Valérie Déus: Missing New York, Building an Artist’s Life in South Minneapolis

 

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How did I get to Minneapolis? My husband.

I was born in the County of Kings, Brooklyn, Flatbush, New York City.
My world was big but felt small. Everyone I had contact with was Haitian. Until third grade I thought all Black people were from Haiti.

Young Haitians I meet now tell me  “you sound like my grandma.” I don’t know the young slang because my neighborhood was made up of people who left Haiti in the 1970s — a middle class diaspora. There was one older woman of Irish descent who lived in my building. She had polio braces. She told me, “there used to be lots of us here, now there’s just me.”  I used to run up and ask her questions.

I started writing when I was 5 years old. I still have my kindergarten diary. So much of it is funeral plans. I was obsessed with preparing for my own funeral — the sweater I would need — the scarf. I also made a list of things I would need in the event of a hurricane. None of the Noreasters that hit New York when I was little were bad, but I knew about hurricanes in Haiti. I packed a bag with a flashlight, underwear, shirts. My mom found it and asked, Where are you going?

I first visited Haiti when I was three. My mom tells me at the airport the ticket person called my name, testing to see if I was who she said I was, making sure I wasn’t being kidnapped.

When I was six I went again. It was intense. Hot. Big, scary looking trees with shadows that looked like creatures that might eat me.  There was a hurricane when I was there — water everywhere, houses shaking.  There were these giant holes in the streets where all the sewage and water would run. Even at six I wondered, why don’t they fix this? Won’t people fall in? We went to a movie on that trip. I was upset they didn’t sell popcorn. People chewed gum. I don’t remember the movie much. Something with French aristocrats — lots of velvet.

At that young age I was already going to movies with my uncle. One of the earliest I remember is King Kong with Jessica Lange.

My parents let me watch TV sometimes so I could, “learn about my country,”  something they couldn’t teach me, but they worried about me watching too much.  They wanted me to read books.  When I was left alone in the summer they would disconnect the TV wires. I would spend the day trying to figure out how to rewire them. My mother would check the TV to see if it was hot.

I watched everything: Abbot and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, The Honeymooners, fantasy, horror and countless Woody Allen movies —Anne Hall, Sleeper, movies without Black people.  They were always on TV for some reason.IMG_2965 2

Reading Highlights Magazine, the Goofus and Gallent comic was a favorite. 

I had to wait a long time before I had a friend. My sister is 10 years younger. Once she came along it was awesome. Together we were unstoppable.  She didn’t tattle. She knew how to keep a secret. (My mother said the same about her siblings. Sisters and brothers kept each other company.) I brought her with me to all of my high school events and beach parties. She kept me out of trouble. I could always say I had to bring my little sister home. A good excuse.IMG_2968 2

 

School 

From kindergarten to 3rd grade I went to Holy Innocents,a Catholic school in the neighborhood.  The church was across the street from the school. One of priests had a pet snake. We would go visit the snake. He passed a long time ago. He was awesome. It was a good school. I used to want to get married in that church. But then when I got married I decided not to do church at all.

From 3rd to 7th grade I went to a French school in Manhattan with UN kids. There was a big class difference there. I met students from Haiti and the African continent. I am still friends with many of them.

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My family moved to Queens and I went to high school on Long Island. That was terrible. I just waited for college so I could get back to the city. Watching the Scaramucci scandal play out this summer triggered me, bringing up memories of horrible sexual harassment and bullying in high school. I had buried those memories.  I forgot, but my body remembered. I told my husband about it. Now he knows why I flinch when when he comes up to me without announcing himself — a defense mechanism from high school.

I was desperate to get back to the City. I went to PACE University in downtown Manhattan. It was everything I was waiting for.  I was smart enough to make friends with the international students. Now I have people to stay with all over the world. My mom was really against me moving into the dorms, but I needed that. I was worried I would not be able to live alone.

My mother worked for this child psychologist so I thought that’s what I’d do. I registered for a psych class where we were required to watch the film Altered States, about a guy losing it after time in an isolation tank.  It was disturbing. And reading Carl Jung was so boring. I quit psychology.  Today I often take the role of counselor for my students and friends. Without Jung.

Becoming a Writer and Teacher

I liked hearing and telling stories. I became an English major.

While in college I interned at Soho Press and met Edwidge Danticat.  Her first book Breath, Eyes, Memory, had just come out. She called the office one day and I answered. We’ve kept in touch ever since. She recommended I go to Long Island University, the Brooklyn campus, for graduate school. I took her advice as gospel, never thought to apply any where else.

