Edwidge Danticat, visiting Haiti in 1995, was surprised by the seeming lack of significance Haitians placed on one of the most traumatic events of its history – the Massacre of 1937. People remembered the despot Rafael Trujillo, but the victims of the carnage remained un-mourned for by the nation at large. Danticat commemorates these unaccounted-for victims, especially the female victims, in her novel, The Farming of Bones.
Violence (embodied by Trujillo) and indestructible human spirit (represented by Amabelle, Kongo, Romain, etc.) are two key themes in the novel. The writer uses the impact created by the juxtaposition of these two to remove the scabs of the outwardly healed psychological wounds of the survivors. Danticat seems to hope that the resulting catharsis would help the survivors of this ordeal to deal with their past in order to arrive at a true resolution.
Recollections (of the Massacre) outline the story. In the absence of an official history, they are also used as cross-reference to validate the novel’s content. Thereby, memories are instrumental in ‘re-membering’ the dismembered of the Massacre.
The relationship between Amabelle and Sebastien is the focus of the story. Amabelle, the narrator, has almost equal access to the two worlds of the novel - the world of rich Dominican planters and that of the itinerary cane cutters from Haiti. Unlike her compatriots, the narrator has few prejudices against Dominicans. Towards the end Man Amabelle yearns to give a conclusion – “a shadow”- to Sebastien’s story, and in reflection, to her own as well. As a result, Amabelle is better-equipped to present a more reliable and an exhaustive account of the Massacre.
In Chapter 39, the guide tells some tourists that “famous men never truly die… It is only those nameless and faceless who vanish like smoke to the early morning air” (280). Sebastien too has simply vanished. Therefore, the guide’s observation may have made Amabelle more determined to sustain the memory of her man. Thus, the narrative begins with the phrase “His name is Sebastian Onius” and it is repeated four times in Chapter 40 alone.
Inconclusiveness of Sebastien’s story is a fate shared by many victims of the Massacre who were hastily buried in now-forgotten mass graves. Amabelle, too, like many survivors, has placed herself in a state of limbo. Thus, she is the living dead. Like an amputee who feels her missing limb in the dark, and therefore, unable to accept its loss, Amabelle repeatedly uses the present tense in referring to Sebastien throughout her narration:“His name is Sebastien Onius and his story is like a fish with no tail, a dress with no hem, a drop with no fall, a body in the sunlight with no shadow” (281). In contrast, Dominican officials want to stamp out the memories of the slaughter altogether. Hence, the Massacre which the Haitians call ‘Kout kouto’ (The Stabbing) is euphemistically referred to as ‘El corte’ (The Cutting) by the Dominicans.
People carry memories in numerous ways. Amabelle repeats Sebastian’s name, engraving it into her very being. Valencia paints portraits and Kongo makes death masks of his sons. Tragic individual memories of these characters are in fact cameos of national history/consciousness. Amabelle says, “(W)e have voices sealed inside our heads” (266). Yet, memories often blur, acquire new meanings, or become less significant with the passage of time; therefore, it is important to ensure the preservation of the memories of the voices inside one’s head against corruption as that is often all that remained of the dead.
Survivors of the Massacre need such uncorrupted memories, so they go to the Justice of the Peace (234) and the church (254) to tell their stories. But as Yves ironically points out, institutions run out of time, money, and patience all too soon when it comes to the problems of the Masses. The few stories that have actually been recorded will undoubtedly be lost in the bureaucratic labyrinths in no time. In the end, the only option for the survivors is to mentally curl up like the baby that we come across on page 257 in order to distance themselves from the horrors they have witnessed. Hence, the seeming lack of interest in the Massacre. The survivors who have anaesthetized themselves against the pain of their losses thus need someone to deliver that all-important slap which would wake them up to face the realities of their lives and the writer offers to do just that through her novel.
Danticat, through careful research, has unearthed vignettes of buried memories of the survivors of the slaughter and created a poignant story of darkness and light. Characters tell their stories which have “not only the end, but the middle, and the beginning” (55). Amabelle says, “The slaughter is the only thing that is mine enough to pass on. All I want to do is to find a place to lay it down now and again, a safe nest where it neither be scattered by the wind, not remain forever buried beneath the sod” (266). By facilitating Amabelle’s quest through her novel, Edwidge Danticat gives the forgotten victims of the Massacre of 1937 the dignity of voices, names, and faces. Moreover, the survivors trapped in labyrinths of unresolved memories are given an opportunity to purge their pains and fears so that they could move on with their lives.
Danticat, Edwidge, The Farming of Bones. New York: Penguin, 1998.