Gaby Rubin reviews 'The farming of bones' by Edwidge Danticat
If, as Spanish philosopher George Santayana is credited with saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, the problem with remembering is the retelling to every generation. How many young people in Britain know about Peterloo? Hungerford? How about Aberfan?
The same is true of many other parts of the world, of course, and I was particularly struck by this when I taught in a school in New York, where 90% of the students just happened to be first or second generation Dominican. Not one had ever heard of the ‘Parsley Massacre’ - the slaughter of thousands of Haitians by Dominicans on the island of Hispaniola in 1937. I encouraged them to read Edwidge Danticat’s The farming of bones, originally published in 1998, which recounts that massacre.
The ‘Parsley Massacre’ is an exact copy of what happens in the Bible, in the Book of Judges, from where the word ‘shibboleth’ comes. Briefly, two tribes were at war. One pronounces the first syllable of ‘shibboleth’ like the word ‘shoe’, the other tribe pronounces it like the word ‘sip’. As the two groups were very similar racially, they could only tell each other apart from pronunciation. The tribe that wins slaughters every soldier who pronounces ‘shibboleth’ the ‘wrong’ way. On Hispaniola in 1937, the army and Dominicanos used the two different pronunciations - Haitian Creole and Spanish - of the word for ‘parsley’ (perejil) to decide who to kill.
The division was between the Dominicans on one side of the island (‘founded’ by Christopher Columbus), and the Haitians on the other. However, over the years the African-descended Haitians and Spanish-descended Dominicans intermarried and were often indistinguishable. But, by and large, Haitians are darker and back in the 1930s were certainly poorer: they were servants, cane workers - the ‘immigrants’ in the Dominican Republic. And from the beginning of Edwidge Danticat’s book, we see how important skin colour is to the Spanish.
The farming of bones begins with the story of twins born in the Dominican Republic. The boy is fair like his father, a descendent of the Spanish, while the girl is dusky, like the mother’s father. Our narrator - a young woman from Haiti, who is the servant of the Spanish family - is told by the mother: “Amabelle, do you think my poor daughter will always be the color she is now? ... My poor love, what if she is mistaken for one of your people?” When the doctor later says, “She has a little charcoal behind her ears”, the father reprimands him: “You make a very impolite assertion, Doctor. We don’t want to hear any more of that kind.”
The book centres on Amabelle’s story. She has no family that she knows in Haiti, and the Dominican area - ironically called La Alegría (‘Happiness’) - is all she has known from the time she was a child.
In a situation similar to that encountered by immigrants in various countries today, most of the families have been working on the same plantation for two and three generations, but have no official papers. As one worker explains,
Me, I have no paper in my palms to say where I belong. My son, this one who was born here in this land, has no papers in his palms to say where he belongs. Those who work in the cane mills, the mill owners keep their papers, so they have this as a rope around their necks. Papers are everything. You have no papers in your hands - they do with you what they want.
In describing the daily lives of the Haitians - men and women - Danticat writes in the most beautiful language, while showing the very hard lives they lead. Clothing is made from dyed flour sacks, men in the fields have scars and machete wounds and sometimes die from the ministrations of those who guard the fields. The men try to save enough money from their meagre pay to get out of the cane fields and work in agriculture. When one is killed in a stupid accident by the patron driving his car too fast, other men feel the dead man is lucky to be out of the cane field: travay tè pou zo: the farming of bones.
Parsley is central to Haitians. It grows in abundance and is used, so Amabelle tells us,
for our food, our teas, our baths, to cleanse our insides as well as our outsides of old aches and griefs, to shed a passing year’s dust as a new one dawned, to wash a new infant’s hair for the first time and - along with boiled orange leaves - a corpse’s remains one final time.
The ruler of the Dominicans back then was Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo - a dictator kept in power by the US companies which own the main mills. (He and his army kept control by killings and torture from 1930 until he was assassinated in 1961.) Rumours begin to circulate that Trujillo’s speeches are anti-Haitian. In one speech, which everyone in La Alegría hears over the radio,
“You are independent, and yours is the responsibility for carrying out justice,” the Generalissimo shrieked … “under the protection of rivers, the enemies of peace - who are also the enemies of work and prosperity - found an ambush in which they might do their work, keeping the nation in fear and menacing stability.”
Although the words, from an actual translated speech, are coded, everyone knows the people “over the river” are the Haitians. “The river” is the one which separates the two countries.
The army arrives in Alegría and picks up every Haitian they can find - about 90 people. They are taken away from the fields, made to lie with their faces in the dirt and shot in the back of the skull.
Amabelle hides and flees to the city, where she witnesses both the army and the gleeful Dominican populace beating Haitians with machetes, hanging them, shooting them outright or (if they cannot tell the difference) shoving them to their knees to humiliate them and making them say perejil, then shoving enough parsley into their throats so that they choke to death.
The slaughter goes on all night. Many bodies are thrown into the river, burned or left in the forest to decompose. It is estimated that between 5,000 and 67,000 Haitians were murdered - no-one knows the exact number. The episode is known as the ‘Parsley Massacre’ to this day.
The farming of bones is a beautifully written book about a horrible episode in the history of a small island. It is not overtly political, but every page demonstrates the hard, and often short, lives of the poorest people. In the background is the evil influence of the USA, which more or less owned the island. The book demonstrates how the United States discriminated between the Dominicans and the Haitians - something that still continues to the present time. Although Dominicans easily enter the US, Haitians often have a hard time.
Another book written by Danticat, Brother, I’m dying, tells of her uncle who died while in US detention - not because he had done anything wrong, but because he entered the US with a Haitian passport!
Has all this now been resolved? Not at all. In the 21st century, the legacy of colonialism and the racism it engendered lives on under imperialism.