It is 1937 and Amabelle Désir, a young Haitian woman living in the Dominican Republic, has built herself a life as the servant and companion of the wife of a wealthy colonel. She and Sebastien, a cane worker, are deeply in love and plan to marry. But Amabelle's world collapses when a wave of genocidal violence, driven by Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, leads to the slaughter of Haitian workers. Amabelle and Sebastien are separated, and she desperately flees the tide of violence for a Haiti she barely remembers.
Already acknowledged as a classic, this harrowing story of love and survival—from one of the most important voices of her generation—is an unforgettable memorial to the victims of the Parsley Massacre and a testimony to the power of human memory.
|Publisher:||Soho Press, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Edwidge Danticat is the author of numerous books, including Brother, I’m Dying, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a National Book Award finalist; Breath, Eyes, Memory, an Oprah Book Club selection; Krik? Krak!, a National Book Award finalist; and The Dew Breaker, winner of the inaugural Story Prize. The recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, she has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and elsewhere. The Farming of Bones won an American Book Award for fiction in 1999.
Read an Excerpt
His name is Sebastien Onius.
He comes most nights to put an end to my nightmare, the one I have all the time, of my parents drowning. While my body is struggling against sleep, fighting itself to awaken, he whispers for me to “lie still while I take you back.”
“Back where?” I ask without feeling my lips moving.
He says, “I will take you back into the cave across the river.”
I lurch at him and stumble, trying to rise. He levels my balance with the tips of his long but curled fingers, each of them alive on its own as they crawl towards me. I grab his body,
my head barely reaching the center of his chest. He is lavishly handsome by the dim light of my castor oil lamp, even though the cane stalks have ripped apart most of the skin on his shiny black face, leaving him with crisscrossed trails of furrowed scars. His arms are as wide as one of my bare thighs. They are steel, hardened by four years of sugarcane harvests.
“Look at you,” he says, taking my face into one of his spacious bowl-shaped hands, where the palms have lost their lifelines to the machetes that cut the cane. “You are glowing like a Christmas lantern, even with this skin that is the color of driftwood ashes in the rain.”
“Do not say those things to me,” I mumble, the shadows of sleep fighting me still. “This type of talk makes me feel naked.”
He runs his hand up and down my back. His rough callused palms nip and chafe my skin, while the string of yellow coffee beans on his bracelet rolls over and caresses the tender places along my spine.
“Take off your nightdress,” he suggests, “and be naked for true. When you are uncovered, you will know that you are fully awake and I can simply look at you and be happy.” Then he slips across to the other side of the room and watches every movement of flesh as I shed my clothes. He is in a corner, away from the lamp, a shadowed place where he sees me better than I see him. “It is good for you to learn and trust that I am near you even when you can’t place the balls of your eyes on me,” he says.
This makes me laugh and laugh loud, too loud for the middle of the night. Now I am fully disrobed and fully awake. I
stumble quickly into his arms with my nightdress at my ankles.
Thin as he says I am, I am afraid to fold in two and disappear.
I’m afraid to be shy, distant, and cold. I am afraid I cease to exist when he’s not there. I’m like one of those sea stones that sucks its colors inside and loses its translucence once it’s taken out into the sun, out of the froth of the waves. When he’s not there, I’m afraid I know no one and no one knows me.
“Your clothes cover more than your skin,” he says. “You become this uniform they make for you. Now you are only you, just the flesh.”
It’s either be in a nightmare or be nowhere at all. Or otherwise simply float inside these remembrances, grieving for who
I was, and even more for what I’ve become. But all this when he’s not there.
“Look at your perfect little face,” he says, “your perfect little shape, your perfect little body, a woman child with deep black skin, all the shades of black in you, what we see and what we don’t see, the good and the bad.”
He touches me like one brush of a single feather, perhaps fearing, too, that I might vanish.
“Everything in your face is as it should be,” he says, “your nose where it should be.”
“Oh, wi, it would have been sad,” I say, “if my nose had been placed at the bottom of my feet.”
This time he is the one who laughs. Up close, his laughter crumples his face, his shoulders rise and fall in an uneven rhythm. I’m never sure whether he is only laughing or also crying at the same time, even though I have never seen him cry.
I fall back asleep, draped over him. In the morning, before the first lemongrass-scented ray of sunlight, he is gone. But I
can still feel his presence there, in the small square of my room.
I can smell his sweat, which is as thick as sugarcane juice when he’s worked too much. I can still feel his lips, the eggplantviolet gums that taste of greasy goat milk boiled to candied sweetness with mustard-colored potatoes. I feel my cheeks rising to his dense-as-toenails fingernails, the hollow beneath my cheekbones, where the bracelet nicked me and left a perfectly crescent-moon-shaped drop of dried blood. I feel the wet lines in my back where his tongue gently traced the life-giving veins to the chine, the faint handprints on my waist where he held on too tight, perhaps during some moment when he felt me slipping.
And I can still count his breaths and how sometimes they raced much faster than the beating of his heart.
When I was a child, I used to spend hours playing with my shadow, something that my father warned could give me nightmares, nightmares like seeing voices twirl in a hurricane of rainbow colors and hearing the odd shapes of things rise up and speak to define themselves. Playing with my shadow made me, an only child, feel less alone. Whenever I
had playmates, they were never quite real or present for me.
I considered them only replacements for my shadow. There were many shadows, too, in the life I had beyond childhood.
At times Sebastien Onius guarded me from the shadows. At other times he was one of them.
Births and deaths were my parents’ work. I never thought I
would help at a birth myself until the screams rang through the valley that morning, one voice like a thousand glasses breaking. I was sitting in the yard, on the grass, sewing the last button on a new indigo-colored shirt I was making for
Sebastien when I heard. Dropping the sewing basket, I ran through the house, to the señora’s bedroom.
Señora Valencia was lying on her bed, her skin raining sweat and the bottom part of her dress soaking in baby fluid.
Her water had broken.
