Beaudelaine Pierre, "You May Have the Suitcase Now"

...I ruminate and chew on the edges of merging worlds...

Beaudelaine PIERRE is a journalist, scholar, and novelist who writes about her native Haiti and her adopted Youwès. She is the author of the award-winning collection of essays and stories You May Have the Suitcase Now (New Rivers Press, 2021), the co-editor of the trilingual anthology How to Write an Earthquake / Comment écrire et quoi écrire / Mou pou 12 Janvye  ( AHB, 2011) and the author of the novels Testaman (Bon Nouvèl, 2002), La Négresse de Saint-Domingue (Harmattan, 2010), and L’enfant qui voulait devenir president (Harmattan, 2012).

Author's Note

To touch the imaginaire, the small, the disjointed, the unlanguaged, that which I fear to know, and the collages of ordinary intimacies and to go on disappearing in order to see the pull of gravity across worlds and across history, at all times. I write to ground myself in worlds in flux. I write out of my own experience, and I write with recklessness out of that which is untouchable, so that where and who and how I am in the world are matters of continuous creation. The question is, how shall I touch the everyday stories of the everyday lives with a poetics of urgency where you and I stand responsible and responsive to one another. My faults, my lines, my wrongdoings are all justifiable. But self-poésie is an indulgence I can’t afford to bear even as a matter of survival. And I write to un-touch, in the way I live, in languages and in forms that ask the reader to commit to their own wars, stories, and untouchables. So, that to write is to meet the world halfway and leave it to anyone to supply their part of the story. In You May Have the Suitcase Now, I bear this sense of connection with many across a shared transnational and multitemporal humanity I cannot (yet) foresee. And the question remains: what is this world that you and I carry, in flux, in crossing, in gravity?

—Beaudelaine Pierre

"You May Have the Suitcase Now"

February 1986
I remember this dress my mother had. A salmon-pink dress, loose, and gradually wider towards the bottom. I watched her in that dress facing the crowd invading our house the morning of February 7, 1986. Nou mèt pran sa nou vle, she hurls as she opens the entrance door. The crowd poured in. Was she shocked to see Man Ato among them? Maybe they won’t harm anyone, she must have said to herself. The salmon-pink dress was floating around her legs following each of her movements. The women in the crowd also wore large dresses that they turned into containers as they filled them up with plates, tablecloths, silverware, and angry hopes. There was, through the door slit, the sway of the dress gripping me softly, a womb of memory I am trapped inside.

The entire week we heard waves of people marching down Rue Guerrier Street from house to house, putting them in ruin, and chanting bay tè a blanch. A month earlier, my brother, Baudelaire, and I strolled and hopped and tootled down the same street en route to Pastè Lubin’s school. I was 7, he was 8, and the two of us already grown out of the edge of childhood. From far away Mom waved us goodbye while cracking jokes with Man Ato. Between the pages of our books, my brother and I would place cassava and biscuits to secretly toss into our mouths while the teacher goes on and on about multiplication and division tables. At recess we occasionally stop by the machann Ak-100 for our lunch. Then February came out, made a show of himself. Rue Guerrier was covered with dust and the machann Ak-100 was nowhere to be found. On Radio Soleil, the song "Lè m pa wè solèy la" was released. No one knew who the singer was, but many were arrested when caught singing “I am up to no good when the sun does not show up” in the streets. People were stirring up the last drop of their anger, talking relentlessly and freely for all to hear about overthrowing Jean-Claude Duvalier. Those working in his government would be unleashed, too.

We locked ourselves into an isolated bedroom that morning of February 7.  We jolted at the drives of stones smashing, at our heartbeats pounding, at our fists clutching into one another. My mom, wrapped in her troubled salmon-pink dress, followed the ground quaking under our feet, while our life, dreams, and silverware were being packaged into other large dresses, none of them salmon-pink. Later that day Mother rolled up her leftover self in leftover bed sheets, tablecloths, linen, toothbrushes, new and worn-out shoes, and crispy fried goat. On the radio, the United States government has taken things in hand: Baby Doc is overthrown. We left Saint Michel to Port-au-Prince a few months later. In my mom’s suitcase, the uneasy salmon-pink dress and the remains of a slice of time waits for a new home.

