A Border is a Veil Not Many People Can Wear: "The Farming of Bones" and the Memory of Fear
The very last class of my undergrad wasn’t supposed to happen. I had graduated! Walked with my fellow classmates, had parties, said goodbyes, and had a move-out date set for the apartment I’d lived in for three years. Then I got the call that I needed one more class for my degree. I’d spent a solid year in meetings with admissions, changing my class schedules, even dropping my minor in order to graduate on time. It was time to be done. It was time to move on from my small college town.
Instead, I took a 4-week summer course and extended my lease a little bit longer. Me and one other student in the class, 2 days a week, with one of my earliest English professors – a southern transplant terror – and someone who instantly intimidated me. She had big red hair and energy that both encouraged and decimated with just a look. The way her eyes would narrow and her voice would click before speaking. I’ll always remember the day in my critical theory class when she dismissed us because not enough people were answering her questions. A “get out if I’m the only one talking” flair of drama and dominance.
In this new class, though, with only one other student, I definitely had to participate. Luckily, we were re-reading 2 of the 4 novels I’d read the first time I’d had her as a teacher. Easy enough, right? One of the novels I’ve already written about, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. A truly impactful novel you can read more about here. The other was The Farming of Bones, an American Book Award winner, by Edwidge Danticat.
If you don’t know her already, let me introduce you. Edwidge Danticat has become quite the established writer and one of my favorites, authoring, “several books, including Breath, Eyes, Memory, an Oprah Book Club selection, Krik? Krak!, a National Book Award finalist, [...], The Dew Breaker, Create Dangerously, and Claire of the Sea Light.” As well as numerous short stories, and pieces for The New Yorker.
The Farming of Bones is a story to pass on. A message that becomes clearer and clearer as you read. The story:
begins in 1937 in a village on the Dominican side of the river that separates the country from Haiti. Amabelle Desir, Haitian-born and a faithful maidservant to the Dominican family that took her in when she was orphaned, and her lover Sebastien, an itinerant sugarcane cutter, decide they will marry and return to Haiti at the end of the cane season. However, hostilities toward Haitian laborers find a vitriolic spokesman in the ultra-nationalist Generalissimo Trujillo who calls for an ethnic cleansing of his Spanish-speaking country. As rumors of Haitian persecution become fact, as anxiety turns to terror, Amabelle and Sebastien's dreams are leveled to the most basic human desire: to endure. Based on a little-known historical event, this extraordinarily moving novel memorializes the forgotten victims of nationalist madness and the deeply felt passion and grief of its survivors.
Amabelle’s story, like the story of Sebastien and many others in the book, needs to be told.
The phrase, “A border is a veil not many people can wear,” comes up towards the end of the novel. At first, reading it felt confusing to me, like something was missing from the sentence. The kind of line that makes you pause, but as the novel continues, I realized something: That for Amabelle, a border can mean many things. While also implying the atrocities she witnessed and endured while trying to flee to Haiti, it could also mean something psychically. For her, the border is both physical and mental. Later, Amabelle reflects on what survival meant for her:
Instead I dreamt of walking out of the world, of spending all my time inside with no one to talk to, and no one to talk to me. All I wanted was a routine, a series of sterile acts that I could perform without dedication or effort, a life where everything was constantly the same, where every day passed exactly like the one before.
She becomes a person closed off from the world and yet also desperate to share her story, and the story of those she loved. The border had closed in on her.
Lately, as I read and hear more about the conflict over American borders, I can’t help but think back to this novel. While certainly not the same in scope or loss of life, the trauma is still there. The trauma of migration, displacement, and detention of those trying to just save themselves. Amabelle recalls:
I had never desired to run away. I knew what was happening, but I did not want to flee. “Where to?”, “Who to?”, was always chiming in my head.
Of all the people killed, I will wager that there were many asking like me “Who to?” Even when they were dying and the priests were standing over them reciting ceremonial farewells, they must have been asking themselves, “Go in peace. But where?”
So I see the news, and think, “But where?” A border is a veil not many people can wear.
This book makes a strong case for how a border is more than a border for many, and will be for the rest of their lives. The Farming of Bones is a story to pass on, because it is a story that we are in danger of repeating. Maybe someday we’ll learn from it.
In a way, I’m grateful for that extra class. It became like a capstone to my time in college. It forced me to remember how much I had changed over those years between “Intro to Critical Theory” and my senior seminar. It also allowed me to revise my opinions on someone who once made me too afraid to raise my hand in class. To see my professor in a new light. It’s been over six years since I read The Farming of Bones for a second time, and yet the pain this novel evokes still feels like yesterday. I think about this book and I see borders between people. I see fire red hair and feel judgment. I see the difference between a single class and a degree. I think about how easy it is to fear people you don’t even know.