Raising Cane

Like her writing, Edwidge Danticat's conversation is at once plainspoken and reticent, spare yet conceptually lush, the Caribbean lilt and measured cadence of her words recalling the tension of beauty and terror that characterizes her tortured native Haiti. Although The Farming of Bones is fashioned from real-life events circa 1937, Danticat says she is hardly expert in a culture that, as is true for many emigrants, grows more significant as it grows more remote. "In Haiti, they call people like me part of a black diaspora," muses the author, who has lived the last 17 of her 29 years in Brooklyn. "They say, 'Look at her, she's diaspora.' But when I go back, I don't feel so much like an outsider as I do like someone who's been away for a while. Time passes, and I say to myself, 'Okay, I'm in. I'm back.' If we are honest with ourselves, we must say, 'I am different. I have a different relationship to this place than people who still live here.'"

Acclaimed for her first two works - the novel Breath, Eyes, Memory and Krik? Krak!, a short-story collection - Danticat is in the enviable position of being a well-regarded author before she turns 30. In the literary world at large, that's rare; in the drastically smaller sphere of black literary authors, it's unheard of. Though her previous tales are also set in Haiti, Danticat took a plunge in Bones by choosing a historical event that, removed from her by several generations, was not readily accessible to her. She traveled to Haiti to research the plight of the bone farmers - the ominous sobriquet given to sugar-cane cutters - and to talk to friends and relatives who lived through or heard stories about the ethnic cleansing that the Dominican Republic, a major sugar-producing country, once perpetrated on neighboring Haiti and its poor migrant workers. Tales of the cane workers resonated through Danticat's childhood as part oral history, part cautionary folklore. "A lot of the workers would go over the border and just vanish," she says. "People would never hear from them again. It was very hard to get word back to families. In their absence, people would imagine what happened, and the fear of all the possibilities became part of their history."

Bones has a wary feel that stems from the fact that its protagonist is essentially rootless. Orphaned at an early age by the drowning death of her parents, Amabelle is continually seeking safe emotional ground. She seems oddly divorced from everything around her, even in the happiest, pre-massacre moments of the early chapters. Danticat used Amabelle as a first-person narrator because she wanted to tell this war story through the eyes of someone who rarely narrates in literature: a young woman. Channeling the enormity of the experience through one person also had a particular appeal. "I've always been fascinated by single narrations of history - Anne Frank, the one voice," says Danticat. Unlike Frank, Amabelle lives. "With a lone person, there is not just triumph in the survival story, there is triumph in the telling of it. There is a joy at having survived, a sense of disbelief that you survived at all and that you have a new life. But there is also the burden of survival."

In Amabelle's story one hears echoes of the saga of black Americans, whose culture is grounded in the notion of survival against the worst odds, fashioned from whatever tools or ragged optimism lie handy. Struggle has become synonymous with the black story the world over, especially in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. To Danticat, little has changed there. "People are still cane-cutting," she says. "Manual labor is still considered a chance at a better life. It's bad. Unemployment is very high." Yet like her, plenty of Haitian-born Americans constantly go back to visit and stay long. "You know," says Danticat, seized with a thought, "if Haiti was like Bermuda, nobody would leave."

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