The Rumpus Book Club chats with Katia D. Ulysse about her novel, Mouths Don’t Speak (forthcoming from Akashic Books on January 2, 2018), the importance of religion and music in the novel and in Haitian culture, and why Haiti will always be “home.”
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Terese Mailhot, Jesse Ball, Melissa Broder, and more.
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This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi, and welcome to The Rumpus Book Club chat with Katia D. Ulysse!
Eva Woods: Hello! I’m early, but here!
Katia D. Ulysse: Welcome to our chat, Eva!
Marisa: Katia, thank you so much for joining us! It was a true privilege to read this novel two months prior to publication. It blew me away.
Katia D. Ulysse: Marisa, thank YOU and everyone who read the book. I cannot begin to tell you how thrilled I am to have had this opportunity. I hope you enjoyed the read.
Eva Woods: It was a suuuuper emotional read. I read it on a plane, too, which is always harder for me.
Katia D. Ulysse: Eva, I am impressed that you could read it on a plane. I cannot read on a plane; I have tried. I hope the suuuuper emotional part was worth it…
Marisa: The first question I always like to ask is, can you talk a little about your process for writing this novel?
Marisa: And yes, I cried a lot. And read the whole thing in two sittings, which is rare with a three-year-old running around and my relentless inbox.
Katia D. Ulysse: Marisa, thank you for the question. With respect to my writing process, I am not sure how to explain it. I get up at 3 a.m. I sit in the office. I try to ignore the clutter. I summon the characters. They tell me what to do. Then, I tell them what to do.
Marisa: Yes, I read an interview where you talk about sitting down and getting to know your characters. Which characters in Mouths Don’t Speak were the easiest to sit with? Which were more difficult?
Katia D. Ulysse: One more thing, Marisa. I am sorry you cried a lot. I am glad you read it in two sittings—with a three-year-old running about. Thank you.
To answer your question about which characters were the easiest to sit with, I will have to say Jacqueline’s husband, Kevin. I love him. I have a soft spot for combat veterans. I have seen how war ravage the mind and spirit of those who come back. It’s truly heartbreaking. I am thankful to veterans who fight abroad and here. PTSD is real. I love Kevin.
Marisa: Kevin is a very compelling character for me. I’ve suffered from PTSD (very different circumstances) but I think that helped me understand him more. I think for someone who hasn’t dealt with PTSD or watches anyone deal with it, he might seem cold or detached, when he is just surviving.
Katia D. Ulysse: War ravages those who endure it; it has a huge impact on families of veterans. I could go on. Kevin may seem cold to those who do not understand his plight. It is a challenge to simply “be.” His focus is avoiding an emotional explosion, which would destroy the remnant of love left in his marriage. Being cold is the best he can do. It is how he survives the “back-home” routine.
Marisa: Jacqueline, like you, spent her childhood in Haiti but left at a still-formative age. We see in the book under what circumstances this happens for Jacqueline, and how it affects her, and why she chooses to stay in America. Can you tell us more about your own story? Is Haiti still “home” and what does that mean in such a dark time in America’s history?
Eva Woods: Adding to Marisa’s question: the specific memories of the place—the food, the smells—that kind of thing, really added to the book. Do you go back often?
Katia D. Ulysse: My own story is the standard stuff: My father came to the States to “search for life.” We joined him a few years later. We watched reruns of The Brady Bunch, The Cosby Show, The Jackson Five, The Partridge Family, and thought that was America! My parents worked hard, even though they were not particularly familiar with the ways of their new world. We made do, as they say. We made it through. The immigrant experience is complex. Although I live full-time in the United States, I have never ceased to consider Haiti “home.”
Eva Woods: Ah, that makes sense.
Marisa: That feeling is so present in your writing.
Eva Woods: Religion figured heavily into the book. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Katia D. Ulysse: Indeed, religion plays a huge part in Haitian culture. We tend to be quite spiritual, and seek means by which to access a higher being. Religion offers one of the only options to make that connection. I wanted to show that what Jacqueline had hoped to find through religion did not yield the result she wanted.
Eva Woods: I think you achieved that. I’m from the South, where music and religion are really closely bound. Even though it wasn’t in the text, I got the feeling Jacqueline’s connection to music and her connection to religion were somehow similar. Is that off base?
Katia D. Ulysse: Also, because Vodun plays such a large part in Haitian culture, I had to include that aspect of it. The difficulty was to introduce it within a new context—not the usual zombie and black magic narrative.
Marisa: But Jacqueline does come back to religion when she loses herself toward the end of the book. Which shows how much a part of her it is, I think.
Katia D. Ulysse: I agree, Marisa. With respect to having to return to religion, Jacqueline was hopeless; she sought for strength which she believed existed outside of her own being.
Marisa: Music is also a big part of this book, as Eva just noted. I’m wondering if you feel the same connection to the music of Haiti that Jacqueline does? And whether you were listening to that music (or other kinds of music) while writing?
Katia D. Ulysse: Just like religion, music is a large part of our culture. Haitian music is in our blood. I don’t know if you’ve been to our side of the island, but the first thing that greets you is sound. Melodies, the sing-song of men and women welcoming visitors. Music is in our blood. In sad and beautiful times, we sing.
Eva Woods: That’s really beautiful.
Marisa: That gave me chills! I haven’t visited either side of the island (I’m not widely traveled; I used to suffer debilitating travel anxiety). But you make it come alive on the page.
Katia D. Ulysse: An interesting thing to mention is that our young generation fears our traditional music.
