“Where do zombies come from?”

On racism, sexism, and other “fantastical inversions.”

December 12, 2019 12-1 PM EST

The novel’s stylistically unusual second movement delves into several of the themes introduced earlier in the narrative, but approaches them from multiple new angles. Reflecting from afar on what it has meant to the Jacmelian community to lose Hadriana , Depestre’s narrator tackles subjects ranging from the science of zombification in Haiti to the legacies of colonial racism in the modern world.  Our Wesleyan University colleague Gina Athena Ulysse offers some initial thoughts on this movement below, while the article below on “Exploiting the Undead” provides a reading of the place of the zombie within Haitian literature more broadly. During our conversation, we’ll delve into 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. We’ll also ask why he chose to use such a wide variety of literary forms to respond to and frame common interpretations of Haiti. And we’ll focus in on Depestre’s satirical and multi-valent engagement with ethnography and anthropological theories around the zombie in this section. 

Reading: Movement 2

Gina Ulysse offers these reflections:

This is a really interesting novel that I am sure will continue to generate pretty exciting conversation. I did appreciate this re/positioning of Haiti through Jacmel as very much a part of the world and in the world. I also took note of how this endless fascination with zombies intersects with race/color class and gender/sexuality.  I agree with you that it is a political novel (I think that was a response to Martin Munro) and would concur with Regine that its politics are also deeply in need of feminist analysis (not sure what Depestre was necessarily advocating…). It was a refreshing commentary on the limits of the male gaze that this white woman was more self-possessed than she would ever be given credit for.  This brought me to a short piece by Carole Charles on women as machann or machandiz (in honor of the feminists who died during the earthquake) that would be really good additional reading reference for folks. There are other feminist writing on the uses of the erotic (Lorde) women’s bodies as battlefield (Thistlethwaite). Both demand we be mindful to discern (playing aside), how erotic is sometimes constructed through violence and is rendered seductive.

The points I was asked to ponder on in the second movement include the above as well as this engagement of Levi-Strauss’s the sorcerer and his magic and Cannon’s infamous voodoo death article….. about Australian aborigines. Kate Ramsey’s book and Laennec Hurbon are also notable here in terms how this fascination with zombies has evolved. I believe Kate has actually written an article that looks in part at Cannon in OSIRIS journal.  Of course, you know that VoodooDoll is a critique of this academic obsession with zombies that the narrator writes about.  I love that the zombie gets to talk back and how this flips the script demanding confrontation of who was zombified (challenged sanctified white womanhood). The unspoken labor of being woman, of being a white woman (deBeauvoir is here with a woman is not born, but made). One could go also think through the ways this is referencing racial capitalism. Why academia needs zombies has been addressed by Baldwin (why do you need a negro?). For me it is important to note this is one way that Haiti has become representative of blackness of a particular kind, right. A revolutionary kind of black, as I wrote in “Why representation of Haiti matter now more than ever” (in my book Why Haiti Needs New Narratives).  I would avoid keeping this aspect of conversation insular to look to the black diaspora for interlocutors. 

For further information:

5 Replies to ““Where do zombies come from?””

  1. Hello to everyone,
    I’m a student in Professor Glover’s class and have been quite interested in how the figure of the zombie interacts with its community; how it is mediated by social forces, but also seems to trouble and destabilize those same structures. Taking from Agamben who theorized the state of exception and “bare life” in ways that I believe harmonize with the zombie’s role in a community (limning the boundary between legitimization and delegitimization within the sociopolitical sphere), I see in Hadriana’s zombification a materialization of the breaks, ruptures, and incoherencies that this configuration relies upon. Particularly, I am interested in the role of ritual in Hadriana, which though not often directly named (except for when Hadriana is referred to as a “victime d’un crime rituel”), seems central to the novel in its triangulation of the rituals of marriage, sacrifice, and zombification. I see zombification as the epitomization of the instability and incompletion of the ritual act, in which each iteration of ritual fails to achieve that ideal that it names. In Hadriana, the ritual of marriage, and the sacrifice implied in her “death” at the altar, both “fail” in that sense. And though the ritual of zombification does initially produce what it names, we find that the possibility for reincarnation in which Hadriana is ultimately reborn from her zombified state, speaks to the potential that can be found through the zombie’s fundamental instability.
    Hopefully I’ll be able to join the conversation today, so I can speak more about this then and look forward to hearing your contributions.

    Julia Arnade-Colwill says:
    1. I really like your observation of how the three rituals of marriage, sacrifice, and zombification in Hadriana are not ultimately successful, or “failed.” Thinking back to the last session, the carnival is certainly a ritual, too, although one whose objective is not quite as clear as the others you’ve identified. I’m curious how you think it fits in with the other ritual acts described here –– in particular the sacrifice, which initially appeared to have achieved what it aimed to.

      Alexandra Lozada says:
    2. These are fascinating meditations, Julia, about the many layers and potential meanings of zombification, which Depestre’s text I think allows us to think through. There’s also a way in which the instability of this Movement 2 of the novel itself, I think, is a kind of structural play on the instability of zombification, of the process of not knowing what is dead and what is alive, what is real and what is not. If you are able to join hopefully you can extend some of these thoughts during the discussion!

      Laurent Dubois says:
  2. The second movement is a fun section! I enjoyed the academic treatise on zombification, followed by the narrator describing it as “pseudo-Sartrean jargon mixed up in my vengeful and ludicrous third-worldism.” It made me think about what our organizers called the “wide variety of literary forms” the novel uses to explore the zombie, and even more Gina’s point about “why academia needs zombies.”

    A question I wanted to explore (which may get answered later—I haven’t read the last part of the novel since I was an undergrad 20 years ago and don’t remember how it ends): why does the encounter between Hadriana and the narrator take place in Jamaica in 1977? Just as I can’t think about the 1938 setting of the first part without thinking of the US occupation (and the mention of Seabrook on p. 134), I’m really interested in what it is about (Michael Manley-era) Jamaica that makes Hadriana’s return possible.

    Rafe Dalleo says:
    1. This is a great point, Rafe, on the other dates in the novel. I loved the conversation last time about the many layers of meaning around 1938. I don’t think anything in Depestre’s chronology is an accident — it’s as if he is leaving clues for us to think through our own narratives of Caribbean, and global, history.

      Laurent Dubois says:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *