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From their physical and cultural difference to their economic status, the relationship between Haitians and Dominicans has always been rough, tense, and often discriminatory. One historical event, overshadowed by those of other world powers, that has caused a rift between these two nations is the genocide that occurred in 1937 led by General Trujillo who used the power of his military to cleanse the Dominican Republic of its Haitian population. In the fictional novel, The Farming of Bones, Edwidge Danticat recalls this brutal and bloody event through the emotional and lively eyes of her main character, Amabelle Desir. Danticat begins her novel from the unique perspective of the protagonist in a dream-like world of the past. Using this, Danticat alternates every chapter between this alternate reality and present events to progress the story to reveal information about the main character's past that plays into present events as well as introduce other characters. From this foundation, Danticat advances the plot to illustrate the internal struggle Amabelle undergoes throughout the hardships she faces during the genocide in addition to the dynamic relationships that Amabelle forms between other characters such as her lover, Sebastian Onius, childhood friend, Senora Valencia, and other victims of genocide she survives with. Danticat uses this internal conflict Amabelle experiences as well as her relationships to move the plot forward and shape Amabelle towards a purposeful yet ambiguous resolution about her past and future towards the end of the novel. Using the theme of remembrance or more specifically remembering the history of your past, Danticat argues that one shouldn't let go of their past, but must accept and acknowledge it in order to move forward with the flow of life through various literary devices as well as Amabelle's internal conflict and relationships formed with other characters. She shows that by acknowledging the past, individuals can create beneficial opportunities advancing themselves and society towards a better future.
Danticat uses the dreams of various characters as a vehicle to demonstrate the negative effects of denying the past. Danticat structures her novel uniquely by using a literary style that alternates every chapter between a dream world and reality to illustrate the importance of accepting and acknowledging the past. From this, Danticat is able to illustrate the importance of accepting and acknowledging one's past through Amabelle's reoccurring dreams about her parents drowning which demonstrates a tormenting, yet comforting memory of her past. The concept Danticat uses of reoccurring dreams aids to demonstrate Amabelle's attachment to the past as she strive to remember every detail of her parents creating a sense that Amabelle uses her dreams to escape reality and live in her past when her parents were still alive. Sebastian Onius, another key character, faces similar nightmares with his father's death during the past hurricane that causes him to talk and wrestle in his sleep as he fights the nightmare away. With this format, Danticat separates Amabelle's true thoughts and emotions to this dream-like world to show the progression of how she learns to accept her past through her everyday experiences. In addition to using Amabelle's frequent dreams about her parents drowning as well as Sebastian's dream of his father's death during the hurricane, Danticat uses dreams as vehicles in other character such as Yves and Man Denise to demonstrate a means by which the characters can escape the gory and harsh realities of the current genocide as well as distract themselves from ever-present truths such as the deaths of loved-ones. For instance, as Amabelle and Yves stop for the night on their escape to Haiti, Amabelle holds a conversation with Yves as he sleeps. As the night goes on it is obvious that Yves is having a nightmare as he says "Papa, don't die on that plate. Please let me take it away" (129). Yves looks to his dreams to escape the reality of the everyday prejudice, violence, and anxiety of being hunted, but as he has yet to accept his father's sudden death, his dreams turn on him turning into nightmares that haunt him instead, worsening the situation. Furthermore, Man Denise seeks refuge from the pain of losing her children by saying "I'm going to dream up my children" (243). Amabelle helps to support this as she states that dreams serve as "amulets to protect us from evil spells" (265). Through the use of various characters, Danticat is able to illustrate how each character is uniquely looking into their dreams to comfort them from the rigors of real life, but as they have all failed to accept the trauma and history of their past, they are unable to escape and end up facing the truth via their nightmares. With this, although they are able to move forward from their past in their everyday lives, their dreams serve as a constant reminder of their past and their inability to accept it deters them from moving onto bigger and better things where they are independent of their past and the places that they are chained to.
