“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:

You can view the video of our meeting below!

12 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:
    3. Julia, I really appreciated your comments about zombification as a disruption of the rituals of marriage, sacrifice, and zombification. I also found that the zombification of Hadriana was overtly related to her victimization, dispossession, and objectification. Hadriana’s zombification meant that she became victim to a new master, and especially in context with some of the other Caribbean literature read over the semester, it felt to me like it was presented as similar to colonial slavery. Her second life did not necessarily imply a newfound freedom, but instead points to bondage for the zombie. The zombie is a victim, as Julia stated, to a “crime rituel.” What I found especially interesting about this was that the zombification of Hadriana wasn’t a metaphor, but instead a truth that guides the story forward. Hadriana’s zombification changes Jacmel, and because of this, we also see, in some ways, disruptions of race, religion, and culture through these rituals.

      Maya Corral says:
    4. Great insight, Julia! I think you make a really excellent point about the triangulation of the rituals of marriage, sacrifice, and zombification—and how all three fail in the case of Hadriana. In my reading of the first movement, the town discourse surrounding Hadriana’s marriage to Hector parallels the rhetoric of virgin sacrifices. This is as transcultural as it is transhistorical; in ritualistic dress, with ritualistic music, in a house of worship, the beautiful virgin will be sacrificed/married for the sake of the community. The most striking example of this parallel is the public announcement of Hadriana’s marriage (section 1 of the second chapter), which ends with : « En vérité, après la malédiction des derniers mois, le mariage de ces deux êtres d’exception est comme un pacte que Jacmel va signer avec l’espérance et la beauté ». The marriage is a sacrifice is a zombification. And as you note, all three rituals fail. In addition to Hadriana’s ultimate de-zombification/rebirth, I think that the deterioration of Jacmel in the decades following the wedding/funeral is likewise an enactment of that tripartite failure. Rather than helping to ameliorate the situation in Jacmel as the marriage announcement predicts, we see in the opening of lines the second movement that « Une trentaine d’années après l’ ‘évaporation’ d’Hadriana Siloé, les voyageurs qui s’aventuraient jusqu’à son lieu de naissance en revenaient avec une impression unanime : Jacmel est en décrépitude … Avec la beauté de sa fille, le temps l’espoir, le doute, la raison, la compassion, la tendresse, la rage de vivre s’étaient également évaporés de la terre jacmélienne ». Through his telling and retelling of the story of Hadriana, Despestre seems to both subvert and dismantle the narrative framework of such rituals.

      Lyric Bowditch says:
    5. I am particularly fascinated by your observation on the zombification process as relating to Agamben’s concepts of “bare life” and the state of exception. Depestre demonstrates how the bodies of Haitians are zombified at the hands of the Duvalier regime. The zombifier/dictator seeks to control and maim the Haitian population, anesthetizing it to induce “la cessation apparente des principales fonctions vitales” (p. 96). The zombification culminates when the individual “n’ayant plus de volonté propre […] devenait un ‘viens-viens,’ aussi docile qu’un âne, dans un totale dépendance à l’égard du sorcier” (Hadriana 98). The necropolitical goal of the Duvalier regime is thus to forge a docile social body. Under this lense, can the aforementioned rituals be construed as forms of resistance against the violent political realities of the time?

      Iga Szlendak 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:
  3. I am sorry that I was not able to join the conversation, which sounds like it was rich and generative. You may have discussed the narrator’s reference to mid-twentieth-century zombie-themed literature as a “veritable industry,” ranging “from the most frenzied sensationalism to the most erudite scholarship” (166). I found it fascinating that while, as Gina notes, the narrator invokes Lévi-Strauss on “[t]he effectiveness of magic…[as] a phenomenon of social consensus” (163), the novel’s plot turns the tables on one of the anthropologist’s key sources in “The Sorcerer and his Magic,” namely Walter Cannon’s article “Voodoo Death,” which appeared in American Anthropologist in 1942. (Notably, Cannon named the supposed phenomenon in this way without discussing a single case reported from Haiti.) In reading the second and third movements, I was struck by how rather than the supposed “death by imagination” phenomenon that Cannon proposed, Hadriana instead reanimates herself through imagination later in the novel: “my fabulous past cleared a passage from the sea all the way to my shipwrecked consciousness” (234) This looks ahead to the January discussion, but it was really interesting to see how Depestre reworks that trope in the novel.