As I lifted her legs to remove the sheets, Don Ignacio,
Señora Valencia’s father—we called him Papi—charged into the room. Standing over her, he tugged at his butterfly-shaped mustache with one age-mottled hand and patted her damp forehead with the other.
“¡Ay no!” the señora shouted through her clenched grinding teeth. “It’s too soon. Not for two months yet.”
Papi and I both took a few steps away when we saw the blood-speckled flow streaming from between his daughter’s legs.
“I will go fetch the doctor,” he said. His hidelike skin instantly paled to the color of warm eggshells.
As he rushed out the door, he shoved me back towards the señora’s bed, as if to say with that abrupt gesture that the situation being what it was, he had no other choice but to trust his only child’s life to my inept hands.
Thankfully, after Papi left, the señora was still for a moment. Her pain seemed to have subsided a bit. Drowning in the depths of the mattress, she took a few breaths of relief.
We sat for a while with her fingers clinging to mine, like when we were girls and we both slept in the same room.
Even though she was supposed to sleep in her own canopy bed and I was to sleep on a smaller cot across from hers,
she would invite me onto her bed after her father had gone to sleep and the two of us would jump up and down on the mattress, play with our shadows, and pretend we were four happy girls, forcing the housemaid—Juana—to come in and threaten to wake Papi who would give us a deeper desire for slumber with a spanking.
“Amabelle, is the baby’s bed ready?” With her hand still grasping mine, Señora Valencia glanced at the cradle,
squeezed between the louvered patio doors and her favorite armoire deeply carved with giant orchids and hummingbirds in flight.
“Everything is prepared, Señora,” I said.
Even though I wasn’t used to praying, I whispered a few words to La Virgen de la Carmen that the doctor would come before the señora was in agony again.
“I want my husband.” The señora clamped her eyes shut,
quietly forcing the tears down her face.
“We will send for him,” I said. “Tell me how your body feels.”
“The pain is less now, but when it comes on strong, it feels like someone shoves a knife into my back.”
The baby could be leaning on her back, I thought,
remembering one of my father’s favorite expressions when he and my mother were gathering leaves to cram into rum and firewater bottles before rushing off to a birthing. Without remembering what those leaves were, I couldn’t lessen the señora’s pain. Yes, there was plenty of rum and firewa -
ter in the house, but I didn’t want to leave her alone and go to the pantry to fetch them. Anything could happen in my absence, the worst of it being if a lady of her stature had to push that child out alone, like a field hand suddenly feeling her labor pains beneath a tent of cane.
“Amabelle, I am not going to die, am I?” She was shouting at the top of the soft murmuring voice she’d had since childhood,
panting with renewed distress between her words.
We were alone in the house now. I had to calm her, to help her, as she had always counted on me to do, as her father had always counted on me to do.
“Before this, the most pain I ever felt was when a wasp bit the back of my hand and made it swell,” she declared.
“This will pain you more, but not so much more,” I said.
A soft breeze drifted in through the small gaps in the patio doors. She reached for the mosquito netting tied above her head, seized it, and twisted the cloth.
Gooseflesh sprouted all over her arms. She grabbed my wrist so tight that my fingers became numb. “If Doctor
Javier doesn’t come, you’ll have to be the one to do this for me!” she yelled.
I yanked my hands from hers and massaged her arms and taut shoulders to help prepare her body for the birth. “Brace yourself,” I said. “Save your strength for the baby.”
“Virgencita!” she shouted at the ceiling as I dragged her housedress above her head. “I’m going to think of nothing but you, Virgencita, until this pain becomes a child.”
“Let the air enter and leave your mouth freely,” I suggested.
I remembered my mother saying that it was important that the women breathe normally if they wanted to feel less pain.
“I feel a kind of vertigo,” she said, twitching like live flesh on fire. Thrashing on the bed, she gulped desperate mouthfuls of air, even though her face was swelling, the veins throbbing like a drumbeat along her temples.
“I will not have my baby like this,” she said, trying to pin herself to a sunken spot in the middle of the bed. “I will not permit anyone to walk in and see me bare, naked.”
“Please, Señora, give this all your attention.”
“At least you’ll cover my legs if they come?” She grabbed her belly with both hands to greet another surge of pain.
I felt the contents of my stomach rise and settle in the middle of my chest when the baby’s head entered her canal. Still I
felt some relief, even though I know she did not. I told myself,
Now I can see a child will truly come of this agony; this is not entirely impossible.
In spite of my hopefulness, the baby stopped coming forward and lay at the near end of her birth canal, as though it had suddenly changed its mind and decided not to leave.
Numbed by the pain, the señora did not move, either.
“Señora, it is time,” I said.
“Time for what?” she asked, her small rounded teeth hammering her lower lip.
“It’s time to push out your child. I see the head. The hair is dark and soft, in ringlets like yours.”
She pushed with all her might, like an ant trying to move a tree. The head slipped down, filling my open hand.
“Señora, this child will be yours,” I said to soothe her.
“You will be its mother for the rest of your days. It will be yours like watercress belongs to water and river lilies belong to the river.”
“Like I belonged to my mother,” she chimed in, catching her breath.
“Now you will know for yourself why they say children are the prize of life.”
“Be quick!” she commanded. “I want to see it. I want to hold it. I want to know if it is a girl or a boy.”
Her forehead creased with anticipation. She tightened every muscle and propelled the child’s shoulders forward.
The infant’s body fell into my arms, covering my house apron with blood.
“You have a son.” I proudly raised the child from between her legs and held him up so she could see.
The umbilical cord stretched from inside her as I cradled the boy child against my chest. I wiped him clean with an embroidered towel that I’d cut and stitched myself soon after
I’d learned of the conception. I rapped twice on his bottom but he did not cry. It was Señora Valencia who cried instead.
“I always thought it would be a girl,” she said. “Every
Sunday when I came out of Mass, all the little boys would crowd around my belly as though they were in love with her.”
Like Señora Valencia, her son was coconut-cream colored,
his cheeks and forehead the blush pink of water lilies.
“Is he handsome? Are all his fingers and toes there?” she asked. “I don’t think I heard him cry.”
