A native of Haiti, Katia D. Ulysse is a mother, teacher, and fiction writer. Her work has appeared in multiple journals and anthologies, including The Butterfly's Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States, The Caribbean Writer, Haiti Noir, Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism, Mozayik, Phoebe, and Smartish Pace. Ulysse's poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and she served as Goucher College's Kratz Writer in Residence in spring 2017. She is the author of Drifting and Mouths Don't Speak, which was published in January. Literary Mama Senior and Profiles Editor Christina Consolino spoke to Ulysse about what experiences influenced her writing, both past and present.
Christina Consolino: Your first book, Drifting, is a collection of short fiction that focuses on the political topic of immigrants and their struggle to assimilate, perhaps even simply exist, in the United States. You moved to the United States when you were a teenager. Was the collection rooted in your experience?
Katia D. Ulysse: In order for me to write my new novel, I had to write my first book. Drifting was not intended to be political, but the very act of a Haitian woman writing a book is political. There are certain stories we are not supposed to tell. There are certain topics from which we are supposed to shy away. My country remains mostly patriarchal; it is the men who write the books; they are the ones who make the rules and break them with impunity; they tell us what to do, etc. There is a thriving movement to balance that power, making women a threat to the status quo. It will take time, but I believe the day will come when men and women in Haiti—and everywhere else in the world—enjoy the same rights and respect.
With respect to immigration: We see today it is not the greatest thing to be an immigrant in the United States, especially if you are of African descent. It's even more terrifying if you are from Haiti. The struggle to assimilate and simply exist in the United States is not simple. I came here as a teenager who attended a beautiful high school with a handful of heartless students. They called me every pejorative name they could dream up. They viewed me as an untouchable suffering from AIDS—because, at the time, Haiti was accused of being the place from which the disease originated. There were a couple of other Haitian students at the high school, but they lied about their nationality. In that sense, the book was rooted in my experience.
CC: Central to Mouths Don't Speak is the mother-daughter relationship. Why did you choose to write about that relationship?
KDU: Moms and readers are my favorite people. We are creative by nature. We make sugar out of salt, when necessary, and turn tears into laughter. It seems that it was only yesterday that my own pregnancy test was confirmed. My husband and I were overjoyed: We had wanted to have a child for many, many years. That newborn is now 13 years old, and everything you've heard about the tweens and teen years is true. I am now convinced there is a secret manual for teenagers somewhere—written in a language which parents are not supposed to comprehend. However, since we were once that age, we are familiar with the esoteric text. It is eerie how prepared our daughter is with answers to any question I might have about her behavior, wardrobe choice, vocabulary, dance moves, etc. If you're a mom of a tween or teenager, I'm with you. We've got this!
CC: The book also tackles other hefty topics in one novel—the 2010 Haiti earthquake, marital tension, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), to name a few—all interwoven into a succinct, complete story. As far as writing goes, how did you conceive of the idea to focus on these topics?
KDU: This book about the earthquake actually began before the earthquake. It began with the protagonist, Jacqueline Florestant. The character took shape in my imagination and lived there for many years. I got to know her personality; I understood her motives and what terrified her. She is a frustrated artist. I understood that all too well. I knew many artist-moms who put their dreams on hold for myriad reasons; I know a few who gave up altogether. Those moms reminded me of Jacqueline.
I worked for 14 years as a teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools. I had that part of the character figured out. She is a composite of dozens of people—real and imagined.
Now, throw in the realities of their young daughter, Amber, and her husband, Kevin, who lives with PTSD. Jacqueline and Kevin both love Amber, and, oftentimes, they seem to compete for the child's love. Amber is the glue keeping Kevin from unraveling. We, as parents, know that our own emotional and physical wellness is fundamental in raising our children successfully. Furthermore, Kevin and Jacqueline's already-strained relationship is compounded by Jacqueline's relationship with parents who may have died in the devastating earthquake.
