Break This Down: Q & A with Prof. Kaiama Glover on Haiti, Zombies, and Benign Denials

caribbean, central and south americanorth americarace and ethnicity Prof. Kaiama Glover

 

In August 1791, the Haitian Revolution began, and more than ten years later, it ended with Haiti becoming the first colony in the region to win independence. To mark the anniversary, French and Africana Studies Professor Kaiama Glover reflects on her latest research, in this special “Break This Down” interview, on dystopian Haiti, zombies, and how pop culture perpetuates and reinforces incorrect and negative narratives about Haiti and the wider “black” world.

Glover is also author of Haiti Unbound: A Spiralist Challenge to the Postcolonial Canon and is working on the forthcoming monograph “Disorderly Women: On Caribbean Community and the Ethics of Self-Regard.” She is the co-editor of Transition magazine’s special issue New Narratives of Haiti; co-editor of Translating the Caribbean, a volume of critical essays on translation in the Americas; and first editor of Revisiting Marie Vieux Chauvet: Paradoxes of the Postcolonial Feminine, a volume of critical essays published in Yale French Studies.

Your article, “Flesh like One’s Own,” addresses zombies and zombie culture— but what is a “zombie” exactly?

A zombie is a mythical creature. The literal zombie myth originated in sub-Saharan Africa and migrated through the Middle Passage to the slaveholding plantation Americas. The myth took root in Haiti and became a meaningful element of Haitian culture. The Haitian zombie is a revived corpse exhumed through black magic and made to serve an evil sorcerer, kept suspended indefinitely in a state of living death. The zombie can perform basic life functions—eat, hear, speak a little bit—but has no memory of its past nor awareness of its present condition. The creature is pitied and reviled by other members of the community, condemned to eternal servitude.

According to Haitian writers, the zombie is a metaphor for the disenfranchised subject, rendered abject by colonial enslavement and by postcolonial phenomena of internal political and economic corruption, state violence, and international exploitation.

It is important to keep in mind that in neither its literal nor its metaphorical iteration is the Haitian zombie the monster we see in contemporary cinema. It belongs to no group and is not a predator. It’s a lonely and long-suffering victim.

The article includes the subtitle “benign denials of legitimate complaint.” Please explain this concept.

The idea here turns around these words “benign” and “legitimate.” In the article, I question the notion of the benign (that which is “non-threatening to life”) when it comes to how we think about and engage with Haiti—and more broadly, with the non-white, so-called emerging, “post” colonial world—and how it is portrayed in the news media, in social awareness contexts like humanitarian telethons, or through popular entertainment (like zombie films). I argue that these discursive scenarios are anything but “non-malignant” because they rely explicitly on misrepresentations of the Other, including the denial of that other’s justifiable right to complain as a political subject, as opposed to as a merely abject being in need of aid. A big part of what I try to do in this piece is

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