“I thought I would leave it to you to strike him again.”
I felt a sense of great accomplishment as I tore a white ribbon from one of the cradle pillows, wrapped it around the umbilical cord, then used one of the señora’s husband’s shaving blades to sever the boy from his mother. Señora Valencia was opening her arms to take him when a yell came. Not from him,
but from her. A pained squawk from the back of her throat.
“It starts again!” she screamed.
“What do you feel, Señora?”
“The birth pains again.”
“It is your baby’s old nest, forcing its way out,” I said,
remembering one of my mother’s favorite expressions. The
baby’s old nest took its time coming out. It was like another
child altogether. “You have to push once more to be certain it all leaves you.”
She pushed even harder than before. Another head of curly black hair slid down between her legs, swimming out with the afterbirth.
I hurried to put her son down in the cradle and went back to fetch the other child. I was feeling more experienced now.
Reaching in the same way, I pulled out the head. The tiny shoulders emerged easily, then the scraggly legs.
The firstborn wailed as I drew another infant from between Señora Valencia’s thighs. A little girl gasped for breath, a thin brown veil, like layers of spiderwebs, covering her face. The umbilical cord had curled itself in a bloody wreath around her neck, encircling every inch between her chin and shoulders.
Señora Valencia tore the caul from her daughter’s face with her fingers. I used the blade to snip the umbilical cord from around her neck and soon the little girl cried, falling into a chorus with her brother.
“It’s a curse, isn’t it?” the señora said, taking her daughter into her arms. “A caul, and the umbilical cord too.”
She gently blew her breath over her daughter’s closed eyes,
encouraging the child to open them. I took the little boy out of the cradle now and brought him over to the bed to be near his mother and sister. The two babies stopped crying when we rubbed the soles of their feet together.
Señora Valencia used the clean end of a bedsheet to wipe the blood off her daughter’s skin. The girl appeared much smaller than her twin, less than half his already small size. Even in her mother’s arms, she lay on her side with her tiny legs pulled up to her belly. Her skin was a deep bronze, between the colors of nut shells and black salsify.
Señora Valencia motioned for me to move even closer with her son.
“They differ in appearance.” She wanted another opinion.
“Your son favors your cherimoya milk color,” I said.
“And my daughter favors you,” she said. “My daughter is a chameleon. She’s taken your color from the mere sight of your face.”
Her fingers still trembling, she made the sign of the holy cross from her forehead down to the sweaty cave between her swollen breasts. It was an especially hot morning. The air was heavy with the scent of lemongrass and flame trees losing their morning dew to the sun and with the smell of all the blood the señora had lost to her children. I refastened the closed patio doors, completely shutting out the outside air.
“Will you light a candle to La Virgencita, Amabelle? I
promised her I would do this after I gave birth.”
I lit a white candle and set it on the layette chest beside the cradle that had been the señora’s own as a child.
“Do you think the children will love me?” she asked.
“Don’t you already love them?”
“I feel as if they’ve always been here.”
“Do you know what you will name them?”
“I think I’ll name my daughter Rosalinda Teresa to honor my mother. I’ll leave it to my husband to name our son. Amabelle,
I’m so happy today. You and me. Look at what we have done.”
“It was you, Señora. You did this.”
“How does my daughter look? How do you find my dusky rose? Does she please you? Do they please you? She’s so small.
Take her, please, and let me hold my son now.”
We exchanged children. For a moment Rosalinda seemed to be floating between our hands, in danger of falling. I looked into her tiny face, still streaked with her mother’s blood, and
I cradled her more tightly in my arms.
“Amabelle do you think my daughter will always be the color she is now?” Señora Valencia asked. “My poor love,
what if she’s mistaken for one of your people?”
What People are Saying About This
Edwidge Danticat's strong and unique voice speaks in the language of hearts. She knows the dreams and hidden thoughts of her characters, and her readers. She takes us traveling down a river of blood. That river sings in our veins.
Reading Group Guide
Testimony: An Introduction to
The Farming of Bones
"His name is Sebastien Onius. Sometimes this is all I know. My back aches now in all those places that he claimed for himself, arches of bare skin that belonged to him, pockets where the flesh remains fragile, seared like unhealed burns where each fallen scab uncovers a deeper wound."
The Dominican Republic and Haiti. Two countries sharing the same islandone poor, the other poorer. For decades, Haitians attempting to escape their country's abject poverty have streamed into the Dominican Republic to work as laborers in the sugarcane fields or as domestic help. In 1937, longstanding hostility between the two countries erupted, and Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo Molina decreed the slaughter of all Haitians on Dominican land. This is the historical backdrop for The Farming of Bones.
Amabelle, the heroine of Edwidge Danticat's haunting new novel, and her lover Sebastien are two such Haitian laborers who find themselves caught in the massacre of 1937. Amabelleorphaned at a young age when her parents drowned in the river that separates the two countriesis a housekeeper for Señora Valencia and her husband General Pico, who is supremely devoted to Generalissimo Trujillo. Sebastien cuts cane, the act from which Danticat draws the title of her book. It is called "the farming of the bones" because after a day in the searing heat of the fields, anticipating snakes and rats, brushing up against the razor sharp edges of the cane, the workers find their skin is shredded, their bones closer to the surface than the day before.
Indeed, The Farming of Bones abounds with complex shades of meaning. In the first few chapters of the novel, Amabelle helps Señora Valencia give birth to twins. When the doctor finally arrives to check on the newborns' health, he says to Amabelle, "Many of us start out as twins in the belly and do away with the other." Once again, Danticat has deftly teased out the duality of language. Haiti and the Dominican Republic, vying for resources on the same island, are much like twins in the same belly. The most horrifying example of language play in the novel is, of course, the treatment of the word perejil, or parsley. In order to prove to soldiers that they are Dominican, a person must be able to trill the "r" in the word for parsley. To fail this test is to become a victim of the slaughter.