Today, I carry a suitcase of my own. I have become very familiar with its weight, its odors, and damaged corners. Whenever I shut myself up in my kitchen in our Saint Paul two-bedroom with a notebook, I rummage through, dig, and draw out from inside its contours the secret wounds, the fears, and the memories of a world long ago forgotten. A world which begins in that Rue Guerrier street house in Saint Michel de l’Attalaye. Each afternoon, my butt cheeks rest on the ground and my head camps in between my mom’s knees. Mother is braiding my hair, her own bottom sitting on the green wooden canape. All of me stays locked between her two feet. If I move right or left, I receive a slap on the shoulders or something sharper, the comb will bite my back in tune with my mom’s voice, kenbe tèt ou dwat! She is planting cornrows on the scalp of my head: the first strand is for “Nan ou menm ki genyen lavi” from the Chants d’Espérance, the second for “A l’arrivée de l’expédition Française envoyée par Bonaparte” from our favorite history book, and the third for “Pour le pays pour les ancêtres mourir est beau” which begins the national anthem. Our childhood is here, anchored in the praise of suffering (why we need God), veneration of school (because we are France’s children), and devotion to the homeland (for which death is an honor). We left Saint Michel to Port-au-Prince from this place of faith, power, and impotence. God will provide.

We crossed over the river Savann Dezole. The bus quaked, rolled, and trundled through Pont Lestè above ragged pavements that put our derrieres in tandem with not knowing what’s ahead. I sit by the window; my chin is on my pillow. If we fall off the bridge it will be like slightly transitioning to a lower level of the road. But Mother’s suitcase is elegiac, and going to live in Port-au-Prince is more like emerging suddenly on a highway. I am threaded through the river’s passage of low bushes and stones drying up.

Some decades later, I watch from a computer screen Baby Doc’s presidential procession making its way through the Haile Selassie airport among a crowd of curious feet walking to know first-hand if this is it. A few cars one after the other, the in-laws and, at the end of the cortege, a president for life, stripped of his power, with his wife and their suitcases. The exit is troublesome and awkward; the power that vanishes, the estates, then the royal gowns, and the mannerisms, too. A fallen god quitting the stage under the camera flashes, like an abjured servant dragging a painful burden. The dethroned president for life boarded a United States Air Force jet and fled to France as my father is thrown to Port-au-Prince the same day. Today Savann Dezole runs dry.

And Somewhere Over the Rainbow
a suitcase gives vent to the echoes of doors cutting through the slits time makes. Whether this suitcase is the valise of those leaving before the curtains touch the floor, the dark green helmet of a handsome tonton makout, or the screen from which I watch the overthrow of Baby Doc to remember my mom’s little salmon-pink dress and my father’s exile.

On the computer screen, I glare at several pages, sigh as my daughter walks by, I will call my dad. Twenty-five years ago, he arrived in Port-au-Prince through Marmont and NanPaul carrying his own suitcase. I have a photograph of him holding onto a microphone. He is a handsome middle-aged man with stark dark skin; he hides his sparkly eyes behind a pair of sunglasses. He is not smiling but has his lips pursed. The upper lip presses the lower one tightly. You mimic with your own lips and wonder if he’s about to speak or if he is just swallowing himself up. The picture may have been taken at a public gathering. He’d preside over tons of them in the park or at a corner of the public market near the Simoncomte Boutik. My father’s biggest weakness is his awareness of his power in the way he carries himself. His march is elegant and equal to those of the horses that accompanied him from one place to another. The sound of the horses’ hooves trotting each time he returns from his crusades echoed my father moving through the world as a pastor, community organizer, advocate, government worker, and schoolteacher. He wished he could change the world.

