“Where do zombies come from?”

As you read, think about the work that the figure of the zombie does in this movement of the novel, and consider this portion of the novel in the light of Depestre’s own position of exile in France.  How should we understand Depestre’s satirical and multi-valent engagement with ethnography and anthropological theories around the zombie?  

Reading: Movement 2

Please feel free to share your reactions in the comments section below.

If you are interested in delving more deeply into representations of the zombie in Haitian literature, read Kaiama L. Glover, “Exploiting the Undead: The Usefulness of the Zombie Figure in Haitian Literature,” The Journal of Haitian Studies (2005). 

8 Replies to “Zombies”

  1. I’m interested in how Depestre’s fractured relationship with revolutionary Marxism is present in the novel. I think there are places in this text where he is critical of socialism and Leftist politics, including in the “Prolegomena to a Dead-End Essay” chapter, in which he cites Sartre, Fanon, and de Beauvoir but then concludes “enough with these supposedly keen insights on the mythology and sociology of decolonization. For the second time in this life, Hadriana Siloé is knocking at your door in the middle of the night. Get up and bring your beloved back to her childhood home!” (175). He describes his students in Jamaica as “free from any remote-controlled pantomime directed by some state force operating in their individual consciences” (177). I recall reading a translated interview with Depestre in which he described the failure of Marxist revolution, to which he had dedicated decades of his life, as a major disappointment, almost like a heartbreak. Is this novel a critique of Leftist politics in which he’s working out those feelings? This is my favorite novel, but as someone who identifies as politically Left, I feel like Depestre is either critiquing or making fun of some of those politics in a way that leaves me feeling ambivalent at times. For example, he describes the narrator as feeling happier and more intellectually invigorated while teaching in a “former colonial plantation” (176). Also, Hadriana, the white daughter of a colonizer, is Depestre’s symbol of the Caribbean. Is this supposed to be a joke, or is this offensive, or both?

    1. I’m going to start with your final question, Jacqui, because it’s the toughest.
      I hope my answer doesn’t sound to pithy, but I will simply say: where Depestre’s novel falls on the continuum from humorous to offensive ultimately and entirely depends on the reader. And indeed, I’ve had vastly different experiences in teaching the novel to different groups of people – from captive audiences who have to listen to me – i.e. students 😉 – to public audiences. My own thoughts are that Depestre is really challenging us to think through, and think differently about, these political and racial identity categories. As a a longtime politically militant intellectual who had become very disillusioned with the anti-capitalist and anti-racist struggles he’d been involved in across three continents, there’s no question but that by the time he was writing Hadriana he had become a very different kind of social actor.

      As to that particular line in the text about teaching in Jamaica, I’d say that Depestre sidling right up to the question of neo-colonialism as waged by Black Global South elites, à la Frantz Fanon in Wretched of the Earth…

      Thanks so much for bringing all of this into the conversation. I hope you’ll speak up this evening so we can travel a little further down the rabbit hole “in person”!

      Kaiama Glover says:
  2. These are fantastic questions, Jacqui, and ones that many critics of the novel have raised and grappled with over the years. Kaiama can share more thoughts on this, but it does seem clear that after having spent decades as a committed left activist, particularly in Cuba, Depestre did feel some disillusionment by the time he wrote Hadriana, and that comes through in some of these passages. But there’s also a profound politics, at the aesthetic and symbolic level, about how he constructs this novel, in part by creating so many different voices in such a playful structure that we are forced to asked these kinds of questions. This will be a great place to start off our conversation tomorrow, so thank you for sharing these thoughts.

    Laurent Dubois says:
  3. This movement with the floating between streams of consciousness on the political situations around colonialism and zombification, between France and the Caribbean, between so many memories and past and future nostalgia, between thinking about the systems of zombification versus his own experience with Hadriana… it all feels like this constant flowing between so many forms of space and time. One thing that I noticed is how often there are allusions to rain and hurricanes and water surrounding some of his discussion of zombification which is not a mental association I typically have when I think about it (I suppose due to the hollywood narratives of zombies we talked about last week) but would be curious if this is a typical connection or Depestre’s connection.

    These are a few lines that brought up some random thoughts and questions:

    – “And then also, Jacmel could boast of being one of the rare Haitian towns to have a high school. Founded in 1864, it still exists today, on its original campus.” – I know he then talks about how everything changed/was more ruined after this but I’d be curious to know if this high school is real and still there and if so, how people perceive the historical memory of it.

    – This line brought up the question to me on to what extent is this “collective memory” just his was of trying to process leaving when really his experience with Hadriana was just very much an individual memory that the collective didn’t seem to want to entertain in his view : “Once I had finished reading, I found myself deeply saddened: not the slightest allusion to Hadriana. The tragic circumstances of her ‘evaporation’ were given no consideration next to the Great Fire, the hurricanes, and the political intrigues that had been identified, and rightly so, as among the plagues that put an end to Jacmel’s opulence. The unforgettable beauty of the young French girl had not been acknowledged as one of the causes that consumed the people of Jacmel.” I’d be curious to hear how others thought of individual versus collective memories in this movement more generally.