As we know, conflicts do not make appointments with moms. They come at us like bullets on a battlefield. We are adept at saving those whom we love; oftentimes, at the cost of our own survival. This book explores the lives of people caught in an escalating battle called life.
CC: Let's circle back to the topic of PTSD. Can you tell us why you felt it was important to make PTSD a component of the "escalating battle" for these characters?
KDU: Jacqueline loves her husband, Kevin, but she fears the demons he battles every waking minute. I can only imagine what it must be like to be married to a former marine and combat veteran who suffers from severe PTSD. We, as a society, are not doing enough to save the lives or sanity of our men and women who served in the military. I do not understand why that is, but I know it is our duty to embrace those who fight for the freedom we take for granted. I think about moms in war zones, fighting alongside men—fighting to make sure their babies do not have to breathe poison gas. Fighting so that we can sit together on Sunday evenings and pass the salad bowl. Women are out there making sure that our daily routines are not interrupted, that the things we take for granted do not slip beyond our reach. We have to be there for those who are there for us. We must link arms: all colors, nationalities, creeds, religious backgrounds—and take care of our men and women suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Wounded soldiers are younger than they were in previous wars. Advances in medicine have made it a lot easier to save the life of the severely wounded, but fixing the body is just a part of the solution. We have to deal with the reality that our veterans have experienced the sort of emotional and psychological trauma that cannot be seen. We must demand proper care for veterans; otherwise, the result may be devastating.
CC: Both of your books feature such complex, flawed characters that I found myself immersed in the stories, nodding my head at their actions, and asking myself, "What would I do in that situation?" How do you unearth authentic characters when you're writing?
KDU: I wish I could say I had a formula for unearthing authentic characters. I wish I could say writing were as easy as following a recipe: Add a cup of angst, a pinch of joy, a handful of surprises, etc. (And, by the way, I have the hardest time following recipes.)
I do not have a formula, per se. I tell myself to get up at 3:00 a.m. During those mornings when I sleep past that time, I feel guilty and chide myself. When I am at my desk on schedule, the first thing I do is give thanks for waking up, and I spend a few moments being completely still. Then, when I begin to write, the story flows. Because I spend a great deal of time thinking about the characters during the day, when I start writing, I know where they are at that moment. I know what they're thinking. I know how they are feeling. I know what they want to happen next. Perhaps the element that gives my stories authenticity is knowing how the character feels deep within and expressing that to the best of my ability.
The characters are real to me. Yes, they come mostly from my imagination, but I see them as living and breathing people. I imagine they could go on, even if I don't write their stories. It's almost as if these people live next door and all I'm doing is being a fly on the wall, watching everything they do—without once interfering.
CC: Mouths Don't Speak touches on a mother's feeling of guilt. In what ways can mothers minimize that feeling of guilt that stems from not only tragic events, but ordinary, everyday events as well?
KDU: How can we minimize feelings of guilt? Moms know all about feeling inadequate at times. We know the guilt of not being there enough. Not being on time every single time. Not being this or that enough.
We do the best we can. I would be rich if I had a dollar for every time I tell my daughter to zip up her jacket before going outside in the cold. When she catches a cold, I feel I should have done something to prevent it. When she doesn't get that perfect grade, I think I should have spent more time studying with her.
We have to remember that in order for our children to be successful and contributing members of society, we are responsible for preparing them. How can we prepare them without allowing them to venture out on their own, in spite of all the dangers we know are out there? I talk to my daughter about all the dangers out there: Don't talk to strangers. Avoid alleys. Avoid certain websites. Avoid chat rooms. Don't listen to that song. Don't repeat those words, etc. I wish I could be with her every second of every day, but the reality is, we have to prepare our babies to leave the nest someday, for they will. (Did I just write that?) We have to teach them how to be responsible and trust their own instincts.