Sitting in front of a computer is like walking the edges of many worlds. Duvalier had landed in Port-au-Prince after Twenty-five years in exile. In a wave of massive protests, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak steps down following thirty years in office. Pope John Paul II is promoted to Sainthood; did he visit Mubarak as he did for Duvalier before the 1986 overthrow? The airport from which a massive crowd salutes the return of Duvalier has become the Toussaint Louverture International Airport. So much goes on from Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie to Haiti’s International Louverture that a name swapping won’t show: the math of connection. At this place of merging grounds is a suitcase in display whose pockets will not tell how unlife the load has been. Pairs of pants, a silk black dress, sugarcanes, cacao, fault-lines, cellphones, notebooks, melatonin, and scars.

As far as I can remember it was my mother unleashing herself like a refrain, “we were thrown into Port-au-Prince.” I am the history of stones sprawling out of waterless rivers. I cannot bring myself to arrange these instances properly. I am not proper. This I understand as I am scheduled to do a presentation on Haiti to a group of students in Saint Paul and for which I am pulled into my earliest memory: I am a five-year-old again and going to school with Baudelaire in Saint Michel and walking in the morning dew. Early afternoon we chase birds with fistibal and dig into the ground of our backyard for sweet potatoes. We fill several bins of mangoes that fell from the trees the night before. Passersby join and sit with us around large bins of mango tikawòt, mango blan, mango misca, mango fransik. We ate most of them; the bulging ones will land in the kitchen to be turned into mango jam. The sugar canes are the best of all, rushing down our throats like waterfalls. The smell of each morning dew carries the trail of fresh fruits and vegetables, and there for all to see, ground sprouting mangoes, coffee, avocados, and diri latibonit.

There are no artifacts to show that my life is not in history books. Over the years my travel-size luggage has been reduced to a small valise of old journals and letters turning yellow, the home of old IDs, expired passports, and birth certificates. It is now the size of a small folder, but in truth, my suitcase is lidless. I will mimic in front of my students the kind of report Christopher Columbus gave to queen Isabella on Santo Domingo. I will crumple a piece of paper to stage the features of this corner of the world with rich rainforests, mountains, and abundant water and food resources. Columbus may have had laid his feet in Saint Michel de L’Attalaye. You caught me, Yip Harbug, somewhere over the rainbow, blue birds fly.

Shits, Holes, and Rue Tiremasse
Following the 1986 overthrow, we arrive in Port-au-Prince where narrowed corridors outnumber cracked pavements and BP fumes cover for Saint Michel’s morning dew. Every year, and sometimes after a few months of settling in a new quarter, we would move to another quarter, from one neighborhood to another, drawing ourselves a bit closer to another edge of the moon. With each move, we wrap ourselves and our clothes and linens in large plastic bags that we drag behind us. We sometimes use our pillow cases to pack things in. We throw them and we throw ourselves into the back of large pickup trucks that will carry us to our next place. There were no bus tickets of any sorts to put on record those movements to Delmas 6, Delmas 33, Delmas 31, or Rue Tiremasse. I remember school bands marching, roses walling the walls of Saint-Louis de Conzague, a St Jude’s medical station, numerous bric-à-bracs and bank bòlèt, and almond trees in each corner. We have carried the steam of these places, their cracked pavements, sandbags and almond skulls under the soles of our feet, in our lidless suitcases.

Rue Tiremasse, among many other places we roamed, is a dépotoir, a dumping ground, a place of merging geographies. In its intersections lie several monuments of waste we jokingly call Christmas trees for their tall height, their triangular shape, and multicolor lines coming from unwanted garlands of plantain peels and ripe bananas. The monuments are also decorated with tomatoes in tatters; bottles and cans of vegetable oils and foods of all kinds stamped “Made in USA”; food packaging, Miami-Rice bags, The New York Times crosswords pages and newspapers and magazines are front-row seated, star like; plus many other things lying on top of each other; but that’s not all. Every morning, in one of Rue Tiremasse’s corners, a machann pèpè  hangs on the street walls pieces of clothes one by one; skirts, long and short sleeve shirts, corsages, underwear of all shapes and sizes; nights out outfits, workhouse dresses, business clothes, moccasins, sandals, and leather shoes; two-piece suits, some almost new, some with spots and stains; others that reek of smoke; pairs of sunglasses, flashlights, and silverware; there are also not so random boxes of Dark & Lovely perm. On the opposite side of the same wall the machann pèpè places t-shirts of many colors that stand one chest after the other; the reds are together and then the yellows and then the blacks and then the grays. They are wrinkly from being stuffed together in pèpè balls, their own suitcase. On top of that, another pile of clothes sits on the ground that the machan pèpè gives away throughout the morning for a dollar or two; the armpits and the neck areas nest the sweats and the stains of their previous owners. They read “In God We Trust” or “Welcome To NY.”

