Katia D. Ulysse fits the picture of what you’d imagine an author to be like. She sports a bright, perky smile in her photos. She’s a self-described addict to literary fiction, who loves gardening—she gives out bouquets of fresh flowers to acquaintances and random folks—and hosting year-round dinner parties. But then again, she doesn’t fit the “picture”. Look, she ain’t the mousy type, okay? She’s very much into psychological thrillers and she’s far from being an introvert. “Meeting people is on my top ten list of favorite things,” she admits. “I revere those who overcome adversity and earn the right to be called wise.” Oh, and it’s not surprising that she believes in friendship. “My best friend and I go back too long to mention,” she explains. “We know each other like cells in a body.”
Like cells in a body. Now, that’s some simile, a deep one—even coming from a writer. That statement from her makes me think of Flora and Yseult, the two characters in her novel Drifting. Flora and Yseult are inseparable while living in Haiti. They’re language-shamed by the nuns at a Catholic school when their little lips cannot get prissy enough to pronounce European-sounding French. When Ulysse speaks of cells, I think back to anatomy class, and think of the whole cell division stuff, and think of another aspect of Flora and Yseult’s story. They immigrate to the United States at different times in their lives, and finding each other in New York in countless cultural mazes, becomes their new dilemma.
When Ulysse mentions her obsession with flowers—fresh flowers (“I need fresh flowers around me daily, or else my creative spirit wilts. I love to surprise neighbors or passersby with huge bouquets of flowers,” she attests), I absent-mindedly think that’s why she named one of her characters Flora. But then I think back to the explanation given in the text about the character Flora being named after a hurricane that hit Haiti.
Reviewers are comparing Ulysse to Jamaica Kincaid, Edwidge Danticat, and other literary giants. Couldn’t help but wonder what authors she’s into. And this led to one of my first couple of questions for her…
Kreyolicious: Were you taken by any authors in particular when you were growing up?
I attended Anne Marie Javouhey, a catholic school in Petion-Ville. There was no shortage of religious texts. I devoured those. The biography of saints and martyrs fascinated me; they were like characters from mystical worlds. I read history books to death. I walked through virgin forests with the Taino/Arawaks. I drank wine with King Henry Christophe. I was there when they ambushed Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Défilée-La-Folle—Marie Sainte Dédée Bazile—was the only one bold enough to give him a proper burial. I met Napoleon Bonaparte—strange little man. I hid in the hills with the maroons. Reading history books took me across time. There was no greater pleasure.
Other authors would come later, among them: Dany Laférierre, Jacques Roumain, Garcia Marquez, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Sandra Cisneros, Poe, Satre, Guy de Maupassant, Chekhov, Dahl, Dostoyevski, Pushkin, and many more. I developed an insatiable thirst for stories packed with irony. When I ran into Dany Laferierre recently, at a breakfast in Aquin, it was like being in the company of a giant. He is undoubtedly one of greatest scholars Haiti has produced. I love Franketienne. He is a true renaissance man. I cherish my copy of Adjanoumelezo: Espiral. When it comes to balancing phrases on linguistic tight-ropes, Franketienne holds an unbeatable record. He writes with the intensity and precision of a gold-winning gymnast. Reading Franketienne is like taking a master’s level class in creative writing.
Kreyolicious: How did you figure out that writing was going to be a considerable part of your life?
I’ve always known that telling stories would be my occupation. I wasn’t sure whether I would write, act in plays, or sing. So, I did all three. At the ABC building in Manhattan, when I had the opportunity to act in a soap opera, I discovered that I preferred to be behind the camera instead of in front of it. For years, I was the lead singer for a Brooklyn-based Racine band, but was so shy that performing was torture. The only means of expression to which I remained faithful was writing. My pen was my refuge. I feel liberated when I write; limitless. Thankfully, my stage fright has diminished to a manageable level. I love to give readings from my work. I look forward to completing a long-overdue CD project.
Kreyolicious: You wrote a children’s book, previously…entitled Fabiola Can Count. What is the difference between writing for that age group and writing for adults?
Writing Fabiola Can Count was an assignment. I was one of six Haitian authors who contributed to the series by One Moore Books—a young, independent publishing company. The other authors were Ibi Zoboi, Edwidge Danticat, Michele Jessica Fievre, Maureen Boyer, and Cybil St. Aude. Each of us wrote a book for the series.
As for the difference between writing a children’s book and a book for adults, the process is similar: Once I see a character in my mind, we sit and chat. I get to know the person well. As the character dictates his/her story to me, I write with the urgency of a woman in labor. I look forward to writing many more children’s books, starting with co-authoring my daughter’s first book: Color Me Loved.