    Kate Ramsey says:
  4. After reading the introductory comments and the paper, I have a question, still vague but forming, about politics, the erotic, violence and seduction. Gina’s questions seem to imply the possibility that one could write (or that Depestre could have written) about the erotic without the presence of violence, or at least without violence making the erotic seductive. She also asks what kind of politics Depestre’s novel is participating in or performing? Particularly in relation to the politics of feminism? A male gaze, and one of fantastical projective power, creates most of the book’s narrative. It is corrected, altered, supplemented, obliterated? by the object’s—now a subject—own account. The heroine goes from conventional bride/sacrifice to holy relic to almost-a-sex-slave to fugitive to happy partner in a couple.

    And what happens when we place the zombie in the company of its comrades, the other great monsters of our imagination: the vampire, werewolf, mummy, and the singular Frankenstein’s Monster? Is the zombie the most ambivalent of them all? We could place them on a scale of agency, but that scale would need multiple axes. All are compromised in some fundamental way, as we all are, I suppose. All but Frankenstein’s Monster have something to hope for.

    Brad Wahlquist says:
  5. Although I was not able to participate in this session real-time as I had planned, I have thoroughly enjoyed reading everybody’s thoughts and responses to the prompt above. Very fruitful discussion. Flipping back through the second movement with it in mind, I find myself curious about the extent to which Depestre’s position of exile in France may lend itself to his use of such a wide variety of literary forms and language registers, as well his engagement of ethnographic and anthropological modes in the second movement. Both Depestre and Patrick were born in Jacmel and both end up leaving the island. Like Depestre, Patrick engages with the global, while nonetheless remaining deeply rooted in the local. (I.e. he brings a muli-facetedly global perspective to a profoundly local story.) Reading this movement is truly an experience of movement—between regular narration, the letter reporting on the state of affairs of Jacmel written by Claude Kiejman, Patrick’s imaginary interview with Kiejman, and then even his own poetry embedded in his narration. With each shift, Patrick constructs and deconstructs different gazes, frameworks, ways to understand the story he laid out in the first movement.

    I’m still not quite sure what to make of the line at the very end of the fifth section: “Laisse tomber la mise en forme de ces propositions faussement férues de mythologie et de sociologie de la décolonisation.” I am also curious about what Patrick’s engagement of multi-valent rhetorical modes and his numerous references to global cultures/histories/thinkers (e.g. “le trio des divinités gréco-romaines : Aglaé, Thalie, Euphrosyne” in section 3, the Goethe citation at the top of section 5, the contents of many propositions in section 5, etc.) say about the novel’s implicit reader, or perhaps target reader. I would love to hear others’ thoughts here.

    I would also like to respond briefly to a line in Gina Ulysse’s very rich reflection above. She notes: “its politics are also deeply in need of feminist analysis (not sure what Depestre was necessarily advocating…)”. Having read the book in its entirety, I think the third movement really clarifies what it is that Depestre is advocating. I don’t want to give any plot spoilers, but I will say that I believe the novel itself can ultimately be read as a feminist analysis/critique of the rituals of marriage/sacrifice that objectify (voire zombify) women. Curious whether other folks who have finished the novel agree.

    Lyric Bowditch says:
  6. Hi all! I’m a student from Professor Glover’s class as well. I’ve loved going through these comments, and I really appreciated the additional reading that Prof. Glover provided on the exploitation of the zombie in Haitian literature. Something that struck me, as it relates to Hadriana, was the notion of reclamation. In the article, Glover writes, “Both alive and dead, neither alive nor dead, the zombified individual always retains the ability, albeit slim, of reclaiming his or her essence.” Hadriana, as the zombified heroine, is given a particular root through which she can reclaim her essence; she, herself, is allowed to retell her story through her own eyes. During this retelling, she reclaims her sexuality, which had been erased by the town for the sake of the town. Through retelling the events of her zombification, she corrects the exploitative image of the pure virgin bride that had been placed upon her. By retelling this story from her own point of view, she also reclaims some amount of agency from the victimized and powerless un-living being to the self-aware, autonomous narrator. So by reclaiming the narration, does she reclaim her essence, her selfhood? I am also interested in hearing what others think about how zombies allow for reclamation as it relates to exploitation.

    Sarah Hilligoss says:

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