Honorable Mention in the 2019 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature Longlist!
"After the 2010 Haiti earthquake kills her parents, a woman returns to Haiti after leaving it as a child, 25 years ago. A powerful and engrossing story, this read cannot be missed."
Bustle, 35 Most Anticipated Fiction Books of 2018
"In this fascinating novel about Haitian life, Ulysse beautifully braids together the struggle for personal redemption with the struggle for dignity and human rights."
Rain Taxi Review of Books
"Ulysse gives readers a riveting story of a woman who is trying to make sense of a homescape that, if not wholly disappeared, is irrevocably altered."
"With lush descriptions and Creole-inflected dialogue, Katia D. Ulysse frankly and deftly writes about the nuances and class differences in Haiti. Mouths Don't Speak explores how trauma touches us at home and abroad, wherever those places may be. This includes the experiences of the underserved kids Jacqueline teaches, American veterans, the earthquake victims, and children and their parents. Ulysse illustrates the complicated but unbreakable connections we have to family and home, and shows how privilege doesn't necessarily keep you from tragedy."
"A captivating portrait of a woman plagued with worry about family and homeland, this beautifully written novel recalls Toni Morrison's Paradise. "
"Powerful...As Ulysse explores grief, she moves beyond her protagonist to consider the murky motivations and emotions of other characters. This is a harrowing, thoughtful dive into the aftermath of national and personal tragedies filtered through diasporic life."
"Ulysse punctuates...descriptions of the lush Florestant plantation with insightful observations about strained family dynamics. The ties that bind can also constrict us."
"In Drifting, Ulysse's 2014 story collection, Haitian immigrants struggle through New York City after the 2010 earthquake that destroyed much of their county. In her debut novel, Ulysse revisits that disaster with a clearer and sharper focus. Jacqueline Florestant is mourning her parents, presumed dead after the earthquake, while her ex-Marine husband cares for their young daughter. But the expected losses aren't the most serious, and a trip to freshly-wounded Haiti exposes the way tragedy follows class lines as well as family ones."
"Within minutes of starting Katia D. Ulysse's novelwith settings in contemporary Haiti and America, and characters caught in the aftermath of Haiti's earthquake of 2010the reader is drawn deep into an intricate tale of family and relationships across cultures...[Main character] Jacqueline Florestant's route is no easy one, but her story puts an individual face on the generalized social stigmas of Haiti."
Island Origins Magazine , included in Summer Reading Roundup
No one was prepared for the massive earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010, taking over a quarter-million lives, and leaving millions of others homeless. Three thousand miles away, Jacqueline Florestant mourns the presumed death of her parents, while her husband, a former US Marine and combat veteran, cares for their three-year-old daughter as he fights his own battles with acute PTSD.
Horrified and guilt-ridden, Jacqueline returns to Haiti in search of the proverbial "closure." Unfortunately, the Haiti she left as a child twenty-five years earlier has disappeared. Her quest turns into a tornado of deception, desperation, and more death. So Jacqueline holds tightly to her daughterthe only one who must not die.
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About the Author
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,SmartishPace, Phoebe,Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism;Mozayik, The Butterfly's Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States, and Haiti Noir, edited byEdwidge 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.
Read an Excerpt
They did not die alone. Black, white, mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, sacatra, and griffe met the same fate, but there was no comfort in that. Spilt blood ran as red as the Massacre River. Rafael Trujillo would have been tickled pink. Rich and poor; Catholic, Protestant, and Vodouizan would be bound together for eternity. False prophets, missionaries, prostitutes, politicians, kidnappers and their unsuspecting victims, unemployed blacksmiths and prolific journalists, kindhearted beggars and doctors, pacifists, teachers and their students, unborn and still-unnamed children filled dump trucks and wheelbarrows destined for mass graves. Someone said a prayer on that remote mountain range, where a vicious dictator once disappeared those who uttered his name without the proper measure of reverence. The dank smell of despair pervaded the air, as more trucks stacked with corpses arrived. High above the carnage, few clouds obstructed the tranquil sky.
