‘Colouring Inside Lines’, by Ruth McHugh-Dillon


Photo by Alex E. Proimos. Image reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 GenericLicense.

“So you didn’t bring any antimalarials?”

His face went pale. “What do you mean?”

I tried to downplay it but he was already hunched over his phone, waiting for the crappy hotel wifi to load. We were at an academic conference in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and I was over-prepared for everything. My new friend was not. I’d come from far away in the southern oceans and the preparation was part of imagining myself away: getting the shots and the insect repellent, checking and re-checking my passport, researching the city. He’d come from close by—the Northern Hemisphere, I mean—and had packed like the trip was Sydney to Canberra. Travel was, in more than one sense, what had brought us there. The conference theme was ‘Caribbean Global Movements’, attracting academics from diverse fields and far-flung places to consider what movement and mixing meant for the Caribbean. A huge number flew in from the United States and Britain. Inter-Caribbean travel, I learned, was not as common or accessible as I had previously assumed.

The map that came up on my friend’s phone, a pixellated strip-tease, confirmed the worst. In the idyllic blue of the Caribbean sea Haiti throbbed an angry scarlet, like an allergic reaction already spreading. Malaria: high risk zone. My friend smacked at his leg nervously.

Then he said, “Look.”

His finger traced the line that carved the island of Hispaniola in two. Haiti’s neighbour—the larger, whiter, richer Dominican Republic—sat like a cat purring next to the red, a benign beige. The line between the two nations, both squeezed into the same island, was crisp.

“How can the malaria stop right there, so cleanly?” I wondered.

“Maybe the mosquitoes have to go through border patrol.”

A week later I stood at border patrol, on that line. Through the soles of my shoes I could feel stones and grit. A hot, relentless wind blew dust in the faces of those waiting. After a week at an academic conference talking in abstract about borders—as imagined spaces, as nation-building projects—it was a shock to be able to plant feet on the actual point where Haiti gave way to the Dominican Republic.

Two groups of people at the border were clearly distinguished, not by uniforms or language, as I expected, but by their level of agitation. A Dominican army officer stood chatting to the border officials and other armed guards. Gun. Boots. Combat gear. But his body language read like he was at a poolside bar. Under umbrellas women sold drinks from cool boxes covered in towels and swatted lazily at the flies and children hassling them for something cold and free. A group of men stood in the shade, waiting and watching, picking over the crowds with their eyes. For all these people—drinks vendor, soldier, waiting men—the rhythm of the border was the rhythm of the everyday.

All those who were passing through, on the other hand, were anxious. In the hands of our bus conductor my passport was swept up and bobbed away above a sea of faces all scowling, sweating, sighing, scalping SIM cards and currency. Even though I’d been warned this would happen I was gripped by fear that my passport would not be returned. So when the conductor brought back a fistful of maroon and blue passports and mine was not among them, my heart sunk. I hung around the conductor, pestering her with my mosquito whine in French, Spanish, and English, until she sent me to a border official’s office.

The building was a demountable, which struck me as curious given it should have been the one thing not going anywhere. There was a problem. How had I come to be there on the border, but not on the official list lodged with border patrol by the bus company? Present in flesh but not in document; my body had not been accounted for. Very politely the official attempted to discern what the hell I was doing there.

“Name? Nationality?”

“Not Austrian,” I interjected as he wrote down my answer, rolling our extra syllable around like a marble. “Austr-ay-lian.”




I faltered.

Of? Of the literature of his island’s diaspora: writers who claimed no homeland but language itself, and even this they blew apart, not obeying the margins of the page or the borders between one language and another; slicing, splicing and detonating that same material that they used and that tried to contain them; bobbing alone, unmoored, in a sea of words and paper.

So I said, “Doctorado. Doctorate.”

Relief wiped his face clear now that he had something to work with.

“Doctor,” he beamed, and jotted, “Medicine.”

Again I hurried to correct him. I wanted to make it clear—nothing I did could save a body from malaria or Zika, from a machete or a gunshot wound, from the attrition of imprisonment.

