- The Roving Tree by Elsie Augustave
The Roving Tree is a novel about a timeless topic: love. This love, however, is both dynamic and borderless. Elsie Augustave artfully creates a fictional narrative that elucidates and personalizes matters of dyaspora identity formation, interracial and transnational adoption, Black romantic and spiritual love across boundaries, and the Vodou cosmological tradition. In so doing, Augustave invites readers to navigate the complexity of being a Black Haitian woman—Iris Odys—in Duvalier’s Haiti, Black Power America, and post-independence Zaire.
Beginning at the end of Iris’s life, the novel itself is a two-part story that she writes to her daughter as her last wish, a wish granted to her by the West African deity Aïda Wedo. By way of the tale she authors, we enter the novel and begin again in part 1. Iris Odys is a child born of rape and into financial poverty; her mother agrees to her adoption so that Iris can experience a world in which her very existence is not threatened by misogynoir. Once Iris embarks on a plane to New York to live with her progressive, upper-middle-class white family, she herself starts on a path through which she will discover the world of dance, delve into the world of Black identity and immigration politics, and come to appreciate the importance of spiritual guidance. Her life’s journey eventually takes her back to Haiti upon the death of her mother, to Senegal to visit a college friend, and finally to Zaire to lead a notable dance program and start her own family. This novel is transnational in every way: it is both about Iris’s passage and about the journeys of the people she loves, which she comes to learn in finding herself. The main characters move ceaselessly across national, spiritual, and traditional boundaries and toward a powerful love—a love for their families, people, and countries. The Roving Tree is a novel about the many ways love drives and sustains Haitian women of the diaspora in the face of hardship, violence, and inevitable mortality.
Maternal love prompts Iris’s adoption, familial love catalyzes Iris’s trip to Zaire, and ancestral love protects Iris and allows her to write her story to her daughter. When at her mother’s grave, Iris concludes that “the best of Haitian Mother Earth had been washed to sea. She stood naked, barren, watching her fruitlessness become the source of hunger and unrest” [End Page 196] (135). In essence, Iris’s mother agrees to her daughter’s adoption because of financial poverty as well as her own inability to protect Iris from the hands of a conniving tonton macoute—but the loss of Iris is one that she is never able to overcome. Knowing this, upon the mother’s death, is what gives Iris the strength to continue living. Before Iris leaves Haiti, her grandmother informs her of her own ancestral grandmother who was from a noble family of warriors. Iris’s grandmother continues, “We have been transplanted to this land, but we’re Africans” (136). Thus begins part 2 of the novel. Remembering her grandmother’s hope that she would one day return to the African continent, Iris graduates from college and embarks on a life-changing (and -ending) trip to Zaire. Protected until the end of her life by her family’s Vodou traditions—in which she does not entirely believe—Iris is granted her final wish and allowed to speak to her newborn daughter by way of her written story. Love is a central force throughout this text—it is intertwined with its politics and its antithesis.
In Zaire, Iris is reminded that the realities of Black people in the numerous places in which she has lived share many similarities. Moreover, her fiancé indicates that “Africa and Haiti need leaders who seek power because they have the country’s best in mind” (224). In fact, it is the inability of leaders and peoples to create countries and systems that address the needs...