Fri | Dec 9, 2016

BOOK REVIEW:A captivating tale of pride and survival

Published:Sunday | August 31, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Glenville Ashby, Contributor
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Glenville Ashby, Contributor

Title: Drifting

Author: Katia D. Ulysse

Publisher: Akashic Books, Brooklyn, New York

Katia D.Ulysse's literary debut takes off with train-like speed. It is powerful, piercing, and unforgiving. Drifting is as imaginative as it is captivating. It burrows through the psychological labyrinth that constitutes the Haitian mind. It is stupefying and vexing, but redemptive. It trails the life of the Desormeau family and others who must grapple with the sweet stench of Haiti. Flora and Yvette dominate, but the cameo 'performers' are equally indelible. Haiti, despite its travails, can never be uprooted and tossed for dead by the diaspora. Drifting chronicles that ambivalence, that wrenching paradox that tears the skin off its victims.

Ulysse's world, her Haiti and fellow nationals, are swooped up in an emotional vortex where pride wrestles with the unforgiving maelstrom of poverty, desperation, and vanquished dreams. But their ancestors coaxed them well.

"When you reach New York today, kiss your papa for me. Thank him for getting you out of this place ... you spend your life in misery and you die hungry." Yet, in the same breath, there is that caveat: "Don't let New York change you. You have a good mind."

The same narrative of island morals threatened by the libertinism of big-city life is ever present. Some emerge triumphant, exceeding expectations. But there is no denying that along the road to success, wounds have never really healed.

Drifting transcends escapism, materialism, and gaudy promises. Ulysse's incisively details her thesis in flashes - short, brisk sentences. This is no easy task, but she pulls it off with flawless ease, sealing her claim to pure artistry. Traversing the Atlantic multiple times, she captures the spirit and letter of the diasporic experience.

Back home, she is even more compelling, tackling the controversial restavek system. Here, parents, unable to support their kids surrender them to families who are marginally better off. Here, even servants assume an almost august status. The author does not belabour readers with the sociological elements of the system, the abuses and the lifelong scars inflicted. Rather, she surgically identifies its potential perils. In one exchange, Yuelva, a restavek, is mercilessly reminded, "At least, I don't sleep under the table like a dog."

PRIDE CHALLENGED

And thousands of miles away, Haitian pride is challenged when a menial job is offered with nonchalant disdain. "I didn't leave the island to become a restavek in Brooklyn," is the response.

For all its worth, New York challenges the spirit. Culture shock and classism are rife and a new kind of restavak threatens the innocence of children. And so, too, is the lingering aftershocks of the 2010 earthquake which is never forgotten.

Throughout, Ulysse's prosaic brilliance is unmistakable. In the all-too-familiar scene of the family member separating from family and land in quest for greener pastures, she captures the pain, the swirling emotions.

"The plane's wings shot through the sky. Maman's prayers were powerless against the propellers, the massive engines, and the tanks of fuel that couldn't wait to thrust the mammoth bird onward and upward until it reached another world. The sky swallowed Papa's plane whole. All everyone could do is watch. There was no reversal of events. The sun carried on with its routine revolution."

The author weaves different actors into a stark social canvas that depicts a culture and people on the edge of irrelevance.

"Your country is a sad, sad place," says a foreigner to a young Haitian.

Reunions, the confluence of events, of relationships, and everything else is the handiwork of Providence, offering a glimmer of hope amid a world fuelled by sheer survival.

And Ulysse well knows that the authenticity of any Caribbean tale is suspect without the bewitching dance of the sacred and the profane. She will not risk her soaring work by slighting that inextricable part of a people. From the superstitious beliefs and orison of adults and children to counter evil, to the incredulous and cliched whisperings of bogeymen, Ulysse deftly depicts that intoxicating mystique with unbridled colour and spirit.

Rating: Highly recommended

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