In her essay ‘What is a Caribbean Writer?’ the author Maryse Condé, Guadeloupean by birth and now living in New York, suggests that the very term ‘nationality’ is today meaningless. “We now know,” writes Condé,

that its only purpose is, in fact, to obtain green, blue, red or orange biometric passports, depending on the country, that allow the holders to cross borders and work in peace in a given place.

With so many of the Caribbean’s people living outside its official geographical limits, pushing its boundaries and working under different passports, Condé’s interrogation of Caribbeanness is a serious pursuit. For writers, nationality should not matter, she argues, as long as they sustain creativity.

Hearts and creative thoughts attach little importance to the lines at Immigration. They settle everywhere and flourish anywhere they please. For them, continents drift and tropical forests can thrive in the very middle of a sidewalk in Manhattan.

This thinking engages with the formidable tradition of Caribbean intellectuals, such as Stuart Hall and Édouard Glissant, who have pointed out that immigration and diaspora have always defined the region’s history—and who like Condé see the creative potential in these experiences. Hall envisions the diaspora as a process rather than a place, where possibility and mixing thrive through—not despite—difference. Glissant, meanwhile, declares that the only answer to the hidden violence of “intolerant exclusions” is the “manifest and integrating violence of contaminations,” precisely the kind which flourish in the hybridizing cultures and creoles of the Caribbean.

Although Glissant here refers mainly to the way language moves, his words also evoke the movements of people: who the nation lets in and who the nation excludes. I particularly like his use of the word “contaminations,” because this bodily metaphor evokes both mixing and revulsion and returns our consciousness to the physical, to our bodies and our fear of others’. By identifying contemporary passports as “biometric,” Condé also underlines the connection between bodies and the written word, especially the ways the state controls these bodies via official documentation. For this very reason, then, her vision of unbounded creativity seems overly utopian when she says that “Hearts and creative thoughts attach little importance to the lines at Immigration.” Creative minds and hearts, of course, also inhabit a body. Reading Condé, I can’t help but wonder how many writer-bodies have been stopped and silenced at those immigration lines and how many words we have lost as a result. How many unofficial documents, never written, might have contested the violence of the state’s exclusions.

To say that borders are contentious is to say nothing new. Still, the division between Haiti and the Dominican Republic is an old scar that is carved fresh with frequency. The river between the two nations is called the Massacre, and the fact that many people confuse the origins of this name, swapping one genocide for an earlier colonial one, should be some indication of history’s bloody course in this place.

During the so-called Parsley Massacre of 1937, the Dominican dictator Trujillo ordered the slaughter of an unknown number of Haitians—or more correctly and significantly, those deemed to be Haitian—living along the border. The test to distinguish Haitians from Dominicans was linguistic, based on whether the victim spoke the Spanish word for parsley, perejil, with a French- or Krèyol-tinged “r” that would betray their otherness and effectively mark them for death, a kind of screening for contamination. Soldiers slaughtered tens of thousands of men, women and children and threw their bodies into the river. This killing has captured the imagination of writers like Haitian-American Edwidge Danticat, whose fiction, especially her novel The Farming of Bones, grapples with the impossibility of documenting an annihilation on such a monstrous individual and collective scale that nevertheless slid under the surface of the water, never properly accounted for.

At the time of this massacre and under Trujillo’s regime it was common to talk about the “Pacific Invasion” of Haitians into Dominican territory. These words tap into a collective fear that the island will again be ruled by Haiti, as it was when the island was seized by the black leaders of the Haitian Revolution from white French and Spanish colonial powers. Haitians may look like domestic workers and cane-cutters, the logic goes, but the threat is the same as always. Haitians may look like Dominicans, even—they may speak unimpeachable Spanish, their mothers and grandmothers may have been born under a Dominican sun—but their presence in the Dominican Republic is fraught.

Despite international condemnation, since 2013 the Dominican Republic has continued to enact a court ruling, la sentencia, that has stripped citizenship from thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent. In contrast to the problematically under-documented Parsley Massacre, this time the violence is all about papers: who has them and who does not. An abundance of documentation to drown in, to drown out. Yet much of the narrative is the same. Haitians who come to the Dominican Republic are an anonymous stream of ants marching into the Dominican imaginary; either a troubling if minor itch, or a full-blown red alert. Dominicans who are deemed to be Haitian in a sense can never stop moving. Not mobility as freedom, but movement as a restless threat: of being deported, swept under and away or, as in the chilling news from one province this year, rigged up to a tree and lynched.