While the story that Edwidge Danticat tellsthat of Amabelle's journey back to Haiti during the massacreis nightmarish indeed, it is undeniably transcendent. Amabelle's erotic dreams about Sebastien break through the carnage, and the narrative is enriched by profound meditations on life, love and survival. Danticat adeptly portrays the shock of having one's world disrupted by life's violent capriciousness. Just days before the massacre begins Sebastien and Amabellelovers who have just begun to help one another heal from earlier tragedybecome engaged. Separated from Sebastien by the military mayhem, Amabelle is left to wonder whether or not he has been killed, and to contemplate love's resiliency. Never knowing her lover's fate, she struggles to discover peace. She seeks respite in her relationship with Sebastien's friend Yves, and finds that the massacre has turned his heart to stone. She searches out Sebastien's mother, Man Denise, who is a shell of a woman without her son and daughter. Man Rapadou, Yves' mother, is a pillar of strength. Still, she too is "farming" her own bones, digging up and confronting demons from years past. Danticat vividly depicts the strangeness of the survivor's plightthe gaps left by unanswered questions, the dreams, the lost time. One must wonder: is Amabelle a survivor, or did she perish at the river along with her fellow travelers, with the poor cripple Tibon, with Odette and Wilner, and with the countless others who, unable to trill the "r" in perejil, were pushed from cliffs into the abyss? Indeed, how does one survive? For Amabelle, living becomes an act of healing. Each stitch she sews into a piece of fabric brings her closer to the word survival. And she expounds the power of testimony. Near the end of the novel, Amabelle listens to a Haitian tour guide discuss Henry I's citadel. "Famous men never truly die," he says, "It is only those nameless and faceless who vanish like smoke into the early morning air."
You do not die if someone remembers your name. And if there is one thing that Amabelle passionately resolves to accomplish in the aftermath of the massacre, it is remembering names. For if she forgets, she knows that all of their stories will be like "a fish with no tail, a dress with no hem, a drop with no fall, a body in the sunlight with no shadow." She will remember names. Most of all, she will remember Sebastien's.
ABOUT EDWIDGE DANTICAT
Edwidge Danticat's work illuminates the lives of people who have been displaced and injured by harsh, unpredictable political situations. And much like the survivors in her novels and short stories, Danticat's own life was detoured at a young age by the unstable politics in her homeland. Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, she was only four when her mother was forced to leave her and her brother behind to join her husband in the United States. Danticat did not arrive in America until she was twelve, and when she finally did settle in Brooklyn with her parents, she spoke only French and Creole. Still, she began writing stories in junior high school, and by the time she entered high school was ready to begin working on the school newspaper. She went on to get a degree in French from Barnard College and a master's degree in fine arts from Brown University. Her master's thesis became her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, which was published to great acclaim in 1994 and selected by Oprah's Book Club four years later. In 1995 her collection of stories, Krik? Krak!, was enthusiastically received and nominated for a National Book Award.
All of Edwidge Danticat's work is rich with her love of the storytelling tradition in Haiti, where "kitchen poets" would gather to trade stories of their lives. Steeped with uncommon wisdom yet fresh with sharp, youthful observations, her poetically resonant writing about Haitians past and present, in Haiti and in America, has moved hundreds of thousands of readers.
A Conversation with Edwidge Danicat
Which of your books do you perceive as being your finest work? Which was the most difficult to write? Why?
All three of my books have a special place in my heart. They were all written out of a certain compulsion, a great desire to tellin each case a story that has haunted me in some form or another for a long time. I can't really judge which one is my best work. However, The Farming of Bones was the most difficult of the three books to write because it takes place more than sixty years in the past, during a time in which I had not lived. I had to work harder at trying to recreate the setting, the events, the characters, the story. I feel like I became a better writer while in the process of writing this book.
Many critics express astonishment at the wisdom present in your work and surprise that, being a young woman, you have achieved such insight. Can you comment on this? Where do you think you gained such wisdom?
I think we are all born with a certain kind of intuition. I have always felt a bit older than my years, even when I was a child. However, I think my "insight," if indeed that's what it is, comes from spending time with a lot of the older women in my family when I was a child. I was always intrigued by the bond between older women who gathered together and the things they told each other. A lot of the stories I have written, including the story of The Farming of Bones, came out of listening to those female family conversations, which Paule Marshall so wisely calls "kitchen poetry."
Who are your greatest literary influences? What are you reading now?
My first "literary" influences were actually oral: my grandmothers and aunts and the stories they told, both in the structural forms of folktales and in the informal conversations they had with each other. I was also influenced by some very wonderful Haitian writers such as Marie Chauvet, Jacques Roumain, J. J. Dominique, and Jacques Stephen Alexis, whose own novel on the 1937 massacre, Compère General Soleil has just been translated into English as General Sun, My Brother. The works of Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Maryse Condé, and Jamaica Kincaid have also had a great impact on me. Right now I am reading Michele Wucker's Why the Cocks Crow?, Bob Schacocis' The Immaculate Invasion, and Assoto Saint's Spells of a Voodoo Doll, all related in some way to Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
What kind of reaction did you encounter in your historical research for The Farming of Bones? What type of information did you find most useful?
For me the most important part of the research was actually going and looking at the places where some of the events in the book took place, for example the river Massacre itself and the small towns along the Haitian-Dominican border. I would just stand there, in those places, and ask the voices from the past to speak to me. I tried to imagine what it was like sixty years ago both during the massacre and after. It was during one of those visits that the line from the book, "Nature has no memory" came to me.
It was also an exceptional experience to speak to the family members of the massacre survivors and the few people from these towns who had lived during the time of the massacrethey are very old now. It's hard to forget even the smallest details of what they say and do when you're talking to them.
Many people have called you the "voice of Haiti." Are you comfortable with this? What kind of reaction does your work get from the Haitian community?
It's wrong to say that anyone is the voice of such a large and diverse community. I am one of the many voices of Haiti, and we have many amazing voices. As far as reaction from the community, some people like my work and others do not. It's another example of the great variety of our tastes and reactions.
What parts of Amabelle do you react to most?
