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Disease in Virgil and Edwidge Danticat's "The Farming of Bones"

Julia Nelson Hawkins

The Ohio State University

This paper will demonstrate how the Haitian-feminist writer Edwidge Danticat’s novel, The Farming of Bones (1998), adapts Virgil’s treatment of epidemic disease in the Georgics and Aeneid as an organizing principle. Virgil presents the Roman Civil Wars as a type of infectious disease in these poems to signal the threat of Egyptian contagion and to highlight the potential of Augustus’ divine healing, though the pestilential danger of Egypt is never fully quarantined (Hawkins 2019). Contagion in Virgil is, thus, a polysemous idea that straddles both sides of the political binary and functions within a cultural and linguistic context similar to Roberto Esposito’s idea of “immunity.” For Esposito, various elements of law, philosophy, biology, and other cultural systems create a pathway for individuals to strive for exemption, or “immunity,” from the contagion of “community” (p.52). Throughout The Farming of Bones, however, Danticat reworks Virgil’s description of Civil War as plague in her treatment of Hispaniola, which she depicts as infected with a fratricidal, internecine strife, in order to unravel the very warp and weft of imperial colonialism at the heart of Virgil’s Georgics and Aeneid. Danticat, I argue, adapts Virgil’s disease metaphor as an act of post-colonial counter-discourse (Tiffin 1995).

Danticat’s novel deals with the brutal 1937 pogrom, known from Haitian sources as the Parsley Massacre, in which Dominican soldiers killed somewhere between 12,000 and 35,000 Haitians. Throughout her retelling of Dominican President Trujillo’s purge, Virgil looms large. The very title of her novel is a nod to the famous image of the farmer at the end of Georgics 1, who finds the bones of soldiers who had fought in the Civil Wars as he turns the soil (Geo. 1. 461-5). Danticat’s engagement with the Georgics informs her presentation of agricultural labor in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the twin nations, like Romulus and Remus, which attempt to share Hispaniola and its cash crop: sugar cane.

With the Aeneid, by contrast, Danticat transforms the colonial narrative of the conquering hero, who sails west to found an empire, into a story about a woman’s resistance to oppression and genocide. By the end of The Farming of Bones her female Aeneas figure flees west, back to her native Haitian side of the island and away from the traumas of the Parsley Massacre. Like Virgil’s hero, she too must cross a dangerous body of water. In the Haitian context, however, she does not cross the Aegean but, rather, the Dajabon or ‘Massacre’ River that divides Haiti from the Dominican Republic and which is coded within the novel as a tumultuous sea. The story ends with a heart-breaking meditation by the neo-Virgilian heroine on Haiti’s history as monumenta doloris, “monuments of grief”—Virgil’s phrase that catalyzes Aeneas’ final murderous act, sending Turnus’ ghost screaming toward the underworld. For Danticat, Virgil’s ghosts that echo the horrors of war become Haitian zombies, tormented by the memory of genocide.

Within this Virgilian context contagion is key. Dominicans in the novel, including the “Generalissimo” Trujillo himself, describe Haitians as a contamination that infects Dominican blood, in a reversal of Aen. 12.838-9, where Virgil claims that the mixing of Trojan and Italian blood will create a master race that will “surpass gods and men in virtue.” In two pivotal passages Danticat emphasizes that parsley is a native healing plant that cures Haitian ills in order to highlight the perversity of its use by Trujillo as an image of healing through ethnic “cleansing.” This is a reworking, I argue, of Virgil’s use of the plant dictamnum in Aen. 12. 412 as a symbol for Augustan healing. Danticat’s reception of Virgil’s plague narrative, I conclude, functions to resist and dismantle the literary and historical codes of Western imperial domination as a form of narrative decolonization (Clitandre 2001).

Session/Panel Title

Contagious Narrative

Session/Paper Number

49.4

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