In addition to introducing the dreams Amabelle experiences of her parents drowning, Danticat also uses the dreamy chapters to introduce Amabelle's lover Sebastian Onius and other relationships she forms to reveal that dependence on the past creates a stagnant lifestyle. The fact that Sebastian is deeply affected by the loss of his father from the past hurricane builds a strong relationship between the two characters and allows Amabelle to confide in him. Through their interactions in these chapters, Amabelle feels guarded as he comforts her by saying "I will take you back into cave across the river" (4) allowing her to escape from the shadows of her past. By being guarded from her past by Sebastian, Amabelle is able to hide from the trauma and hardships of her past. Yet, Amabelle also mentions that "at other times he was one of them" (4) illustrating that Sebastian provides comfort as well as a haunting memory much like her parents drowning to keep her grounded in her past forcing her to face her past and come to terms with it. This dream symbolizes Amabelle's unwillingness to move from the past and their irresolute interpretation about the past. In addition, Amabelle says "when I was a child, I used to spend hours playing with my shadowâ€¦" (4) showing that although her past disturbs her at times, she is comfortable with living in the wake of her past, revealing why Amabelle has not yet come to terms with it to enhance her future. Danticat reinforces this throughout the novel in later chapters as Amabelle states "Darkness means restâ€¦Darkness is good" (107). In a later chapter, Amabelle recalls a memory from her childhood when she was deathly ill only to be saved by the words of an encouraging doll:
You will be well again, ma belle Amabelle. I know this to be true." Her voice is gentle, musical, but it echoes, like she's speaking from inside a very tall bottle. "I am sure you will live to be a hundred years old, having come so close to death while young." While I am watching her play, I want to give the doll a name, but I don't remember names other than my own and that one only because I've just heard her say it while addressing me. When I am well, like the doll said I would be, I ask my mother, "What name should I give to this doll who walked about the room and played for me, and looked after me when I was sick?" "There is no such thing and no such doll," my mother says. "The fever made you an imbecile" (58).
This doll that gives strength to Amabelle while on the verge of death symbolizes the bright opportunities Amabelle has to look forward in her future, but the fact that her mother denies the existence of the doll and coldly calls her an imbecile represents how the ties to her parents ground her in the past and she has yet to accept her mother for who she was. By not being able to accept the loss of people in her life, Amabelle becomes dependent on her past as she is unable to become independent of the roles these people played in her life. From these two examples, Danticat illustrates Amabelle's ability to move on towards a better future but is held back by her inability to acknowledge and accept the roles of people in her past.
Through many symbolic dreams and memories, Danticat identifies the problems associated with denying one's past and its effects on a person's life in order to show the cause and effect relationship of not acknowledging the past. The memory of her parent's drowning in the river symbolizes the end of Amabelle having a sense of belonging and having an identity associated solely with being Haitian. From there, Amabelle becomes torn between two identities as Senora Valencia recalls their first encounter:
We went to the river and there you were, a bony little girl with bleeding knees. You were sitting on a big rock, watching the water as if you were waiting for an apparition. Papi paid one of the boys by the riverside to interpret for him while he asked you who you belonged to. And you pointed to your chest and said yourself. Do you remember? (91)
After Amabelle begins to live with Senora Valencia and her Papi, Amabelle loses her sense of identity becoming split between her past Haitian culture and the Dominican culture her new family immerses her in. This causes a rift between Amabelle's sense of being a free, independent Haitian women and a women subordinate to Dominicans. Although the death of her parents is a haunting memory that causes Amabelle nightmares, it also provides comfort as it connects Amabelle to her home and cultural ties to Haiti as the culture of the Dominican Republic consumes her in everyday life. The inability Amabelle portrays in accepting her past illustrates how her problem of a split identity and sense of belonging is worsened. This is furthered when Amabelle is caught in the cross fire of the tension between Haitians and Dominicans. For instance, when Joel is killed, Amabelle appears unfazed as she hears of his death and subconsciously defends the honor of her Dominican family as she says "Senor Pico has riflesâ€¦we are on his property" (10). After, Amabelle quickly changes the subject to divert any further arguments and keep her mutual stance. By losing her sense of identity, Amabelle is unable to mediate the situation to help reach a resolution. Instead of combining her past and present, Amabelle is left divided between feeling as a displaced independent Haitian women and as an inferior women to the Dominican people, being seen nothing more as a servant to her current family. As mentioned earlier, Amabelle experiences an internal identity crisis, dividing her into two separate identities due to her inability to combine her past and present. In one of her vivid dreams of a sugar woman in chains Amabelle recalls:
I dream of the sugar womanâ€¦She seems to be dancing a kalanda in a very fast spin, locks arms with the air, pretends to kiss someone much taller than herself. As she swings and shuffles, the chains on her ankles cymbal a rattled melody. She hops to the sound of the jingle of the chains, which with her twists grows louder and louderâ€¦She taps her fingers against the muzzle. "Given to me a long time ago, this was, so I'd not eat the sugarcane" (132).