Also, we women need to support one another, not just during those days after the delivery, but every day thereafter. It does take a village to raise a child, but when we are busy running around, there is no time to check in with the villagers. We do what we can, sleep, and repeat day after day. If and when something horrible happens, we carry that guilt with us to our own graves. I don't know how to minimize the guilt from tragic events and ordinary incidents. If you are reading this right now and know how to mitigate that guilt, let us know.
CC: One of the overarching themes of the book, in my opinion, is the preciousness of life, which can change in an instant. That theme emerges several times over the course of the novel. Can you comment on that?
KDU: You are correct in saying that one of the overarching themes is the preciousness and precariousness of life. On the day of the earthquake, life had gone on as it always had: Parents kissed their kids before sending them to school. Carpenters rushed to get the job done on time. Hoteliers catered to their guests. Missionaries relished the thought of all the souls they would save. Corrupt politicians counted the money they stole. Market men and women hoped to sell out of their wares before the day's end. Pregnant moms prayed for an easy delivery. No one imagined that thousands of unsuspecting people would be buried in their collapsed homes. No one had imagined every member of their family would be dead. Life is unpredictable. Look at the world we live in today. The world is in turmoil, but I am an optimist. When I was teaching, I urged my students to believe they have the power to transform the lunacy some call reality. The future depends on them, but they are scared we won't leave anything salvageable.
CC: I couldn't help but draw a comparison between Jacqueline and Haiti, a mother and the motherland, both of whom want to keep their children safe. I think a child's safety is but one worry that all mothers share. Has this worry impacted your life and writing?
KDU: Moms worry about the welfare of our babies. And by the word "mom," I include adoptive parents, grandparents who are raising their grandchildren in the absence of mom and dad; I include aunts and godparents who are stepping in while the biological parents are otherwise engaged—perhaps at war somewhere. My heart breaks when I think of the suffering. My heart breaks for the characters in my book who cannot always do the right thing by their children. Once again, that's where the "village" concept comes in. Conditions like postpartum depression are real. We have to be there for one another, especially when women do not have a support system after giving birth. I experienced postpartum depression after giving birth; it was hell, and my "village" consisted of my husband. Other family members had chosen that time to be particularly hurtful. I could have come undone, but, thankfully, I pulled through. It was difficult, but I did it. This is another reason why I make myself available to friends who give birth. I get it.
But it seems no matter how carefully we prepare, we are mostly powerless against natural disasters. Tsunamis, earthquakes, mudslides, and monsoons come and destroy lives; these disasters do not discriminate. Moms who are willing to sacrifice their own lives for their babies are crushed emotionally when their efforts prove futile. When it's a natural disaster, people rage against the faceless universe. When crimes are perpetrated against our children by fellow human beings, that's a different sort of hell.
One story I read years ago has always stayed with me: Chechen rebels had taken over a school and held over a thousand people hostage, mostly children. Zalina Dzandarov, mother of a six-year-old girl and a two-year-old son, was permitted to leave. Imagine how she must have felt to be able to save her children from certain death. On the way out, she would later tell, the rebels stopped her and told her she could take only one of her children. She explained how the girl held onto her skirt, sobbing and calling out to her, while she went out with the two-year-old in her arms. I cannot imagine what that woman went through—what she must be going through, even 13 years later.
CC: What are you working on now?
KDU: Currently, I am working on a collection of stories, a novel, and co-writing a children's book with my amazing daughter. I do not know which of these babies will come first. I started on the story collection a long time ago—as I wrote Mouths Don't Speak, so, more than likely, I will finish it before the novel. I am also working on having a beautiful garden in the spring. I collect bearded irises, and I hope they do better than last year. And I am learning how to be a better cook. My mother moved in with us recently, and she's been cooking up a storm, as they say. When I taste the food she makes—mostly from Haitian cuisine—I know for a fact that I had been "playing kitchen" for most of my adult life. She has those recipes in her head. I consider myself fortunate to be able to spend time in the kitchen with my mother, learning and listening to all the wonderful stories she tells. I am working on being a better mom and a better daughter. You might say I am a busy woman.