Scalding tears coursed down Jacqueline's cheeks, drenching the front of her faded T-shirt. Across her chest, multicolor paintbrushes leaned against one another, forming the slogan: No Art. No Peace. She had not changed her clothes since she learned about the earthquake three days prior. She had not eaten, and she had forgotten to sleep or bathe. She was oblivious to the sickly sweet odor issuing from her pores. What mattered was the near annihilation of her birth country now three thousand miles away from her front door. What mattered even more was finding her family.
The temblor continued to assert its strength by delivering one powerful aftershock after another, destroying whatever hazardous infrastructure existed. Thousands died instantly. Fate took its time with the people trapped underneath slabs of cement, scrawny rebar, and other subpar materials that once supported the multistoried homes built without a hint of a foundation. The capital city, Port-au-Prince, had become ground zero. The final estimate would put the death toll at over a quarter million, but four times that number would be internally displaced: homeless.
Those who were fortunate enough to survive found themselves without food or a drop of drinkable water. Bloodied and dazed, they wandered around the cracked earth, unsure of what to do or where to go. The able-bodied rummaged for anything salvageable to build rudimentary shelters. They collected broomsticks, pieces of corrugated tin, and tree limbs, which they drove into the ground, securing them in place with rocks. Threadbare rugs, flea-infested blankets, and empty plastic sacs emblazoned with the Stars and Stripes and the words Enriched Long Grain Rice served as privacy walls. Roofs made of donated blue tarps flapped in the lazy breeze that circulated the oppressive heat, the stench of decaying flesh, and the feeling of utter hopelessness. More Made in the USA rice bags covered the dirt floors of these sheds.
Jacqueline dialed her family's home number for what felt like the hundredth time that day. Although she had never believed in miracles, she was praying now. Please, God, please. The call dropped. She sat on the living room couch, her eyes fixed on the television screen.
Port-au-Prince looked like it had been bombed. Stately homes, shanties, and office buildings all collapsed like dominoes, pulverizing their contents, trapping families and employees inside. The victims screamed for help. We're down here, we're alive! One anchorman urged the world not to look away: "Hundreds of people are trapped under the rubble. I can hear them — they're talking, they're alive. We tell them we'll help, but we can do only so much with our bare hands. Haiti needs search-and-rescue teams before it's too late."
The famed Cathedral cracked like an egg's delicate shell. School buildings — some five stories high — leaned precariously, as if they were being held up by a single thread. Felled power lines crisscrossed like spiderwebs over heaps of bloated corpses. An old bungalow painted bright blue with red and yellow accents around the windows had stood between two gleaming churches. Now, not one brick remained of the churches but the bungalow looked so pretty and new that it was eerie.
Black arms and fingers, stiffened in death, stretched toward the sky in futile supplication. Moribund eyes flickered then faltered like a faulty recording device, seeing but not seeing — like the pupils of a clay sculpture set out to dry. People carried caskets on their heads and they toted their belongings in small bundles under their arms. They cradled their deceased children. They cried, dried their eyes, and cried again. One man held a photograph of his daughter while he searched for her amongst the sea of disfigured victims strewn in the hospital's parking lot, like totaled vehicles at a junkyard. Someone explained that the hospital was understaffed; the doctors and nurses were doing their best to care for thousands of wounded patients. They had run out of medical supplies and did not know if or when they might receive more. The morgue was full beyond capacity: no one knew the victims' names. The ones who might have been able to identify them were dead too.
Jacqueline wiped her face with the palm of her left hand. Holding her cell phone in her right, she punched a series of numbers. Before a connection could be established, there came three distinct sounds: The first was no sound at all — just a deafening silence that lasted a few spiteful seconds. The next was a click-click-click, like a rusty key's teeth being forced into a lock. The third was another empty silence that would have unhinged even the patron saint of patience and understanding.
When the phone rang finally, Jacqueline's heart jumped with anticipation. She shut her eyes and prayed. There was a sound like someone lifting a telephone receiver from its base. "Hello? Hello?" Jacqueline shouted. "Hello —" Before she could draw another breath, the connection was lost. "Hello? Hello!" It was useless. Silence reigned supreme, scornful and interminable.
Jacqueline returned her attention to the television. The anchorman's steel-blue eyes pierced through the screen, seemingly peering into her soul — perhaps they could even read her thoughts. The short-sleeved black T-shirt he wore made his white skin appear translucent. The grave expression on his face matched the messages he delivered, which were burning holes in her heart. It pained her to watch him, but she could not bring herself to look away. The anchorman was her eyes and ears. She needed him to provide her with all the gut-wrenching details which she both feared and needed.
