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  • Danticat's Vodou Vernacular of Women's Human Rights
  • Gwen Bergner (bio)


In Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (2011), Edwidge Danticat tells a "creation myth" of her origins as a writer. She begins with the execution in 1964 of two young men by Papa Doc Duvalier for their opposition to his dictatorship (5). Exiled from Haiti upon Duvalier's ascent to power, the men, named Numa and Drouin, had "abandoned comfortable lives in the United States and sacrificed themselves for the homeland" (7). Though she was not born at the time, Danticat has fleshed out the familiar oral history with written and visual accounts, including a film that provides details like the angle of the men's gaze just before they are shot, the angle of their heads just after, and the captive audience of common citizens forced to watch. Speaking of the milieu of political repression and clandestine opposition in Port-au-Prince, her father explained that young people "desperately needed art that could convince" and so staged plays in churches and read "subversive literature" in their homes (8). It is for readers like these, who, like Numa and Drouin, risked "disobedience to a directive," that Danticat aims to create "as though each piece of art were a stand-in for a life, a soul, a future" (10, 20).

Considering the relationship among political persecution, resistance, and Danticat's art, I situate her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994), in relation to the transnational and Haitian women's activism of the 1980s–1990s that sought political recognition for women's human rights. In fact, this movement arose from the two factors Danticat cites as formative for her own work: state violence under Duvalier and the resulting exodus of Haitians. During this [End Page 521] period, Haitian women's organizations developed in the US, Canada, and Haiti—first to oppose Duvalier's dictatorship, which only ended with the overthrow of Baby Doc in 1986, and then to promote democracy and women's rights during the ensuing political instability of 1987–1990, the ouster of democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991, and the regime of General Raoul Cédras (1992–1994), which used rape to quash political opposition and control the populace. This period encompasses the novel's temporal setting and Danticat's early childhood in Haiti under the Duvaliers, as well as the post-Duvalier years during which she wrote and published the novel in the US.1

Breath, Eyes, Memory does not engage in the explicit human rights talk that NGOs, activists, or states do. Nevertheless, Danticat uses what I call a Vodou vernacular to link quotidian sexual abuse within a patriarchal culture to gender violence sanctioned by a dictatorship. The novel centers on Martine Caco, who was raped as a teenager (perhaps by a Tonton Macoute, the militia of the Duvalier dictatorship), and her daughter Sophie, to whom Martine passes this trauma by "testing" Sophie's virginity. Indeed, Martine's mother had also "tested" her, and the novel relates the rape and the testing through the trope of the Marassa, the spirit twins of Haitian Vodou.2 In Vodou, the Marassa represent the division of an original cosmic totality into contrasting realms such as dark and light, male and female, and material and immaterial worlds. They also signal the twinned nature of human beings who each contain these dualities. For Danticat, the Marassa configures the bonds and conflicts of the mother-daughter relationship, the psychic dissociation Sophie experiences when her mother "tests" her, and the paradox that Haiti's rulers can live as ordinary family men yet perpetrate violence against their people. Vodou here offers a narrative strategy linking victims and perpetrators—family and state—to advance a feminist claim of its historical moment: that rape and other forms of gender violence constitute human rights violations that cannot be bracketed as cultural tradition or individual criminality.

The term vernacular joins earlier commentary on the novel with current theories of human rights discourse. Critics note that Danticat uses such domestic vernaculars as folklore, storytelling, and cooking to reveal a history of sexual violence usually omitted from Haiti's political narrative.3 As Valérie...


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pp. 521-545
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