Edwidge Danticat interviews Katia Ulysse: "Rich stays here. Poor stays there. That’s the Haiti I’ve always known"

Edwidge Danticat and Katia Ulysse talk Haiti, hiding in plain sight, fiction and journeys to America

Published July 27, 2014 10:30PM (EDT)

Edwidge Danticat, Katia D. Ulysse    (AP/Wilfredo Lee/Akashic Books)
Edwidge Danticat, Katia D. Ulysse (AP/Wilfredo Lee/Akashic Books)

Edwidge Danticat: I had the pleasure of meeting you almost 15 years ago when I edited an anthology called "The Butterfly's Way: Voices From the Haitian Dyaspora" in the United States. I still remember so vividly the piece you wrote for that book. It was called "Mashe Petyon" (Petion Market). It begins with "It's been seven years since I've been home." Then it explains very beautifully why you had not returned  to Haiti except in your dreams.  In that piece, you wrote that you woke up every morning with a precious scarf wrapped around your head, to "keep your dreams from falling." Are your dreams still falling and did they somehow end up in the pages of "Drifting," your beautiful new book of fiction?

Katia Ulysse: It’s hard to believe it’s been almost 15 years since "The Butterfly’s Way" was published; 15 years since I met the Edwidge Danticat! Dr. Renee Shea, my former English professor, had told the class about a phenomenal young author from Haiti. She invited us to hear you read in D.C. I could not go, so I vowed that yes, I would hear Edwidge Danticat read from her work one day. And on that day, I would read alongside her from my own work.

A year or so afterwards I saw the call for submissions for "The Butterfly’s Way." I never imagined my writing would be published in an actual book. A few days before the deadline for submissions was to vanish, I sat at my desk and stared at photographs of Haiti. The more I stared, the closer to home I felt. I hadn’t been there in seven years, so I wrote that. “It’s been seven years since I was home.”

Those words freed something within me, and the essay wrote itself. After a proper amount of revisions, I folded the sheets of paper into an envelope. I went to a nearby mailbox to submit “Mashe Petyon.” I expected my story to be returned with a cordial rejection letter.

As soon as I dropped the envelope into the mailbox, I regretted it. I reached in and tried to retrieve it, but could not. I was furious at myself for not having the good sense to wait, say, until the deadline had passed. I was powerfully frightened, because I knew in my soul that “Mashe Petyon” would be accepted, published and change my life somehow. I was absolutely certain of another fact: I was not ready for anything to change.

“I wrap my head at night to keep my dreams from falling out” is one of those lines for which my writer-self will always be grateful. It is a reminder of how powerful silence is. When I shut up and remain still long enough, all I have to do is transcribe memories of experiences which I never even had. Does that happen to you, Edwidge? Do you ever write a certain line or essay and then think the writing came from some place deeper than your skill and experience?

It happens all the time. I think you feel it most when you reread old work, really old work. Sometimes, I ask myself “Where did that come from?” because it seems to have been formed outside of me somehow, like I was a mere vessel for it. But that is the power of creativity, I think. Dreams are always falling out.

As for tying my head at night to keep my dreams from falling out. I have learned that dreams will fall, particularly when the dreamer pays too much attention to other people’s interpretations. Your good dream is a nightmare to someone who does not wish for you to be happy. The elders liked to say, Pa repete rèv ou bay tout moun. Do not tell your dreams to just anyone. I am careful with whom I share my dreams now.

If you recall, during readings for "The Butterfly’s Way," tears refused to stay in my eyes. I became the weeping woman. I cried, because my dream of reading alongside Edwidge Danticat had come true. I had made that vow, and even though I had forgotten about it, it materialized. Dreams have much power. So, I keep my head wrapped at all times — figuratively.

Now I am going to become the weeping woman. You’re going to make me cry. But we’re all that weeping woman at some point or other and it’s something I’m never ashamed of.  You’re very kind to say that, but I knew as soon as I read your piece that you had talent bursting out of you. It was obvious, your amazing blend of talent and emotion. You were bursting with stories that you wanted to tell. Do you remember folks kept asking you at those readings what you were going to write next? Others could tell too that there were many more stories inside of you.