A few moments later, Jacqueline dialed the number again, to no avail. She placed dozen of calls, praying for someone to answer, listening to the vicious silence after each call dropped, and watching the destruction unfold on television. Each day was worse than the last. Each passing hour meant that any information regarding her family would likely be grim. She spent so much time glued to the television that it felt as if the throng of reporters had moved into her apartment. Their identical speech patterns made her wonder if they had been trained by the same broadcast coach/robot. The platinum-haired anchorman relayed the news in a similar tone as his counterparts, but now and again his blue eyes moistened with tears and his voice broke.
Hours went by without Jacqueline shifting her position on the couch. Fear occupied her mind like the needle inside a condemned prisoner's vein; the lethal injection had begun. The walls were closing in, and the weight of reality pressed down on her eyelids. She wanted to stay awake until she heard from her family, but she was exhausted. Her body was failing her.
Suddenly, the anchorman became as animated as a child at the circus seeing for the first time a real-life lion jump through circles of fire without getting burned. Jacqueline bolted upright, wondering what had happened. The camera panned to an elderly woman in the background, covered in dust. She jutted her thumbs upward, singing and waving her arms. Spectators cheered wildly. They joined the elderly woman in singing a hymn about God and miracles. The anchorman bounced excitedly in his chair; his blue eyes sparkled like Fourth of July fireworks. He said: "The woman you see behind me was buried under the rubble for three days without food or water. She literally walked out of her grave." The camera moved in for a close-up of this person who had spat on Death's face. She smiled triumphantly. "This woman is an example of how resilient Haitian people truly are." From that moment on, "resilient" became the adjective by which Haitians were known. Jacqueline did not feel resilient, though. She was falling apart.
She reached for her cell phone and hit redial, holding her breath and hoping for a miracle of her own. After a number of rings, absolute silence and irritating clicks, the call dropped again. She chided herself for being so irrational as to believe in miracles. After all, the anchorman had said the Florestant Department Store was the first building in the area to collapse. The cameras showed that the roof was on the sidewalk, the neon sign shattered into a thousand pieces, and the shopping carts looked like crumpled bobby pins. Witnesses at the scene reported that only two people had managed to escape before the building collapsed, and one was critically injured. A Good Samaritan put him in his truck and drove to a hospital. The other survivor went on camera to tell the anchorman that there were at least a hundred people — employees and customers — still trapped under the department store. "They're alive. We need to get them out."
Whole neighborhoods mobilized to try and save as many lives as they could, but their arms could not do the work of heavy machinery. Jacqueline felt certain her parents, Paul and Annette Florestant, were among those buried alive under their department store. They were in their sixties and youthful, though not as spry as young people who could leap out of a crumbling building. Still, she placed call after call, hoping against hope to reach them.
Finally, she hit the mute button on the TV's remote control and paced before the images on the screen, looking but not seeing. The cameras offered extreme close-ups of more survivors emerging from their graves. Jacqueline was elated for them and their families, but resented them at the same time. Why have they risen out of their graves, while others haven't?
When her cell phone suddenly rang, Jacqueline slid a trembling index finger across the screen to accept the call, a thousand thoughts stomping through her mind.
"Hello?" Her heart was in her throat. At last, she thought, she would find out if her parents were alive and safe.
"Hello, Jacqueline." The voice was low-pitched and foreboding.
"This is Mr. Jones." Jacqueline's shoulders slumped forward with disappointment. "How are you holding up?" Jones was one of those colleagues with Mister or Miss for a first name.
"All right, I guess," Jacqueline said, already wanting to end the call.
She anticipated that his next question would be: Has everyone in your family been accounted for? Her concerned colleagues kept their conversations brief, and always closed with a variation of: Stay strong, dear; you'll hear something soon.We're praying for you; don't forget how resilient you are. And, If you need anything, don't hesitate to call.
"Thank you for calling," Jacqueline told Mr. Jones after their brief exchange, and hung up.
The instant she put the phone back in her lap, it rang again. When she heard the voice on the other end of the line, she grimaced.
"Your kids miss you," the man said authoritatively. "They cannot wait for their art teacher to come back, but I told them you might be out for a few more days."
