Gina Athena Ulysse Makes the Case for Why Haiti Needs New Narratives – by Manolia Charlotin

Gina Ulysse w:bookOn Saturday, September 19, as part of the Brooklyn Book Festival, Haiti Cultural Exchange hosted the formidable anthropologist and performance artist, Gina Athena Ulysse, to launch her book tour of the recently published Why Haiti Needs New Narratives: A Post-Quake Chronicle at the Brooklyn Public Library.

The event was a homecoming of sorts. When she migrated to New York City in 1978, her family passed the Brooklyn Public Library on the way to her grandmother’s house.

“Lakou Brooklyn, I’m right here!” Ulysse proclaims excitedly in her opening remarks.

Then she took the audience on a journey, from her Rock n’ Roll dreams to becoming a leading public scholar in the Haitian diaspora. Growing up in the 80s, a difficult time to be Haitian in the U.S., Ulysse had a goal — and she was defiant to the gender expectations set by her parents.

“It was the 1980s. I was an oddball. I loved Tina Turner, Pat Benatar, Cyndi Lauper, Eurythmics, U2 and the Rolling Stones. I was dreaming of becoming a rock star. My father wanted me to do the dishes…

Since I wasn’t averse to other chores, I asked why. ‘You’re a girl,’ he said. ‘So?’ I said back. ‘Your mother does the dishes,’ he said. ‘I am not your wife, I replied. ‘We don’t have a contract. And even she shouldn’t have to do your dishes.’

This, of course, made us enemies for weeks. Such answers were typical of me. They made me very un-Haitian and eventually marked me as the one who can’t keep her mouth shut and doesn’t care about the consequences of talking back. Click! Silence is a structure of power. Click!”

In the midst of laughter from the auditorium, Ulysse wraps her reading of this first essay.

“I became an academic; the next best thing,” she deadpans.

She became an academic to explain Haiti to people. But as a Haitian-American navigating the challenging terrain of learning a new culture, a new way to be in a new world, Ulysse had to define her identity on her terms.

“Haiti was my point of departure… and Haitians, have always been plural to me.”

This perspective would prove to be useful, and many times necessary, in her academic and media interventions.

“I was adamant about this book being in three languages because it needs to be accessible.”

Why Haiti Needs New Narratives opens with an essay published in Huffington Post (the day before the earthquake) about a major Hollywood movie.

“Avatar is not just another white-man-save-the-day movie. As a black woman and a cultural anthropologist born in Haiti, I had doubts about the depiction of race in the film…

The movements, setting, altar, offerings. Communion with nature. All beings are interconnected. The NaVi do not distinguish between themselves and their environment. We came back to the tree.

In Haitian Vodou ecology, trees have always been sacred. They are significant in rituals as they are inhabited by spirits. Rapid deforestation of the island has impacted worship. In overpopulated urban settings, practitioners are living in what one scholar recently referred to as ‘post-tree Vodou.’

…New age spirituality with its purported openness may incorporate some African based religious practices especially from Latin America, but (Haitian) Vodou remains stigmatized therein especially in interfaith circles. Although a growing number of initiates are whites, few multi-denominational churches dare to acknowledge it. Cultural specificities aside, Vodou shares core features spirits, nature, ceremonies and offerings — with other mystical religions. Avatar is a reminder of the hierarchy within alternative religions.”

But her analysis didn’t stop there.

“The clash of cultures and races is an easy way for moviemakers to explore personal transformation. In too many films, dark bodies have systematically been the catalyst for white salvation. Avatar forces us to confront these contradictions as we wait for the epic film that has yet to be made — one that tells the natives-meets-white-men story from their perspective.”

And that is the core of Ulysse’s argument for new and diverse narratives.

From there, the book delves into the aftermath of the earthquake, including inadequate distribution of aid, inhumane conditions suffered in makeshift tent encampments, violence against women, tumultuous elections and an insightful analysis of the corporate media’s negative portrayal of survivors.

“One of the reasons I’m interested in representation is… Haitians do speak for themselves.

She closes with the final essay in the book, “Loving Haiti Beyond the Mystique.”

“I grew up in a country that most of the world degrades and continues to dismiss because it is broken.

…When Haiti attempted to piece itself together two centuries ago, many among those in power at home and abroad took calculated steps to ensure that it would remain shattered. All of my life, I have lived various aspects of the shame of this heritage. I have also been continually reminded I was born in a small place that is devalued and is trampled upon precisely because of its weaknesses. I persevere holding on to knowing my little country dared. It dared to step out of line. It dared to stand up for itself. It dared to try to define itself. It dared.

In the last decade, while struggling to redefine myself in the all-too-hierarchical-world that is the academy, where you are only as good as the person you are better than, I have fought to dare, and not accept labels that were being thrown at me or etched onto me for others need me to fit into a category to be comfortable with me. I resist, insisting that Haiti needs new narratives to explicate its myriad contradictions.”

Click here to take a look at photos from the event.

This An n’ Pale | Café Conversation is a part of our Fall-Winter Season Programming: Revolisyon/Revolution.

For more information on upcoming events, visit: http://haiticulturalx.org/revolisyon

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