I loved being in school. I didn’t want to be a teacher. My only teaching experience at that time was CCD communion class — sixth graders on a Saturday morning, there because their parents made them, a curriculum I couldn’t change, no room for questioning the content. It was terrible.

Teaching as a graduate student was totally different. Everyone was grown and wanted to be there.  They did the reading and they wrote papers I wanted to read. I discovered I enjoyed teaching.  Student were reactive. There work was clear.

Teaching in Minneapolis is different. There is something self-effacing about the culture. Students feel like what they have to say is not important. Once they are pushed to talk it’s great. In New York they needed no pushing. I would tell people to write a paper about why they missed class. Even those papers were interesting.

I’d rather not teach on-line. It feels make believe. You’ve gotta be in the room and feel that heat when you say something wrong — sit in that embarrassment. Those moments push you into places you didn’t even think of going.

Escaping New York after 9/11. 

I have trauma from 9/11. I was dating someone who died that day — not at the Twin Towers.

All the phone lines were down.

That morning I picked up my sister at school and we went to the hotel where my mom worked. Micheal Jackson’s limo was in front of the hotel. His fans were gathered twenty feet in front me. I didn’t see him, but I saw his hands.  I looked down the street and saw dust rising. It was the most surreal American moment.

That night my boyfriend’s father told me his son — who had sickle cell anemia — had died.

I had just started grad school. I didn’t go to class for two weeks. Everyone was miserable — out in the streets — people crying.  I was working in D.U.M.B.O. The World Trade Center was right out the window — a smoky pit.

I thought — I can’t live in this cemetery.  I decided to take a trip to Poland to see a friend. The day I bought the plane ticket, flight 587 to the Dominican Republic crashed.

It was good to be in Poland, where I didn’t understand anybody. Just what I needed. I thought I might move there. I did research about the Poles who came with Napoleon  to fight against the Haitian Revolution in 1802, got to the island, decided they liked it and stayed. I was looking for a Polish/Haitian connection to justify my moving plans.

I had a neo-Nazi experience in Poland. I saw these skin heads moving in formation, went into a store and asked the saleswoman if she thought I should stay there. She said yes. I believed her and stayed over an hour, bought some amber jewelry,  until they left.

It made me realize anything could happen anywhere.

I met my husband-to-be in New York. He couldn’t get a job he wanted so he came back to Minneapolis, where he grew up. I thought, well I guess I like him enough to follow. I figured if I don’t like it I can always come back — that is what my parents always told me. I landed in Minneapolis on July 5, 2005 and went immediately to Dunn Brothers to look for a job. I always thought of living here as temporary.

A lot of my moving to Minneapolis was about escaping 9/11.  I needed to get out of that space. New York City sometimes feels like a small town. Sometimes that is stifling. I thought I could come here and start over where no one knows me. Nobody still knows me. Even my husband doesn’t know me, ha.

 

Minnesota Nice 

Nice can be nice.
I’m not against nice.
Maybe I am.

I want people to tell me what is happening. At work there is always someone trying to make everyone feel OK. A lot of time is taken up, but nothing is produced. I think, Its not OK. Let’s deal with what is.

I never had a problem meeting people before I moved here. In New York I was always meeting new people. People are much more open to that newness. Here people like the old reliable. If I stuck with old-reliable in New York I’d never talk to anybody. As an adult I was one of the few native New Yorkers I knew!

I don’t know how to approach people here. I don’t understand the body language. I never thought it would wear me down. I spend a lot of time at home. I feel like I have only a limited amount of patience and I want to spend it on things that are clear.

I never get to have a full map of a person here, because nobody tells you anything about themselves.

Sometimes I think about moving home to New York. It was busy and awesome. Then I realize I’m thinking about how New York was, when I was in my 20s. It’s frustrating when I go back. I’m 43 now.

An Artist’s Life in Minneapolis 

There are many things that keep me here, opportunities I would not have in New York. In NYC I had no time for anything except teaching and commuting.

I have a radio show, Project 35, on KRSM  98.9 FM.  It airs at 9am on Thursday and 10am on Saturdays. Part of the Southside media project.  I like that nobody listens to it. I’m weird, I know. I can say anything. I think of it as an eclectic magazine for your ears.

I curate Cinema Lounge — screening short films at Bryant Lake Bowl that are locally made, third Wednesdays of the month. (Send me your short films!)

I produce an Art Zine: We Here.

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Valérie’s first issue of We Here — just out — is filled with exquisite work by South Minneapolis artists. The free Zine is a hard love gift to the city. Look for it in your closest Little Free Library 

My goal is to publish one a year— essays, poems, rants, Instagram posts, photography, things people write on Facebook that should be in books. Somebody did a project where they mapped them all out the Little Free Libraries. I’m using that map to distribute them.

