Allegory of a Tormented Sisterhood:
Alanna Lockward’s Marassá y la Nada1
By Sophie Maríñez
Se changer en échangeant avec l’autre, sans se perdre ni se dénaturer.
To change by exchanging with the other,
ourselves or our natures.
Written by Dominican dancer, journalist, curator, and author Alanna Lockward, with illustrations by Gabriela Vainsencher, an Israeli artist of Argentinean origin, Marassá y la Nada (Berlin, 2004) is an unusual gift of poetry and intellect. As it exudes love for the crux of lands and identities of Saint-Domingue/Santo Domingo, this text embraces poetry, wisdom, allegorical characters, and thought-provoking spaces – along with an incredible openness to nature, to one’s ancestors, to the invisible and imperceptible. While itcan be read as poetry, a collection of short stories, a novel, or a personal memoir, what stands out most is a compelling tone of familiarity and intimacy and a tenacious refusal to resort to clichés or stereotypes, deeply touching the soul of the receptive reader.
The narrationis preceded by a list of characters whose evocative, similar names might at first prove disconcerting. But soon, one realizes that any confusion actually points to another imprecision suggested in the text, one that emerges from the use of “Saint-Domingue” to refer to both island and countries, countryand city, French side and Spanish side, colony and nation – all these realms curiously baptized with the same name… Marassá y La Nada invites us to let ourselves be swept away by its allegories and metaphors, unconcerned with defininganything or anyone, following the author’s precise intentions to offer us freedom from our desire to control. Only by letting ourselves be carried by the rhythm of its waves, without fear of drowning, can we perceive its true promise.
The text grows on you. The first pages give the impression of an author who is just waking up and uncoiling, rubbing her eyes, stretching her arms, shaking her hair loose, and climbing out of bed. As it continues, the style becomes more fluent; the metaphors become more natural and elegant. And this opening is, in fact, merely a warm-up that conceals what is to come: the emergence of an author in her prime, who stuns her readers with an almost muscular command of the language. We soon learn to love the characters, recognizing the subtlety of their profound, intangible reality.
The story revolves around two sisters: Laura, who lives in Paris and commits suicide at the beginning of the novel, and Mara, who lives in Santo Domingo, absorbs the tragedy, and is starving herself to death. A third woman, Moira, the sisters’ New York-based cousin, narrates the story as she travels to Santo Domingo in an attempt to save Mara. Once there, Moira also journeys to Haiti in search of the remains of Doña Manuela Ricart de Porter – mother of the two sisters – whose death Moira must prove in order to claim the royalties due on a novel written by the sisters’ father, José Alberto Porter Cabral. The trip to Haiti is described with an impressive freshness, surprisingly free from the guilt often invoked in writings about the relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. No rehashed stereotypes of voyages into the African heart of darkness, no endless descriptions of hair-raising poverty, no guilt about the past or apologies for the damage caused by colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, genocides, NGOs, or any of the other modern mechanisms that extract wealth from every imaginable corner of Haiti’s very soul.
To be sure, a text written without guilt is a liberated and liberating text. Where there is love, there is no place for guilt: for this love of the other only grows when one has dealt with both the colonizer and colonized that, at least in the Caribbean, we all carry within. It is a love that comes from having understood the other: not as a dehumanized object on which to unleash our furies or desires to dominate, but rather as an equal with whom we can exchange something meaningful precisely because of our differences.
In this light, the sisters Laura and Mara emerge as allegorical figures representing Haiti and the Dominican Republic. One lives and commits suicide in France, colonizer of Haiti, and the other lives and starves herself in Haiti’s neighbor, the Dominican Republic – a place still overburdened by its colonial past. Mara dies in Santo Domingo, expiating her sister’s death, in an act of guilt that emphasizes the overall absurdity of guilt itself.
Both deaths remind me of an essay on mourning by Derrida, who views this process as one that includes both latching on to physical items left behind by a loved one and internalizing their idiosyncrasies—their ideas, their taste, the faces they made, the things they said or did—as a way of keeping them within ourselves. This Derridean analysis illuminates and comforts at once: for better or for worse, we are who we are thanks to our loved ones, for them, through them. To lose them is to lose a fundamental part of ourselves, and for this reason we internalize them. So, if Marassá y la Nada reminds us that we are who we are not only thanks to Africa, Europe, and the Taínos, but especially thanks to Haiti – then the death of one entails the agony of the other.
As Julia Álvarez recounts in A Wedding in Haiti (Penguin, 2012), Haiti was always that great, unknown brother, that sibling about whom she knew so little. Crossing over into Haiti, physically as well as symbolically (or literarily), is to transgress a psychological, political border: a tougherand riskier passage than that posed by a geographical boundary. Both Álvarez and Lockward make this journey with great courage; Lockward’s text, in particular, affirmsa familiarity with the terrain that is both profound and marvelous. Without dismissing the impact of natural disasters and human greed, without failing to notice the lack of trees and that of the stones that have been stripped from the mountains, without ignoring the ravenous dogs and the relentless work of the populace, Marassá y la Nada reveals the command of the material that the author has cultivated through trips to the other side of the border for almost twenty years.
In July and August 2012, the Dominican online newspaper Acento published a daily column serializing Lockward’s book Un Haití Dominicano: Tatuajes Fantasmas y Narrativas Bilaterales, 1994-2006 (https://alannalockward.wordpress.com/un-haiti-dominicano/). This compilation includes interviews, essays, and articles published by Lockward in Dominican and U.S. printed media such as Listín Diario, Rumbo and The Miami Herald since her first trip to Haiti in 1994. Her experiences permeate Marassáy la Nada with intimacy, blanketing it with the general effect of a narrator who is fully in her element. The magic of Haiti can only reveal itself to Moira because of her ability to vibrate on its ancestral frequency; nothing she sees surprises her. She has learned that, in this universe, the distance between herself and that reality that seemed before to be so alien is just imaginary, the result of centuries of (neo)colonialist (a)historical constructions. As a result, no one here becomes the “other,” neither the narrator nor the characters – and even less the neighboring country. We are all at home; no one holds an inordinate fascination for the other. If we are twins – marassá in Haitian Creole –, we are not identical; and yet, the bonds between us surmount all differences.
Santo Domingo, July 31, 2012
(Translated from the Spanish by Amari Barash)
Originally published in Hoy (08.17.2012) http://www.hoy.com.do/areito/2012/8/17/442071/Alegoria-de-una-hermandad-atormentada-en-Marassa-y-la-Nada-de-Alanna
MARASSÁ Y LA NADA started being published every Tuesday (in Spanish por supuesto) on the online Dominican newspaper Acento, on October 25, 2011, until June 19, 2012. According to the dipity statistics from August 200, 2013, it has had 49,828 views already. It is being published by Editorial Santuario.