Drifting

Drifting

by Katia D. Ulysse

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Overview


"An arresting account of the contemporary Haitian-American experience."
--Publishers Weekly

"This novel in short stories will appeal to readers of literary and Caribbean fiction."
--Library Journal

"Ulysse displaces and redeems her characters with formidable skill, while her precise cuts through all preconceptions....Intense and necessary."
--Booklist

"Humanity is lost and found in these stories...Ulysse has created a fascinating world of class and cultural distinctions; her stories are engaging."
--Kirkus Reviews

"Assimilating qualities of Danticat and Alvarez, Ulysse paints a variegated literary tableau, more sociological than psychological or historical, that translates into fiction the reality, as well as the fragility and vivacity, of life for young Haitian American women of few means."
--World Literature Today

"A superb novel in the form of interconnected short stories that follow Haitian families as they move between time and place, before and after the devastating earthquake of 2010."
--Teaching Tolerance Magazine, Summer 2015 Staff Pick

"Powerful, piercing and unforgiving...Drifting transcends escapism, materialism and gaudy promises...Ulysse's prosaic brilliance is unmistakable."
--Kaieteur News (Guyana)

"Captivating and honest....This novel is a win-win for anyone who enjoys character development just as much as plot."
--The Review Lab, Columbia College Chicago

"Drifting is an intoxicating account of various short stories by Haitian novelist and literary genius Katia D. Ulysse...highly recommended."
--Black Star News

"Ulysse paints a vivid picture of customs, culture, and experiences. And like the characters, readers are engulfed in a vast array of emotions."
--OOSA Online Book Club

"A good, worthwhile read."
--Book Lust

"Katia D. Ulysse has written an engaging debut novel, Drifting....Drawing on rural Haiti, the class system, Vodou and folklore, Ulysse shows how immigrating to the US, while often seen as the only real option, does not always retain or strengthen families or improve one's economic station."
--The World is Robert

Katia D. Ulysse's debut provides the rare opportunity to peer into the private lives of four secretive Haitian families. The interwoven narrative spans four decades--from 1970 through 2010--and drifts among various provinces in Haiti, the United States, churches, vodun temples, schools, strip clubs, and the grave. Ulysse introduces us to a childless Haitian American couple risking it all for a baby to call their own; a Florida-based predatory schoolteacher threatening students with deportation if they expose him; and the unforgettable Monsieur Boursicault, whose chain of funeral parlors makes him the wealthiest man in Haiti. This daring work of fiction is a departure from the standard narrative of political unrest on the island. Ulysse's characters are everyday people whose hopes for distant success are constantly challenged--but never totally swayed--by the hard realities accompanying the immigrant's journey.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781617752407
Publisher: Akashic Books
Publication date: 07/01/2014
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 1,095,456
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author


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.

Read an Excerpt

DRIFTING


By Katia D. Ulysse

Akashic Books

Copyright © 2014 Katia D. Ulysse
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61775-240-7



CHAPTER 1

THE LEAST OF THESE


There was a time when you could drop a fishbone in Puits Blain's soil and it would grow into a whale. During those days, wealthy gran nègs nicknamed Puits Blain "Sweet Place." It was far enough away from their mansions in Petionville, but close enough for a Saturday-morning jaunt to some great-aunt's mud-and-thatched-roof hut. How serene it all was back then! Even snakes knew to keep their eggs in the old cast-iron pots in the calabash grove. No one knew how those pots got under the calabash trees; it had been generations since anyone even cared to ask. Some said ancestors used those pots to cook the medicine that clamped slave women's wombs shut. No matter. Manman always scolded my sister and me whenever she caught us playing near those pots. As soon as she would look away, we'd go right back to our games.

Manman went the way of the ancestors years ago. She died of a broken heart on account of the fact that Papa sold her land right out from underneath her, and went on to scatter his own seed from Port-au-Prince to Port-de-Paix.

Freda and I came to the United States to study. My sister had such a way with books that she earned a top spot at the John Hopkins School of Medicine. I, on the other hand, had only songs in my brain. Morning, noon, and night, all I wanted to do was write songs. Most days I woke up with one in my head—intro, bridge, and all—like a Christmas gift that had not been there the previous night.

