I recently read the short novel Violated by Guitèle Jeudy Rahill (First Books Library, 2001). In the spirit of my post over the summer about making sure we cover the range of Haitians writing, I am including a review of the book here. Because my current research focuses on the representation of sexual violence in cultural production, I was particularly keen to pick up a copy of Violated and have had it on my reading list for a while. Violated tells the story of the first protagonist Henri Berceuse, a man suffering from complexes as a result of his dark complexion and a trauma that haunts him from the past. Early into the story we learn that his complexes are also related to his understanding of the sexual manifestations of power relations in Haiti during the occupation. “Henri had determined long ago, with the American occupation of Haiti between 1915 and 1934, that he would do all he could to escape his blackness and the poverty it obliged” (10). Later on Henri explains the exact incident that led to this decision: he witnessed the sexual violation of young Haitian boys by soldiers from the United States. “Henri imagined that what the boys were experiencing was humiliating and painful…The soldiers were white and sporting uniforms. Both factors were indicators of unquestioned authority on the small island” (12). Shortly after Henri describes his past we are introduced to Peggy Pouchot, a woman who is also the victim of a sexual violence having been kidnapped and held as a sex slave. “Two years before, in Port-au-Prince, she’d been approached by a man who had identified himself as a lieutenant and had commanded her to follow him. She had done just that. There was no disputing a man who looked so powerful. It had been six months until her family would hear from her again” (19).
In the context of my own research this book is compelling for what it tells us about sexual violence—that it occurs in a number of different ways by a number of different actors ranging from soldiers violating young Haitian boys (a scene that is eerily reminiscent of the rape of the young Haitian man in Port Salut perpetrated by members of Uruguyan MINUSTAH forces) to young women caught in unequal relationships in which they are forced to give sex in return to security and those caught in the drama of family incest and sexual abuse. The wide range and nature of violations in the book serve as a reminder for how complex issues of sexual violence are even if the gendered power dynamics that underlie them are similar. Rahill has taken on a difficult topic with Violated, and her writing style is simple, threadbare and straightforward. Another main character who is the daughter of Peggy Pouchot and Henri Berceuse, Kasha, who is chronically mistreated by her stepfather Antoine and who eventually migrates to the United States where she continues to be abused (which again disabuses the myth of security offered by the US). Her character is quite well developed, with a convincingly written and intimately rendered inner monologue. Overall the book offers a prolonged and often jarring encounter with different narratives of trauma, their troubling manifestations and aftermath. Thus Rahill's novel could be well read alongside other texts such as Chauvet's Colère, Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory or Mars' Saisons sauvages to name but a few.
People often ask me, as someone who works on representations of violence in Africa and the Caribbean, if I ever fear that my work will reinforce stereotypes about these populations as being more violent than others. I imagine that this is the same question that someone would ask this author. I found it fascinating that though Violated is a work of fiction, Rahill is a social worker and a professor at a university as well. As such she may have a completely different answer to this question, but I find that my answer more often relates to how the story is written, and the necessity for the survivors of sexual violence to be able to have their stories told with complexity, texture and nuance, no matter how difficult it may be to hear, see or read them. Especially since sexual violence is an issue that is surrounded by so much silence no matter where you are from, it is important that these stories be told. Guitèle Jeudy-Rahill has achieved a story about violation that attempts to explore it in a number of different ways and show the trauma that results in its aftermath.