Textual Healing: Giving Voice to Historical and Personal Experience in the Collective Works of Edwidge Danticat

Article excerpt


In the introductory chapter of The Butterfly's Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States, Edwidge Danticat recounts a conversation she had in 1993 with fellow Haitian Jean Dominique, a radio journalist and activist, about the state of affairs in their beloved homeland, Haiti (for Danticat "dyaspora" is a Haitian term used to "identify the hundreds of thousands of Haitians living in many countries of the world"). Dominique lamented to Danticat, "Edwidge, my country needs hope." At that time, Haiti was rife with injustices, both internal and external in cause; a homeland where thousands of civilians were being maimed and murdered by corrupt "paramilitary forces" and political leaders were being assassinated. For most Haitians, all hope was lost. However, Danticat notes that Dominique's image of Haiti was antithetical to the blended historic/futuristic vision most Haitians longed for--a place where "Haitians realize the full potential for greatness [their] forefathers and foremothers had displayed when they had battled their way out of slavery almost two hundred years ago, to create the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere." But this utopist vision merely functions as an umbrella that both protects the vision of hope and also hides what infects Haiti from within--violence, rape, poverty, oppression, and silencing. In the corpus of Danticat's work, she blends this utopist vision of hope with haunting narratives that recount violence and suffering, narratives that leave readers wanting more, specifically closure for her characters. What is most intriguing about Danticat's writing is how she weaves personal, communal, and historical loss in narratives that give voice to a traumatic past that continues to linger in the imagination of Haitians; and, out of this textual witnessing Danticat is able to facilitate closure, which is a step towards healing.

Danticat uses three particular tools to weave her narratives and the traumatic experiences of her characters--storytelling linked to Haitian oral tradition, particular historical and cultural events that continue to linger in the imagination of Haitians, and allusion to figures significant in Haitian folklore that expose the traumatic history of her characters. Some of Danticat's storytellers, particularly Sophie in Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994) and Amabelle in The Farming of Bones (1998), humanize the experiences of trauma, loss, and restoring one's life while wrestling with the effects of traumatic memory. Through this process readers not only empathize with Danticat's characters but also find themselves wanting resolution for these characters, a resolution that Danticat purposely does not deliver.

Trauma theorists note that the process of vocalizing one's traumatic experiences is a vital first step towards healing. For example, in Testimony: Crises of Witnessing In Literature, Psychology, and History, Shoshana Felman argues that once a person decides to give voice to traumatic events they experience "a liberation which allows him for the first time to experience feeling both of mourning and of hope," realizing for the first time "the extent to which this burden--and this silence--has in fact affected, and reshaped, his whole life." While we see the beginnings of healing for Sophie, Amabelle, and their families, readers also witness their struggle with a process that is messy and on-going, a process that will not mete out closure in the span of the narrative.

To work through a traumatic memory, a veil of silence that has encapsulated and entrapped the memory must be lifted. For Danticat, this veil of silence surrounds the oppression and violence that occurred as a result of both Trujillo's formidable quest for domination in Hispaniola in the late 1930's and also the later American occupation of Haiti. Violence arising out of these eras resulted in decades of a continuing inability to tell what happened. As Felman notes, this inability to tell creates "distorted" memories that gain a stronghold over the imagination of Haitians and continue to gain power over the individual as they try to move forward with their lives. …