ENOUGH: Good Girls Don’t Sing

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ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for essays, poetry, fiction, comics, and artwork by women and non-binary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence.

The series runs every Tuesday afternoon. Each week we will highlight different voices and stories.

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Good Girls Don’t Sing
Katia D. Ulysse

I was born in Haiti to a father who wanted his first-born to be a son and to a mother who wanted to oblige him. They aimed for that prized Y chromosome but with me, they missed. To console themselves, now and again, they called me Pitit gason mwen, my little boy. Those few times I managed to do something praiseworthy, my father showed his appreciation by telling me I was as smart as a boy. The compliment made sense to me. Boys were assets with the potential to become successful and respectable men. Unless they were arrested and jailed for committing a serious crime, nothing they did could bring shame to their parents. Girls, on the other hand, could sully their family name by wearing short skirts and forgetting to cross their legs. I often wondered if having a daughter was the price they paid for some karmic debt.

I grew up with a keen sense of being unwanted, a mistake my parents made. My widowed paternal great-grandmother, Grann, was my only solace. Her house was adjacent to the place I was supposed to call home but never did. I went to her front porch every night after I finished my homework. My favorite snack, tomato slices coated with sugar, would be waiting for me on a pretty plate.

I’d sit on a low chair and rest my head on her knees, savoring each bite while she smoothed my hair and told me stories about women who had the ability to change their physical shapes anytime they wanted, especially when their children were in danger. Each story was accompanied by a melody—the lingering kind you suspect will reverberate inside of you for years. Grann said our enslaved ancestors chanted those lyrics in sugarcane plantations on the island of Hispaniola and beyond.

I hated going back to my parent’s house after listening to the wondrous tales and songs which Grann imparted to me. Inside my parent’s house, it didn’t matter if I hid in a corner for days. I was as welcome as a poisonous tarantula under the bed.

 

School was my second sanctuary. I loved to read, write, and sing Grann’s songs. I was eight years old, too young to comprehend why the lyrics caused the French nuns’ faces to blister with anger. I know now they were offended by Haitian kids who took pride in their invincible ancestors who defeated Napoleon’s army in the only successful slave revolution in history. The Haitian nuns reviled the songs, too, saying they were voodoo incantations. I needed all the nuns to like me; they had ways of making life difficult for students who irritated them. So I belted out liturgical hymns instead. The Mother Superior said she liked my voice and just like that, I was a soloist in the church’s choir.

The singers stood in the form of a capital V with me in front. I was at least two feet shorter than the others because I had skipped first and second grades. The choir’s musicians, all of them men, were in their twenties and thirties. They told jokes and laughed as boisterously as they pleased. The girls had to be quiet and still when not singing.

Being in the choir rescued me from the dark corners of my parent’s home. The other singers became my friends, even though many of them came from rich families whose homes in the mountains made Beverly Hills look like a shantytown. We were tethered one to the other, one fearsome tribe, undivided—until the last note of the last song. And then we returned to our respective families and realities in different parts of Petion-Ville.

One evening after practice, the choir’s guitarist came and stood close to me. Instinctively, I inched away. “You are my favorite,” he said. I kept my eyes down; it would have been disrespectful to look an adult—especially a man—in the eye, but he cupped his fingers under my chin and lifted my head. His eyes were greenish, like a lizard’s. He spoke perfect French, the language of the ruling class. He said I sang like an angel, a veritable gift from God. He was so close I could hear him breathe. I was terrified, yet, my heart could have burst with gratitude because someone other than Grann found me lovable.

The man took my hand and half-dragged me to the portico between the church and the rectory. He said there was something he wanted me to see. He pinned me against the wall with his body. He told me about some dirty dreams he’d had with me in them. I did not want to hear about his dreams, but I could not get away. I squeezed my eyes shut; the top of my head reached only his chest. When he bent down and pressed his mouth on mine, one of Grann’s songs about a hawk swooping down to devour a barely hatched baby chick sprang to my mind. I wished the slaves’ songs would come to life and a hawk would carry the man all the way to hell.

Later that evening when I told Grann what happened, she balled her fists. I knew she wished she could have turned herself into a lioness and mauled the choir’s guitarist. I considered telling the nuns, but they would have sided with him. They would have accused me of having done something to tempt him. I was eight years old, but that did not matter. Girls were always to blame.

The next time I had a solo, I opened my mouth but no sound came out. The man had scared the song out of me. Moving to the United States saved me from having to tell Mother Superior why I stopped coming to practice.

My feelings of being unwanted did not disappear when we came to the United States. When boys and men eyed my burgeoning body in a sexual way, my parents accused me of soliciting attention and I was punished brutally. They threatened to send me back to Haiti. I was becoming a liability; I had the potential to bring dishonor to them. My breasts were to blame. My legs. My private parts. I despised myself for being a girl.

School became my sanctuary again, as it had been in Haiti. The ESL teacher made English language learning an adventure. She taught us her favorite Broadway show tunes, and took us to see Annie, Peter Pan, and other amazing musicals. I couldn’t stop singing “The sun will come out tomorrow…” I sang my great-grandmother’s songs, too. There weren’t any nuns to punish me now.

 

I moved out on my own as soon as I was “of legal age.” I took a job waitressing to pay for college. I majored in English Literature, but instead of studying for exams, I was writing music. Soon I left school, packed my scant belongings, moved to New York, and joined a Haitian band.