I identify very much with Amabelle's innocence, her purity of heart, her thoughtfulness, her attention to the small details of the heart, her desire to believe in the good in all people. I relate to her vulnerability to love, her feeling that being loved is such an exceptional gift. I identify with her feeling of uprootedness, of belonging to many different places at once, and not belonging anywhere at all.
An important theme in The Farming of Bones is that of survival. What do you think it means to survive? It is more than simply living through a chain of events, or does it imply a quality of life?
We have learned by now that the burden of the survivor is a great one. People who survive catastrophes are perceived by others as "lucky," but they carry of a lot of the survivor's guilt with them. Amabelle wonders a lot why she survived and why others did not, and for the rest of her life she has to figure out a new purpose for herself. She always lives with the fear of danger. "Breath, like glass," she says, "is always in danger." She is trying to understand whether she is meant to completely move away from what has happened to her or spend the rest of her life honoring it. Why was she chosen to live? Understanding this becomes a way of life for her, as well as for the other survivors.
How has your own emigration informed your fiction?
I think being an immigrant, you get to look at both your own culture and the culture you come to with fresh eyes. This is a great point of observation from which to examine both cultures, a very good space from which to write. I write both about Haiti and the United States as an insider/outsider. This makes me work harder to understand both cultures. I take nothing for granted about either place. Everything I write starts with my own personal quest for a better understanding of both places and their different cultures.
What are you working on now?
I am editing a book of personal essays by Haitian-Americans. I am also going back to writing short stories and articles, which I enjoy very much.
- What is the significance of the passage from Judges that opens the novel?
- After Amabelle births the two babies for Señora Valencia, Dr. Javier says to her, "Many of us start out as twins in the belly and do away with the other." Does this foreshadow what will come later in the novel? How? Did Dr. Javier know that what he was saying had a deeper meaning? What about Amabelle?
- As Pico races in his car to see his newborn twins, he hits and kills Joël, a friend of Sebastien's. While Pico and his father-in-law Papi insist that it was an accident, Sebastien and Yves are convinced that it is the beginning of the slaughter of the Haitians. What do you think? What does Amabelle think?
- Is the death of Señora Valencia's baby boy just a coincidence, or is it an example of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth"?
- Amabelle's parents drown during a hurricane, as did Sebastien's father, and in the 1937 slaughter, many Haitians were murdered on the bed of the river dividing the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Discuss the many functions of water in the novel, healing as well as destructive.
- Do you think that Amabelle knew that the massacre was coming, or was she truly naive about the impending tide of events?
- In many ways, The Farming of Bones is a meditation on survival. Each character in the novelAmabelle, Sebastien, Father Romain, Man Denise, Man Rapadou, just to name a fewhave different methods of survival. Can you discuss these? Are there any characters in particular that have survived with a better quality of life than others? What does it mean to survive?
- Were Amabelle's dream sequences an effective narrative technique? Why or why not? Did they give you more insight into her character? Which ones did you find to be the most powerful?
- How did you feel about Amabelle's relationship with Señora Valencia? Was it believable? Do you think that Señora Valencia would have been strong enough to protect Amabelle if she had stayed during the massacre? Were you surprised when Amabelle returned to visit her at the end of the novel?
- Throughout The Farming of Bonesstarting with the titlewords are given many shades of meaning. What are some examples of this? Discuss the significance of "parsley" in the novel.
- "Famous men never die, it is only those nameless and faceless that vanish like smoke into the early morning air." Why is this sentence so central to the theme of the novel?
- "Unclothed, I slipped into the current. . . I looked to my dreams for softness, for a gentler embrace, for relief of the mudslides and blood bubbling out of the riverbed, where it is said the dead add their tears to the river flow." This is from the last page of the book. What is happening here? What lies ahead for Amabelle?
PRAISE FOR The Farming of Bones
One of the Best Books of the Year
People, Entertainment Weekly, The Chicago Tribune,
Time Out New York, Publishers Weekly
Winner of an American Book Award
A New York Times Notable Book
One of the New York Public Library's Best Books of 1999
ALA Booklist Editor's Choice
"A powerful, haunting novel... Every chapter cuts deep, and you feel it."
"[With] hallucinatory vigor and a sense of mission... Danticat capably evokes the shock with which a small personal world is disrupted by military mayhem. . . The Farming of Bones offers ample confirmation of Edwidge Danticat's considerable talents."
The New York Times Book Review
"It's a testament to her talent that the novel, while almost unbearably sad, is still a joy to read."
"Danticat writes in wonderful, evocative prose, and she is especially adept at treading the path between oppression and grace. At times, it's a particularly painful path, but, always, a compelling one."
The Boston Sunday Globe
"A passionate story... Richly textured, deeply personal details particularize each of Danticat's characters and give poignancy to their lives. Often, her tales take on the quality of legend."
On Wednesday, September 16th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Edwidge Danticat to discuss THE FARMING OF BONES.
Moderator: Welcome to the barnesandnoble.com live Auditorium. Edwidge Danticat joins us tonight to chat about her phenomenal new novel, THE FARMING OF BONES. Good evening, Edwidge Danticat, and welcome to the Auditorium. We are pleased you could join us this evening. How are you tonight?
Edwidge Danticat: I'm fine, thank you. So happy to be able to chat with you.
Yolanda from Dartmouth: Hello, Ms. Danticat. Pleased to see you online this evening. Your relationship to Haiti's history as an author is very interesting to me, because I read that you came here from Haiti as a child. How much of the history which you describe in this book did you know then? When and how did you begin to learn about it?
Edwidge Danticat: Thank you so much, Yolanda. I'm glad you read the book. I knew a lot about Haitian history living in Haiti, but as I got older I got more and more interested in it, I guess as a way to center myself as a new immigrant in New York. Writing is the best way to get closer to a subject, and my writing allows me to visit Haiti even when I'm not there.
Marlo R. from Metaire, LA: Amabelle is such a compelling narrator -- strong and tough, but still emotionally torn and sensitive. Why did you decide to tell the story from her point of view?