Radio, print, film, my own work. I have chosen an artist’s life. Minneapolis allows me to do it.

We live in the Central neighborhood in South Minneapolis.  Its been good. My mother came here and she liked it. She knew I was OK.

I have a tendency to want to flee things, but I will probably stay here. Starting over at this point would be too hard. I can’t imagine doing it again. I wish more of my people were here. I wish we had soft-serve ice cream trucks here. I can’t believe how sad it makes me. Those unsanitary New York ice cream trucks are something I miss.

 

Minneapolis Project. 

More Than A Single Story

 

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More Than a Single Story: Women Writers of the African Diaspora,  was a three session series at the Loft Literary Center, curated by Carolyn Holbrook in the fall of 2015.  Holbrook took the title  from  the Ted Talk by novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Single stories are the stuff of stereotypes that dis-empower.

The first session featured Tish Jones, Shannon Gibney, Andrea Jenkins, Lori Young Williams, Pamela Fletcher, and Mary Moore Easter. The second The October 4 session featured three Caribbean writers :Valérie Déus, Beaudelaine Pierre, and Junauda Petrus.

Holbrook asked what they feared writing about. For Shannon Gibney it was the experiences of others. Andrea Jenkins felt comfortable in that space but feared writing about herself. All struggled with writing about those close to them.

“Should there be a cannon for Black women writers?  They disagreed, but all felt It’s important to know you are not the first, when you sit down to write.

Moore Easter and Gibney encouraged writers not to worry about what genre you are filling. Jenkins encouraged people to self-publish and not let the industry get between you and your audience.

 

Déus,  grew up  in a Haitian community in Brooklyn, New York. She fears writing about trauma. She has a ritual of retelling to mark anniversaries, but is waiting for the time when she ready to say something more about them.

She told of countless retellings of the Haitian revolution growing up — the island that overthrew slavery and colonialism all at once — a story that made her unafraid to imagine radical change.

Petrus, who grew up in South Minneapolis of Caribbean immigrant parents, compared inter-island migration that splits families and leaves children without their parents, to African-American great Migration North.

Petrus hears Black Cannon everywhere: in her mother’s voice, in Chicago’s south side, in hip hop. She told of a year her mom took them to live in Florida, of falling in love with the ocean.

Both she and Déus, talked of the difference between Minnesota lakes and rivers and the power and smell of the big salt sea.

Pierre came from Haiti to the Twin Cities in 2009. Her father told her to be a writer because she could speak French well. Now she writes in Creole, a language that most can’t read, but one that best describes her reality.  Coming from a place where everyone is Black and therefore no-one is black-identified she struggles with American racism, especially as a mother of Black children in Minnesota.

Not a single story, but many essential stories.

Photo by Brian Peterson, StarTribune.

Carolyn Holbrook, Limelight Sharer.

 

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I just came back from the second of the three readings  by women writers of the African diaspora, a series  conceived, curated and moderated by writer and educator Carolyn Holbrook.

The series is entitled “More Than a Single Story,”  to highlight the diversity of Black women’s stories. She was inspired by the Ted Talk by novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who notes that single stories are the stuff of stereotypes that disempower.

The first session on September 27, featured Minnesota African American women across the age spectrum: Tish Jones, Shannon Gibney, Andrea Jenkins, Lori Young Williams, Pamela Fletcher, and Mary Moore Easter.

Today’s session featured three Caribbean/Minnesota  writers: Valerie Deus, Beaudelaine Pierre and Junauda Petrus.

Holbrook used her own 2015 Minnesota State Arts Board Artists initiative grant to bring together 14 other women writers and shine a light on them. At today’s session I bought her book, Ordinary People, Extraordinary Journeys  a beautiful collection of stories of individuals who used a neighborhood grant to  build the commons in St Paul.  Like her More Than a Single Story series, Holbrook uses the book to shine a light and build power in as many  grassroots places as possible.

Holbrook is  a gifted writer.  She read an exquisite essay about being visited by an ancestor at a time when she was 50 and broke and had moved in with her parents. She is also deeply committed to feeding the tide, sharing the stage, advancing the work and telling the stories that extend the grants. In the ego-centered world of academia, writing and nonprofits that is rare and precious.

Carolyn Holbrook, Ph.D is an adjunct faculty at Hamline University and Minneapolis Community and Technical College. At the first presentation she talked about how the State Arts Board Grant gave her the opportunity to write everyday this summer. All I could think was: the Universities she works for  should be providing enough for her to do that every summer.