Drifting, by Katia D. Ulysse, (Akashic Books), 224 pages
The short stories that make up Katia D. Ulysse’s Drifting are not an uplifting read, but part of their value lies in just that fact. These stories, set in Haiti and the Haitian immigrant community in New York, present difficult moments in the lives of people who have very little to begin with. The stories aren’t unrelentingly bleak, but they have their bleak stretches, and Ulysse doesn’t make things easy for the reader by providing happy endings. She gives us moments of friendship, moments of love, moments of hope, but keeps the setting in which these occur clearly within the readers’ sight.
Although this is a short story collection, it works much like a novel. Characters recur. We come to understand the network of genetics and chance that tie these characters together. The book opens in Haiti in 2010, the year of the devastating earthquake. It then moves back in time, ultimately covering a period of some forty years. It’s divided into five sections, each of which focuses on a different family, and in each we re-encounter characters from earlier chapters as minor players in subsequent stories.
Because the book ends (by beginning) in 2010, readers don’t see the impact of the earthquake that destroyed so much of the country. Nonetheless, readers can’t help but think about that earthquake and the way its aftermath must have affected every character in the book.
“Bereavement Pay,” the book’s second story, gives us a small taste of what the earthquake’s impact might have been like for Haitians living in the U.S. It also highlights the complex relationships among families and neighbors that are necessary for survival. No one in this book survives alone, but neither states nor businesses acknowledge many of ties that make life possible. In this story, a Haitian living in the U.S. is applying for bereavement pay and time off after the earthquake. The genial human resources worker she’s asked for information quickly rattles off company policy:
If you lose a mother or father that’s an automatic five days off. With pay. If you lose a sister or a brother, three days, also with pay. Grandparents: two days (but you only get paid for the first one). First cousins: one day, without pay. An uncle or an aunt—depending on how close you were to them, half a day […]. [S]econd cousins. Let’s see. No… they’re not on the list. You would not be allowed time off per se, but there’s always your lunch hour. […] Your mother-in-law’s brother on her father’s side… no, also not on the list… Your cousin’s sister on his mother’s side… nope, sorry… 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?
Throughout the book we encounter tensions like these—the conflicts between one cultural viewpoint on its way to dominance and another growing weaker. The son who insists on tearing down the hut his mother lives in and replacing it with a cement one does so less out of concern for his mother than out of his own embarrassment about her unwillingness to abandon the old ways.
As I said, this is not an uplifting read, but I would argue that it’s an essential one, particularly given where we live and the times we live in. The earlier influx of Haitian “boat people” is not so different from today’s increase in undocumented children making their way into the U.S. to avoid gang and drug violence in their home countries. We can debate immigration as a political issue, but we need to see it in human terms as well, and that is just what fiction like Ulysse’s allows.