Edwidge Danticat: Marlo, I decided to tell the story from Amabelle's point of view because I have always been fascinated by single historical narratives, such as Anne Frank's telling of the Holocaust, for example. I think we are all of us one voice in the chorus of history, and Amabelle is, too. Her character is loosely based on an actual woman who was killed at the dinner table by the colonel in the house where she worked during the massacre of 1937. That woman died, but Amabelle, through fiction, lives.
Jonathan from Seattle: How does your writing come into fruition? Do you mull over ideas, images, thoughts for a long period of time? Do you outline? Do you just start writing and see what happens? How does your inspiration come?
Edwidge Danticat: Jonathan, each piece of writing comes to fruition differently. Sometimes you start out with a line or a scene or overhear a conversation and suddenly that then becomes a story. Other times you start out with no idea where you going and end up with a book. I do mull over images and ideas for a long time. Some of them I use, some I don't. I don't outline, but I take notes. I keep a journal and write down snippets of ideas and thoughts. Writing comes partly from inspiration, but I think you also have to show up, sit down, and write so your muse can come more and more often.
Alan Brydan from Miami, FL: What are the attitudes like today in Haiti and the Dominican Republic regarding the massacre? How have attitudes changed over the years?
Edwidge Danticat: Alan, to the best of my knowledge, both sides have acknowledged the massacre. There are a lot of wonderful scholars on both sides who are trying to come to terms with the island's past and make sure that these things do not happen again. The reason for telling a story like that is not to rub salt on old wounds but to remind people that we can not let these things happen. Haiti took over the Dominican Republic once and we too caused them a lot of pain. As Amabelle would say, now it's time for testimony, but also for healing.
Penelope from Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY: Congratulations on your Oprah pick! How do you feel being in the company of such great writers as Anna Quindlen and Toni Morrison? Did you ever imagine such success so early? Right on!
Edwidge Danticat: Thanks, Penelope. The Oprah pick was an amazing surprise. I think Oprah does wonderful things for books and introduces writers and readers to each other who might not have ever met. I feel extremely humbled to be in the company of those great writers you mentioned. No, I didn't think these kinds of things would ever happen to me. You know, you always imagine that these things happen in other people's lives. Thanks a lot and keep reading!
Miranda Jeffreys from Utah: I finished this book last week and I can't get it out of my mind. Thank you for such a powerful and important novel. My question is, did you interview any survivors of the massacre to write this book? Have any survivors read THE FARMING OF BONES yet? What do they think?
Edwidge Danticat: Thanks for your very kind words, Miranda. Yes, I did interview a handful of survivors who were still alive. There were not that many of them, since it has been 60 years. A few of them have died since I interviewed them, and I'm sad that they didn't get a chance to at least see the finished book.
Jennifer LeCount from Oyster Bay, NY: I see you thanked Julia Alvarez in the end of your book. How did she help you in this book? What was it like working with her? Also, had you read her book about the massacre before you began your own?
Edwidge Danticat: Jennifer, I nervously sent the book to Julia when I was done. I was nervous because I admire her so much and I wasn't sure how she was going to take the story. She read it and gave me some important feedback about what was possible and not possible in a cultural context. She was a joy and a model of the "sister" in sisterhood. I loved IN THE TIME OF THE BUTTERFLIES. I read it as soon as it came out and have never forgotten it.
George Sachs from Chico, CA: Have you been back to visit Haiti since you moved to the U.S.? If so, what was the visit like?
Edwidge Danticat: George, I go to Haiti as often as I can. I have a lot of family still living there. The visits are always very memorable.
Saul Goodman from Peekskill, NY: Do you feel that the events described in your book bear any relation to the massacres that have occurred in recent history, like in Rwanda between the Tutsi and Hutu?
Edwidge Danticat: Saul, one of the things that struck me most while writing this book was how much history keeps reproducing itself in our everyday lives. In the 1930s and 1940s, you had the beginnings of the holocaust, the rape of Nanking and many other massacres. Now we have Bosnia and Rwanda. I was reading the other day that the first human narratives have to do with our conflicts with each other: massacres and wars. Yes, Bosnia and Rwanda were very much in my mind as I was writing.
Mary Ann from Phoenix, AZ: From whom have you learned the most about writing? What was the most important lesson you have had to learn thus far as a writer?
Edwidge Danticat: Mary Ann, I think I learned the most about writing from my grandmother, who was a wonderful storyteller. She used the oral tradition so extremely well. When she was telling a story, she was always very connected to her listeners. When they looked bored, she sped along. She was a master of plot and pacing. I try to imitate her way of telling tales in my writing. As far as the second part of your question: The most important lesson I've learned so far as a writer is to sit down as often as you can and actually try to write. Don't wait for inspiration. Just write as much as you can and try to read as much as you can, too. You learn to write by actually doing it.
Sarah from Houston, TX: Your novel is overwhelming -- the events and characters are all so vivid and emotionally charged. What was the most difficult character or event for you to write?
Edwidge Danticat: Sarah, thank you for your kind words. The most difficult character to write was Señora Valencia, who is Amabelle's boss and her good friend at the same time. I wanted to show her distance from Amabelle and still show how she is a good person too. I did the best I could, keeping in mind that everything was seen through Amabelle's eyes.
Olympia from East Village, NYC: What made you choose to call the book THE FARMING OF BONES?
Edwidge Danticat: Olympia, there is a great Creole expression that the cane farmers use. They say "nap travay te pou zo," which means they're working the land and growing bones. So I decided to translate that loosely as THE FARMING OF BONES. Pablo Neruda wrote a wonderful poem, too, in which there are the words "farming bones." I was able to find the line once in a book, but never again after that.
Andy from Oregon: Hi, Edwidge. I love your work, and I am enjoying the chat. Thanks for coming online! Could you name some of your favorite books for us? What are you reading now?
