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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.1 (2002) 83-112

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Re-membering Hispaniola:
Edwidge Danticat's The Farming of Bones

April Shemak

Caribbean literature has been distinguished by its engagement with national and subaltern histories. Novels coming out of the Caribbean typically reflect the socio-political issues that make up the region by engaging with the voices of the oppressed and, in doing so, challenge and transform conventional colonial constructions of history. Recently, there has been a trend in Caribbean fictions to represent subaltern voices by mimicking testimonio, a genre that arose out of Caribbean and Central American social and political movements as a way to foreground the voices of the oppressed. 1 Specifically, critics such as John Beverley and George Yúdice have promoted testimonio as a consciousness-raising genre, giving "First World" readers insight into "Third World" political and social injustices. Yúdice defines testimonio as:

an authentic narrative, told by a witness who is moved to narrate by the urgency of a situation (e.g., war, oppression, revolution, etc.). Emphasizing popular, oral discourse, the witness portrays his or her own experience as an agent (rather than a representative) of a collective memory and identity. Truth is summoned in the cause of denouncing a present situation [End Page 83] of exploitation and oppression or in exorcising and setting aright official history. (qtd. in Gugelberger 9) 2

One of the conventions of these fictional testimonios is a narrator who serves as an eyewitness to acts of brutal oppression. Often, these fictional testimonios represent actual historical events, but challenge existing histories through their representations. In this analysis, I specifically address recent fictional testimonios written in English that historicize Hispaniola. The novel that has received the most attention for doing this is Dominican-born Julia Alvarez's 1995 work, In the Time of the Butterflies, which was lauded by critics as a novel that broke new ground by placing women at the center of Dominican history. 3 The majority of Alvarez's novels, including How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, ¡Yo!, and In the Name of Salomé focus on Dominican experiences in the United States, where she herself now lives. Set during the period of strident nationalism in the Dominican Republic under dictator, Rafael Trujillo (1930-60), In the Time of the Butterflies is her only novel to date that focuses solely on the Dominican Republic. The novel functions as a fictional testimonio told through the multiple narrative voices of the Mirabal sisters (actual historical figures--three of whom were murdered by the regime). These voices testify to the regime's oppression as well as disrupt the linear patriarchal construction of history. The Mirabals were part of the white elite in the Dominican Republic, yet they each also participated in the popular struggle for freedom from the totalitarian Trujillo government. While their stories attest to the regime's oppression of Dominicans, they make little mention of Haitian oppression or the 1937 massacre of 20,000 Haitians by Trujillo's army. Furthermore, the women Alvarez writes about have been remembered and memorialized in the Dominican Republic and throughout Latin America for the violence enacted on their bodies. 4 Yet as part of the white elite the Mirabals are hardly representative of the majority of Dominican women's experiences in a nation with a majority mulatto population. 5 Thus, for all of In the Time of the Butterflies' radicalism, it ends up reproducing a nationalistic history that ignores class and racial divisions within the nation. For example, one of the more troubling aspects of the novel is the representation of the Mirabal family's longtime servant, Fela, who, through her practice of Santería rituals, acts as a "medium" through which the dead sisters communicate with the living (174). Rarely do we ever hear Fela speak so that [End Page 84] we know very little about her other than her role as a facilitator in the lives of the sisters. One is left to wonder how Fela's testimonial might disrupt not only the regime's history, but also the Mirabal...


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