Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Q&A with author Katia D. Ulysse

Katia D. Ulysse is the author of the new novel Drifting. She also has written a children's book, Fabiola Can Count. She blogs at VoicesfromHaiti.com, and she lives in Maryland.

Q: How was the title "Drifting" selected for the book?

A: The characters in Drifting weave in and out of time and place. Sometimes their travels are deliberate; sometimes, they are forced. They go to distant places by foot, by boat, by plane, or by way of the grave—only to find themselves back to their point of origin.

Lives, emotions, fortunes, everything is fleeting in Drifting; dreams, faces, love, nationality: it’s all transient, ephemeral. They are like leaves in a storm, uncertain of their destinations.

Q: Most of the characters you write about are linked to one another through friendship and family. Why did you structure the book as a series of related stories with different viewpoints, rather than following one character more closely?

A: Who can tell the story of his life better the one who lived it? Had I told these stories from only one character’s perspective, I would have cheated the others. Each time someone who’s read ‘Drifting’ says the stories read like autobiographies, I feel I accomplished my goal.

Besides, the characters—even those in the same household—did not trust one another. The absence of loyalty among them drove me to invite each character to speak for himself. I don’t think the stories would have been believable otherwise.  

Q: Many of the characters leave Haiti for the United States. What are some of the issues they face as immigrants, and how do the changes affect them?

A: The characters leave Haiti for the United States. Some leave the countryside to come to Port-au-Prince. Everyone is drifting to what they presume will be a better place—a better situation. The issues they face as immigrants is not particularly new; the story is in how they adjust, how they succeed or fail.

Most immigrants’ plight begins with a seemingly impregnable barrier: learning to negotiate the new language. I taught English to immigrants (ESL) for years, and know the challenge of not having the words to express  the simplest thoughts.

Research shows that immigrants over 13 or 14 years of age will always retain traces of their mother tongue. They can spend a hundred years in the new country, but they will never sound like a native speaker.

Having to operate within a new culture with its own foreign norms is another challenge. There is nothing seamless about starting anew in a faraway place. In many instances, the result can be tragic.

Whatever the reason, leaving home causes a rip in a life’s fabric. You can mend it a thousand times; you can make the fabric look like new, but you know that tear is irreparable.

You can get a lifetime membership to the new country, conform to every aspect of it; cook and eat the new country’s cuisine; you can wear the clothes, dream the dreams, and assimilate all day long, but you don’t get to change the fact that you are from some other place. You were born elsewhere.

You can forget or pretend to forget, but you bring your blood with you. Nothing, not even death, can change that.  

Q: What role does the earthquake of 2010 play in the book?

A: Although some of the stories were written years before the earthquake of 2010, they seem to symbolize the tragedy that ensued.

In one of the stories, a son orders his mother to destroy her thatched roof hut; he blames her home as the reason why Haiti cannot move forward. Years ago, those huts were destroyed to make way for cement-block structures. Great-grandma’s hut was crushed and shoveled away.

Ironically, it was the ‘modern-day cement block houses that collapsed, leaving mountains of rubble and hundreds of thousands trapped underneath. Surely, thatch and mud would not have been as cruel.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Thank you for asking this question. I am working on a story which I really believe in. I’m a little superstitious, so I don’t say much about that.

I am happy to report that I am working on a children’s book, Color Me Loved, with my 9-year-old daughter. That story is very important to me—to us. It’s a beautiful story about a beautiful family.

Another very important ongoing project is making Haitian ceremonial flags. These flags are intricate works of sequins and beads; one flag may take me weeks to finish, but like writing, flag-making is soul-work. I couldn’t stop, even if I wanted. I look forward to an exhibit at an art gallery one of these days soon.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Akashic Books’ publisher, Johnny Temple, is the one who set Drifting on this wonderful course. The book would not have been possible without him and the amazing people at Akashic Books.

Also, when Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory was published years ago, it opened a new window through which to view Haitian and Caribbean literature. It is because of her that works like Drifting can find good homes today. I thank her for all that she’s done and continues to do for Haitian literature worldwide. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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