Edwidge Danticat • The Farming of Bones

Although I’m not an English student or teacher anymore, there are some books that just scream out to me, “This would be a great teaching text.” So let me get this out of the way:

I strongly recommend The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat for university-level English classes. It would be a glorious teaching text, full of intimacy and history, written in an accessible yet subtle style that rewards close-reading.

In fact, everyone should go ahead and read it. It won’t take long and you’d be better for it.

Edwidge Danticat, The Farming of Bones. 1998 novel about the 1937 Parsley Massacre of Haitians by Dominicans. Highly recommended.

 Haïti : petite marchande d'akassan (1932)

Haïti : petite marchande d'akassan (1932)

The Farming of Bones is about a 1937 massacre of tens of thousands of Haitians by order of the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. In the book, the event is called the slaughter, kout kouto (stabbing in Kreyòl), el corte (the cutting in Spanish). We now call it the Parsley Massacre, because the Dominicans would identify Haitians by having them pronounce the Spanish word for parsley, perejil. If they messed up the trilled r, they were Haitian. I’d never heard of this event, which was, according to Danticat in the interview in the end material of the copy I read, inspired by Nazi and Fascist ideals of racial purity. Danticat spoke with survivors and their descendents in her research for this book, and it’s full of rich detail.

We follow Amabelle Désir, the servant of a Dominican soldier, Señor Pico, and his wife, Señora Valencia. Amabelle’s in love with Sebastien, a Haitian sugar cane farmer. Pico, driving back for the birth of his children, runs over a friend of Sebastien’s without caring. It becomes clear that Pico is part of the Generalissimo’s plan to exterminate the Haitians from the Dominican Republic. Amabelle is forced to flee, and then there is a sort of extended epilogue after the massacre about which more later. This summary skips an awful lot, but that’s a general overview.

The book has a density of meaning that defies quick summaries like this review. Take the title. It comes from a Kreyòl term for sugarcane farming, travay te pou zo, the farming of bones. Harvesting was done with machetes, which were also the primary killing instrument in the Parsly Massacre. The bulk of the Haitians massacred were, if I’m not mistaken, in the Dominican Republic for work as farm labourers, to farm bones. There are further resonances with the historical facts of slavery for the sugar trade and the unfulfilled goals of the Haitian Revolution. Farming in a more general sense is also resonant; several of the characters in the novel are farmers, and they farm beans or orchids, trying to grow life in a world of suffering and death. They want not to be farming bones.

You see how close-reading the text leads you down many paths of meaning. Farming is an important metaphor in the novel, but the most important is the idea of twins.

The Farming of Bones opens with Señora Valencia giving birth to twins, a scene that’s depicted frankly and intimately. Amabelle acts as midwife. The firstborn is a healthy, paler boy; the secondborn a sickly, darker girl, born with a caul. He’s named after the Generalissimo, the father of the country; she’s named after Señora Valencia’s mother.

Twins or pairings abound in the novel. Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Kreyòl and Spanish, are the most obvious symbolic twins. There are the paired births and deaths at the beginning. Amabelle’s parents had drowned when she was a child, and she accidentally drowns someone while trying to flee. Pairing occurs throughout the novel on many layers. The symbolism is dense but clear.

In this way, and in terms of writing style, the novel is what I would call expert. It has that polished, modern clarity focused on showing over telling, with lyrical passages and intimate explorations of personal experience. The whole feels intelligently composed, unified by the rich symbolism of twins and farming. It’s shockingly violent in parts, incredibly moving in others, and moves along at a good pace. Danticat has an interesting way of having important events occur very quickly, in the spaces between paragraphs, if that makes sense, which makes you reread important passages.

The most in your face stylistic feature of the novel is the alternation between chapters in bold and regular typeface. The bold chapters are more interior, more poetic, and largely about her relationship with Sebastien. The regular chapters are the plot. The massacre upsets this pattern, with the bold chapters dropping out almost entirely, a symbol for the experience of trauma given through presentation.

Almost one-third of the novel is given over to a kind of extended epilogue, which relates Amabelle’s experience after the massacre, including an extended search for missing people and a jump forward to 1961.

These chapters are full of emptiness. You could define trauma as an unhealable wound, a hole that can never be filled. The Parsley Massacre left tens of thousands of Haitians with lifelong trauma, and rather than focusing on the massacre itself, Danticat focuses on the trauma afterwards. I call these chapters an extended epilogue because all the characters’ attentions are twisted by the massacre to always be pointing back, back to their pain, their inexplicable loss.

The Farming of Bones is wonderfully written and absolutely heart-breaking. And I haven’t even talked about how Danticat depicts racism, both subtle and overt, and its effects. She also critiques the belief that a single person, in this case the Generalissimo Trujillo, will solve all of life’s problems, a critique which resonates strongly today.