This was one call Jacqueline wished she had sent directly to voice mail. Why did he tell the kids I would return in a few days? Her contract stipulated she could receive three days off for bereavement, but this was the sort of unusual circumstance that demanded the rules be studied a little closer. For all he knew, her entire family was dead.
She needed time, a lot of it. But she knew her principal was desperate. Every January, without fail, several bright-eyed optimists who couldn't wait to bring their brand of change to inner-city schools back in September quit the job. Sometimes they submitted resignation letters before they left for Christmas break. Sometimes they e-mailed apologies, and sometimes they simply vanished, abandoning their staplers and red pens on their desks. Whatever the method, by some magic their nameplates vanished like monogrammed robes from posh hotels.
The school principal did not have to tell Jacqueline what she already knew: he needed her back at work immediately.
"We held a fundraiser for you," he announced a little too cheerfully. "The children emptied their piggy banks; it was all so very touching."
Tears slowly flooded Jacqueline's eyes.
"A buddy of mine who works for a major TV station was excited to learn I have a Haitian on staff — he wants to interview you. I told him I'd arrange it."
Before Jacqueline could protest, the principal continued: "I think it would be excellent for you — you know, cathartic. You would do the interview here at school, of course. I would be by your side. As a matter of fact, our entire school community would go on camera with you — for emotional support."
Jacqueline knew the man enjoyed listening to his own voice. She would not deprive him of this pleasure now.
"You probably saw me on the news this morning," he went on. "The story about the kids' fundraiser practically went viral. I might finally get some real funding to implement a few of my ideas."
"That's wonderful." Jacqueline's tone was flat.
"I definitely recommend you take advantage of that interview, and I suggest you move fast. People want to get a feel for what's happening in Haiti from an actual Haitian."
He waited for Jacqueline to speak, but when the silence lasted too long he hurried to fill it: "I think it would be great for you to share your story. This earthquake thing might be in the news for a while, but it won't last forever.
Anyway, the students raised two hundred dollars for you and your family. How awesome is that!" Jacqueline swallowed hard. She knew that in order for her students to collect that much money, they must have skipped meals, emptied piggy banks, and fished out every penny that had fallen inside couches and under their beds.
"Thank them for me," she told the principal, knowing she would never be able to fully express her gratitude, "but I cannot accept the money. Please give it back to them. Let them know how much their concern means to me. Tell them ..." Her voice trailed off. "I just hope they haven't been watching TV."
The principal laughed. "Did you forget there's no filter in most of these kids' homes? They know everything about everything. Don't worry, though, your colleagues came up with emergency lesson plans to teach concepts like tragedy, poverty, and, of course, Haiti."
Jacqueline agreed with him: there was not much her students hadn't seen. They were old men and women trapped in the bodies of small children. She recalled a sixth grader who was having trouble staying awake in class. When she asked him about his sleeping habits at home, the boy had answered with a frankness that startled her. She had listened attentively while he spoke as if from the sinner's side of a confessional. It was as if he had waited years to tell his story to someone who might care enough to help. Jacqueline was that person.
At first, her student had started speaking slowly, tentatively; but soon, he spun out of control. He could not talk fast enough: "Our apartment got one room. We share the kitchen and bathroom with some other people. Mama works nights. Pops brings a different ho home every single night. They do it in front of us. I tell my sister not to look, but we can still hear their noises."
Jacqueline learned long ago not to interrupt her students when they talked about their experiences. Once they unburdened themselves, she determined whom to call: parents, the school psychologist, or Child Protective Services. The sixth grader continued: "Mama got sick and came home early one night. When Pops hears the keys in the lock, he tells the puta to get lost. We got two ways out: the front door and the window. She runs toward the door with no pants on, but Pops grabs her before she can reach it. Mama woulda screamed loud enough for all the saints in heaven to hear. So Pops shoves her out of the window to the fire escape. He locks the window and pulls the blinds down. The puta's out there screaming and calling Pops a maldito perro. When Mama walks in, she looks half dead 'cause she's so tired. Pops acts all innocent and everything. If Mama was on to him, she didn't say nothing.
Excerpted from "Mouths Don't Speak"
Copyright © 2018 Katia D. Ulysse.
Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
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