This vivid dream that depicts the sugar women restricted by chains parallels Amabelle's present day life as an inferior Haitian maid to her Dominican family. In addition, the sugar woman goes beyond to represent Haitian people in general, reinforcing their inferiority in the Dominican Republic. The muzzle given to the sugar women represents the fact that the Haitians will never be able to enjoy the rewards of their labor for all the effort they put into the grueling work. In addition, the dancing performed by the sugar woman is also used to demonstrate that no matter how hard the Haitian laborers work, they will never achieve a life where they will be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Amabelle parallels the symbolism of the sugar women's muzzle by being inferior to the family that took her in due to being Haitian and despite pulling her weight and working for the family, will never be able to achieve the reward of being accepted as an equal and integral part of Papi's family. Amabelle's inability to accept her past leads her to live a life as part servant, part sister which causes her to become stuck in a rift preventing her from developing as a person.
With an ironic twist, Danticat uses Sebastian to exemplify the meaning of accepting the past in order to illustrate the shortcoming of Amabelle's inability to accept her past. Sebastian has learned to accept his father's death despite how traumatized he is by it, when he promises Amabelle that it would be his "last cane harvest, just as it was Joel's." (55) This represents how Sebastian lives in the moment allowing him to be aware of the situation and not fall "blind into [the] life of the cane" (105). Instead of dwelling on the past and being unaware or simply accepting his inferior position in the Dominican society, Sebastian looks to escape his displacement as an "orphaned person." With this, Danticat uses Sebastian to illustrate how acknowledging the past allows the focus of an individual to be on the future where opportunities lie. For example, he states "Next year, I work away from the cane fieldsâ€¦I swear to you, Amabelle, this will be my last cane harvest, as it was Joel's" (55). Sebastian realizes, without the aid of the sugar woman dream, what Amabelle fails to realize allowing him to break the mundane cycle Haitians go through with sugar cane harvests. In addition, Sebastian even advises Amabelle to live for the present when he states "I don't want you to have this dream againâ€¦I don't want you to dream of that river againâ€¦Give yourself a pleasant dream. Remember not only the end, but the middle, and the beginning, the things they did when they were breathing." (55). Although Sebastian advises Amabelle to live in the present, he provides no means to help her cope with her past despite their strong bond and deep trust that allows them to confide in each other their deepest and darkest memories. Sebastian embodies what Amabelle needs to achieve and despite their strong relationship, both characters fail to see what they can give and take from each other. As Sebastian disappears to a ghostly shadow, Amabelle must learn to accept her past in order to find him and herself.