"Drifting" is, in part, about people who leave home to seek a better life somewhere else. Can you describe your journey, or your family's journey, from Haiti to the United States?

Yes, I do remember people asking what I would write next. I remember also being so scared that I had written anything at all that somewhere inside I must have vowed not to write anything more. I did not believe I had a voice worth hearing. I didn’t believe in my own dream. Yes, there were stories dying to be told, but I became an accomplice in silencing myself. Silence and obscurity were like food to me — unhealthy food, which I consumed voraciously. I wrote in silence. When I submitted works for publication, and the work was accepted, I retreated. There I was now with dozens of literary journals that had my works in them, but I thought nothing of it. Being in those journals and anthologies were great places for me to hide. It was like singing in a Haitian rasin band in New York years ago. I was shy, so I would hide behind the guitar player, who loved the stage. I was the lead singer, but was scared to stand in front of people. I needed to sing, so I sang as passionately as I could. But I hid in the background. Do you ever do that, Edwidge? Do you ever find yourself having to hide?

The page is my guitar player, I guess. I hide in plain sight. Fiction is really wonderful for this. It is a veil that allows me to be seen and not be seen at the same time. There is a part of me that is deeply deeply shy, deeply unconfrontational, but writing, fiction especially, allows me to take leaps, allows me to be bold.  So how did "Drifting" emerge from behind your symbolic guitar player?

"Drifting" is, in part, about people running away from home to seek a better situation elsewhere. As it often happens in real life, some of the characters in "Drifting" learn too late that leaving home to seek a better life was a mistake; staying put might have been a better move. The new country comes with sets of challenges that either strengthen or destroy. In my case, the journey from Haiti both strengthened and destroyed my family. I cannot speak for other family members, but my own life in Haiti was OK. We were part of the sliver called the Middle Class. I attended a good school. Our house sat on a picturesque, tree-lined section of Petionville. My parents had their challenges, their thrills, and friends. When the grown-ups could not think of an excuse to have a party, they did a “Baptême de Poupée”: A doll party. (A poem which I wrote was published on Calabash’s website.

There were also some serious "grown-up" ridiculousness that had zero to do with me. I suppose the grown-ups had hoped New York would do away with that ridiculousness, but instead everything became magnified. Decades later, the breakdown persists. Some of my family members were at that age when assimilation came quickly and naturally. My own bones were already too stiff for complete change to occur. I never learned how to be anything other than the Haitian me. I witness culture clashes, even today, within my family. Luckily, I realize it’s not a crime for me to focus on my own journey. I have to honor that. One day, if I’m one-hundredth as wise as Maya Angelou, I might be able to say, “I Wouldn’t Take Nothing From My Journey Now.” Do you feel that way, Edwidge? How do you feel about your own journey now? What are some things you might take out, or put in?

Writing is such a solitary act that it requires mini journeys all the time. When I am in the world of a story, I am really far away. I am where the characters are. I am with them. But I also feel like my larger journey would be impossible without my family, without community. I wouldn’t take anything out, really, even painful things. Because everything we have lived and seen makes us who we are now.

You have to do a lot of living before you get to that point, I think. I mean to the point where you realize that. And some people’s journeys are shorter than others' time-wise. I loved the doll parties. I didn’t realize how exquisite they were until I was much older. Especially the doll baptism parties where you use your last couple of cents to buy cookies and a cola for your doll. I loved choosing the godparents for my dolls. I have had a few doll parties here in Miami with my two daughters and they enjoy them too. They get really carried away and we end up baking an enormous cake. Without getting too personal, can you tell me about some of the "grown-up ridiculousness”? I have a feeling it did not all go over your little girl head. I feel like some of it might have made its way into your book.

There’s an iron gate on my lips, and I hold the only key. So, I won’t say anything I’m not prepared to defend. I heard someone say once that her life was worth only what other people could take to make their own lives better. I could be that person. I am a writer not a martyr. I know only my own truth, though. I would not even pretend to know anyone else’s.

