Usually, with a novel, you start with no idea what to do because your job is to create convincing characters and then they just run around getting crazy. The problem with writing a memoir, obviously, is you can’t do that because you sort of know what’s going to happen. Because you’re the character.
I do study Proust, for multiple technical virtuosities but also his swerve, as you say, between characters and in scenes. Certain films can help for that, too, in terms of understanding how multiple conversations at a table, or in a room, can take place and remain separate, and dissonant, and also gather themselves, accidentally, into a collective rhythm and an affect. Altman is very good at that, for instance. So is Jean Renoir. I compared her voice to water above but really it’s about neutrality, as you say. About the tone of the whole, every part has to kind of vibrate on the same internal register. It’s impossible to describe or name that register but I know when something is off from it.
I came to poetry because I felt I couldn’t live properly in the real world. I was thirteen and in Algebra class. That was the day I decided I would be a poet for all time. I walked out of class and dropped out of school. That doesn’t mean I became a poet, but I did have this absolute severance with one period of my life where I felt I was being made to live in the world I was brought into—Straight-A student, The Most Perfect Little Girl—that I couldn’t inhabit anymore. And so I went to a place I felt I could inhabit which turned out to be, as we know about poetry, more hellish than the one I left!
I ate dirt until he came along. I had what they called the ringworm. I picked my scalp and there it was, underneath my fingernails, piles of sick. I was a preteen Caliban deformed by flaky skin; I had pus on my mind. My head was a compost heap. My fingernails dug into what they, the older people, called the ringworm, or eczema, and I sent shivers down my own spine—an erotic “pain” I could not wait to get my hands on. My gray woolen Eton cap was lousy with me. There was SL in his Eton cap and his forest of worms, and there I was in my cap, waiting until he came along. My contemporaries—other children—risked contagion if they touched my cap, let alone my diseased spot, which, come to think of it, looked a little like a woman’s private parts; boys spitballed it.
Salt is a powerful symbol in Haiti, as elsewhere. Salt of the earth, for example is an American phrase isn’t it? In Haiti, myth and legend has it that if you are turned into a zombie, if someone gives you a taste of salt, then you can come back to life.
This is where the past and the future meet. This is after the pit bull attack, after my father left, and after my mother’s heart broke. This is after the bullies in the hallway, after the nigger jokes, after my brother told me what he’d done as we stood out on the street. This is after my father had six more children with four different women, which meant he had ten children total. This is after my mother stopped working for one White family who lived in a mansion on the beach and began working for another White family who lived in a large house on the bayou. This is after I’d earned two degrees, a crippling case of homesickness, and a lukewarm boyfriend at Stanford. This is before Ronald, before C. J. This is before Demond, before Rog. This is where my two stories come together. This is the summer of the year 2000. This is the last summer that I will spend with my brother. This is the heart. This is. Every day, this is.
That’s the great American story [laughs]. It complies with the story of immigrants who came through Ellis Island: they were nobodies—half-human somehow. They had potential, but of course they couldn’t do anything with it over there, because it wasn’t America, so they came here, and suddenly they bloomed.
I don’t know the numbers, but roughly half of the people who came through Ellis Island returned home. They came here to make money, not to make history.
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