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News & Features » July 2014 » Katia D. Ulysse talks Drifting with Edwidge Danticat at Salon

Katia D. Ulysse talks Drifting with Edwidge Danticat at Salon

Drifting_currentKatia D. Ulysse recently spoke to Haiti Noir and Haiti Noir 2: The Classics editor Edwidge Danticat at Salon to discuss her new book Drifting, journeying to America, Haiti, and more. Read an excerpt below, and check out the full interview here.

Edwidge Danticat: I had the pleasure of meeting you almost fifteen 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 fifteen years since The Butterfly’s Way was published; fifteen 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 DC. 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.

Posted: Jul 29, 2014

Category: Akashic Insider | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,