Freda and her medical degree returned to Puits Blain when Hurricane Jeanne orphaned more children than anyone could count. Her house/clinic was not far from where we grew up. The mud huts had been replaced by concrete-block dwellings. As for the calabash groves, someone sold those gourd, limb, and root. The old cast-iron pots were gone too. Sweet Place had become a maze of alleyways; few people made it out, not to work or interact with outsiders. Each house—with its crown of twisted rebar—received an additional bedroom (or a second floor) as soon as a dollar dropped by. The dream was always to add one more room; one more story on the rooftop, until the house came close to resembling a gran nèg's mansion. Not much sweetness left in Puits Blain now; just layers upon layers of dust.

Sometimes Freda's orphaned children seemed to die just from the dust. I'd been tempted once or twice to bring one home with me, especially since nine doctors in as many states swore my womb was defective. Of course, there were umpteen medical procedures available to women like myself. I tried them all. Nothing took. After years of "trying," Serge (my husband) and I withdrew our petition from Nature's court, and traded our baby-making budget for an extended vacation.

Our luxurious suite had a private pool so wide it merged with the sky and the sea. Serge and I took advantage of the heavenly views and treated ourselves to good old-fashioned sex morning, noon, and night. For the first time in ages we didn't treat our bodies like vending machines that stole our money but kept our goodies trapped behind some faulty metal spiral.

It was not until two months after we returned from our vacation that I noticed menses had stopped making an appearance. One particular suspicion nibbled at my heart, but I didn't dare give in to it until the Extra-Thyme Soap and Body Potion woman looked at me and gushed: Michelle, girl, I know that glow!

I purchased a home pregnancy test; read and reread the directions a few times before using it. When I saw the Extra-Thyme woman again, I gave her permission to add psychic to her list of gifts.


I called my gynecologist for an appointment. My life was about to change. I needed confirmation.

"Congratulations!" the doctor intoned. Wide, scrutinizing eyes were partly condemnatory, partly approving. Hadn't she told me this would never happen?

"Can you believe it?" I asked her.

She assured me that in her line of work there wasn't much she had not seen. So, yes, she could believe it.

I thought about tricking Serge into joining me at his favorite restaurant and slipping a note into his pumpkin pie, but we'd been through too much for that. I called his cell phone and said: "We're pregnant, chéri."

"We're going to have a boy!" Serge shouted.

Next, I telephoned my sister. Freda congratulated me as if I'd won a championship with one second left on the clock. "If you need me," she said, "I'll be on the next plane." I would never ask Freda to leave her work. That clinic was all the children had for miles.

* * *

I spent the first trimester memorizing What to Expect When You're Expecting. Serge and I declined the "highly recommended—particularly in your case" amniocentesis. The doctor took every opportunity to remind us that my pregnancy was "high risk," due in part to my advanced age of thirty-six. We would keep our baby whatever the prognosis, we knew this. Also, we decided that boy or girl, we would name our child Dieudonne. Serge was not particularly religious, but there was no question this baby was a gift from God. A few months later, during one of our endless sonograms, the doctor confirmed our baby was a boy; Serge nearly collapsed with joy.


One morning when Dieudonne tried to karate-chop his way out without any assistance from me or a doctor, Serge rushed me to the emergency room. A team of doctors poked, prodded, and photographed me inside and out. Serge and I kept our eyes on the monitor, watching our little Dieudonne's fully developed face. The pursed lips said he would have his own opinions and voice them whenever and however he chose. Little fists were ready for battle. The umbilical cord appeared to be wound around his neck. He seemed to be resting from all the thrashing around he had done earlier.

"How is the baby?" Serge and I asked the doctor.

The doctor's posture slackened when she informed us in an apologetic tone how there appeared to be "umbilical complications."

Our baby was born that morning. The doctor asked what name we had chosen. Serge squeezed my hand and said we didn't have to use that name.

"No hurry," the doctor said, not looking at Serge or me now that she had been shoved from her upper rung of authority. "This is a difficult time," she added superfluously.

"Dieudonne," I told her through clenched teeth. "My son's name is Dieudonne."


Serge and I held each other and cried for a long time. When we returned to our house, we drifted like deflated balloons between rooms. Years ago, when we converted our garage to a recording studio, Serge had joked the commute was hard on his feet. Perhaps that was why he lived there now. Music, his loyal concubine, kept him busy all the time. I stayed in our bedroom.

When I called Freda to tell her what had happened, she said, "Take heart, you'll get pregnant again." I thanked her, knowing there would not be a next time.