The "grown-up ridiculousness" has been working its way out of me and onto reams of paper for years. Writing is truly cathartic.

You do such a wonderful job of balancing humor and heartache in this book, something that reminds me very much of the Haitian style of storytelling called lodyans, where at times you think you're being told a joke and in the middle of it something heartbreaking sneaks in and suddenly  you're laughing. Are you at all influenced by that mode of Haitian storytelling or any others?

Lodyans is a necessary tool. Laughter is potent medicine that we sprinkle on daily life. Take that fever spreading across the Caribbean now. Haitian people name it Kraze Zo, Breaking Bones — the fever crushes your bones. That’s humor. One of the best examples of that necessary humor comes from a 98-year-old woman I know. When her 96-year-old sister passed away, 98-year-old said: “That girl could have died any time she wanted. Why did she pick this week? I have a doctor’s appointment this week. If I miss it, my own funeral will be next. My sister doesn’t need me to sit at a funeral home, looking up and down. I’ll be seeing her soon enough as it is. We are all well aware of that.”

When it comes to storytelling, though, my biggest influence remains my great-grandmother, Madan Deo. My essay in "The Butterfly’s Way" is mostly about Madan Deo. I spent years sitting at her feet, listening to stories which her own great-grandmother might have told her. From our house in Petionville, we had a glorious view of the mountains. They were lush then. We could see all the way to Boutilier. At night, with the exception of a few Tèt Bòbèsh lamps illuminating homes in the mountains, everything was the darkest black. Madan Deo used that darkness to make her stories come alive; oftentimes, I would be terrified, but always wanted to hear one more. I lived for those nights. Now, I tell those stories to my own daughter. We don’t have that view from Madan Deo’s porch in Petionville. The trees are gone; the lush mountains are covered with domino houses with dots for windows and dots for doors. That Haiti is long gone, but the stories live on.

I want my daughter to know those stories and the songs that come with them. If I had one wish today, it would be to record my great-grandmother’s voice narrating those stories. Some of us who still have our great-grands are lucky. Find a way to record their voices, if you can. It worries me that post-quake Haiti’s Build Back Better projects don’t seem to include our elders. How can you build anything of worth without a solid foundation? Our elders hold resources we need today. Once they go, we will not be able to replace them.

It’s interesting that you should say that. I often spend time with this group of film students in Jacmel and many of them are like young people we know. They have a very similar cultural vocabulary as some young people here. They watch "Breaking Bad" and are aware of the all the current movies. One time I was doing a story workshop with them and we talked about looking for story structure in traditional tales. At first they looked at me like I was quaint, kind of like I was their grandmother taking them way back. But once I said this is your Greek mythology and it’s yours, they were kind of into it. Their teachers had been encouraging them to record local elders telling stories and they made some wonderful little films that were also acts of preservation of our cultural heritage.

Back to "Drifting." The book begins during, and shortly after, the devastating earthquake of 2010. You write that "We will never learn who every single person was. We may never learn the exact number of voices silenced. But someone remembers." I know you had written parts of the book before the earthquake. When and how did the post-earthquake material present itself to you? And do you see the writing of these stories as an act of remembrance, as making the writer, yourself, one of those who remember?

The first story in "Drifting," “The Least of These,” ends at the exact time that the earthquake begins. Within that initial second, one Haiti passed away while another was born. The first story takes place in that sliver of space between pre-quake and post-quake Haiti.

The exact number of victims may never be known. We may never learn every person’s name. The Vietnam War Memorial in D.C. lists the names of the fallen. You can read them. You can touch them. The name Katia Ulysse was on a list of earthquake victims I found on a website back in 2010. No other information was given, just her name. I wondered if she had a middle name, too. Did someone forget to write her middle name the way people often forget to write mine? What about the other quake victims? Were their names written correctly? Perhaps one day I will learn something about the Katia Ulysse who died in the quake. I’d give anything to know how she lived.

