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Reviewed by:
  • Drifting by Katia D. Ulysse
  • Lindsey Scott
Drifting. By Katia D. Ulysse. New York: Akashic Books, 2014. ISBN 978-1-61775-240-7. 254 pp. $15.95.

Katia D. Ulysse’s debut novel Drifting comprises a series of short glimpses into the lives of Haitian and Haitian American families. Divided into five parts and twenty-two chapters, the book weaves together snapshots of Haitian life for a number of tangentially connected families. Ulysse’s style recalls that of Edwidge Danticat as she links seemingly unrelated short stories into a novel that is greater than the sum of its parts. Covering a time period from the Duvalier era to the present, and spanning a geographic distance from Port-au-Prince to New York City, this novel foregrounds a wide range of Haitian experiences and suggests a certain universality to the Haitian experience across boundaries of race, residency, and social class. Ulysse highlights a striking tension between those in Haiti and those in the dyaspora: almost all characters living in Haiti express some level of desire to leave, but contrary to their idealistic notions, Ulysse illustrates that the fates of those who are able to leave are not necessarily better than those of the people who stay.

In the first part, “The Least of These,” Ulysse recounts the story of a Haitian couple living in the United States who go through the trauma of a stillbirth and decide to return to Haiti for Kanaval in the wake of this trauma as a way to “jolt [them] into being a couple again” (15). Their loss, however, cannot be escaped. In fact, the earthquake of January 12, 2010, hits just after their arrival. This opening scene highlights a recurring theme in the novel: tragedy and hardship cannot simply be outrun, either by leaving Haiti or by returning. In the aftermath of the earthquake, an unnamed Haitian woman approaches her US boss to ask for bereavement leave. Recounted only in the boss’s voice, this interaction explores the variety of definitions that exist for “family.” Having gone through the “typical” familial relationships, e.g., mother, father, child, the boss scoffs: “The lady who took care of you for ten years while your parents immigrated to another country to work and send money so you could eat and go to school … sorry, not on the list either. … The lady’s children? Come on, are you kidding me?” (25). These words reflect significant differences in the notions of family across cultures as well as the lack of interpersonal understanding that negatively impacts the lives of all of the characters in Ulysse’s novel.

The second, third, and fourth parts, “Flora,” “Yseult,” and “Sagesse,” respectively, recount the lives of three young Haitian girls whose families [End Page 213] all, at varying times, decide to leave Haiti for the United States. Life there, however, is not as glamorous as they had anticipated; each of them is forced into unpleasant or even dangerous circumstances as a means to survive. They are subjected to harassing or pitying comments such as “Isn’t she an exotic creature? Like one of those new bird species they found in the jungles of … Indonesia, was it?” and “Ah. Haiti. Yes. The poorest nation in the Western hemisphere” (157). All three remember their lives in Haiti with a nostalgic fondness that suggests their sense of unfulfilled potential in the United States.

These challenging circumstances in the United States, however, do not negate the challenges for those living in Haiti. In the fifth part of the novel, “Casseus,” Ulysse tells the story of the Casseus family in Haiti, before the births of the three girls central to the novel. The section recounts a series of tragic accidents and manipulations that demonstrate, in part, why the families in question may have decided to leave. In this sense, while the girls and women in the story have difficult lives in the United States, Ulysse does not allow nostalgia for an idyllic Haiti to overpower the narrative. Rather, she writes of one character, “He had told the consul all about his dreams of becoming something more. He had said that the United States of America was the only...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2333-7311
Print ISSN
1090-3488
Pages
pp. 213-215
Launched on MUSE
2015-08-23
Open Access
No
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