For me, unsurprisingly, there was nothing to worry about on the border. Soon I was out of the demountable and into the dust, wearily climbing back onto the bus with my blue emu-and-kangaroo-emblazoned passport secured in my bag. Crossing the border was not a calming experience. But in the history of that place—a real place in time and space where (black) bodies are blocked from coming or going, where (black) bodies have been hacked to pieces, thrown into the river and disappeared—it was a peaceful crossing with minor bureaucratic hiccups.

I had papers. But my body was also my passport: white, female, and small.

This became clear before we even left the bus station in Port-au-Prince. Striding across the waiting room to meet me, the avuncular owner of the bus company advised that I was in his personal care, and assigned the security guard to my watch.

None of the other passengers, all black and brown, were offered this attention, not even the unaccompanied teenager next to me who looked all of fourteen, clutching her purse with her sandwich and juice for the eight hours.

At the border check it was the same. Todas las australianas tienen ojos bonitos, a guard flirted as he snapped my bloodshot eyes staring back at his immigration cam. All Australian women have beautiful eyes. On cue I batted them—to get the dust out, I told myself. To get myself out with passport in hand.

As I waited for the photo to come out I noticed, flapping on the office window, a weathered print-out pleading in Krèyol for information on a missing boy. He was last seen playing near the border, it explained, and now he has vanished into thin air. All that was left of him was this unblinking black-and-white portrait in faded printer ink. I thought about how that paper might flap away at any moment, and could almost feel the impatience of the small boy’s body wriggling to get free from his mother’s hands to play. With a shame I couldn’t place, I looked at my feet. The desperation in the unpunctuated Krèyol was unbearable, knowing that his mother will probably never find where he is, or even what happened to his body.

As I left the demountable, five Indian men were still trying to explain their travel situation to the guards. I was too far away to see if they batted their eyelashes but knew, anyway, what little difference it would make.

If insects do not respect your personal privacy, they certainly do not respect the nation-state’s. So I am suspicious about these clean cut lines on the Haitian-Dominican malaria map. In fact, later, I found that if you search ‘malaria’ and ‘Dominican Republic,’ the map comes up in reverse, with the Dominican side throbbing the red alarm and Haiti quietly beige. In either case there is a violence to the border’s crisp definition; you can never look at the island as a whole. Whoever drew it sure mastered the art of not colouring outside the lines. But borders, bodies and bugs don’t work that way.

I remember watching a boyfriend once, crouched down, intently squishing a line of ants in the kitchen.

“You’ve got to kill them and then leave the bodies there as a warning to the others. They pick up the pheromone signals or something. Then they don’t come back.”

On the other side of the kitchen I stood with my arms folded watching him. I realised then I didn’t feel close to him at all. There was coldness in the way he killed that advancing line of ants, but more than that; futility. Ants had arrived in my house long before he had. I knew they’d keep coming after he’d left.

At the gate of the luxury hotel where the conference took place, armed guards controlled the flow of people through a metal gate. Inside the hotel courtyard, however, no guards or guns could stop the mosquito bites, which not even the most thorough dousing of tropical strength repellent seemed able to prevent. The mosquito that bit the poor black girl walking to school outside the gate landed on the arm of the rich white university student sitting inside it. Our skin, black and white, was riddled with small itchy reminders of our own mortality. But perhaps in the hotel courtyard we are merely reminded–—because how likely was malaria or Zika for me, really?—where the borders of our own patience lie, the threshold of inconvenience.

“Can we move inside?” One of the conference group would eventually crack. And the thing is, we always could.

Ruth McHugh-Dillon reads, writes, and researches language and literature in Melbourne. She is currently working on a PhD looking at the relationship between language and violence in Junot Díaz’s fiction. Ruth has been published in Kill Your Darlings.