- from Mutisms
An entire family poses for a photo. In the background is a steamship. They are all ready for departure, refreshed, smiling, or grimacing, perhaps due to the blinding light of a tropical land. They are on the quay at Noumea in New Caledonia. This photo is now thirty years old...The father is tall, imposing, bronzed. He has charm and a beautiful smile. Above all, he is shy of the camera.
The mother, much shorter, is also smiling. Her hair is mid-length, her eyes like black olives, her skin light colored. There is something in her look: the emptiness we see in the eyes of people who don't expect anything from life.
The children are standing directly in front of the couple.
The eldest is smiling. He has a tooth missing and must be about nine years old. The middle one is obviously pouting. She is to the right of her little sister, who has a snarled grin and squinting eyes. Then there is me, the baby, who is gazing sadly at the woman. A normal chubby baby...nothing more. Around them are friends they will probably never see again. The photo still exists. It still lets off a lot of light—a raw light, blinding. It's a family portrait, but it's not exactly warm. It somehow froze the painfulness of leaving.
Everyone had a beautiful smile, yet they all looked fake. The pain is still apparent...
I think all departures cause a rift inside. We tear ourselves away from one place, one land, in an attempt to re-root ourselves somewhere oceans away. But what unexpected thing lies on the other side?
Anguish, excitement, relief, and fear must have overtaken each of them, one by one, every feeling trying to persevere...
Every departure causes a leak inside the self.
This family left New Caledonia to return home to Tahiti. Ten years earlier, the parents had left paradise for Noumea. Somewhat like Adam and Eve thrust out of Eden after having sinned.
And just as Adam then had to work for a living, the father had to leave Tahiti for the nickel mines in Noumea.
We lived in a tiny Tahitian house made out of cheap wood. It belonged to Maman's aunt, a big, devout woman who spent every day worshipping in church and every night telling lies. This big woman scared me. She said that my father was an asshole and that my mother was only good for the nuthouse. She also said we were too poor and would be better off leaving. Our mother repeated to us every [End Page 148] night that it was just a matter of time before we'd build a house farther up in the neighborhood and that we'd leave soon.
She also said that the Lord was good and that he didn't want little children to be injured and would protect them. But I lost faith in her god because the big lady got even meaner. She ate more and more, and I was hungry.
We went to the closest Catholic school and hated it right away because we were made fun of. One day, my older sister came home from school covered with bites. Maman felt bad for her and was also afraid for her. How could children be so cruel? Were they only imitating adults? How awful to not accept someone because she used a guttural r, like the people in Paris. In Tahiti, r's are rolled as in Spanish and with a lot of pride.
First rip, first wounds. The children had been ripped from their first universe, their games, their house, and their school in New Caledonia.
We later had another house under construction. It only had the foundation, nothing else. Maman and we children were there, seated in a circle. She was crying. We had just escaped the fat lady's house and were exhausted. The eldest child wanted to comfort her but couldn't. He felt useless.
Someone said one day, "Words are therapy." Bullshit. Words didn't help. They were too weak. My sisters and I...