At the Crossroads: Disability and Trauma in the Farming of Bones

Article excerpt

In October of 1937, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered his troops to massacre as many as 15,000 Haitians living in the Dominican Republic. (1) The attack came as a complete surprise to these Haitians as well as to many Dominicans; no prior event had warned them of what was about to take place. The killings were swift and particularly brutal. (2) Trujillo ordered his soldiers to use machetes and other crude weapons instead of guns, a brutality captured by the name of the massacre: in Spanish, El Corte, the cutting, and in Haitian Kreyol, kout kouto, the stabbing. (3) Those who survived lived with permanent injuries, scars, and impairments as well as the psychological trauma of having experienced a massacre.

After visiting Haiti in order to research the testimonies of survivors, Haitian-born Edwidge Danticat wrote The Farming of Bones (1998), a historical novel that tells the story of one individual's experience of the attack and its devastating effects. Her novel is filled with wounded and disabled individuals whose marked, scarred bodies prevent them and those around them from forgetting what has happened. For disability studies scholars, the novel presents a complex perspective on the meanings of disability and the relationship of disability to trauma; yet to date, no literary scholars have explored the relevance of interpretive frameworks provided by disability studies. Instead, critics have discussed the novel's central issues--memory, testimony, nationalism, displacement, language, and corporeality--using a critical vocabulary drawn from other disciplines, including Caribbean and Latin American studies, feminist theory, postcolonial theory, Holocaust studies, and trauma theory. The result has been a rich and rewarding body of criticism on the novel, but one that lacks any mention of disability.

In the spirit of rereading espoused by Michael Berube (576), I propose reconsidering Danticat's novel with a closer attention to disability. In order to do this, we need a critical vocabulary that incorporates concepts from disability studies into existing discussions about testimony, memory, and trauma in The Farming of Bones. Such a vocabulary, however, remains elusive. As James Berger argues, a "discursive abyss" separating disability studies from trauma studies has resulted in two separate and disconnected theoretical discussions about frequently overlapping phenomena (563). Within disability studies, this discursive abyss manifests itself in the absence of a sustained inquiry into trauma and loss. Berger suggests that the political origins of disability studies--namely, its links with the disability rights movement in the US, its critique of oppressive discourses that have constructed the absolute alterity of those who live with disabilities, and its concern with "achieving equal access to full social, professional, and political lives" for disabled individuals--has taken precedence over an exploration of the "particularities of loss" of any one individual (572). Indeed, these political goals have resulted in a reluctance to admit that disability is at times accompanied by feelings of loss, fear, or mourning (572). Berger finds this omission somewhat "remarkable" (571):

   Not all instances of disability are traumatic, certainly not in a
   direct way. But many are, such as those produced by war, accident,
   and sudden debilitating illness, both for the individuals affected
   and for their families.... Disability, particularly when
   experienced after infancy or childhood, involves loss, and loss
   entails mourning. A theory of disability might well try to include
   a theory of loss specific to disability--that is, the loss of
   physical, mental, and neurological capacities. The world itself,
   and one's own body, must be relearned, processes clearly analogous
   to some of the central concerns of trauma studies. One would think
   that a theory of disability would address such questions of trauma,
   loss, mourning, and regeneration that seem so closely associated
   with many people's experiences of disability. …