Katia D. Ulysse: Three Vignettes
To celebrate the release of Katia D. Ulysse’s Drifting, we’re very pleased to feature a guest post from Katia on her writing process, her inspiration, and three additional fiction vignettes that are not found in her debut collection.
I recently found a publishing contract for a story which I wrote in 1999 in a box of old writings. The story, “Mashe Petyon,” was published by Soho Press in an anthology called The Butterfly’s Way. Edwidge Danticat edited it. Since that time, I’ve been fortunate enough to have many more stories published in anthologies and literary journals. Drifting is like going solo after performing for years with a variety of bands.
I write about many subjects, in various genres: poetry, fiction, essays, music. When I am not reading or finding multiple means by which to express whatever it is that’s dying to be told, I spend time in the garden. I collect bearded irises, because they are stunning. It amazes me how they seem to die each winter, only to come back even more vibrant the next spring. The mystery of stillness fascinates me. Gardening is like writing for me: you get an idea for a story—a seed. You plant it on paper, water and nurture until it sprouts into whatever it wants to be: a short story or a fully-realized novel.
Haiti, my birth country, is the thread that connects my work. Drifting is about the lives of everyday Haitian people, but people of other nationalities tell me they relate to the characters. It is my purpose to write stories that touches everyone no matter where they live. Haiti’s stories are not that different from others’. Our pain comes from the same sources: We want good schools for our children; we need our families to be safe. We don’t want to have to bury our children before their time. We want our homes to remain standing in the midst of storms. We want to remember our husbands’ names when old age starts to carry us away. We want love. Drifting touches upon all those themes. We can all relate.
The first story in Drifting, “The Least of These,” ends at the exact time that the devastating earthquake struck Haiti, leaving an estimated three hundred thousand people dead. I was in the States, staring at the television screen, not believing, but knowing deep within that the images were far too horrific to be make-believe.
My eyes stayed glued on Anderson Cooper; I had never seen so much of that man in my life. I was thankful for this platinum-haired stranger who had become a fixture in our house. Diligent and dedicated, morning, noon, and night, news people narrated the unfolding tragedy. All I could do was watch from a yet-to-be-named state of being.
I didn’t sleep that first night. Who did? I became like a machine that did whatever it was programmed to do. I was a teacher. Kids needed me to show up. Whether or not they’d heard about the earthquake was irrelevant. Those kids left drug-infested homes to come to school each day. At their young age, they struggled with more than any adult should—like our kids in Haiti. I would not let the kids down. So, I went to work. Also, there was an important meeting with the school principal that day. He asked if I wanted to postpone it, because of what he’d seen on TV. I told him there was no reason to wait. Wait for what? The earthquake had changed my home forever; for all I knew, my home was gone altogether. I could not imagine waiting for anything besides news from somebody, anybody who knew anything. We hadn’t heard from immediate family members, but I knew I had lost precious people. And since I could not do what I wanted to do most—get on a plane and go home—there was nothing else to do but function like a well-programmed machine. I guess that was my Haitian resiliency in action.
Two days after the quake, a Thursday, I went to work again. This time, however, something weird kept happening to me. Every few seconds, something inside of me paused. It was as if I were a car whose brakes someone kept tapping. I would stop. Halt. In the middle of teaching or a meeting, I’d stop. I felt the deaths. I could hear the screams. I was screaming in silence. I was useless. Everyone at work looked at me with eyes that asked why was I even there? I went to our house to watch Anderson Cooper, and made plans to go home. I needed to go home, but going home would not happen for weeks.
Sleep was sporadic. When I was awake—which was most of the time—I wrote. I wrote incessantly. One of the vignettes I wrote is called, “Mommy, Are Those Real People?”
It’s been over four years since the devastating quake. Everything has changed. Now, we live in post-quake Haiti. Inside that box of old writings where I discovered that contract from 1999, I found many other stories. I read a few. It was as if I had written them just this morning, in post-quake Haiti. How peculiar is it that a story written in 1999 reads like one written just this morning? The more things change in Haiti, the more they seem to stay the same—unfortunately. Such stories remain relevant and continue to link us, wherever we may be in the world. With all the madness taking place worldwide, the easier it is for folk to understand one another better. At the end of the day, we want the same thing: Peace. We don’t want our children to witness the madness.
I have included here three vignettes: one from February 2010; one from 2002 when they found The Afghan Girl, Sharbat Gula; and the last one is from 2004, in the aftermath of Hurricane Jeanne.
Mommy, Are Those Real People?
Written February 12, 2010
My daughter’s eyes are fixed on the red letters flashing at the bottom of the TV screen: CNN. I am glued to the couch, watching Anderson Cooper broadcasting the new tragedy unfolding in my native country.