In Creole, we would say that this woman was your tokay. I have always loved that there is a name for this, a kind of kinship category for someone who shares our names. In this case she is a double tokay  as you even share the same last name. How extraordinary is that! This makes me think of one of the chapters of the book I keep going back to over and over again. That chapter is "Bereavement Pay." In that section, one of the characters is trying to explain to someone in human resources at work that bereavement time really more than pay is due, for all the people that this person has lost in the earthquake. And it is not registering at all for this human resources person that a situation like this, you do not just grieve for your mother or father or your brother or sister, but you are grieving for an entire community. I remember after the earthquake even people who knew no one who'd died were walking around with the weight of that global and total loss. Finally people would say when they were asked, "We've all lost someone even if we don't realize it." That chapter captures so very well this feeling of grieving as part of a distant community. Was there a particular inspiration for this moment? And how do we both grieve and celebrate as distant members of an ever menaced community?

“Bereavement Pay” is one of my favorites. It’s brief, like memory can be. Most companies have a policy dedicated strictly to bereavement; I am not aware of a policy for death. The person who is about to die might submit a "leave request" and is denied. I can hear the boss now, saying: “I’m sorry, but you don’t have any personal or sick leave time left. If you don’t come to work for any reason (including dying), that will be considered abandonment of post for which there are serious consequences. You will be reprimanded, perhaps even terminated!”

I know a woman whose aunt passed away recently. She told her supervisor that it was her mother. The aunt had been a mother to her, but the bereavement policy stipulates two days for aunties and three days for mommies.  Six months later, the woman continues to mourn; unfortunately, the earth cannot stop spinning for one woman’s pain.

Indeed. I know titles are always tricky. Sometimes it takes me weeks after finishing a book to have a title arrive and claim it. Other times, the title comes and demands to have something written about it. How did you come to choose "Drifting" as your title? Many of your characters are kinds of drifters, but there seems to be a lot more to it than that.

The characters, the setting, conflicts: Every component of "Drifting" is constantly shifting. As it is with real life: We can make all the plans we want; however, when a storm comes and tosses our plans about like leaves in the storm, we drift. We drift and we wait. We make more plans, hoping that by the time the next storm comes, we would have drifted a little closer to our aspirations.

In addition to writing fiction, you run a very successful blog, where you bring attention to a lot of great Haitian talent. What inspired you to start the blog?

Thank you for saying that, Edwidge. VoicesfromHaiti is a work in progress, which I started for selfish reasons: In the area where I live, I know of only two and a half Haitians. I married an American — from the Midwest — who is doing his best to learn Creole, but that takes time. Because I am lakou-minded, I crave a larger Haitian community. The idea for VoicesfromHaiti stemmed from that desire. I didn’t initiate the process, until after the earthquake when a U.S.-born, second-generation Haitian relative asked me for our family’s ZIP code in Haiti.

There is a lot in that moment. But there are no ZIP codes in Haiti. We all have young relatives, though, to be fair, who have been so discouraged from going to Haiti by their parents and elders, who left for certain reasons that they are afraid can still touch or affect their children. Anyway, please go on.

During those months after the quake, I needed the company of people who knew there are no ZIP codes in Haiti. I went home for a while, but reality soon called.

Listening to people’s stories is necessary for me.  For this reason, I plan to revamp Voices to include stories from all parts of the world, creating a much larger lakou/community.

You are also a teacher. There are many teachers in "Drifting," both traditional teachers and more informal ones. And not all of them are good teachers. How does your work in the classroom inform your writing?

I taught ESL in the toughest neighborhoods in Baltimore City for 10 years. Every time I told myself I was done, I went back for one more year. Many students come into the school system with too many scars to count. They need strong advocates.

I was an ESL kid, still am. I had great teachers. I learned English within six months, because the American kids spewed words I needed to understand -- fast. Times are crueler today. Newcomers need to understand what’s being said. There are vultures who count on kids’ inability to tell. I want to be part of the solution.

You manage to give us a sense of that extra layer of trauma and loss in "Drifting." You do it in a very cyclical way. Did you always tell these stories that way? You also touch on class and religion in those cycles. What role do you see these chasms playing in Haitian life both in Haiti and in the Haitian dyaspora?