Eva Woods: That is interesting! Why is that?
Katia D. Ulysse: Singing the ancient chants and displaying that visceral reaction to the drums’ insistent call betray the something which many among us would prefer to keep hidden. The ancient melodies are associated with the past, with slavery, with those who worship the ancestors. Those songs which were passed down from generations dating back to Africa pose a problem for some. I understand that.
Katia D. Ulysse: Jacqueline does not want to be associated with the Vodun songs, but ultimately finds herself responding to the call of the drum despite herself.
Eva Woods: I think an effect of globalization has been that a lot of young people reject the traditions that they see as “backwards” to more easily assimilate. It’s sad, because cultures get lost that way, but I understand the impulse.
Katia D. Ulysse: I could not have put it better, Eva.
Marisa: How do you balance sociopolitical concerns like these when writing a novel based in and about Haiti? I feel like Jacqueline’s parents provide an entirely different experience that she has had, and then there is Pachou, and his backstory, which also offers another perspective. It must be a lot to balance.
Eva Woods: OMG PACHOU! I don’t want to get into spoilers, because this book is such a roller coaster but he had the BEST arc. I loved his story.
Marisa: Yes, he was fascinating. When we finally got to see Jacqueline’s memory of that scene (I won’t spoil it here), so much fell into place regarding the family’s history.
Katia D. Ulysse: You know, Marisa, this story is one that I wanted to write. The stories I wrote in the past were love letters to Haiti. The fact is that not all ex-pats want to go back. Many reject all that Haiti is. I wanted to tell that story, too.
Marisa: Katia, do you go back [to Haiti] often?
Katia D. Ulysse: I go home as often as I can. I was in Haiti in August, and cannot wait to go back. Now that winter is upon us, I want to run home. I’ve been in the US for a thousand years, but the thought of snow is unnatural to me. My blood congeals in this cold.
Eva Woods: Girl, same. You should come to LA; it’s still 80 here!
Katia D. Ulysse: I love LA. I’ll take 80 degrees. I’m in New York now, and it is harsh.
Marisa: It really felt that every character in the novel was a piece of a jigsaw puzzle that fit together perfectly to create the story. The plot is phenomenal, but so driven by these fully fleshed-out characters, too.
Katia D. Ulysse: I love Pachou, too. His story is common in Haiti, and in every country where no one cares to obscure the class lines. Rich stays here. Poor stays there.
Eva Woods: Katia, that is very much like where I’m from and the stories of the lower classes are FULL of stories like his.
Marisa: But you also point out the class issues here in America, through Jacqueline’s relationship with and memories of her students. Do I have it right that you are also a teacher in the Baltimore public school system? That must inform your work tremendously.
Katia D. Ulysse: Yes, Marisa. I’ve taught in Baltimore City for thirteen years. Every year I tell myself, “This is IT! I quit.” And then I’m the first person to show up in the middle of the summer.
Marisa: My sister is a teacher. I think, for some (not me!), it is a calling. And those people make the best teachers.
Eva Woods: I’ve always thought that teaching would be the hardest job to leave at the office, but maybe novelist is high up on that list, too. How do you deal with that? It seems like it would be so hard to have any time that wasn’t in a working headspace when so much from both jobs sticks with you.
Katia D. Ulysse: Your sister is on the front lines of education. You’re right, Marisa, it is a calling. Writing is also a calling, and I am hearing that call louder and louder now.
Marisa: We’re almost out of time, but as you just brought up writing, can you share some of your favorite writers with us?
Katia D. Ulysse: I write to stay sane. I write because I HAVE to. I teach, also because I have to. I want to do my part. I want to be part of the solution. After thirteen years though, I’ve done my part—I think.
Marisa: Are you considering writing full time?
Katia D. Ulysse: My favorite writers are: James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Camus, Michele Jessica Fievre, Sandra Cisneros, Edwidge Danticat… It’s crazy the names are now escaping me. There’s music pouring into the space from hidden speakers in the ceiling in my hotel. I need silence to concentrate. My brain is singing along, while I’m trying to write.
Eva Woods: Katia, I get that feeling. Also, Camus! He wrote places so well. You could almost smell his Algeria.
Katia D. Ulysse: Yes, Marisa, I am considering writing full time. I have to. I also write music. The crazy incidents of these past few months—Charlottesville, Las Vegas, and other incidents—have inspired me to express myself in this genre. I played my new song, Legacy, for the principal of my school. He wants to play it daily for the students. I am excited about that. It’s a song about the damage we continue to do to this world. I ask a couple of questions: Is this the legacy we want to leave our children? Is this the world we want them to live in? Don’t you know we’re all in this together? Don’t you know we’re all in this forever? I look forward to that song coming out.
Marisa: That is beautiful! I hope we can hear the song one day, too.
Eva Woods: I look forward to it coming out, too!
Katia D. Ulysse: You will [hear the song]. We’ve got to stop this crazy ride. Future generations will pay for our mistakes. We owe our children more than this.
Eva Woods: I absolutely agree, Katia. It’s a scary time. Thank you so much for chatting with us, Katia!
Marisa: Yes, having a young child makes me fear so much more than I would otherwise. What world are we leaving for them? It’s terrifying.
Marisa: Katia, thank you so much for joining us, and for speaking so candidly. This is a special book, and I hope it gets the wide audience it deserves. It speaks to so many issues that are more important today than ever (but were also always important, and I think it speaks to that as well).
Katia D. Ulysse: Thank you, Marisa! It was fun. I look forward to our next conversation.
Author photograph © James M. Jave.