In one of these corners of Rue Tiremasse, a mountain of Miami rice cooked in pwa kongo and lard sits in a large pan. The machann pèpè is a machann aleken. In the middle of the day, workers in suits and ties will sit among the piles and the walls of clothing for their lunch. A radio laying at the feet of the machann pèpè and the customers will bring the news, the time of day, the music of the hour, and everything else to know. Everything to live for is right here in this corner of Rue Tiremasse filled with mufflers roaring, with aleken steaming, with clothes sweating cigarette smoke, salivas, stains, and traces from every corner of the world and unleashed by the machann pèpè each morning after journeying from closed dark closeted storages in the Youwès.

Most afternoons, we have rendezvous with the machann kann arriving from Léogane to sell sugarcane sticks. He will take possession of one of Rue Tiremasse’s intersections for a good half hour. He stands on his two feet splayed in parallel to those of his cart full of sugar canes. His right knee is slightly bent. In this half hour, he is the knight on his horse who embarks on a high-stake duel. He removes swiftly each sugarcane stick out of its sheath, peels rapidly one stick after the other with a long sharp knife, turns hastily each stick upside down, flips it at the bottom, then right again from the top. His fencing armor is nothing more than a t-shirt and short pants and the sweat running through his spine. In just a few seconds he trades his long ready-to-chew sticks of sugarcane against a few cents of ours. We have an afternoon sitting on our balcony and filling our gut with sugar canes and slurping slurp, slurp, slurp.

Sometimes it was the machann fritay selling fried plantains, hot dogs, and grilled pork at the same intersection. From our balcony, the radio gives off Jocelyne Beroard’s Zouk La Se Sèl Medikaman Nou Ni and Kole Sere or news of the Bush administration welcoming Haiti’s newly freely elected president. We pick our lemons and avocados in the street market, and boiled eggs aux hormones cloned in USA take over Saint Michel’s Ak-100 and kassava-a-mamba. To live in Rue Tiremasse was to walk daily through the common denominator among our roaming with Saint-Michel ghosting and patching things up.

My dad works relentlessly at growing papayas and cherries in our front yard; underneath his palms the ground fights and rebels. Father keeps planting and adding to the traces, the sweats, and the smells of Port-au-Prince to behold his dream from the steams of the Miami-Rice rising from the machann pèpè’s. This is Rue Tiremasse, which looks like a corner of Saint Paul where I carry myself sometimes to catch the scent of cassava, of mango fransik, and the bitter taste of my father’s discontent.

I don’t want beans for dinner, my daughter complains from her bedroom. My son echoes. But beans carry lots of proteins, my dad would say. Tomorrow morning—and I scream from my kitchen table—we will bike by the river, which I know you don’t like, for you’d rather spend your day with your electronics; we’ll go anyway. I don’t want you to take the Mississippi river, its falls, and cottons for granted. Savann Dezole dried up a long time ago. “My tablet is dead, I cannot find my charger,” my daughter screams; between silences, keyboard chews, and times stretched: “I have lost my purpose. Can I use your computer?” But I am busy with the computer. Later in the afternoon, I will take a walk to clear my head about why I can’t go a day without my computer. There’s no mistake in living behind for a while the future I had some twenty years ago.