As Danticat progresses the story, she develops Amabelle as a character as she flees from the genocide occurring in the Dominican Republic. Danticat illustrates the importance of accepting the past when Dr. Javier foreshadows that she "should leaveâ€¦and become a midwife in Haiti." (20). Amabelle's rejection of this idea shows that her focus is on her past, more specifically her parent's profession as healers and doctors, prevents her from moving on to a better and more rewarding lifestyle because Amabelle strives to preserve her memory of her parents instead of overshadowing it with memories of new patients and new experiences. Amabelle's denial of her past and comforting attachment to her new family as part sister, part servant causes her to become trapped in nightmare like her dreams, but this time her life is in danger as her nightmare becomes reality. As Amabelle flees for her life with Yves, Danticat symbolizes the start of Amabelle's journey to let go and accept her past as well as look towards a future with or without Sebastian. As Amabelle continues along her journey, she finally comes to the river describing the water as looking "deep and black" (Danticat 199) paralleling the water to the shadows of her past. At the abyss of her journey, Danticat displays that Amabelle is finally at peace with her past as she plunges into the river without a thought about the death of her parents. After crossing the river into Haiti, Amabelle has overcome her past and no longer having any more nightmares about her parents drowning. Because Amabelle was able to come to terms with her past, she was able to press on and survive for her future. In addition, Danticat uses water of the river as a means to parallel the meaning of accepting one's past. For instance, Danticat identifies the river's water with death as its history is being known as the Massacre River as well as the river where Amabelle's parents drowned, but as the novel progress, the water river water represents an obstacle to overcome one's past and fears as well as a new hope to get to safety. Danticat expertly uses this symbol to illustrate many meanings reflecting waters ability to change its shape in a fluid manner. Through the hero journey that Amabelle experiences, Danticat is able to compare the transformation Amabelle goes through to water to signify the benefits of positively coming to terms with the past.
From this overarching theme of memory, Danticat is able to confer message that society needs to accept past events and move on from them. She especially applies this to the situation between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. In her novel, she subtly expresses this through Dr. Javier when he says "sometimes you have two children born at the same time; one is stillborn but the other one is alive and healthy because the dead on gave the other a life transfusion in the womb and in essence sacrificed itself" (19). Through Dr. Javier, Danticat symbolizes the Dominican Republic and Haiti, revealing how Haiti has essentially sacrificed itself, as Haitian workers leave Haiti to work the sugar cane fields for a better life, to benefit the economy of the Dominican Republic by providing cheap labor and inadvertently becoming the backbone of the sugarcane industry. With this, Danticat goes on to illustrate the racism from this influx of immigrant workers through the actions of Senor Valencia as Amabelle narrates that "He did not scold her, but once discovered that she had used their imported orchid patterned tea set, he took the set out to the yard and, launching them against the cement walls of the house latrines, he shattered the cups and saucers, one by one" (116). Danticat symbolically illustrates the prejudice viewpoints Dominicans hold, revealing that Haitians are viewed as inferior and unclean by shattering the used tea cups against the latrines. Danticat elegantly illustrates the tension and prejudice of the time and conveys an underlying message for Dominicans and Haitians to accept their rocky past and come to live in peace, so that the whole island of Hispaniola can benefit. With this, Danticat's argument applies to the present century for societies of all sizes and problems. Danticat uses her novel as a means to explain that people everywhere, the victim and the oppressor, must come to terms with the past and move on in order to move society forward towards greater opportunities that benefit both people.
Through Danticat's novel that uses a broad theme of remembering the past, she pinpoints the importance of accepting and acknowledging the past in order to move forward with the flow of life. Danticat skillfully uses her ability as a story teller to incorporate many literary devices that creatively told the story of Amabelle as well as a deeper story of the relations between the nations and people of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Through each characterization that Danticat uses, she is able to show in many unique ways how each characters inability to accept the events of their past worsens the current situation of genocide at hand, leading to death for some. In addition, Danticat specifically uses her main character Amabelle to illustrate the struggles of failing to accept the past through her identity crisis as well as the uncertainty she experiences with her purpose in life. From this, Danticat progress the story line to show how Amabelle is able to slowly take steps towards acknowledging her past and demonstrates by doing so is able to benefit from it by surviving the threat of genocide presented as she is hunted by Dominicans. Building off this theme, Danticat is able to unfold her argument to encompass the issues of prejudice between Haiti and the Dominican Republic as well as apply this to other societies around the world. Hopefully, the words of Danticat wish will be heard by the people of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, so that they overcome their past difference in order to learn to benefit off each other allowing the whole island of Hispaniola to prosper.