The influence of names in Edwidge Danticat’s “Farming of Bones”
by Nefeli Brandhorst Kapernekas
In October 1937, the Parsley Massacre, one of the 20th century’s least commemorated acts of genocide, took up to 20,000 Haitian lives. This mass slaughter was ordered by the dictator, Rafael Trujillo, to decimate Haitians, living in the Dominican Republic and cleanse it from ‘outsiders’. In The Farming of Bones, author Edwidge Danticat tells the story through the eyes of a young Haitian girl named Amabelle, taken to work for a family in the Dominican Republic after losing her parents after having drowned in a river. Danticat takes the reader through the turmoils and massacre that the Haitians went through in the year of 1937. Danticat uses the motif of naming and names to represent the differences in societal classes and emphasize how characters and social prejudices are influenced by how someone is addressed. In addition, Danticat addresses the oppression of the parsley massacre and how the deaths and victims were neglected and forgotten.
The role of naming a child differs through societal classes. The upper class will choose a name to honor someone, and the lower class will choose a name for its symbolic meaning. Whilst discussing the name of his newborn child, Señor Pico says that he “‘will name him Rafael, for the Generalissimo,’… And so the boy became Rafael like the Generalissimo, the president of the republic. Rafi for intimates,” (35). Here Danticat uses the motif of names to convey that a name is given to someone in order to honor someone else. Both Señora Valencia and Señor Pico have named their children after somebody rather than giving a new name. Señor Pico names his son after the Generalissimo to honor him, inferring that during that time period, many Dominican Republicans were naming their newborns after the Generalissimo. European and Spanish cultures tend to put emphasis on the names of powerful people. Here it can be seen that the motifs of names and power overlap, creating a sense of nobility. Differently, when Sebastien’s mother is speaking to Amabelle, she says that she “named him Sebastien…because I knew it would be wise if a man could have two deaths. The first one comes quick enough, so it’s good to have another one in reserve,” (238). Danticat uses allusion of the Saint Sebastien story, to give Sebastien’s name a deeper meaning. The story of Saint Sebastien holds a significant amount of meaning as it gives the impression that Sebastien’s life may have been similar to the saint’s life in terms of having two deaths. By giving him a name that holds this meaning, his mother believes that his spirit lives on, even though he is gone. Differently to Señor Pico and Señora Valencia, Sebastien’s mother gives her son a name with significance. Although both families are honoring someone, the form of honoring is very different and argues the gap between two social classes and how naming can distinct them from one another.
Another approach Danticat uses names for are the titles of names, to represent one’s culture and social standing. When Amabelle is discussing with Mimi about the titles they give their employers, Mimi states, “I don’t have to christen her ‘Señorita’ in your presence, do I?…I don’t call her ‘Beatriz’ in her presence…But what would be so terrible if we did say only their Christian names?” Amabelle responds, “It would demonstrate a lack of respect,” (61). Danticat portrays the importance of titles by showing the respect Amabelle has, by christening her employer “Senora” or “Senorita”. On the other hand, Danticat questions this social standard through Mimi’s character, as to what would be so wrong if the workers were to call their employer only by their Christian name, as they have always only be called by their Christian names. These titles suggest a power dynamic that places the employers superior to their workers. Mimi puts their position into perspective and how they are treated as lesser. The feeling of insignificance among the lower class, in particular, the Haitians, is mentioned after the parsley massacre again: “Men with names never truly die. It is only the nameless and faceless who vanish like smoke into the early morning air.”(280). Danticat uses names to portray the importance that a name holds in society. She conveys a social injustice and criticizes the gap between the two classes of rich and poor. In this case, the rich are the ones with names (such as Señorita, Señora) meaning they are treated with a higher level of respect. However, the poor are nameless, and thus makes the underprivileged be forgotten and the wealthy remembered.
From the telling of the novel, Danticat constructs a wide range of motifs to convey the history of Haiti and the Dominican Republic among the social classes. She displays the influence that names have on both cultures and highlights the gap between the social classes and cultures. Thus, she expresses the importance of giving a name to a child and compares the symbolic meaning of a name among the upper and lower class. Danticat also focuses on the importance titles have when addressing someone from the upper class, however, those who are ‘nameless’ are forgotten. In doing so, Danticat reveals that names of someone should not be forgotten no matter their cultural background or social standing. In today’s society, with movements for mass shootings, like #saytheirnames, we as a society are starting to take a stand against brutality and not disregard or forget the injustice that we see. No factor, whether being race, religion, social class or culture, puts someone’s name before another or makes someone’s life more relevant than others.