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.
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.
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.
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 went to pick up my sister at the hotel where my mom worked, to take her to school. 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 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.
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 produce an Art Zine: We Here.
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.