Early mornings on Saturdays, my dad drives my mom and all of us anbalavil to buy fresh fruits, vegetables, goat meats, and the beefs balls they will ask us not to eat. Beefs balls are not for girls and would make us want to have sex, we children believed our parents were thinking. We make the Saturday trip in a sort of gray-green Jeep my father will trade later for a Mitsubishi pick-up truck. We arrive anbalavil and park the car somewhere in the middle of Kwabosal. My mom gets off to undertake the adventure she alone is capable of, buying lots of fresh produce for very little money. We do not know how she does it as we stay in the car drinking sugarcane juice, or fresco with pâtés from Boulangerie Saint Marc that my father brings us from his shorter trips in the surroundings. In addition to these morning adventures, we children will get during the weekends churches and bible camps and more churches and bible camps instead of beef ball stews.

Tomorrow morning, the morning after, and the mornings after that other morning, God willing, I will wake up, help the kids get ready to go to school, or by the lake, or to the library. In our Saint Paul two-bedroom, I will stage before their eyes that life is sound and steady, the fiction they need for now. Frost will show up on the window screens. I will sit down at our kitchen table and add words to empty pages on my computer screen. Those pages, I know, will never pretend to carry the unsteadiness of us. Some days, it will feel like this is my last breath. I can’t say whether it’s a deliverance or a curse. My battery is dying. Annie and Max will learn to ruminate to save themselves from oblivion. I will force them to ruminate, for the same reason my dad brought all of us to a gathering at the Holiday Inn hotel in the Champ de Mars in Port-au-Prince on a Sunday morning. We were not to forget who we were, so before we knew what was happening, my mom, my dad, and all of us children—and there are six of us, a soccer team in all—stood in front of a sitting crowd and sang:

Rien n’est impossible à Dieu
Il est le même il ne change pas
Rien n’est impossible à Dieu
Ce qu’il a fait il le fera
Et si tu t’approches de lui
Tout changera autour de toi et dans ta vie
Car rien n’est impossible à Dieu (bis).

We found ourselves in Saint Michel this Sunday morning, back on our two feet as we carry our voices with fervor in the Holiday Inn hotel conference room singing God can do the Impossible. Our audience traveled happily with us for a few minutes with their hands clapping, their feet hitting the floor, and their shoulders waving left and right, and left and right. For my father, a dream takes short breaks but does not die. We live by faith; things will get better; and our misery is not all that we carry in our suitcases. Then one weekend, we received the news our grandfather passed.

Pèjo lived in Nan Kalvè, Saint Michel. I hold the distant and blurred vision of strolling around his house to find him on his rocking chair. I come up to him, roll and fold and press my fingers over his shaved head to get a kap, a crack. I do not have a photograph of him. I carry the lines of his face on the tips of my fingers. My father, on the other hand, wears Pèjo on himself, his cells, his name. Now that my own father is 80 years old, he is the face of his own father, and the face of my father is the only photograph I have of Pèjo. The death of my grandfather began another kind of departure. I have forgotten how to interlace my fingers together, fold them, and add to my thumb the pressure that lands a kap, a crack on the scalp of one’s head. My dad sold one by one the family’s properties, and my mom got into a nursing school. The dead always make a point of keeping things in order.

2010, Quakes, and Assemblages
I like to think that January 12, 2010, started out in Port-au-Prince like a fine busy Tuesday with the sun standing tall, arms and legs opened and the wind sifting through. Many begin their day with a café-au-lait. At the entrance of their houses, they chat with their neighbors about noises heard the night before or brother Raoul dating one of the neighborhood girls. Did some of them wake up in the morning feeling that this day wouldn’t turn out like any other? I imagine many going to work or to school, and so many tap-taps carrying them to their destination read “L’homme propose, Dieu dispose.”

