A few years ago I visited Washington, DC expressly to visit the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture.
At the time, there were still plenty of crowds, but I had waited until the initial rush had passed.
So, over a three-day period, I had plenty of time and space to take pictures and linger with the exhibits. The exception was the base floor where the visitor was introduced to the different areas of Africa from which enslaved people were taken, the sheer number of people who were enslaved, some of the early rebellions, and some of the major actors.
The docents, for the most part, seemed to still be pretty stoked about the work that they got to do, and each day I went I got a slightly different rendition of the tour. The whole experience was good, educational, inspiring, depressing, and overwhelming.
Overwhelming for the massive volume of historical and cultural materials that the museum holds.
I will say that, as a visual artist, I was disappointed that there wasn’t more visual art included in the permanent installations; quite a bit of music, though.
I few weeks ago I returned to Washington, DC with my son.
I was excited to share the experience of visiting the museum with him.
But it wasn’t in the proverbial cards.
The day we were to leave for DC we went to the website and learned that we needed a time stamped pass to get in.
I secured two passes for 3 pm.
Our plane landed at 2 pm.
We dropped off our luggage at our hotel and grabbed a Lyft to take us to the museum.
Unfortunately, the Lyft driver dropped us off at the (closed) Museum of Air and Space instead of SMAAHC, which was several Washington blocks away.
Though we spent the next five days in the city we were never again able to secure passes.
It was a bit of a bummer.
Why do I tell you all this?
So that I can tell you that shortly before my earlier solo visit to DC I learned about a Black husband-and-wife-owned bookstore called Mahogany. I had wanted to visit then, but it seemed quite far from where I was staying (I walked everywhere during that initial visit) and there were enough sites and activities in my immediate vicinity (The Loop) to occupy me.
So I didn’t make it.
Well, one thing I love about my kid is that he is incredibly independent. So when he announced one evening that the next day he would be visiting with some friends he knew in the city I decided to make the trek to Mahogany.
First, I must say that I am immensely grateful that the bookstore survived the pandemic. Many Black-owned businesses did not.
I had planned to walk to the bookstore.
My plans quickly changed when, after several blocks on a pretty deserted street, I decided to ditch the man trailing me by a few feet and who sped up when I sped up and slowed down when I did.
I grabbed a trusty Lyft and pretty quickly realized that I would’ve been walking for hours!
It took us at least 20 minutes of highway driving to get me to the bookstore.
Thanks Google Maps.
When I arrived I was really happy I’d made the trip. What I hadn’t realized from the photos is that Mahogany isn’t a storefront. It’s actually part of a collective of Black-owned businesses with the front being an art gallery featuring paintings and sculptures by local artists. Behind that, in a corridor with a health food market and a couple of clothing stores, is Mahogany.
As soon as I walked in I felt my spirit lift a bit higher than it had been in the gallery.
Mahogany‘s space is pretty small, but it is warm and inviting—and well-stocked.
I learned by eavesdropping on others’ conversations with the young woman who worked there, that the owners have recently opened up a larger space in National Harbor.
I already own most of the titles that piqued my interest, but not one to leave a bookstore—especially a Black-owned one—without books I scored two novels by Katia D. Ulysse, Drifting (2014) and Mouths Don’t Speak (2017).
For all of Amazon’s cheap prices, there is something to be said for talking with, receiving recommendations from, and smiling (even if from behind a mask) with someone who loves books as much as you do.
And while I love my kindle, especially for travel and late night reading on my balcony, there is still something to be said for the smell and feel of paper in one’s hand, the turning of pages with anticipation, the ability to underline with pen, and to dog-ear pages.
After visiting the other shops in the space (I bought a sea moss drink from the health food store (not as bad as I expected) and black soap as a gift for my son from one of the others) I made my way back to the tourist side of town.
Following the rest of the day of excursions, that evening I settled into my comfy hotel bed and dove into Drifting—and a good time was had by all (that is, me).
I wouldn’t say it was so much the interconnected stories that pulled me in, but rather the fluidity with which the vignettes were written.
In fact, I read the book pretty quickly because I loved the writing style—it almost didn’t matter that a couple of the names are so unfamiliarly similar that I couldn’t remember whose storyline I was following.
The upside of that is that I could just read without stressing about where I was picking up a storyline. The downside is I was never invested in any of the characters.
There also seems to be an issue (note I do not say problem) of timeline compression/distortion. It felt like I was jumping back and forth in time, but there didn’t seem to be any signposts to help me navigate the shifts.
It also seems like storylines are taken up, but then abandoned. For example, the first—let’s say—vignette is about a couple living in the US who miscarry and, to help heal, take a trip to Haiti to visit the wife’s sister. Shortly after they arrive the 2010 earthquake hits, burying the sister in the clinic where she takes care of orphans. We never see the husband and wife again.
A haunting without closure, mirroring the experience of many following the quake.
Drifting reminds of my own semi-permanently unfinished novel manuscript–unfinished mostly because I can’t settle on a period of time.
But maybe what seems like objects of criticism are actually why the book is called Drifting. The reader drifts along with the characters, kind of like all those hundreds of thousands of souls who, seeking a life, climb into unseaworthy vessels in hopes of reaching some promised land, but end up lost somewhere between.
Along those lines, here’re a few lines from an interview that Ulysse did with Edwidge Danticat:
Danticat: Indeed. I know titles are always tricky. Sometimes it takes me weeks after finishing a book to have a title arrive and claim it. Other times, the title comes and demands to have something written about it. How did you come to choose “Drifting” as your title? Many of your characters are kinds of drifters, but there seems to be a lot more to it than that.
Ulysse: The characters, the setting, conflicts: Every component of “Drifting” is constantly shifting. As it is with real life: We can make all the plans we want; however, when a storm comes and tosses our plans about like leaves in the storm, we drift. We drift and we wait. We make more plans, hoping that by the time the next storm comes, we would have drifted a little closer to our aspirations.