by Anaïs Duplan
I don’t know if I’m allowed to claim to remember things from the womb. I suppose it’s a matter of whether I can claim to remember things I couldn’t possibly remember. I will plow forward nonetheless: My pregnant mother had heard about the riots near the city square. She and her friends gathered in their small Port-au-Prince apartment. They were all medical students. My mother didn’t believe it could be happening. There is something about a coup d’etat that always seems implausible, like the laws of physics couldn’t possibly allow for it. Even when they have happened before, when they are happening right before you, even when they will continue to happen, etc., etc. Our lives are built on small usurpations, etc.
They decided to go and see. They found a mass of people outside the capitol building, yelling and throwing their limbs into enraged postures. The excitement of the crowd, the inevitable excitement of violence, washed over my mother and her friends. It was not without fear. My mother turned around – why, why did she turn around – and spotted a car at the top of the street moving toward the crowd with its lights off. And what words did she say to her friends. What does one say? Someone must have yelled something – was it my mother – the way you’d expect someone to yell, “Fire!” in a burning building. The riot scattered as the unlit car sprayed bullets into the crowd.
She clambered her way over a fence and fell over to the other side. She feared the impact had killed me. She kept running, making her way home by leaping from strategic shadow to strategic shadow. All the while, she listened for inaudible dangers and kept her eyes open for unlit disaster. I flinch every time a car drives by me. Just a small flinch. I am even wary of the Hyundai Sonata, with its headlights on, piloted by the woman clearly more interested in her cellphone than in unloading her pistol in my direction.
Coming into Panama, the man at la douane – I have never called it anything but that – did not believe that I was the same person as the baby pictured on my Permanent Resident Alien Card. “It was a long time ago,” I told him, trying to keep my rage where he couldn’t see it. He’d taken the card from me, looked it over, and then rumpled his face into some terrible expression, as though he’d just swallowed something bitter. “This isn’t you,” he’d pronounced. Someone whose job it is to photograph future Resident Aliens had taken that photo of me when I was three years old. It had been ten years since the photographing. I laughed. I’d meant it as a peace offering. Even as a thirteen-year-old unaccompanied minor in a foreign airport, I knew that immigration officers like the occasional smile, the pleasantries. The yes, I’m here to visit my grandmother, she is not doing very well. The oh we’re just here to see the sights, I’ve heard this country is so beautiful. It is not unlike when a prisoner compliments a guard on his new haircut. (Of course, it is most likely nothing like that.)
He let me through, after cycling through a few variations of the rumpled face. “You need a new photo.” His parting words.
I love this country. I mean, I really do love America. People aren’t really allowed to say that sincerely these days, but what do I care, it’s not my patriotism that counts.
In the past year, a inexplicable yearning to become a citizen has swept over me. These are my streets, this is my supermarket, I belong here right here in this traffic jam, this traffic jam on an American freeway headed into an American city. These doughnuts are mine, these clothes. In my own country, I am unrecognizable. It is stupid to wear lipstick and cardigans and skinny jeans in a country where cholera and chikungunya are rampaging and taking lives every day. But I am irreparable. Whatever that three-year-old in the photo knew about being Haitian, I’ve since forgotten. I have been permanently marked with the stamp of this country.
I want to sing that Lee Greenwood song with only a smidgen of irony. And I’d gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today. But it’s not about wanting. Do you want it? If so, how bad? is not a question on the naturalization form. You have to get approval from the office of so-and-so, who then sends your inquiry to so-and-so, who then demands that you produce the document that so-and-so said you did not need, and then you discover that although you’ve already paid 600 dollars and studied for the test, you need another 600 dollars and you don’t have to take the test, they won’t even let you take the test, even if you want to. John G. Roberts Jr. is the current Chief Justice of the United States.
“So, where are you from?”
“Uh, Eastern Mass, mostly. That’s where my mom lives.”
“Oh, really? Wow.”
“Yeah, she works up near Salem at this community health –”
“But where are you originally from?”
“Oh. Well, I believe my ancient ancestors originated in a tribe in Senegal. They were great folks. How ‘bout you?”
Anaïs Duplan's writing has appeared in Transom Journal and The Silo. She is also currently a 2014-2014 member of the HEIMA artist collective in Seydisjordur, Iceland, where she hopes to complete a series of woven spacesuits in the Afrofuturist tradition and to write a series of accompanying poems. She received her B.A. from Bennington College.