Several months after Dieudonne, Serge and I tried but still couldn't get on with the business of being. The fact was, we mourned best alone—one of those details couples don't discover about themselves until they're submerged in a crisis. We kept to our own spaces, sparing our marriage the strain. Nothing would have been worse than to follow "umbilical complications" with a divorce.

I used to love to work with Serge in his studio. He would give me a microphone and I would make up a melody to go with whatever he was playing. Now, I stayed in the bedroom. Neither music nor Serge interested me.

My husband had a reputation for mixing down songs in such a way that would reach into your very soul. For that reason, Protestant groups brought him music project after project. They came with tambourines, violins, and choirs of men and women with clashing but angelic voices. January was always a busy month for Serge. The Protestants wanted their CDs in time for Easter; konpa bands had to have their theme song ready for Kanaval. "It's going to be awhile before I can touch your stuff," Serge would tell the Protestants. The upcoming Kanaval in Port-au-Prince took precedence. Even God knew that.


Serge was standing in the bedroom. His eyes had a faraway look in them. "How's it going?" he asked reluctantly, knowing what my answer would be.

I said nothing.

The snowflakes in his hair glistened like crushed glass. He stared at the floor, not sure how to proceed. He would return to the studio in a few seconds. I would not see him again for hours, maybe the next day.

"What are you working on?" I asked.

"Kanaval stuff." He almost smiled. The New Year was ten days old already; the rapture that was Kanaval was fast approaching.

"When are you leaving?" I managed a smile.

"I don't plan to go this year," Serge said, turning to leave.

I sat up for a better look at the imposter pretending to be my husband. This would be the first time Serge would miss Kanaval in all the years since we'd known each other. "You will go," I announced. "And I'm going with you."


When I was five years old, a chaloska clown on stilts startled me so much that I tumbled down a ravine, breaking my legs. Another time, a man covered in tar had spread his makeshift wings so wide and shouted words so terrifying through grotesque strap-on lips that I hid in one of the old cast-iron pots in the calabash grove. There I was now, telling my husband how lovely it would be to revisit the mayhem of Kanaval.

"There's always next year," Serge said, shoulders sagging.

"We're going this year." I jumped out of bed and parted the curtains, letting in the winter light. The street was fluorescent with snow. I opened the windows, letting the stale air out. Serge watched with a frightened look in his eyes.

"My husband will not miss Kanaval in 2010 or any other year." I pumped my fist like a martyr at the gallows. The wintry air began to congeal the pockets of grief inside me. The sights and sounds of Kanaval would help Serge and me forget our troubles, if only for a while. Being in Haiti might even jolt us into being a couple again.

"I'll think about it," he whispered, then walked out of the bedroom backward, half-expecting me to foam at the mouth or something. I pulled the bedsheets off. The mattress needed to breathe.


I purchased two nonrefundable airline tickets online, then called Freda to tell her that Serge and I would arrive in two days.

"Bring your dancing shoes," Freda said with one of those cautious laughs people reserve for the bereaved.

I took a much-needed bath and put a dab of Coco Chanel behind each ear. When I joined Serge in the studio, he put his arms around me. "You smell good," he said.

My stomach growled when I noticed the scattered remains of Chinese food on a table. I hadn't eaten anything that day, nor had I eaten dinner the night before. Serge read my mind and said he would order sandwiches from a nearby deli.

We attacked our food the moment it arrived. When we finished, Serge played with the knobs on his sprawling sound board, transforming the studio into a digital version of the earthen-floor vodun temple where he grew up drumming at ceremonies.

"I think I have a new song," I told him.

Serge gave me a full smile for the first time in an eternity.


It was a blustery dawn when we began our four-hour plane ride to Port-au-Prince. The plane burst with college-aged sets in matching Pray for Haiti Now! and Save Haiti Today! T-shirts. They boasted about their plans for saving the so-called poorest nation in the Western hemisphere. They congratulated one another on their novel ideas. They would do what Haitians could not do for themselves. They would Tweet and post proof of their hard work on social networking sites. I put my head on Serge's shoulder and forced myself to sleep.

When we reached Freda's place it was not yet noon. "It takes more time to get to LA from our house," Serge quipped. "We should come to Haiti at least once a week." His eyes sparkled. The subtle film of perspiration on his face made him glow.

Freda had bought a lavish meal of fried plantains, fish, and rice for us. Serge and I ate as if we had not seen food in months. Freda, of course, could not join us at the table. There were two children in her care. She dared not leave them.

