The Roving Tree by Elsie Augustave
Open Lens/Akashic Books
Review by Danielle A. Jackson
The Roving Tree, the ethereal, sprawling debut novel by Haitian-born New York writer and educator Elsie Augustave, opens with a dimension-bending conversation between its human protagonist Iris Odys and the Haitian goddess of fertility, Aida Wedo. As Iris lingers on the border between life and death shortly after the birth of her daughter, Aida Wedo urges her earthly charge to write the story of her life for posterity.
The story starts in earnest with a chronological account of Iris’s life when she is adopted at the age of five by Margaret and John, a white, upper middle class couple and moves from her small Haitian village to Westchester, New York. Predictably, Iris has difficulty settling into her new life. She longs for her birth mother and the familiarity of her first home. As you can imagine the neighbors are perplexed by this multiethnic family and often stare at them. One unscrupulous acquaintance even attempts to touch young Iris’s hair to satisfy his curiosity of what “these people’s hair” feels like.
Iris’s parents enroll her in a quality elementary school, but it is here that she encounters even more blatant American racism: bullying and harassment, the word “nigger” and taunts of “go back to Africa.” Despite these challenges, she does find normalcy and a burgeoning confidence due to the unconditional love and support of her new family. Her godfather Latham provides a steadying force as well and introduces her to Afro-Caribbean dance rooted in the technique and scholarship of Katherine Dunham. Dance becomes Iris’s professional calling, but also serves as a gateway to her home country and helps to heal her rootlessness.
While attending a predominately New England college in the 70s Iris starts to shape a black identity. She becomes a leader in the Black Student League, where the students discuss “going back to the motherland.” During her junior year, Iris befriends a new Haitian student, Pépé, and what develops is an interesting first-generation versus native-born cultural conflict. Pépé, born and raised in Haiti amongst her own family, is an American literature major who eschews traditions like vodou and speaking Creole, while Iris, majoring in dance and anthropology, clings to these markers of conceptual “Haitian-ness” for dear life.
Because The Roving Tree is told from Iris’s perspective, the reader learns the circumstances of her early life as she does, with a gradual unraveling through stories set aside in their own chapters. Told in the third person, these seemingly objective accounts are just as important, if not more so, than the larger first-person narrative which envelops them. Iris’s past is prologue, but it is such a driving force in her life that it has not truly passed. In one account, the reader learns that Iris’s birth mother, Hagathe, is a soft-spoken woman from a family with a unifying matriarchal lineage who worked under less than ideal conditions as a maid to a wealthy family. Crushed by the vulnerability of poverty and stalked by a ruthless Tonton Macoute (a member of the military force of brutal dictator Francois Duvalier or Papa Doc), Hagathe welcomes the adoption of Iris as fortuitous, a chance for her young daughter to live a life with opportunity.
While home for Christmas break, Iris is summoned back to Haiti due to a family tragedy and confronts this heritage. She reacquaints herself with the women of her family and learns the secret of her paternity while bearing witness to the layers of inequality and injustice that color the lives of less-privileged Haitians. She learns of the spirits that guide her lineage, skeptically observing the syncretism between Catholic and ancestral traditions. But she is also haunted by these spirits in her own dreams, in warnings she does not heed and in the deep knowing that she sometimes chooses to ignore. Lamercie, Iris’s great-grandmother tells her about an ancestor, Nlunda a Kinkulu, who spoke Kikongo, a Bantu language that originated in the present-day Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire) and Angola:
‘At night, she would tell me stories about her family in Africa. She also told me not to forget that I am African and that she hoped that her children would return to Africa someday. My grandmother’s face appeared to me on the ground when I was about to dig a hole to bury your umbilical chord, and a song she had taught me long ago that I thought I’d forgotten came back to me. That’s how I know her spirit is connected to yours.’
Iris returns to college and for her senior thesis choreographs a large production that synthesizes her broad intellectual and personal interests in Pan-Africanism. Through her godfather Latham, she meets the head master of a dance academy in Zaire who offers her a teaching job at his institution. While contemplating her future, she moves to New York City and has her first love affair – with a young white banker who is enamored with her, but cannot understand her sense of connectedness to Africa. Despite his and her adopted mother’s initial reservations, she accepts the job in Zaire and makes the voyage to Africa.
It is in Africa that Iris’s adult life unfolds and the idealism of her adolescence gives way to reality. Kinshasa in the early 1980s is rife with the same corruption, inefficiency and poverty that cripples Haiti. She starts her job at the dance institute after frustrating bureaucratic delays; yet these delays allow an opportunity to learn her new environment. Many of her new friends make livings as sex workers, polygamy is rampant, and the scourge of AIDS begins to rear its ugly head. But eventually, Iris flourishes professionally as a dance instructor and falls in love so deeply with Bolingo, a married government official and revolutionary, that she considers becoming his second wife. By the end of The Roving Tree, Iris has developed a connection to her cultural identity that is more authentic than visceral, weaving together its disparate parts into a coherent whole, while simultaneously growing into a full woman who must grapple with the consequences of her choices.
Augustave creates a stunning tale with beautiful language that dwells in the realm of magical realism. Yet the author does not shy away from the very real issues of poverty, the position of women in patriarchal societies, the aftermath of sexual assault or broad themes of alienation and rootlessness. She skillfully sprinkles this headiness into the story in a non-didactic way that somehow still allows the importance of this subtext to be realized. The characters are rich, complicated and full of color and nuance, especially Iris. Augustave constructs her novel in a non-linear way; it begins just as it ends, with an otherworldly conversation that represents a reckoning between time and space and the interconnectedness of life, death, the past, present, and future.
Sometimes, the dialogue feels less than organic, as if the author has not yet learned to surrender to the voices of her characters. This becomes a barrier to full engagement and empathy with the characters and is really a missed opportunity. Augustave is talented and possesses an important voice, though; she will rectify this in novels to come. Her interest in the cultures of the black diaspora has breadth and depth, and her lyrical style is as breathtaking and layered as a song – with harmonies and dissonant notes, a strong, unifying melody sang by a compelling lead character, all over a full band accompaniment – the sonorous backdrops of Haiti, America, and Zaire.