Because When God Is Too Busy


Gina Ulysse Puts a Woman's Eyes on Haiti
(Gina Athena Ulysse)

 

Earlier this year, a panic shot through the Haitian diaspora, amid reports that the thousands in the community might soon lose their legal right to live and work in the US. There were fears that the Trump admininstration, would be repealing a policy known as Temporary Protected Status for Haitian migrants, who had come years earlier as refugees of various natural disasters, public health crises, and related social and political turmoil in their homeland. As a short-term humanitarian reprieve, TPS offers by definition only temporary relief. So many had long understood that life in America could expire tragically any moment. But as the White House barreled forward with mass deportation drives and tightened borders, the island off the Florida coast went instantly from a land that people hoped to return to once it was safe and stable, to a land that could be about to receive an uprooted exodus before anyone was ready. In May, TPS was finally renewed, but the deportation scare brought home the reality that forced return might soon be an immediate possibility. For many of the country's estranged literati, it remains a moment to reimagine a land that had grown impossibly distant, and now perches perilously on a rich but tragic horizon.

In her new poetry collection, Because When God Is Too Busy: Haiti, me & THE WORLD (Wesleyan University Press, 2017), Gina Athena Ulysse, a Haitian-born, US-based author and anthropologist, turns an unflinching gaze on her native Haiti, as a migrant, a lost daughter, and a returnee. She revisits, and encounters in many ways for the first time, an island of refuge and of refugees, and having spent much of her life looking "back" at her homeland from afar--through news media, through ancestral tradition, dreams inherited from elders, and the twists and turns of her native creolized tongue. She works through a multifaceted identity of both herself and her home country through reflections on migration, blackness, gender, colonialism and violence, drawing from her work as an anthropologist and political observer, and heir to a defiantly eclectic culture.  But ultimately it is not through politics or academic analysis, or even her physical presence there, that shapes her rethinking of Haiti, but the language with which she learns again how to describe, and inscribe, herself as a part of a beautiful and rebellious diaspora.

Learn more about Ulysse's literary and academic work at ginaathenaulysse.com.

--Michelle Chen, May 30 2017

 


Parallels
My Country’s in the Newspaper
 
Where you from? people ask
you see i look Jamaican—
rounded African features in a slightly oval frame
dark skin—i look like i’m at least from the islands
so why not Jamaica?
i’m here aren’t i?
i could be...
i am Jamaican...
that is until i open my lips
and words give me away
 
Hey foreign! where you from [...] England?
 
a friend tells me that anyone who looks strange enough is considered English i tend to get confused when anyone asks me that question
actually, i don’t really get confused no i get pissed
i get scared
because i’m being asked to define myself to redefine myself
who i am
who i think i am
and who i want to be
 
Where am i from?
 
Haïti.
that word never fails my mouth
it rests on the thickness in the air
that soon follows my response
Haïti?
you see i sound american
very american
and to a great degree i am
but down deep... down real deep
down real deep i know i am Haitian
 
Dem have a lotta AIDS over there she commented
 
i didn’t respond i’ve gotten so accustomed to such responses
the other day Moses the taximan
got impassioned about what he called the stupidity of the Haitian people
 
That [the political situation in Haïti in the past decades] could never happen
in Jamaica he assured me
No, man Jamaicans are vile he boasted
 
That would never happen to Jamaicans of course it wouldn’t not militarily
it would have to be in disguise... it would have to be a ruse Jamaicans are being fucked too
unlike in my country they’re being fucked silently less violently
black people are in a perpetual state of self hatred
black people are kept in a perpetual state of self hatred
black people are kept in a perpetual state of self hatred
black people are being killed more slowly
out of many one—no color problem in Jamaica
Just class they say
in Jamaica there’s no problem
i didn’t let Moses in to hear these thoughts
i crushed them deep within deeper into my mind
afraid that these words were reactionary
that these words were merely words meant to lessen the pain, the hurt the weight that rises from
my chest presses up my throat disabling me from breathing like when my mouth fills up with
saliva in my nightmares and i can’t scream for help i can’t scream that i am terrified of
this feeling of helplessness
this feeling of distance
this feeling of forgetting and not wanting to forget
this feeling of not forgetting and wanting to forget
this feeling of being an immigrant
of being there and yet far away
of having this place that i call a country, this country my country
be a place that i only see on TV a place that i read about in newspapers
 
