The central character, Iris Odys, is the offspring of Hagathe, a Haitian maid, and a French-educated mulatto father, Brahami, who cares little about his child. Hagathe, who had always dreamed of a better life for her child, is presented with the perfect opportunity when Iris is five years old. Adopted by a white American couple, Iris is transported from her tiny remote Haitian village, Monn Neg, to an American suburb.
The Roving Tree illuminates how imperfectly assimilated adoptees struggle to remember their original voices and recapture their personal histories and cultural legacy. Set between two worlds—suburban America and Haiti under Papa Doc's repressive regime—the novel offers a unique literary glimpse into the deeply entrenched class discrimination and political repression of Haiti during the Duvalier era, along with the subtle but nonetheless dangerous effects of American racism.
Here are Elsie's answers to some of my questions:
Your website bio states that you were born in Haiti and studied foreign language and literature at Howard University. Did this influence your writing, and can you tell us more about your journey toward publication?
The years I spent studying literature at Howard University exposed me to works by African and Caribbean writers that nourished my desire to return to Haiti and to travel to Africa. Those writers also made me realize, through their writings, that the human experience is limitless. Most of all, it was during those graduate school years that my interest in my native country peeked, and I began to pay closer attention to the socio-political dynamics of Haiti as well as traditional beliefs. When I decided to write a novel, those earlier interests and experiences guided me, and I couldn’t help but address them as I tried to understand the atavistic nature of African beliefs. It took a long time for the book to reach completion since I was only able to work on it sporadically. After years of determination, hard work, and patience, THE ROVING TREE was presented to Akashic Books and its Open Lens imprint, and the book got published.
Those are really rich themes to explore, and I loved THE ROVING TREE's premise. Where did the idea come from, and what do you want readers to take away when they're finished?
My own wanderlust has a lot to do with the title. But I don’t think it was really a choice. During the early stages of the novel, I woke up in the middle of the night with the words The Roving Tree pounding in my head. I got out of bed to write them down and decided that would be the title of the book. I subsequently constructed the story around the title. It is my hope that the reader will engage in Haiti’s popular culture, the recurring conflicts of class and color, and in a life where power, oppression and corruption dominate the lives of characters.
I'm sure we will! Currently, you teach French and Spanish at the Stuyvesant School in New York City. How do you balance writing and teaching, and what do you find most rewarding about both careers?
Finding that balance is one of the most challenging things I’ve had to do, and that partly explains why it took a long time to finish the novel. It is also the reason why I was only able to write mostly during my summer vacations. But I find teaching rewarding when students acknowledge that they have learned from me or when I can watch their progress grow. Recently, while presenting the novel at the University of Arizona, a man came up to have me sign his copy of THE ROVING TREE. Then he told me that I taught him French years ago at Stuyvesant High School. He is now a young professor of Archaeology, who uses French to research articles that he writes. That brought a smile of happiness to my face. Likewise, I’m also happy when I hear that THE ROVING TREE has touched lives.
I'm glad you got a chance to reconnect with that student. And I wish I'd known you were at the University of Arizona--it would have been great to meet you.
If you were stuck on a desert island with four books, what would they be?
That’s a tough question to answer, but I guess I have to narrow down my choices and say that would like to have One hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Maryse Condé’s Segu, Masters of the Dew by Jacques Roumain, and The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. It’s a good blend of the cultures and literary styles that I am fond of.
I love One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Poisonwood Bible--and Segu also looks worth a try. What are some of your current projects?
I am currently working on a second novel and have plans for a memoir.
Sounds fantastic. Thanks, Elsie!
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