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News & Features » March 2016 » Katia D. Ulysse: Remembering David Bowie

Katia D. Ulysse: Remembering David Bowie

Today, we’re remembering David Bowie on his birthday. Katia D. Ulysse, author of Mouths Don’t Speak and Drifting, wrote this tribute to Bowie in 2016.

David_Bowie-06Remembering David Bowie
by Katia D. Ulysse

Even though David Bowie is no longer with us in the usual sense, I still cannot bear to think of him in the past tense. When I heard the news, I gasped and sobbed inconsolably. The man was art made flesh—the consummate artist, in life and in death.

Three decades prior, someone said to me, “Black girls aren’t supposed to like white boys that way. You’re Haitian, remember? We had the only successful slave revolution in history, and now you want a white boy. Who cares if he’s not French? You’re still a traitor, a trader. Shame on you.”

I was sixteen, a senior in high school. My parents had forbidden me from thinking about boys, but M. made disobedience irresistible. While other boys were maladroit and twitchy, M. exuded self-confidence and maturity. He came to school dressed like he belonged on a billboard in Times Square, wearing Burberry or Armani. His high cheekbones and graceful expressions made him so beautiful he could have passed for a handsome girl, but was still unmistakably male. His hair was stylishly disheveled. He used the gems that were his eyes in such a way that made people think he was blind, but by some miracle could see only one person at a time. When he parted his lips and that British accent flowed, boys and girls glanced around nervously, trying to conceal their rapture.

“You’re an interesting girl,” M. said to me the day our so-so friendship began. We walked together now and again after school, talking about life as we understood it. Weeks later, when he invited me to his house to listen to music, I was so tickled one would have thought he’d asked for my hand in marriage.

When we reached M.’s house, he kissed his mother and waved at his siblings. “This is Katia,” he announced. “We’re going upstairs to listen to some songs.” His mother gave an approving nod. The siblings didn’t bother looking up. I wondered if bringing girls to his house after school was routine—like brushing his teeth in the morning.

M. motioned for me to follow him. First stop was the kitchen, where he picked up a couple bottles of water. Next, he led the way to his bedroom. This would be my first time with a boy—just two of us—in his bedroom. I knew that was the last place I was supposed to be. I’d taken health class, after all, and was aware of the perils.

The bedroom door was ajar, revealing a surprisingly airy and tidy room. When he closed the door behind us, my heart pounded against my ribcage. I moved sideways, keeping my back to the wall before resting against a bookshelf.

“You seem anxious,” M. said, moving toward me and placing his hands on my shoulders.

“Not me,” I lied, but did not budge. “Where are those albums you’re supposed to have?”

He was so close now I could almost count his eyelashes. I felt his breath on my face. The smile playing on his lips was mercilessly flirtatious, the gaze charged. He tightened his hold. No prelude. No sweet words. He’d plunge right in. “What do you want?”

His question was like a hypnotist’s pendulum. What do I want? What do I want? What does he want? I struggled to keep my voice even. “What do you have?”

“That depends on which way your body moves.”

I swallowed hard. “What?”

“Katia,” he began, spinning me 180 degrees. “You were blocking the albums on the shelf.”

I shrugged, hoping my face didn’t betray shame or disappointment.

The lot was organized by genres about which I knew absolutely nothing. The faces on most of the album covers belonged to people who were either dead or old enough to be our grandparents. M. played the records and knew the lyrics to songs by Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Bessie Smith, Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop, Queen, Marianne Faithfull, Bob Marley, the Police, Robert Plant, Bryan Ferry, Chuck Berry, Ike and Tina Turner, and Motown’s legends. During intermissions, he sang bits and pieces from UB40’s “Burden of Shame.” Through M.’s choice of songs, I learned he denounced apartheid in South Africa, the chaos in Northern Ireland, corruption of any kind, structural and institutional racism and poverty, self-pity, and drama queens.

