat is the author of several books, including Breath, Eyes, Memory (an Oprah Book Club selection); Krik? Krak!, a collection of stories and National Book Award finalist; and The Farming of Bones, an American Book Award winner. She is also the editor of The Butterfly's Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States and The Beacon Best of 2000: Great Writing by Men and Women of All Colors and Cultures. Since receiving her MFA, Danticat has taught creative writing at New York University and the University of Miami. She has also collaborated with filmmakers Patricia Benoit and Jonathan Demme on projects about Haitian art and documentaries about Haiti.
Themes: Haitian-American experience in the U.S. and Haiti; storytelling; migration; diaspora; nationality; motherhood; memory
2009 MacArthur Fellow Video:
Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones (1998) centers on this slaughter, which became known as the “Parsley Massacre” in English, “El Corte” in Spanish, or “Kout kouto” in Haitian Kreyòl. The novel’s narrator, Amabelle Désir, is a young Haitian woman orphaned as a child who has worked most of her life as a servant on a sugar plantation in the Dominican Republic. The novel opens as Amabelle is assisting the plantation’s mistress, Señora Valencia, in childbirth with Doctor Javier as her husband, Señor Pico, a military officer and ardent admirer of Trujillo, hurries home to meet them. Amabelle, meanwhile, is in love with Sebastien Onius, a Haitian fieldworker who cuts sugar cane at a nearby mill.
Over the course of the novel, the lives of Amabelle, Sebastien, and other characters like Sebastien’s friend, Yves, his sister Mimi, and the priest Father Romain change dramatically as the Parsley Massacre unfolds. Forced to flee the Dominican Republic for Haiti, Amabelle, Yves, and their traveling companions endure fatigue, near drowning, and a brutal physical assaults by a mob to reach safety in their homeland. Several people don’t make it to Haiti, but rather die at the hands of Dominican civilians wielding a machete (Tibon), border guards with rifles (Wilner), or the river current (Odette). After finally crossing into Haiti, Amabelle spends more than a week recovering from her injuries and a fierce fever in a makeshift tent clinic along the river with Yves’ care. Drifting in and out of sleep there, Amabelle hears the horrific stories that other Massacre survivors recount to each other as well as their desperate shouts in the night as they plead to save loved ones either murdered or disappeared.
This entire violent ordeal leaves profound marks on Amabelle’s mind, body, and spirit. While collecting the tattered pieces of her life while back in Haiti living with Yves’ mother, Man Rapadou, Amabelle continues to search in vain for Sebastien and Mimi, who were died in an execution along with several hundred others in Santiago. Life for her and Yves becomes a struggle to find meaning and answers in the wake of powerful loss and pain that never leave their side, day or night.
The years slip away as Amabelle and Yves create something of a new world for themselves by planting bean crops and sewing clothes for a few gourds or a plate of food, but the Massacre’s impact is palpable in every aspect of their day-to-day existence. The suffering and sadness that Amabelle continually bears are evident in her own wounded body, which causes her much pain as she moves around on her destroyed knee. Despite time and hardship, Amabelle’s heart remains with Sebastien, although the two are never united again in the story. His omnipresent absence, the impossibility to say a proper goodbye or to mourn him fully, adds greater poignancy to Amabelle’s already deep grief and trauma.
As Danticat mentioned in an April 1998 interview with Publishers Weekly, the Parsley Massacre is "…a part of our history, as Haitians, but it's also a part of the history of the world. Writing about it is an act of remembrance." The Farming of Bones is itself an act of remembrance, an intentional naming of those who, like Sebastien, Mimi, Tibon, Odette, and Wilner, history has ignored. The novel’s emotional force and political urgency stem in large part from Danticat’s stay in Haiti while she was conducting archival and field research to write her manuscript. When visiting the Dajabón river that divides the Dominican Republic from Haiti where so many had died years before, Danticat tells that she felt a heavy presence of buried lives that were not acknowledged as valued and lost. "There are no markers [near the river]. I felt like I was standing on top of a huge mass grave, and just couldn't see the bodies. That's the first time I remember thinking, 'Nature has no memory' -- a line that later made its way into the book -- 'and that's why we have to have memory.'"
