Be Rootful and Fly

Elsie Augustave, The Roving Tree (New York: Akashic Books/Open Lens, 2013); 224 pages; ISBN 9781617751653 (paperback).

• November 2013

Elsie Augustave’s The Roving Tree is an expressive debut novel that packs a lot of story into its two hundred and twenty-four pages, yet it also reads fairly quickly, as though containing an urgent story that has, nevertheless, been waiting a long time to be shared. Indeed, one immediately senses that level of urgency in the very first line of the novel: “As I approached death hours after giving birth to Zati, my hospital bed floated above blue water” (9). The “I” here is the novel’s protagonist, Iris Odys, who begins her coming-of-age story the same way the novel ends—with her imminent death. But the onset of death is not the cause of this palpable urgency so much as it is the new life that has been birthed despite death’s approach. In other words, Iris does not want to pass away without, first, passing on her story to her daughter Zati. The prologue of the novel ends with how that story (the very novel itself) comes to exist in the world: “Thoughts and words poured forth; past events gushed and multiplied. The story I had to tell seized me and flooded my mind with vivid memories” (11). In the amniotic way she describes the birth of her story, along with echoes of the book of Genesis (“Be fruitful and multiply”), one might rightly view the creation of Iris’s story as a particular form of labor—writerly labor, that is. 

In many ways, Iris could be said to be giving Zati a sibling or perhaps even an ersatz mother by producing her life story for her newborn daughter. Either way, Iris’s gift of storybirthing, to be sure, is about helping to give Zati a way to situate herself in the world in relation to her ancestral history; it is to give her relations; it is about making sure that Zati does not feel adrift and rootless in the world—all roving and no tree. For even while Iris might be accused of being a “roving” individual—as her Wall-street-broker boyfriend, Paul, calls her (“Roving Iris . . . I’d love to plant you in my garden” [166]), her status as a “transplanted tree” (222), as an Odys(seus) of sorts, tempers the seeming restless (read, picaresque) quality of her multiple geographical movements throughout the course of the novel. That is to say, she has a genealogy—deep roots from which she can “draw inner strength and spiritual nourishment. That realization became the source of a promise to [herself] to always remain deeply rooted as [she] continued [her] quest to reach for the sky” (154). Lest Zati be unable to strike a similar balance between being grounded and being ambitious, Iris must convey the roots-endowing story to her.

Thus, the narrative sandwiched between this deathbed scene constitutes “the whole story,” divided in two parts, of how Iris was living in a remote village in Haiti with her mother, Hagathe, until the time she was adopted at five years of age by John and Margaret Winston, a white American couple who could guarantee her a safer life than the one she had in Haiti. Iris experiences all of the anxieties and difficulties attendant with being simultaneously uprooted, on the one hand, and replanted and adopted, on the other.  At some point very early in her first few years with the Winstons, Iris petulantly discards a framed photograph of her mother, which stood on her bedroom nightstand. She throws the photograph away in order to better distance herself from painful memories of her mother who has requested, for Iris’s own protection, that Iris return to Haiti only when she is an adult. Unfortunately, Hagathe dies before Iris is able to fulfill her mother’s request. Hagathe is only returned to Iris by way of that selfsame photograph that she had earlier thrown in the trash. Unbeknownst to her and the novel’s readers, the Winstons managed to save the photograph from being completely lost in a landfill; they return it to her as a going-away gift on her departure for Africa. In the absence of family members who have been separated by geography or death, souvenirs such as photographs, national histories, and autobiographies must take their place. Iris returns to Haiti for her mother’s funeral and to meet with her estranged father, Brahami. While there she learns about her family’s African past and thus ends the first part of the novel. The second part begins with the events that will eventually lead to Iris’s decision to work in Zaire as a dance instructor at the National Arts Institute. It is while in Africa that she falls in love with a married man, Bolingo, and gets pregnant with Zati.

The feeling that permeates the novel is “a combination of fear, rejection, anger, sorrow, callousness, and pity. It [is] also the need to find a sense of self and belonging” (215). This compound feeling makes Iris a complicated and soul-searching character whom the reader cannot help but care about, especially as soon as she begins to try to navigate her transnational life as a Haitian-American-Zairean and as she attempts to reconcile ancestral traditions with modern-day practices and expectations. This is a balancing act that Iris performs with dignity and grace but also with clumsy hesitation and indecision. That diffident aspect of her persona is refreshing; it renders her more human. And for this reason, I found the epigraphs that open each chapter of the novel very distracting and didactic in a way that seems to rob Iris’s life story of its various complexities. It was disconcerting to feel that I was being directed to think about a life experience as being so easily encompassed by a quotation before I could access the very experience itself as the chapter presented it. Indeed, the novel felt too modern and too wonderfully complicated to require a moral to the story for each chapter or what ultimately felt like homages to famous (and sometimes not-so-famous) writers and thinkers. By bookending the novel with the story of Iris’s approaching death, there is a way Augustave contains the various complexities of the novel and keeps them from spilling over. Dividing the book into two parts further adds to this organizational impulse, so the epigraphs make it feel as though Augustave has taken that organizational impulse literally and figuratively over the top. The novel speaks for itself; it doesn’t need to kowtow so overtly to literary forbears or stand on their proverbial shoulders. For example, the final paragraph of the novel’s last chapter makes these wonderfully subtle allusions to Emily Dickinson’s poems “I Felt a Funeral in my Brain” and “Because I could not Stop for Death.” Augustave makes no explicit mention of Dickinson here, and that conspicuously absent reference is what I find truly delightful about this last paragraph—that it allows readers to make connections, flesh things out, and interpret the characters’ actions and life experiences on their own terms.

The novel seems to advocate a philosophy of open-mindedness, and what facilitates this enterprise of tolerance is not only the range of experiences the protagonist encounters and creates throughout her lifetime but also the adroitness with which she is able to adapt to these various and often opposing experiences. Much like her anthropologist adoptive mother, Margaret, who hankers after discovering syncretism in Haitian vodou practices, Iris approaches life in a way that renders otherwise mutually exclusive experiences cooperative: the dream world and the real world are constantly in engaged dialogue with one another; life and death are in close and seamless proximity to one another; the third world meets the first world, and vice versa, unscathed; different cultural values coexist; despite their racial and cultural differences from her, respectively, she gets along well with her similarly adopted white sister and her half-sister who grew up in Haiti; the past, present, and future coincide with each other; independent women who uphold respectability politics befriend women who sell their bodies to feed their families by any means necessary; the notion that the personal is political holds sway throughout the novel. Indeed, the trope of roots constitutes a framework not only for Iris’s personal history but also for the national history of Haiti’s political situation during the time in which the novel is set—that is, from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, when the “Dechoukaj, the uprooting of the Duvaliers and the Tonton Macoute regime” (304) occurred in 1986. In other words, the language of rooting and uprooting tells more than just a personal story. The Roving Tree is truly an enthralling debut novel that deserves a wide audience; readers will undoubtedly be enriched by their engagement with it.


Sandy Alexandre is associate professor of American literature at MIT. She specializes in twentieth-century and contemporary black American literature and culture. Her first book, The Properties of Violence, explores the connections between various representational forms of lynching and the issue of black dispossession. She is currently working on her second book, Up from Chattels, in which she attempts to gain purchase on what “significance” looks like in a black literary and cultural context. She has published essays in Modern Drama, Signs, Mississippi Quarterly, and the Journal of American Drama and Theatre.