Realizing M. had met his objective of having me “listen to some songs,” it was time to leave. “Not until you hear Bowie,” he said, while removing from the shelf album after album, each of which depicted a different persona—all of them David Bowie. In the few photographs where the singer was without turquoise eye shadow and bizarre costumes, it was clear that M. had done his best to imitate him.

“Your hero?” I asked.

After a brief silence, M. said: “You know how when your head spins and your nerve endings are exposed and you’re vulnerable, you’re hot and cold and something pins you in place and you want to move, but not really because if you move you might miss the moment, and you can’t wait for the moment to hurry up and come because you know it will blow your mind beyond anything you could remember up to that point, and you know nothing will surpass it and nothing will be the same afterward, and you want it to last but it’s supposed to be ephemeral because it’s so amazingly good that it’s crippling and will drive you insane if you try to hold on, but you must until something inside you cracks, and you can’t fathom your body being able to withstand the same thing twice, but soon enough there you are, only this time you want it even more?”


“You’re a bad liar. Anyway, that’s the Bowie effect, according to Kathrine.”


M. fumbled for words, for the first time since I met him. “Yeah, Kathrine. Kat. She’s my girlfriend. She’s in London. We phone each other as often as possible. You remind me of her a lot. Katia. Kathrine. It’s uncanny, really. You’d like her. We were inseparable. I miss her now all the time.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“I can’t wait for summer. We’ll see each other then. We promised.” His shameless devotion explained the nod of approval I received from Mum earlier. Anything to keep her precious boy from falling into depression. No matter.

My introduction to David Bowie began with “Space Oddity.” Ziggy Stardust let me know I wasn’t weird for shunning designer jeans and bangs. I preferred to make my own clothes and chop off my hair. I didn’t fit in, like the Thin White Duke wouldn’t fit in at a high school in Montclair, New Jersey. The Spaceman who would die decades later in David Bowie’s “Blackstar” video captivated me. I fell in love with “Cat People” and the way he danced with Tina Turner when they sang, “I will see you in the sky tonight.” Somewhere between “Watch That Man” and the relentless doo-wop of “Drive-In Saturday” from the Aladdin Sane album, I knew I’d discovered my favorite singer. After listening to “Rebel Rebel” for the third time, M. and I pointed to each other and screamed: “Hot tramp, I love you so!”

I looked into M.’s eyes, and knew they’d lost their talismanic power suddenly. The more I listened to Bowie, the further M. retreated from my mind. Decades later, when I hear that voice, I still get the Bowie effect as described by M.’s long lost girlfriend.

“Everybody knows me now,” Mr. David Bowie announced to generations of fans in the album released two days before he died. “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he declared in “Lazarus,” and I believe him. Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane may not dominate the stage again, but technology will ensure their immortality. The eyes that stared back at me from Bowie’s album covers for decades were now bandaged and obscured behind a dressmaker’s buttons. “I can’t give you everything,” he sang in the end. I imagine the gentleman behind the performer reserved his last gazes for his wife Iman and his children.

Recently at a friend’s house, a bunch of six- and seven-year-olds sat before the television, entranced. And there was David Bowie in Labyrinth, weeks after his demise, holding court before the next generation of loyal fans. I sat near the children, watching the consummate artist wield his otherworldly genius, and trying unsuccessfully to recall whatever it was that once made M. seem so fascinating.


KATIA D. ULYSSE is a fiction writer, born in Haiti. Her short stories, essays, and Pushcart Prize–nominated poetry appear in numerous literary journals and anthologies, including: The Caribbean Writer, Smartish Pace, Phoebe, Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism; Mozayik, The Butterfly’s Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States, and Haiti Noir, edited by Edwidge Danticat. She has taught in Baltimore public schools for thirteen years, and served as Goucher College’s Spring 2017 Kratz Writer in Residence. Drifting, a collection of short stories, drew high praise from literary critics. She is currently at work on another short story collection. Mouths Don’t Speak is her latest novel.

Posted: Mar 8, 2016

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