"You're a saint," Serge told Freda.

"Anybody could do what I do," Freda replied, bowing her head. The utilitarian dress hanging from her thin frame betrayed no curves. Her hair was cropped like a soldier's. "Go enjoy the Caribbean sun," she instructed us. She would not leave the children for a moment. They were, after all, the ones she had meant to have someday—if only there had been time.


Serge and I went outside to sit on the washerwoman's heap of rocks. All around us, concrete-block dwellings were stacked like dominoes with dots for windows and dots for doors. The calabash groves were but a memory.

"Honè," said a woman trudging up to Freda's place with a child in her arms. Sweat dripped off the face of a boy inching behind her.

Serge and I rose from our pile of rocks to greet them.

"Doktè a la?" the woman asked in one quick breath. The child in her arms coughed violently; the rusty eyes offered an apology.

"The doctor is here," I replied in Creole, and called Freda.

With outstretched arms, Freda rushed to greet her visitors. "Bonjou," she spoke quickly. She needed to return to the children inside the clinic.

"My baby caught the illness," the woman declared. Tears pooled in her eyes. "This illness put my husband under the ground last month." The child in her arms convulsed, as if to underscore the woman's words.

"Give her to me," Freda said, taking the baby. The woman followed Freda into the clinic.

"I'm going with them," I told Serge, and followed the women.

"What's her name?" Freda asked, as she placed the child in a worn crib.

"Dieudonne," the woman said.

Something inside me leapt.

"And you, madame? What is your name?" Freda asked.

"Lidia."

What did names matter at this time?

Freda wiped her brow. "Hot day, yes?"

"Yes," Lidia replied, eyes narrowing. "This is Haiti. All the days are hot."

Freda would not tell Lidia that she did not like to be rushed. She would do everything she could to save Dieudonne's barely used life. "Dieudonne means God gives," Freda added.

"Is that so?" Lidia and I chorused in unison.


Freda listened with her stethoscope to the story that Dieudonne's lungs were dying to tell.

"Go play outside," Lidia said to the lanky boy clinging to her skirt. "Wait for me there."

"I stay with you," the boy bleated.

"Do it." Lidia wagged her finger.

The boy did not budge. I took his hands, and said: "Come with me."

"Take him to your lounge chair under the sun," Freda suggested with a forced smile. "This is your island getaway, remember?"

I led the boy to the washerwoman's heap of rocks. Serge was now talking to a passerby a few feet away. The boy and I sat in silence for a time. When I asked his name, he said: "Everyone calls me Ti Papa. I don't like it, but I accept it." His were bold, unblinking eyes.

"Why do they call you that?"

"I look like my father, but I don't want to die like him."

"You won't die," I said.

Ti Papa shrugged, then asked: "Why didn't you want to stay inside?"

"I'm not a doctor."

"You have a soft heart," Ti Papa said. "You can't have a soft heart if you're here to save lives. Sometimes you have to break a bone to save the rest of the body. You cannot have a soft heart if you have to break bones." The boy's eyes stayed fixed on the domino dwellings in the distance, searching for some unknown thing. He was a wise old man trapped in a child's body.

"The doctor made me leave," Lidia explained contritely when she joined us on the rocks moments later. "It won't help Dieudonne to see me sad."

Ti Papa once again became withdrawn, childlike, and clung to his mother's skirt.

"If anyone can take care of Dieudonne, it's Freda," I told Lidia, hoping this was not another wish that would not come true.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from DRIFTING by Katia D. Ulysse. Copyright © 2014 Katia D. Ulysse. Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Contents

Part I: The Least of These,
The Least of These, 9,
Bereavement Pay, 22,
Part II: Flora,
The Hunters, 29,
Strange Fruit, 37,
Flora Desormeau, 47,
A New Life, 59,
Proof, 82,
Karine and Marjorie, 86,
Part III: Yseult,
Yseult Joseph, 91,
The Price of Beauty, 95,
The Mulâtresse and the Men on the Moon, 107,
Our Lady of High Grace, 118,
The Disappearance of Yvela Germain, 137,
Drifting, 144,
Waiting, 153,
Part IV: Sagesse,
Pilgrimage, 163,
Bouzen, 198,
Sagesse, 203,
Part V: Casseus,
Paper Boats, 209,
Heritage, 221,
Raymond Casseus, 240,
Madan Casseus, 245,

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