    -Back to the tarot thoughts, as I was reading this: “Melissa and Raissa Kraft had been Hadriana’s childhood friends. From kindergarten alll the way to their high school graduation, the three had been enrolled together in the Saint Rose of Lima School, located only a few steps from their respective homes. I had often seen them strolling arm in arm or riding their bikes along the pathways of the town square during those years when the exuberance of their burgeoning womanhood had just begin to beautify the existence of both gods and men.”, it really really reminded me of the three of cups tarot card (google image “three of cups tarot”)

    – It’s quite amusing how at the end of chapter 5 he makes fun of his “pseudo-sartrean” language and “supposedly keen insights on the mythology and sociology of decolonization” but how in trying to initially make sense of zombies and Hadriana in this form, this is where his mind goes first and he has to bring himself back to the task at hand, presumably influenced by being in Paris… but then to see this language with the next chapter when in Jamaica where he reconnects with Hadriana and there’s much more sensual and less of a philosophically rigid energy is quite the contrast.

  4. Your puzzle-solving energy around this movement makes every bit of sense, Rachel. The mix of genres, the various “sources,” and the clues they contain all beg to be sifted through and stacked up against one another in the quest for some truth – a truth that lies somewhere between history and memory, individual and chorus/collective, thought and feeling, experience and imagination…

    This may seem like an “easy” way out, but I’ve always approached this narrative instability as Depestre’s way of remind us how fickle storytelling is – that what it’s good for is opening a door onto the past and proposing that the seeker do the work of extracting a story that makes sense.

    Kaiama Glover says:
  5. I am really enjoying this book club and the book. Last time we zoomed, Kaiama mentioned that many people around the world are intrigued by Haiti. It made me think about why I’m in this group. First and foremost, that would be because of my affiliation with Preservation Hall through Krewe Du Kanaval. I love jazz and appreciate Ben Jaffe’s direction and desire to explore the African diaspora roots of jazz in places like Cuba and Haiti. I am continuously blown away by how music can create joy and bring people together. Since I plan to participate in Krewe Du Kanaval events annually, it’s really wonderful to learn more about Haiti however possible.
    I really love that Depestre chose to include aspects of Voudou in this novel. I grew up in the 1970s in a small town outside of Charleston when there were several African American HooDoo practitioners. One man, in particular, I was always intrigued by. He was known throughout the town for creating spells for helping and hexing. After he passed away, no one continued using his methods in our town. At least, not as openly as he did.
    A few years ago I read the book Blue Roots by Roger Pinckney. Pinckney interviews a HooDoo practitioner in Savannah, Georgia who thinks that many African Americans today have turned away from HooDoo because it is considered a less refined and educated means of practicing spirituality.
    This just makes me sad.
    Last year in New Orleans I did a private tour with VooDoo Queen Kalinda Laveaux. She mentioned that authentic priestess-hood in New Orleans VooDoo is passed down through the Mother’s line. I was wondering if that is also the practice in Haiti? Queen Kalinda L also discussed the disguising of African gods and goddesses through use of the Saints as well as veve being used in iron gates in New Orleans without many people knowing what the gate symbols represent. It was such a informative tour. I would like to do it again because I can’t remember all the details which were so interesting.

    Elizabeth Wilcox says:
  6. Thank you for sharing these stories and background Elizabeth! The connections between practice in New Orleans & Haiti are fascinating and complex; there definitely is a strong presence of female leadership in Haitian Vodou as well, though it takes varied forms. I was thinking during our conversation last Thursday about the book Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn, by Karen McCarthy-Brown, which does a great job of introducing the religion through inter-generational stories of women in both Haiti and the U.S., so if you are curious to learn more I recommend that highly! One big difference between Haiti & the U.S. is that, despite various periods of repression against Vodou (most formidably during the U.S. occupation when Marines attacked and destroyed temples and arrested practitioniers, and again in 1941 during a violent “anti-superstition” campaign urged on by the Catholic Church in which objects and temples were attacked and burned), the religion is extremely present and visible in public space, and something a majority Haitians are involved or connected to in one way or another. In the U.S., meanwhile, these practices do operate in a landscape that is much more hostile as a whole, I think. In recent years there have been really interesting processes of reconnecting the threads between Haitian and U.S. practices as well, notably in New Orleans.

    Laurent Dubois says:
  7. Reading this, I was really in awe at how the recounting of the zombies’ ‘death’ experiences. First, the letter from Sister Lazara and her recounting of her funeral, specifically Uncle Fefe’s pronouncements of love. And then, Hadriana more thorough account of her ‘death.’ The moment of her death at the alter and the blending of her mental state with the physical happenings becoming a blur, “the sounds, the colors, the lights, the smells–they made a jumble of confused impressions on my muddled senses. I could not make out the difference between the sound of the organ and the flicker of a candle, between my own name and the green banner…” Because we were given such a clear and striking depiction of all these things at the beginning of the novel, it really brought to the front the understanding of zombification as a ‘slowing down’ or of ‘decay’. I am also reminded of the word torpid. It was the constant reflection of the moments of death that evoke life, like “Someone’s arms lifted me off the church floor. Whose could they be? I would have recognized immediately those of my father, Hector, or Patrick. ” That hammered home, “I died on the night of the most beautiful day of my life.” I guess, my question, or the thing I’m left thinking about, is how the zombie destroys the binary of life and death? Do we have an inclination to avoid life-death becoming a spectrum and is that the reason for building this third category? Also curious as to how this fits with the Zombie as a metaphor for the Slave?

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