Edwidge Danticat: Thank you, Andy. I'm happy to be online. Right now I'm reading the new Walter Mosley book. It's called BLUE LIGHT and it's wonderful. I'm also reading a book called SEASONS OF DUST by Ifeona Fulani. I love Toni Morrison's BELOVED and Paule Marshall's BROWN GIRL, BROWNSTONES.
Louise from Athens, GA: What are you working on currently? I love all your past books, I've just ordered this new one, and I cannot wait to hear about what is coming next. Can you tell us a bit about what you are working on lately? Thank you.
Edwidge Danticat: Louise, I'm currently writing short stories and a few articles. I feel really emotionally exhausted after writing this book. I'll write short pieces for a while before tackling another book. Thank you so much for reading my work. I truly appreciate it.
Moderator: Thank you so much for joining us tonight, Edwidge Danticat. You have been a delightful guest, and it has truly been a pleasure. We wish you the best of luck, and hope you will join us again with your next book. Before you go, do you have any closing comments for your online audience?
Edwidge Danticat: Thank you for having me. Thanks barnesandnoble.com! Thanks a lot, everyone. It's been wonderful chatting with you. If you didn't get in tonight, come by and chat at one of the readings. Keep reading!
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I thought this book was an excellent representation of how life was treated back in 1937 in the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Not only was this a pure love story, but it was so factual and real. Danticat does an excellent job with her writing this novel, and deserves an applause. This book was touching and gripping at the same time. Annabelle the main character was caught in your mind for days afterwards..Sebastien and Annabelle make an adoring couple, even though they are so young. The end of the novel was beautifully written, which for all you readers out there, I do not wish to spoil the ending for you:)
This is a beautiful and haunting tale. I selected it for my book club and it rendered a complex and interesting discussion. I have visited the Dominican Republic and her lush illustrations brought back memories for me. I also learned a lot about Dominican and Haitian history and relations-- history and relations that are not taught to students here in the U.S. This book has universal appeal.
No more will Africans let others define African history from non-African perspectives. This is what this young yet talented writer, Edwidge Danticat, seems to say with each stroke of her pen. She sincerely articulates the pains of suffers of voiceless and oppressed. She has taken the resposibility to represent their contributions to history by legitimizing their pains, struggles, and triumphs by acknowledging them on the page. Which she successfully accomplishes here with her third novel 'Farming for Bones.' This story chronicles the turbulent life of a young Haitian-Dominican girl in Trujillo's Dominican Republic. The story follows along in Danticat's magically style reminiscent of Caribbean authors like Maryse Conde. Yet it still maintains a credibility that historians would appreciate. Her skill is fully apparent when one recognizes that she seamlessly combines fact and fiction, truth and story telling, history and thought. We would only hope that she continues to stay true to that inner voice that is the thread that has tied her three novels together. From one African to another, stay Black stay beautiful Edwidge! We are proud of you!
I read The Farming of Bones in one day. The story was compelling, the characters engaging, and the writing was prefect. Danticat had me hooked all the way through. An added plus was that it is historical fiction, my favorite genre. The Farming of Bones takes place during Rafael Trujillo reign of power in the Dominican Republic. Personally, I know very little about the Dominican Republic and it history. Most of what I know about this period I learned form The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, which I read back in 2009. The Farming of Bones, gave me another chance to learn about this moment in history and from the view point of a foreigner living in the Dominican Republic during the unrest. I could help about shuffle through my memory every now and again to remember bits and pieces of Diaz's novel and what I learned there to apply to this one. It was interesting to learn about the discrimination that Haitian workers experienced in the Dominican Republic, the history of the conflict between Haiti and the DR, as well the Massacre of 1937. This information along with the characters, their backstories and Danticat's writing style combined lead to a real page turner. I can't say that I liked one character more than another. They were all so well developed and thought out. The author could give you glimpses into the each characters background and what brought them to this moment in time. This made me keep turning pages to find out more about them and what fate had in store for them. The main character, Amabelle was the most flushed out (of course) and her story was heartbreaking at times (most of the time). I found myself rooting for her and hoping that by the time I got to the last page she would finally find even a little bit of happiness and peace. Her story did not end the way that I had hoped, but it felt right. I didn't find myself second guessing, there was no "What? Where did that come from?" moment. Danticat's choices for Amabelle (or any of the characters) were very much in line with the way the story was going, no surprise illogical twist. The writing style was amazing. That is the only way that I can describe it. One of my favorite passages: I will say that for me the end was a little unsatisfying. I felt that Danticat tried to wrap everything up with a bow. The ending seemed a little rushed to me and did not as nicely together with the story as the rest of the parts. In this case, there are somethings that I wish she had left me to wonder about.
The Farming of Bones was a book that I was very unsure about in several areas while I was reading it. I felt that the style of writing throughout the book was inconsistent. Sometimes it would be interesting, detailed, and easy to read, while other times it was unclear and lengthy with extemporaneous discriptions. The actual plot of The Farming of Bones was interesting, but it could not always be easily understood. For example, the ending; it was difficult to decipher whether Amabelle was cleansing herself in the river or committing suicide. It is understandable that maybe the author wanted an element of mystery, but it left the book without any closure.
I would not recommend The Farming of Bones to someone looking for a light, easy read. The book was complex and depressing; it was probably more appealing to someone who likes analysis and intricate themes.
Farming of Bones Amabelle Désir came to the Dominican Republic a few years, after her parents drowned trying to cross a river. She was found on the bank of that river, and Amabelle is adopted by a wealthy family who allows her to work for them as a servant.sleep she iswoken up every night by the nightmare of her parents drowning. she pairs up with Sebastien, a Haitian who works the cane fields that have ripped most of the skin on his black face, leaving him with scars. Sebastien lost his father in a hurricane, and he understands how Amabelle is sad. they promised each other they look forward to sharing life, trying to heal the scars of their past.When Trujillo orders the Massacre and a word--perejil --determines who lives and who dies. Amabelle and Sebastien are separated. Once she makes the dangerous journey back to Haiti, escaping both Trujillo's soldiers and ordinary Dominican citizens, Amabelle searches for Sebastien, hoping that he, like Saint Sebastian could have two deaths. The first one comes quick enough, so it's good to have another one as back up.