The season of crowded bones
shuffling around concrete and cars and rubble
epochs turning yellow
jaw bones
tibias and blue lips
there were a half million of
pigs to crack the plates but
would not expose the maroons

26 seconds
to tear down the walls
layers of buildings to topple each other
giant oak trees to lie on their best
side corpse-like
not pitied and lifeless
the way of
half a million slaughtered some decades ago
300,000 only they count

what is there to see?
up there a bottle of Balvenie floating in a sea of Miami Rice
poulets-aux-hormones agogo
the stamp of red lips on a bone of Marlboro
stark naked and
standing with diri Latibonit laughing their way out
of a bony sea

outbreak à l’infini

There are the people and they are thrown; there are the cities of the people that are thrown; there is the ground holding the cities and the people thrown; more than half of million slaughtered; three naval ships; countless overthrows;16:53: Tuesday, January12, 2010 is global time; there is the underground quaking beneath the feet of the people thrown; bottles and cans and pans and ankles chewed and thrown. Frantz Duval throws in Le Nouvelliste Les Secondes Qui Ont Tout Changé and Eyjafjallajökull closes the airspace, its travelers are trapped and thrown; an explosion of a BP oil drilling rig off the coast of Louisiana; female suicide bombers detonate bombs in two Moscow subways stations; there is Katrina; there is Flint, and the invention of water; Carrefour is shaken under the cries of Hurray, yo bay li, and South Korea is thrown in as the first non-G8 nation to host a G-20 summit; We Are the World 25 for Haiti is released and an 8.8-magnitude earthquake shocks Chile; President René Préval gives three years to clear up the rubble and 190 South Korean Peacekeepers throw themselves in Léogâne with Cuba announcing a fifth field hospital; the Minnesota Women’s Press releases What Women Want, my daughter bursts out she wants to be a gymnast when she grows up. The price of gasoline in Saint Paul tops $3 a gallon; Clinton orders six warships to waters off Haiti to enforce the U.N. trade embargo; electricity is finally restored.

My suitcase is a shuffling land, the soil that returns on itself, opens itself up.

Right after the earthquake I told Max and Annie we’re not going back to Haiti. My daughter was three years of age, my son not yet one year old. It would comfort me to know that, like my father, I could start teaching them vous n’êtes pas n’importe qui. But who am I? I do not know. Back in the 1990s it was said that our problem was the language, of being the right skin color, of leaving the native land, and before that the problem was two men named Duvalier, and before all that no one knew where the story begins. The dream was to return to Africa. My dream was to make it to the Congo. 2010 became the passage, and it’s a lifelong passage for which I selected a small red suitcase with a zipper in the middle to put the three of us in. This is home. It sits in the upper left side of my closet, which I visit once in a while. Each year the zipper stretches itself out with expired passports, classroom pictures piling up, defunct travel permits, expired insurance cards, TPS papers, newspaper sheets yellowing, and others debris like smells of closed dark rooms, pieces of us breaking into pieces we cannot quite assemble back, steams of us disintegrating, ashes of us disappearing. Here it is, our life zipped up. If we have to leave our apartment due to an emergency, all to do is lift myself up, pick up the red suitcase from the upper left side of the closet, and begin again. Though it would be better not to carry any suitcase other than my body which is mostly anyway, vents, memories, and naked bones.

Three times a week, my daughter and I ride Bus-16 down University Avenue on our way to Headstart where she goes to preschool. She and I wait impatiently to get off the bus. As soon as we get off, we hop and skip and tootle and sing Je suis un artiste et je viens d’Haiti. In the distance between the bus stop and her day care center she is also learning not to forget C’est la mère Michelle qui a perdu son chat or Panama m tonbe. On my way back from dropping her off, I walk toward the bus stop with my body somewhere left behind a very long time ago. I sit in the bus alone and think of this poem to write one day about my mom telling her friends the family story of fleeing Saint Michel. In the Bus-16 some twenty years later, it’s a lot like being thrown into the edges of another world, into the slit of times made one.  

On the computer screen, hundreds of immigrants and refugees are detained at the JFK Airport. Behind the fences, their families await. An overthrow of some sort. Chants, protests, and signs shriek and shout: “Stop Muslim Ban,” “We The People,” “No ban no wall,” “Hands off of my family.” But they always had their hands on your family, didn’t you know this?