Rehearsals turned into all-night jam sessions. I was one woman among six men, but my bandmates didn’t seem to notice. We were musicians having a fantastic time doing what we loved. I was not a girl, not a boy—I was a musician. Still, when the band had gigs out of town, I stayed home. I would not risk having to sleep in a hotel room with six guys, even if they found me as sexually attractive as a grapefruit peel.

When we had the biggest gig opening for a famous US singer, we doubled the amount of rehearsal time. Late one evening, the band’s founder followed me to the bathroom, and closed the door behind him. “You want to sing, don’t you?” The question came out like a threat. The studio was in his house. His wife and daughters lived upstairs. I’d thought I was safe.

He traced my neck with sweaty fingers. He wanted sex. “And you want me, don’t you?” When I said I did not, he scoffed. “I can make or break you. If you give me what I want, I’ll produce your songs. You’ll have your own band. We’ll travel the world. They’ll love you. We’ll be together. Every night. Doing whatever we want to do.” I pushed him away, and walked out.

Even though I understood the man was manipulative and a predator, I blamed myself. I wondered what I had done to bring this on. I did not want to sing so desperately that I would sleep with him or anyone, so I went back to college and earned my degree. I abandoned my dream of making music.

 

Years later, I met a musician who was looking for a singer to lay vocals on a few tracks. I was smarter, older. I’d seen the girls he liked. I was not his type. “Sure,” I said. I had a couple of songs I wanted to work on, too. He said, “Cool.” I asked, “How much?” I needed him to know this was strictly business. We were professionals collaborating on a project. We agreed on a price and a schedule for a nine-song CD.

On my way out of his studio one afternoon, he indicated a small table with two plates on it. “I made lunch,” he said kindly, but there was a sharp note in the back of his throat. I knew if I didn’t sit and eat with him, there would be no CD. I lied about having an emergency across town and left. There was now a sudden and palpable rift in our professional arrangement. My great-grandmother’s old song about the hawk swooping down to devour the baby chick played in my head on repeat.

During the next recording session, I was in the soundproof booth when he was called away. I wandered into the area where he had been and saw hardcore pornography playing on the huge screen next to the soundboard. I wondered if that was the first time he’d watched porn while I sang, but my instincts told me it was not.

We had recorded six songs so far. There were just three more remaining. I would force myself to finish the project. I was not a kid anymore. I could protect myself. I could deal with it. I would pretend none of it was happening.

The next time I went to the studio, I wore a dress five sizes too big. I kept one eye on the exit. I forgot lyrics, sang off-key, and rushed through melodies like someone running from a burning house. His cell phone rang. When he lifted his hand to answer, semen dripped from his fingers. He grinned at me, hunched his shoulders, and cocked his head as if to ask, “You want this CD, or not?”

This monster was three times my weight and two feet taller, but I was ready to die fighting to keep him off me. He signaled for me to put the headphones back on. I told my legs to move, but they played dead. I had to get the hell out of there. I had to stop singing. My voice was my enemy. I did not have to look through the soundproof glass. I knew what he was doing.

I ran the lyrics over the melody like shards of glass on a chalkboard. His stare was soul-crushing. It felt like I was naked under heaps of putrefying meat in a landfill. I loathed myself for wanting to sing so much that I kept running headfirst into this kind of trouble. I left with my spirit mostly intact, but that man scared the song out of me. I did not sing a single note for a decade.

 

When Tarana Burke started the #MeToo movement in 2006, she couldn’t have known how many lives her own story would change. Hollywood came out in droves against powerful executives who turned dreams into nightmares. Three unspoken rules seemed to govern the entertainment industry: If you want to see your name in lights, be willing to go anywhere, anytime; do everything the powerful boss wants; and, most importantly, keep your horror stories to yourself. If you choose not to play along, your career will end before it starts.

Watching hundreds of women stand up for themselves gave me the idea that I could do the same. I was not to blame for these vultures who tried to devour me from the time I was eight years old. I resolved to reclaim my voice.

I needed to take the same advice I give my daughter all the time: “Don’t let anyone steal your song.” Even though the musical part of my brain was atrophied, I found my voice as a writer. I published a story collection, a novel, two books for children, and more short stories for literary journals and anthologies. I would sing again, not just for the sake of it, but to empower girls like my eight-year-old self, my daughter, and children who might lose their own voices due to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.

One morning, without warning, I woke up with a song that would not let me rest. I repeated the words over and over until a melody took shape.

Is this the legacy we want to leave our children?
Is this the kind of 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 phoned my good friend, C. Boyer, a renowned bass player who owns a studio in Brooklyn, New York. He gathered a group of professional musicians to work with me. The process was seamless; the song, “Legacy,” practically created itself. The single was released on my Grann’s birthday, August 15, 2019.

So many of us have similar narratives, but keep quiet. Silence is not always golden. Maya Angelou said it best: “There’s no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

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Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.

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ENOUGH is a Rumpus original series devoted to creating a dedicated space for work by women and non-binary people that engages with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence. We believe that while this subject matter is especially timely now, it is also timeless. We want to make sure that this conversation doesn’t stop—not until our laws and societal norms reflect real change. You can submit to ENOUGH here.

Many names appearing in these stories have been changed.

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