Through spoken words and song, noted Haitian-American professor, anthropologist, poet, feminist, performance artist, and activist Gina Athena Ulysse, Ph.D., delivered a poignant keynote address at the 14th Annual Caribbean Writer’s Series in The Little Theatre at St. John’s University on Thursday, February 7.
“My work is about bringing attention to a history that is difficult to look at, precisely because it is difficult,” said Dr. Ulysse in her address, which included passages that were shared in Haitian Creole. “Yet, I believe part of the work we need to do is to learn how to sit with the uncomfortable.”
Born in Pétion-Ville, Haiti, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, Dr. Ulysse emigrated to the United States when she was 11 years old. She has authored numerous essays, articles, and books focusing on myriad issues in her beloved homeland, but also draws from and contributes to a long tradition of writing and activism in the Caribbean region and the broader black diaspora.
“There are things in my books and other projects that I wrote when I was 18 years old,” she said, explaining that the Caribbean nation continues to suffer from issues of social injustice and poverty. “I am reading my old words and seeing a timelessness and a timeliness…and I am wishing that the work did not still have relevance today.”
Throughout her 90-minute address and Q&A session, Dr. Ulysse drew from her various works, which include Why Haiti Needs New Narratives: A Post-Quake Chronicle (Wesleyan University Press, 2015), and Because When God Is Too Busy: Haiti, me & THE WORLD (Wesleyan University Press, 2017).
“The Caribbean Writers Series fulfills the mission of St. John’s at so many different levels,” remarked Simon G. Møller, Ph.D., Interim Provost, Vice President for Academic Affairs, and Professor, Biological Sciences.
As a global university, by bringing to campus Caribbean writers, we as a community become enriched, through stories reflecting their places of origin and their knowledge and creative lives that have come from the broad Caribbean region.
“I am Haitian and black, and that is part of my work,” Dr. Ulysse said, “but a big part of what I am interested in doing in my work is to connect to the broader black diaspora. Haiti is my point of departure, but it is not my point of arrival.”
A professor of anthropology at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, Dr. Ulysse considers her writing a therapeutic process. “Part of my work is to deal with the uncomfortable,” she explained. “I write to calm myself down. It is a space for me to escape, to meditate on, to find myself.”
That notion resonated with Tsjaniqua Jeffrey, a freshman Psychology major from the Caribbean island nation of St. Maarten. “She really had to find herself through her work,” she said. “Her parents weren’t fully prepared to raise an American child, and she struggled to find a balance between the two cultures.”
Raj Chetty, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Caribbean Writers Series, noted that Dr. Ulysse’s works present a unique perspective of the island nation of more than 11 million. “Dr. Ulysse disrupts the ideas about Haiti that circulate in academia, popular media, and popular culture,” he said. “Instead, through performance, art, and personal witness, she offers a Haiti that matters historically and continues to matter today for ideas of freedom, revolution, and cultural creation.”
Freshman English major Sammy Casamassino from Lake Grove, NY, took inspiration from Dr. Ulysse’s lecture. “She revealed some of her scars in her work, and she bared her soul,” she said. “She emphasized that people shouldn’t be limited by their conditions or where they live.”