Kreyolicious: It’s a fact in the life of authors: the year they first write or begin to write a work, is rarely the same as the year it’s actually published. Can you take us through the writing of Drifting your novel? How long did it take?
Drifting took years to write. I took long breaks between sections. I knew I needed to write the book, but was plagued with self-doubt. I spent a lot of time being afraid. Drifting kept me in a state of restlessness; it demanded completion. Once I submitted the manuscript—and it was accepted for publication—it took another year to reach the public. Like everything else, it’s a process. I will always be grateful to Johnny Temple, the publisher at Akashic Books, for giving Drifting a chance. It’s been a life-changing experience.
Kreyolicious: The title of the novel comes from one of the stories. Why did you settle on Drifting and not on the other stories’ titles?
The characters weave in and out of place, time, and one another’s lives. At the core of the stories is a longing to find home, though home no longer exists. Each character has his own voice; his own truth and lies. Within a single family, there are as many narratives as there are people. The stories move like vessels on turbulent waters. Sometimes, they sail alongside one another harmoniously. Most often, however, there are storms to overcome. In the end, just as it is in life, some of the characters find their way while others remain forever lost. They remain adrift.
From the Creator of Voices from Haiti
Kreyolicious: You have a popular blog VoicesfromHaiti. Was it difficult balancing your work as an author, mom, blogger and writer?
It is challenging, but I am compelled to continue the work I started on VoicesfromHaiti. Currently, we are transitioning into a new vision. I look forward to bringing the new Voices to our seriously loyal readers.
Kreyolicious: Your novel isn’t structured in a conventional way. That was rather refreshing.
When I began Drifting, I did not know what form it would take. Some writers create outlines before beginning to write. The definition I can offer for my way of writing is revelatory. When a character emerges from nowhere to inhabit my imagination, I listen. I am merely a scribe, writing for them all that they wish to disclose. I don’t judge them. I accommodate them. That is what writing is to me.
Kreyolicious: You came to the USA as a little girl. Do you ever sit there and wonder about the other version of you, the one who never immigrated to the USA, and the woman she would have grown into?
I love that question. I was not so little when we moved here. I was not of age, but I had seen more than any child should have. My innocence, in many ways, had been lost. I had to grow up too fast. It’s only recently that I’ve been able to acknowledge and protect the child I must have been. Recently, I had the opportunity to address that little girl through a letter entitled Dear Teen Me. You can read it on Dear Teen Me or on Akashicbooks.com.
Kreyolicious: There are inspirational teachers, and then there are teachers who are inspirational and predatory. Why did you choose to throw Mr. E, one of the characters in Drifting, in the second pile?
Teachers like Mr. E (and Ms. E) exist, as much as we would rather pretend otherwise. They excel at manipulating our children. As deceitful and interminably evil as these types are, they are shallow. Sexual predators who must be stopped. The more we expose them the safer our schools and neighborhoods. I knew a Mr. E. His presence in Drifting serves as a reminder that non-English speaking school-aged children of immigrants are particularly vulnerable.
Kreyolicious: What have you learned about writing and novel-crafting that you’d like to share with aspiring novelists?
Whoever said a writer must read five books for every word he or she writes wasn’t kidding. Writing takes dedication. Passion. Another priceless piece of advice is that a writer must kill those paragraphs we think are so wonderful. They do more harm than good. Each time I delete a paragraph of several pages, I trust that something better will come.
Kreyolicious: Girl, when was the last time you went to Haiti?
I go to Haiti often. My home is in Haiti. My family lives in Haiti. I was in Haiti this past April. I went to the music festival in Aquin. It was fantastic. I got to hang out with and photograph some of my favorite musicians for VoicesfromHaiti. I danced onstage with Zing Experience, Bookman Experience, Boukan guinnen. I did a great INNERview with Cynthia Casasola, co-founder and dancer for the popular band, Zing Experience. I cannot wait to share it on the new VoicesfromHaiti.
Kreyolicious: Was it different from the Haiti you remember from your childhood?
The difference between the Haiti of my childhood and today’s Haiti is similar to the difference between the Brooklyn I once knew and today’s Brooklyn. The Washington, DC I lived in 10 years ago is different than today’s DC. Change happens.
Kreyolicious: Bet you’ve already gotten started on a new novel. Am I right?
I think I’ll just stay in the moment and accept the fact that Drifting had been published in real life and is available for the world to buy. Tomorrow’s things are for tomorrow. I have no choice but to leave them there. In the meantime, though, I want to thank Kreyolicious for this wonderful opportunity to share myself with your readers.