I had agonized about allowing my little girl to watch the people wandering around Port-au-Prince with tragedy drawn on their faces like massive Ash Wednesday crosses. The blood and mud look like bad old Play-Doh. I believe my daughter is far too young to see those graphic images. I worry she’ll have nightmares. Watching this tragedy will transform her. She’s only five years old. Five-year-old children in Haiti are different; they’re older somehow. Surely there’s some type of math that would substantiate this point, particularly when you factor in a 7.0 quake, 30-plus aftershocks, and the estimated number of casualties. Five-year-olds in Haiti fear the morning, the night, and every second in between. My daughter, on the other hand, fears the hairbrush I put to her head before sending her to school. Yes, I’ll let her watch CNN for a few minutes. The story developing in Mommy’s country now is a must-see. It’s an epic blockbuster.
I sit my daughter down next to me. She watches intently. This prerecorded news segment shows what happened in the quake’s immediate aftermath. Dazed and dusty people wander about aimlessly. Perhaps they’re waiting for the bad thing to pass so that the day would get back to its version of normal.
The bad thing had just happened. There are no bandages to cover the scary Play-Doh on eyes, arms, legs, and faces. There are no shrouded human forms in the middle of the street—not yet. The heaps of half-dressed mannequins with muddy hair and missing limbs have yet to be piled in wheelbarrows and dump trucks.
“Mommy, are those real people?” My daughter is confused, incapable suddenly of making a basic distinction. She blinks hard, adjusting her eyes.
“They are real people,” I explain. “They are real as you and I are.” A man walks across the screen with a baby in his arms. The baby looks like an antique doll that had fallen off a shelf and lost a few parts.
“Is that little baby sick, Mommy?” my daughter wants to know.
“Yes, the baby is sick.” I answer. The truth will have to be rationed carefully—told in increments—over time.
“How can we help them? They need snacks. And juice boxes. And then they’ll be ok, Mommy?”
“They need more than snacks and juice boxes. They need everything.”
Girl Carrying Basket
Written in 2002—after they found and identified The Afghan Girl
Hers is the face of a nation. Hypnotic green eyes of an icon, watching in spellbinding stillness. Ripe lips frozen for seventeen years, never to disclose confidences.
So, they searched for the legend behind The Afghan Girl’s haunting state, and found Sharbat Gula: mother of three, a baker’s wife, ending the mystery.
She looks different now. No, not The Afghan Girl, “Haiti—Girl Carrying Basket”: See her in the picture there. See how those eyes, hypnotic like The Afghan Girl’s eyes. Haiti—Girl Carrying Basket stares down from the yellowed calendar tacked on the kitchen wall.
I’ve always known she had a name too. Perhaps one that weighs as much as the basket on her head, but I was content not knowing.
I was content not to know, until they rediscovered The Afghan Girl—Sharbat Gula! Yes, now I have to find Haiti—Girl Carrying Basket, who for seventeen years kept a quiet vigil above the coffee canister.
Take a Picture
Written in 2004
Pink lips pucker to kiss shy black boys begging for crumbs, naked girls ashamed and afraid.
She vows to win this war against poverty. The photographer’s lens is her loaded gun. She poses, remembering to rub her blue eyes to summon the redness. The sadness. Tears and dark circles are priceless in this place.
“I will cry for the magazines. There will be talk shows. Interviews. I will say Good Morning to everyone in America. Sak pase?”
Yes, the sadder the eyes the better. Look at these desperate children. See how I feed them. See how I care for them. See how much I love them. See how often I bury them. Digging little graves with my own hands. Take a picture.
Take another. And another. Yes.
Haitians don’t care about their own children. But I do. I do. Oh yes, I do. See. Take another picture. Wait. Let me fix my blouse. A little cleavage goes a long way. And I’m going far, baby. What do you say, Mister Photographer? Take another. No. wait.
Somebody come quick. Find me a baby to hold in my arms. No. Not this one. This one looks too healthy. Give me that one over there. That one is perfect. Sunken eyes. A deformed head. Ashy skin. Parched lips. Flies. Oh, yes, thank you.
Thank you, this baby will do well. This will be great in the press. The talk show hostess will cry out In the Name of God!
Take a picture, mister photographer. I need to show the world how much I care about Haiti’s children. I can go on all the talk shows in the world, but a picture is worth a million words—at a dollar each!
Take another. Yes. Yes. How much film you got in that camera?
KATIA D. ULYSSE was born in Haiti, and moved to the United States as a teen. Her writings have been published in numerous literary journals, including the Caribbean Writer, Meridians, Calabash, Peregrine, and Smartish Pace, among others. Her work has also appeared in The Butterfly’s Way and Haiti Noir. Her first children’s book, Fabiola Can Count, was published in 2013. Ulysse lives in Maryland with her husband and daughter. When she’s not reading, writing fiction, gardening, or teaching, she blogs on VoicesfromHaiti.com. Drifting is her first book of fiction.
Posted: Jul 2, 2014
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