“Human sum”, the sum of literature and music

Interview with Haitian writer Mackenzie Urcel

The shadow of deathPublished in 2016, it marked the beginning of a trilogy of novels by Haitian author Mackenzie Urcel. An old Haitian woman told her life story and at the same time the story of Haiti in the background. This time, in the second volume, entitled total human, a young white bourgeois and French woman recounting her life’s journey. So what do these two women have in common? Both died. So the story takes place from the grave, and that’s the key element of this “trilogy of death.”

Whiletotal human On the list of finalists for the Goncourt Literary Season 2022 was Mackenzie Ursell on Mic Nova, here is the transcript:

Louise Moran: What prompted you to embrace the female voice?

Mackenzie Ursell: Actually, the voice is female in this threesome project. I think it came to me from my passion for astronomy: from all these interstellar clouds that contract energies to give birth to a star, a star that lights up and turns into a kind of black hole when it dies. We don’t know what happens in a black hole, just as we don’t know what happens in death. The idea at first was to tell the life of a star, a star that is existence, a life that grows and dies. I’ve always seen Haiti as a kind of star or astral corpse that somewhere in the world makes its own life. I wanted to trace this triangle from Haiti to the United States, through France, to tell this triangle of stars that forms the base, and base, of my imagination. Beyond that, I like to project myself onto the other. I know myself more or less, I know my worldview, I know more or less where I come from, where I am and where I am going. So I find my personal story, quite literally, not very interesting. Which means I need to project myself onto the other, to look at the world from another point of view, from another vision, from another world, and to look at the world through a woman’s voice, I find that emotionally gratifying.

Louise Morin: The voices and the characters allow you to question the unity of identity, as you expose yourself to the other. You also repeat yourself in the novel: one character goes by your name, Orcel, and the other your given name, Makenzy, two diametrically opposed characters, shadow and light. In the novel the narrator asks herself the question: “How far can we go in the margins, before it loses its contours and becomes a perilous wandering?” I would like to return this question to you in connection with this experience of difference that you experience through your characters.

Mackenzie Ursell: Yes, exactly, the novel and the narrator raise this question, which I also ask myself: how far can we go in the margins, in the gray areas of man, in the remote regions of language, how far can language be made and when language reaches its limits. Hence the view of dying, of starting as far as possible, of the unknown, of what we don’t know how to talk about, of what we don’t know, of going up into the river of life, and trying to do it. understand what death is. I could rephrase the question “what can death tell us about ourselves and life, about living conditions.”. There is a Haitian proverb that says, “The dead are in truth, and we are in lies.” From the moment the narrator crosses the three dimensions of time, that is, the past, the present, and what we might call the future, we have the impression that she understood everything, that all the things in her life became clear that she could ask herself and everything. It is a look that resonates, a word vibrates from the margins.

Louise Morin: The voices of your characters force themselves on you at the time of writing, are there author voices that force themselves on you as you work?

Mackenzie Ursell: I write with my childhood. All authors write with their childhoods, their experiences, their readings, their journeys, their fears, their aspirations… I think when you write, all the books and all the authors you’ve read are there as reinforcements. There, I think of Jack Stephen Alexis, Pritchard Wright, author black boy Who explained to me what hunger is. There is also Jean-Claude Charles who taught me to look at the world from my childhood. He is a gentleman who travels the world, lives between Chicago, New York, and Paris, and when asked where he writes from, he replies that he is a little street clerk in Port-au-Prince. He also invented a mobile word: rooting. Rooting, wandering and rooting, that is, traveling around the world and crossing cultures from a young age. All of those authors are still out there, like Amy Cesaire and García Márquez. I think I am the writer because thanks to these readings, thanks to these fantasies. It is true that it is an adventure with yourself first, with your approach and vision of literature, with the need to express yourself, ask questions, and invite others to look at the other world. But that’s because you’ve read, if you haven’t read, it’s not possible, it’s a journey you can’t take alone. To use this sentence: “A man alone is a man in bad company,” or vice versa, I no longer remember.

LOUISE MORAN: You were inspired by Virginia Woolf, with the idea of ​​”stream of consciousness”?

Mackenzie Ursell: Yes. the waves by Virginia Woolf W Ulysses By James Joyce, they’re both there. There is a Virginia Woolf quote in my book because from the very first sentence it was a wave, her words being a wave, a wind, a storm that travels distances. I like the idea that writing is a kind of wave or storm, a great wind that carries everything in its path. in Ulysses For James Joyce, for example, we have all kinds of writings, I thought a lot about James Joyce while writing this book because in total human We also have the plural of writing along with the plural of pronouns, and the plural of stories and characters. It is a collection of writing with poetry, theater, philosophical discussions and many things like that.

Louise Morin: You notice two songs in your book: “Think” by Aretha Franklin and “She Makes You Crazy” by Notia, are these songs you listen to yourself?

Mackenzie Ursell: Yeah, I live with Aretha Franklin and this sweet voice that drives me away. In my previous narration, I highlighted a phrase written by Nina Simone. I love Nina Simone’s eyes, Nina Simone’s eyes are very similar to my mother’s. Aretha Franklin is the person who accompanied me, and shook me. Nuttea too. I see myself singing these songs with my friends, really loud, really loud. In this woman’s story, you had to put a little bit of music, it was a way to bring me a little bit closer, to look at myself through this mirror that is this woman’s story and story. There is a style of music that I really like, it’s Afrobeth, because it brings together a lot of other styles and universes, so at one point my character Orcel dances to Afrobeth music, that’s all I have, I love that style.

Louise Morin: There is a very strong rhythm in your text and in your writing, do you listen to music when you write?

Mackenzie Ursell: I think it had more to do with the inner music of the text, the music of that voice, the urgency of that logor, it was necessary to give a rhythm to it all. Since it is an urgent word, there is no place for the period nor the semicolon. When we talk, it explodes, we don’t necessarily cut our voice. When the wind blows, there are no punctuations and life does not punctuate, death does not punctuate, nothing punctuates because everything breathes. I wanted the book to be just like life, like the wind. The same thing happens to me when I’m listening to a track and album while writing. From time to time I hold Léo Ferré back because it was he who taught me to do something with my anger, not to turn that anger against others, but to use it, to do something beautiful. Sometimes I also listen to Jacques Brel, or a piece of Compass. I am very outgoing, the most important thing for me when I listen to music is that it touches me. But then I also need to find the inner music of the script which is the most important, and this is tiring and painstaking work, but also great.

LOUISE MORAN: I thought I understood you were going to resume this work for a final volume of this trilogy, which I believe will take place in the United States, can you touch on it in a few words?

Mackenzie Ursell: Yes, the final volume will be released in the US with African American audio. I will try to draw a line from ancient Egypt to today to trace the path and trajectory of the black man. The story of this teen, this little black girl who lives on the other side of the woods in Georgia, will permeate this study of the social history of America. Her family does not know that freedom is a fundamental right, and because they live on the property of a family of white slaves who do everything to keep the news, the winds of the outside world, from reaching their ears, they continue to live as slaves on this estate. Until the day this little girl discovers that everyone is free, she will cross the woods with her brother, and from there begin her journey to New York. There is always this link between the distant world and the big city, the modernity, the bubbles.

To accompany and complement this interview, we invite you to listen to the exchange on this novel with Bintou Simporé in the Coup de Coeur section of his show Néo Géo Nova.

© Francesco Gattoni

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