If the stories had been told from a single perspective, much would have been lost. Imagine one voice narrating the stories of the hundreds of thousands silenced by the earthquake of 2010. Each character in "Drifting" needs his/her own space. Each needs to tell his own truth, his own lie.

Yes, countless homes and structures collapsed after the earthquake, but the class line stayed intact. For months after the event, people feared sleeping inside their cement-block houses, so they slept outdoors.

The tent where I slept was constructed with old, mildewed rugs and rusty corrugated tin. The space inside was divided into mini-neighborhoods, where several families resided.

Before the sun came up every morning, a lady from one of the tent’s better neighborhoods would order her 7-year-old restavèk to get up and make coffee. “Don’t make me have to teach you another lesson,” the lady would say. It was amazing to witness that even though we were all afraid to die, someone remembered to mistreat a child. Yes, there are beautiful stories of people coming together to help one another, but witnessing that bothered me. Shortly afterwards, I wrote my first children’s book, "Fabiola Can Count."

Certain lines collapsed, but quickly went up again --

Rich stays here. Poor stays there. That’s the Haiti I’ve always known. There is no greater irony than what happened to the Petionville cemetery after the earthquake. That cemetery was the place to be once. VIP sections were to die for! All the best families were interred there. The earthquake came and went, leaving the cemetery mostly intact. But when someone decreed it a crime to house the dead in the middle of a city whose value continues to escalate, workers dismantled the cemetery, grave by grave. Memory by memory. Now, the cemetery is itself a memory.

We come full circle in the book in a rather surprising way, which reminds me of your Mashe Petyon essay. That essay ends with the words, "I would not be afraid to go home today." I know you have been back many times since writing that essay. Was Thomas Wolfe wrong? Can one go home again?

Fifteen years ago, there was much I did not know. I listened to stories I should have rejected. Haiti was not safe. Kidnappings. Killings. Robberies. And then I moved to fair Baltimore City with its vast parks of condemned dwellings. How often did police cars arrive at a school where I worked? I was gently stabbed, kicked, you name it. The first time I saw a dead body at a bus stop, a few blocks from a school where I taught, I feared the students might be traumatized. When I told other teachers what I had seen, someone said: “This is Baltimore, hon, what do you expect?” Unfortunately, the students were used to death.

There’s no travel advisory against Baltimore --

The crime rate is staggering, but Baltimore City is still a tourist attraction. I go home as often as I can. I fear for myself to the same degree that I do when I walk in New York, Miami or Washington, D.C.

No matter where I am in the world, Haiti is home. When I am unable to be there physically, I connect in other ways, including with VoicesfromHaiti. I write in Kreyòl. I think and sing in Kreyòl. I dream in Kreyòl.

My 90-year-old grandmother, Felicie Montfleury, always dreamed of being in Haiti — when her time came to pass away. She bought the burial dress for her special day. The gloves. Pearls. The rosary. She paid a funeral home in advance to send her away in style, so I wouldn’t have to worry about it.

Before her trip to heaven, however, she had planned to live in Haiti. When the quake half-destroyed her house, she stopped talking about going home again. The one last dream to which she held was to be buried next to her own mother and grandmother — in that cemetery in Petionville. Even I had my own corner unit in that cemetery. I didn’t tell her they had relocated the cemetery (by the way, rumor has it there is no new address), but she heard about it.

With her house and final resting place destroyed, my grandmother decided Miami was close enough to Haiti to die there, so she did. She was a storyteller herself, and kept her sense of humor until the end. She could tell you the most heartbreaking story in such a way that made you laugh until she stopped talking and you realize there was nothing funny at all. Perhaps that is another reason why I write in a similar lodyans style.

My grandmother always tied her head to keep her own dreams from falling too. She had dozens of colorful scarves, which I gladly inherited. I wear them now, which may explain why I awoke one morning with an intense urge to create those intricate ceremonial flags you find in fine art galleries. I make those flags now, as if I had done so for centuries. It’s like waking up from a coma and speaking fluently languages I had never before learned. I must carry the flag-making gene from an ancestor-artist, just as I carry the gene of storytelling from my great-grandmother.

By Edwidge Danticat

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