Summer 2015: The Second Cut
History has a way of repeating itself, especially when we ignore it.
When reading The Farming of Bones, one cannot help but think about more recent developments in Haitian-Dominican relations related to citizenship, race, and migration. According to the Dominican Constitution, anyone born on the country’s soil has the right to Dominican citizenship—except those who are “in transit”, or migrating through it. In September 2013, however, the Dominican Republic’s highest court ruled that “people born after 1929 could only be granted citizenship if they had at least one Dominican parent.”
The high court’s new ruling and interpretation effectively extended the phrase “in transit” to include anyone whose family had migrated to the Dominican Republic during the past 84 years, allowing the government to deport to Haiti those unable to prove their Dominican citizenship through documents like cédulas, or national ID cards, that are not universally available. This meant that in addition to Haitian migrants, thousands—if not hundreds of thousands—of Dominicans of Haitian descent who in many cases had never stepped foot in Haiti and spoke only Spanish could potentially be rendered stateless as deportees. Much mistrust and skepticism swirled as Haitians, Dominicans, and outside observers questioned the motives and impact of this so-called repatriation program.
While the Haitian government publicly stated it had implemented a plan to temporarily resettle returning “repatriates” along its border with the Dominican Republic, foreign news outlets such as the U.S.’ National Public Radio reported that, “[t]here's no protocol on how to handle the migrants, and the Haitians say they have no idea how many people will be deported.” Even worse, anti-Haitian discrimination and assaults grew in the weeks surrounding the repatriation’s implementation amid vociferous public outcry on both sides of the issue. One Haitian merchant by the name of Sunny Pation voiced some of his concerns at the tense situation by saying, “Dominicans don’t respect the rights of Haitians. They shoot. They throw rocks. We’re not going to let them do this again.”
This echoing “again” draws us back to the lingering scars of the 1937 Parsley Massacre—or perhaps better put, back to the roots of the Massacre and anti-Haitian violence as a whole. While not an outright genocide, the reasoning behind the present-day expulsion of Haitian descendants and migrants from the Dominican Republic draws on similar sentiments of Dominican national identity, racial purity, and political and economic security. It is also important to note that violence takes many forms over time in different spaces, some more visible than others, and the act of rendering someone effectively stateless is, in numerous ways, like ending that person’s life as he or she knows it. How many more re-enactments/reiterations of the Parsley Massacre and anti-Haitian discrimination must occur before something fundamentally changes?
This question compels us to consider Amabelle’s reflection about how the pronunciation of one word, “perejil”, could determine her people’s fate during the Parsley Massacre: “Perhaps one simple word would not have saved our lives. Maybe more would have to [die] and many more will” (Danticat, 265). These words remain as relevant and prescient today as when they were written.
The Power of a Word
In The Farming of Bones, the difference between life and death comes to rest on whether or not a person can correctly pronounce the Spanish word “perejil”. In researching her novel, Danticat cites that she read Rita Dove’s poem “Parsley” as part of her inspiration for her story. Below is an excerpt of this poem which is available in its entirety at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/172128.
BY RITA DOVE
1. The Cane Fields
There is a parrot imitating spring
in the palace, its feathers parsley green.
Out of the swamp the cane appears
to haunt us, and we cut it down. El General
searches for a word; he is all the world
there is. Like a parrot imitating spring,
we lie down screaming as rain punches through
and we come up green. We cannot speak an R--
out of the swamp, the cane appears
and then the mountain we call in whispers Katalina.
The children gnaw their teeth to arrowheads.
There is a parrot imitating spring.
El General has found his word: perejil.
Who says it, lives. He laughs, teeth shining
out of the swamp. The cane appears
in our dreams, lashed by wind and streaming.
And we lie down. For every drop of blood
there is a parrot imitating spring.
Out of the swamp the cane appears.
Rita Dove, “Parsley” from Museum (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1983).
Copyright © 1983 by Rita Dove. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
Source: Museum (1983)