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 withou