Last year I published the reading list for my book club, I spent weeks researching writers from different parts of the world in preparation. I came across Edwidge Danticat while looking for Haitian writers. Up until a week ago, I had only read the book I selected as our August Read, Brother, I’m Dying. I enjoyed the book, and I reflected on my own relationship with immigration, fatherhood and death. I wrote a lengthy review on Edwidge Danticat’s non-fiction account of her life.
In the last week, I’ve read two of Edwidge Danticat’s fiction novels, Breath, Eyes, Memory and The Farming of Bones. I started by reading Breath, Eyes, Memory and I stayed up until 4am to finish it. It was that good. I still haven’t mustered up the courage to write an honest and detailed review of it, but I will…one day. For now, I would like to talk about the second fiction book I read by Edwidge Danticat, The Farming of Bones.
The Farming of Bones is a historical fiction novel based on The Parsley Massacre of 1937, where Haitians living in the Dominican Republic were killed on the orders of Dominican dictator, Rafael Trujillo. If you were following the reading list last year, you will remember Rafael Trujillo as the villain of Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of The Butterflies. In the Time of the Butterflies is written from the point of view of Dominicans living under Trujillo. While I don’t think Julia Alvarez maliciously neglected to mention the oppression of Haitians in the Dominican Republic in her own fictionalized account of this dictatorship, I am curious to know why she did.
Racial tensions exist between Haitians and Dominicans, with Haitians being predominantly black and Dominicans being lighter-skinned and identifying as Hispanic. I use the phrase “identify as Hispanic” because Darker-skinned Dominicans of mixed Haitian and Dominican heritage are often targeted because of the colour of the skin rather than their ethnicity. Race is often simultaneously used to determine ethnicity. Comedian Godfrey hilariously captured the identity crisis that plagues the Dominican Republic in this video. The reality of this identity crisis is far less humourous. In The Farming of Bones, the protagonist is a black Haitian girl Annabelle Desir, who works for a wealthy Dominican family living in Alegria, near the border region between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Alegria has a significant Haitian population who make up the agricultural labour force as cane cutters. Many are displaced and killed in The Parsley Massacre. Annabelle survives the massacre and returns to Haiti, surrounded by the collective grief of a people dispossessed and to whom justice is denied.
I took a Genocide studies course in University and I remember a quote that is attributed to the Soviet Leader Stalin, “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” The way we have been programmed to consume information around mass killings is unfortunate but deliberate. Historical fiction is an incredible tool that helps us break down this wall of statistics and data and remember that real human beings were affected by these events. Ta-Nehisi Coates captured it perfectly in his letter to his son:
“I have raised you to respect every human being as singular, and you must extend that same respect into the past. Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, who excels at dress-making and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and as capable as anyone.”
This novel is haunting. Danticat writes with an ancient wisdom and spirituality that seems otherworldly and ancestral. In Annabelle’s words, “I once heard an elder say that the dead who have no use for their words leave them as part of their children’s inheritance”. I think often about the collective grief we are experiencing in this time in history. We must also tend to our individual wounds. Stories like this help us to do so because, “some sorrows were simply too individual to share.”