Though I did not pick up this book for pleasure reading, I found that indeed it was a pleasure to read. Through graphic and beautiful language Danticat paints a poignant picture of a land that not many of us have ever experienced. In her beautiful descriptions of the culture and the land she gives an truthful idea of the small country of Haiti. Though sometimes confusing and not fast-paced, the poetic language and short chapters in which she describes Amabelles dreams and thoughts make this book a treasure to read and a jewel of otherwise unknown knowledge. I highly recommend this novel.
While it has been described as "heavy" "depressing" and "a downer",this book is lyrical in its ability to describe unspeakable violence, revealing in its historical detail, stimulating in pushing the reader to search out more about this time and epoch. Seen through the eyes of a young Haitian orphan Amabelle Desir who was raised by a middle class Dominican family, and her lover Sebastian Onius, a Haitian who has come to the DR side of the island of Hispaniola seeking work in the cane fields (known as the farming of bones) we learn of the extreme racial tension between the Haitians, who speak a bastardized French knows as Kreyol, and the Dominicans who are of Spanish extraction and who also number among them many blacks of African descent. This story dwells almost completely on the massacre of Haitians who were living and working in the Dominican Republic during the reign of Generalissimo Trujillo, and certainly leaves this reader hungry to find out more of the background and history of the peoples of this island.The story of Amabelle's life before, during, and after the massacre is bone-chilling. It is difficult to imagine how any woman could survive such violence. Her inner strength seems to have come from her parents, who drowned crossing the river between the two countries, while she stood on the "wrong side" and watched it happen. In her mind, as she replayed the story over and over again, she heard her parents' encouragement, felt their love, and knew that someday she too would float off in the river to join them. In the meantime, she accepted her fate, used her inate talents, and became a trusted member of her adoptive family (although in a servant's role.)It was a difficult book to read, but it was so well written that once I picked it up and began, I found it even more difficult to put down. I finished it in less than a day. Edwidge Danticat has given us a striking picture of a woman's strength of character, and inspired us to look more into history to see what the world can do to insure no other women (or their menfolk) have to endure such atrocities in the future. It is not a book for the timid, nor is it a book for young readers, but by late high school, it is excellent reading for all who need to be exposed to the cruelty man has wreaked upon his fellow humans.
I absolutely loved The Farming of Bones. I had to read this for my college literature class. I think it's the first historical fiction that I've read, so I wasn't too into the book at first. However, Danticat told the story beautifully. Her writing was so real that I felt like I was there, first hand, experiencing what I was reading. She writes so vividly that she had me turning the page to see what was going to happen next. I've started reading her other books, because I love her writing so much. Actually, this book is what got me into reading historical fiction! Highly recommended!!
Heart-wrenching story set against the very real and disturbing 1937 Parsley Massacre in the Dominican Republic where tens of thousands of Haitians were slaughtered. Almost missed my subway stop a few mornings this week, that's how intense it gets.
The main character Amabelle is a Haitian born orphan. She is the servant of a Dominican family consisting of a widowed father and his young daughter who happens to be the same age as Amabelle. Amabelle was discovered by the widow and his daughter by the river the same day her own parents drowned. Amabelle's lover Sebastien works 'farming the bones" which is harvesting sugarcane. Their lives change forever when terror, madness and murder erupts throughout Alegria.The beginning of this book was quite intriguing but Amabelle's latter years did not quite take shape. It seems as if the author just did not know what direction Amabelle's life should have taken after the massacre. I was very disappointed when Sebastien was simply lost in the narrative when he was lost during the massacre. It is never confirmed if he is killed during the massacre or if he escaped. We are left to assume the worse. Amabelle escapes the massacre with Sebastien's best friend Yves. Even though Amabelle spends the rest of her life living with Yves and his mother, Amabelle and Yves never really form a close relationship of any kind. The most interesting part of the narrative for me is when death, during the massacre, was determined by whether or not a person could pronounce the Spanish translation of the word parsley. The Dominican people knew that the Kreyol speaking Haitians could not pronounce the trill of the "r" of perejil which was the Spanish translation of parsley. This reminded me of the word "shibboleth" used in the Bible to determine the regional origin of the displaced Ephraimites (Judges 12:5-6). I cannot help but wonder did the author have this in mind when writing this area of the text. Initially, I could not put this book down but the last stretch was hard for me to work through. I hated the ending. It was so elusive that I wanted to scream. This was my first Edwidge Danticat novel and I look forward to reading more of her work. Danticat's writing style reminds me of Toni Morrison's but without the complexity. Her characters have a lot of ambiguity like Morrison. I like the overall writing style of Danticat but I did not like the structure of this particular novel.
A compelling story of human nature, cultural conflict, survival and love set in 1937 in the Dominican Republic. Edwidge Danticat writing is lyrical and compelling. Highly recommended.
Edwidge Danticat's The Farming of Bones is a work of art. Danticat masterfully evokes the atmosphere of hatred and terror of the massacre of Haitians by Dominicans through the eyes of Amabelle, a young woman with only a few memories of her childhood and an incredibly uncertain future. A wonderfully rich fictional account of an widely ignored atrocity.
I could not absolutely put this book down. I believe that the author did a magnificent job at making the reader become part of the story. It is a must read. I absolutely loved it when I read it the first time and the second and the third time.
Danticat has really captured the spirit of the persecution of the Haitian people. The story is riviting and captivating, and the characters entirely enthralling.
This book is absolutely wonderful, sad but wonderful! Danticat is a great writer and I can not wait her next arrival.
I deeply enjoyed reading this work for many reasons. As a haitian american I have always had an interest in understanding the history and problems which exist and have existed in Haiti, but in reading several texts I often find that the language of the genre is often uninteristing. For me Danticat changes that, she takes a historical event in Haitian history and structures it magnificently through the eyes of her young female character. I am glad that there is someone like Ms. Danticat in the literary world to help young Haitians like myself gain a better understanding of Haiti and its culture.