Annie and Max are doing their homework. The day before, they learnt at school This land is your land, and they sang it over and over before me camping in the kitchen as if to ask, do you know this song? They do not yet know their history. But which one to pass on? So much happens in the roaming. We get our fruits and veggies at the Keystone Food shelf; speak French and Creole at home; wait at the bus stop each morning for the yellow bus that will bring them to school to gather some good jokes on trump and Hillary. On our way back from music lessons on Thursday evenings we will feel like eating a Big Mac. This is all the history upon which they chew, and every now and then my daughter throws in, Max was born in New York as if this is it. They have not yet heard about Savann Dezole. They do not know about the Haitian Pig slaughter, nor the uprooting of the Artibonite rice in favor of the Miami rice. The sweat, the smells, the traces, and the effigies made in New York I carried on my back in Rue Tiremasse’s corners as if I was the backyard, the shithole. I know that song.

we were thrown to Port-au-Prince
is how Mother tells our story fleeing Saint-Michel
thrown like a stone
uprooted from the land

twenty years later I carry a moun-nan-nò
accent… not on purpose
(well not entirely)
I belong to places that never met
(or so they think)

A computer is one more suitcase I carry to stitch with the tips of my fingers, stones and bridges, rivers and seas, and hammocks. In Saint Paul, I reunite with Saint Michel not for its Scott Fitzgerald Theater, its Minnesota state fair, or a load of yellow mangoes fransik marked ‘from Haiti’ exposed in the Mississippi Market on Selby Ave. It’s the fresh deep green grass under my feet; the hummingbirds chirping and the dry maple leaves rustling against each other in Pat and Steve’s backyard on hot summer days; it’s drinking Cremas at my friend Zenzele’s with our bare feet taking in the murmurs of the ground. It is above all noticing my daughter’s notebook full of Megan Trainor’s new hits that will unearth my love affairs with Michel Sardou and Mireille Matthieu and unleash from my gut Les Lacs du Connemara and La Paloma as if it was yesterday. I didn’t know then Sardou’s Si les Ricains n’étaient pas là. I know it now and I sing very loud in my Saint Paul two-bedroom if the American wasn’t there, many would still be in Germany and I would still be in Saint-Michel or Port-au-Prince à saluer je ne sais qui. The Ricains have always been the ghost we carry on our back; the ghost we chase away like demons; whose spirits we evoke any time we feel like it; the common denominator that we move around with the tips of our fingers. How to explain that this land is your land is a dizzy feeling of inhabiting the other and the self altogether. Eventually, a suitcase will not just sit there, in the upper right side of a closet room. And a small red suitcase of any sort is that special after all and will stitch lands and bony rivers altogether.

The call
I lift the computer off the table, arrange it in its pocket. I am about to call my Dad. I will not set up the terms of the conversation, nor ask him first thing what he ate, where he’s been, how’s mother. I will talk about home the way I have never done before, how I miss him, and the impossibility to bring the kids for a visit. We are only the memories of us, have no money, no papers, no time, no will, and no getting ourselves in order. I am ready for him to share how he misses me. We will sit with our powerlessness, with our rage and bitterness, and the discontent he and Mother carry in the pit of their stomach that I now carry in the streets of Saint Paul.

Tell me about your exile, Father. How come you did not tell us about the hat you keep in a corner of your bedroom? This hat that covered your eyes and your shoulders when you flew Saint Michel? How do I know? My friend Jude told me. I was shocked he knew about the hat, and I didn’t; I was shocked the hat has survived. What else do you have in your suitcase? A pair of old socks? A nail clipper? The names of your horses? Overthrown rivers and memory slits? It’s not just the hat that lives in your closet. Tell me about the madness and the fear that took you by hand and pushed you through Port-au-Prince; the way your nails and fingers were fisted and curled into your palm and into each other very hard while you witnessed those searching to kill you stopping the running bus and asking if you were in there. You were in there, behind your hat and sunglasses, they did not know this. Tell me about the paralysis that fueled your veins all the while your heart was pounding whether or not you were going to make it. Did you ever make it? I am hungry for you to tell me how it feels to dwell in a hunger you know will never be assuaged. What happened to my mom’s little pink-salmon dress?