yesterday in the Gleaner i read about the military running rampage
in the countryside since the accord was signed on August 30th
they broke up a community meeting of Aristide supporters—killed a man
raped a twelve year old Girl
 
by the time i was twelve i was no longer in Haïti i was privileged
i had no consciousness about what it meant to be a young girl
what it meant to be a young black girl
from a country where we’ve been killing ourselves since 1804
by the time i was twelve i had just enough consciousness to naively vow
that i would never return to this country that i called my own
that i would never return until things “changed”
that i would never return until “things” changed
you see i made that decision after i first saw Haïti on TV
after i saw Haïti in the newspaper
i longed for answers... answers to all the questions
 
at first, i used to say it was greed
that’s why there was coup d’etat after coup d’etat
greed
then i would say it was our political- economic history
yes, we have a history of fucking over our own
since i’ve been in Jamaica i’ve been searching for other reasons
because the ones i claimed no longer suffice
when someone asked me for the non-academic version
i gave the same answer that i made myself believe for the last ten years
the same answer that explains this country (my country) that i see on TV
the country that i see in the newspapers
but you see i haven’t been there in fifteen years i haven’t seen
but you see i haven’t been there in fifteen years i haven’t seen
since i’ve been in Jamaica
i’ve come to see that my country’s fucked up
for the same reason that a black Jamaican man can write a song
that echoes the voices the majority of this population
a song about having no consciousness about who and what we are
a song about our lack of pride and blindness to the beauty in ourselves
a song about our fear of remaining black seeking only brown, yella, and white
because we’ve been taught to hate blackness to hate ourselves
a song about failed emancipation from mental slavery
how we’re still very colonized
 
Out of many one—a disguise—a ruse
Where you from? they’ll ask
they’ll ask again
the next time i’ll just say
the same place as you

 


My Country In Translation

last sunday
i sat through a series of slides
one after another one after another
of haitian women children and men
in a hospital in limbé
slides one after another
one after the other
some of them i couldn’t look at
without turning away
or covering my eyes
open gashes, tumors, abscesses
i heard a lot of medical terms
that i would forget an hour
after i sat through the slides
one after another one after another
 
meanwhile
my mind travelled
to lansing to miami
back to the slides
and back again
to lansing and miami
to when i first began
to translate for the refugees
 
the first time i translated
i’d laugh
when i couldn’t understand when i couldn’t explain
when i couldn’t find english words for this man’s words
i couldn’t find the words
because even in kreyòl or in french
they weren’t part of my vocabulary
these words never were part of my vocabulary
because his life has never been mine
because the haïti i grew up in
the haïti i know didn’t consist of these words
the haïti i knew didn’t consist of these words
 
continued to laugh
nervously
because i have never been to this haïti
but i was going back there
i was going back there with them
i was going back there with their words
as i translated
i even mimicked
pauses
hesitations
uneasy smiles
the quickness to say words
that once translated
would determine lives
WORDS determined young lives
i did that with all of them
in lansing and in miami
once while translating
my laughter got on the verge of
hysterics
when translating
i always asked them
if they understood me
then i would apologize
for not being able to translate properly
quickly enough
for not being familiar with some words
for not having understood everything
politely they’d say
kreyòl ou bon gina
pa gen pwoblèm se lang ou
ou pale kreyòl tankou ayisyen ou ayisyen
every time i think about lansing
about miami
i wonder if they know
i remember their words
i couldn’t translate
those words i didn’t know
i wonder if they know
these words give me
a little of the country i didn’t know
i wonder if they know
these words give me
a little of the country that i used to know
a little of the country that i never knew
 
 
Genre: 

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