In Conversation with Elsie Augustave

In the context of Caribbean literature Haiti stands out as one of the richest and most culturally diverse producers of raw talent. In recent times, migratory patterns and cultural as well as geographical proximity have conflated to make Haiti’s literary heritage even more complex by developing in both French and English. From Jacques Roumain to Edwidge Danticat, Haiti is one of the few countries in the world which can claim to have a significant literary tradition in two languages. Elsie Augustave is the latest author to enhance the ranks of English-speaking writers from Haiti or Haitian descent. Born in Haiti, she moved to the USA at a young age, where she works as a teacher. Her debut novel, The Roving Tree, was published in 2013 by OpenLens, an imprint of Akashic Books, and touches upon core concerns of our times, such as adoption, migration and identity. I had the chance to meet Elsie and exchange some opinions on these and other subjects. This is the result:
 
 

It’s your first published novel, Elsie. Is this also your first attempt at writing or publishing a novel, or are there any other manuscripts lurking in dusty drawers waiting to be recovered?

It is indeed my very first attempt at writing fiction. Prior to that, I had only written papers for my classes when I was in school and a thesis for a Masters degree.

Describe your creative process for me, please. When do you write? How long do you write? Do you write longhand or type? What sort of technology do you use, and at what stage does it enter the process? Where do you write: do you sit on the same desk as usually for instance, or do you have any quirky habits? 

Initially, I started writing The Roving Tree in notebooks that I carried with me everywhere. I now use a computer, but whenever I have difficulty constructing a scene or expressing a thought, it becomes easier when I pick up a pen. Something magical happens when a pen touches paper. And, considering that I have other professional commitments, I write whenever or wherever I can.   

Do you believe in inspiration? What is inspiration for you?

Of course I believe in inspiration. It is the creative impulse that makes a writer want to capture something ordinary and transform it into a deeper and a more complex form of artistic expression.

On your personal website you say that first impetus to write The Roving Tree came in Paris many years ago. Did you work on the novel for many years? Has this been a work in progress for a long time or was it more the case of getting a clear picture of what you wanted to write about and then finally writing it?

The novel was work in progress for a very long time because my personal and professional lives did not allow me the time I needed to write. As a single parent, I mostly wrote the novel when I was off from teaching in the summer and my son was off to camp.

Thinking of personal narratives and collective heritage, how important is it in your view for individuals to understand the circumstances that conditioned the lives of their forebears? 

Some of us may not realize it, but the patterns in our lives are fueled by continuity. We are in many ways a product of lives that were lived before ours and I think to a large degree, the more we know about the people in our family lineage, the more we are able to understand our own motivations and aspirations. Certain characteristics that are derived from an ancestor may manifest themselves even generations later.    

Iris’ autobiography in The Roving Tree is fictional, of course, but as well as the purpose it might serve her daughter, Zati, is your protagonist concerned with her own transcendence? I’m alluding to the sense that if you haven’t told your story, or if it isn’t recorded somewhere for posterity, it’s almost as if you haven’t lived it…

I like the way you put it. I think it is because of the reasons mentioned above that Iris hopes to share her story with her daughter. Most of all, Iris is haunted by the fact that as a child, she knew little about her birth family and feels deprived because of that. Iris thus reconnects with herself as she relives her life in retrospect.

 

Adoption plays a central role in the biography of your protagonist, Iris Odys, and this is an issue that has become topical again in relation to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Giving your child in adoption is not always a selfish act, is it? At the same time, even the most loving of intentions can go wrong if the right procedure is not put in place to safeguard the suitability of adoptive parents and the safety of children. What are your thoughts on adoption into a foreign culture in the XXI century?

After the 2010 earthquake crisis in Haiti, many Europeans, Canadians, and Americans adopted Haitian orphans. In fact, some parents tried to give up their children for adoption, as it was an opportunity for their children to have a better life; but it is hard for people from Western cultures to understand that act of love and sacrifice. It is in that very same frame of mind that Iris’ mother gave her away in The Roving Tree.  We are seeing more and more of multi-racial or multi-cultural adoption these days. It is probably because people are more concerned with having successful careers before having children and it has become difficult for many to conceive at an advanced age and adoption is sometimes their only option. However, I do agree that something can go wrong in the process even if in most cases the adopted child is better off with adoptive parents.       

 

You have described The Roving Tree as “a story about rootlessness and cultural disaffiliation.” It seems like we live in a time when rootlessness is more and more the norm rather than the exception. Are we in danger of total cultural disassociation? And should we be afraid of it? 

People are not as rooted or culturally grounded as they were years ago. When I was growing up in Haiti, it was important to know who you are related to and how you are related. But now, my relatives have migrated to different countries and different states and we almost never see each other. Immigration has thus brought globalization so we can hardly speak of a single culture now.       

Your novel has been described as “a young woman’s search for her cultural and emotional identity.” Do you think this quest is a universal human need or is it triggered by certain social conditions (such as the relative comforts of middle class life or encountering the prejudice often directed against minorities)?

The issue of cultural identity is common among young people growing up in a multicultural society as they are often pulled in opposite directions by different sets of values. I see this sort of social malaise among American children of Haitian, Asian, or Hispanic parents in New York and among children of African or Caribbean descent in France. As for the question of emotional identity, I would say that it is a universal human phenomenon that is due to developmental changes people go through in life. It may also be the cause of what is perceived as social injustice toward a particular class or ethnic group.   




Published by the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday May 24, 2014.

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