Those things we never talk about like leaving home all of a sudden; the starting over; the regrets; the hidden dreams and forgotten lives. I today live my life before the kids as if this is all life is about and wishing this wasn’t it all. On alien soil I ruminate over my own suitcases and hidden hat. See? I have learnt to flee my own selves and the languages of my dreams. But today, I carry a suitcase as wide as the Mississippi River, as mad as Savann Dezole.

I cannot wait for our next visit. Summer 2020, God willing. I will pack my suitcase the way one begins learning to write. I envision that the clothing, the toothbrushes, the artifacts, and everything else into their slots. Before I start packing I know that the handkerchiefs will go in the upper pocket; several t-shirts will be placed on top of each other; I will fold one-third of the t-shirts’ body on the right side towards the center, then fold the sleeves in the opposite direction; and to finish, I will roll the t-shirts together into a ball that will go in one side of the suitcase. The other side is for pants and skirts. In between the different compartments I place shoes and sandals. A bottle of body lotion and a few bar soaps will hold everything else together like braces prevent teeth from being stranded. By the way, Annie is asking for braces; she thinks it’s cool. There’s no room for snacks nor cracks, everything seems to hold everything else together. But keeping my baggage in symmetry is a vain exercise. In the end, shirts, pants, toothbrushes, and interstices latch to each other and reinvent their space.

How is Mother? I entered 2017 with Nana Mouskouri’s “Quand tu chantes je chante avec toi liberté”, her graduation song. She was carried by the melody, remember? She is wrapped in her floating gown, green or reddish, I do not remember. But the melody flows out of my computer all the time now and I can see her feet sitting gently in a pair of white nursing shoes; she has her lips pursed, she is whistling Song for Liberty and maybe, too, our being thrown into Port-au-Prince. How did I get here, she must have thought; was it what she was singing as she was taking her diploma from her nursing school faculty?

So, your mom is a schoolteacher and also a nurse, my son asks as he passes by.

It is with the hope of voyaging at the margin of another world that I retire myself in my worlds, each morning. When I observe a grain of sand among its peers, I have difficulties in singling out a grain among the pile. After all a pile of sand stands out for its togetherness. Each grain is the face of the sand and one grain is also the other. Granules mingle, travel, and rub against each other. At my kitchen table, I ruminate and chew on the edges of merging worlds, because I have the childish wish to journey like a grain of sand, and throw away like a stone, the idea that there is a certain way I should exist in the universe.

Some thirty years ago in Rue Guerrier Street, those feet floating in a white pair of nursing shoes made the way for our escape through Pastè Lubin’s property while our house was being consumed by fire. We made it in the middle of the night through fallen leaves and fresh cut grass as we dragged behind us small bags of tablecloths, linen, and bed sheets. My mom is a runaway too. Throughout the years I have seen the lines of the past within the creases of a few tablecloths and window curtains more than 30 years old. They have survived the fault lines of time with patience and stubbornness. As for the salmon-pink dress, I am content to imagine it lying in my memories, unchanged.

I say goodbye to my father, as my daughter approaches, you may have the computer now.

My debts are many. To name a few: I am grateful to Erica Berry, Hale Konitshek, Sawyer Smith, and Kim Todd who have each, in different ways, made You May Have the Suitcase Now much stronger.

The piece appearing here, "You May Have the Suitcase Now" won the 2019 Center for Documentary Studies Documentary Essay Prize.


91st M 2021 Vol 11 no 1



· Zhang Zhihao: four Wuhan poems; translated from the Chinese by Yuemin He
· Choi Jeongrye: five poems; translated from the Korean by Brother Anthony and Chung Eun-Gwi


· Homeira Qaderi, from Noqra, the Daughter of Kabul River; translated from the Dari by Ali Araghi
· Iana Boukova, from Taveling in the Direction of the Shadow, translated from the Bulgarian by Ekaterina Petrova
· Pilar Quintana, "Easy Money," an excerpt; translated from the Spanish by Joel Streicker
· Beaudelaine Pierre, "You May Have the Suitcase Now," a memoir-essay.