THE NEW YORKER
The Gospel of Trees, by Apricot Irving (Simon & Schuster). In this finely crafted memoir, Irving recalls growing up in Haiti during the nineteen-eighties as the daughter of Baptist missionaries. A series of tense, detailed vignettes capture the complexity of the time and place, and of the missionary’s role. Irving’s father, an agronomist, is convinced that reforestation is the key to lifting Haiti out of its poverty. But his “gospel” is no match for food shortages, aids, and the violence that follows the 1990 Presidential election. Irving moves seamlessly between the wide-eyed perspective of the child and the critical gaze of the adult, creating a tale as beautiful as it is discomfiting. The question that haunts her also haunts her book: “Should we have kept trying, even if we were doomed to fail?”
THE NEW YORK TIMES
The story we’d told in our missionary newsletters was consistent with the usual caricature of Haiti: desperately poor and in need of our help. That was not what I saw when I returned. In trying so hard to forget the pain and fear of those politically volatile adolescent years, I had also unwittingly forgotten the beauty and strength of Haiti.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
I’m a reluctant memoirist, and in one early draft I wrote, quite confidently: “This is not my story.” I felt so safe behind those words. I was far more interested in interviewing the missionary dynasty that ran the hospital compound, and in telling the story of the rise and decline of the missionaries. I was at best an ancillary character. Over time, at the insistence of wise editors, I began to understand that the story needed to be grounded in my own subjectivity. I had to include my utter delight in Haiti as a six-year-old girl, swept away by its beauty and energy. And I had to include my years as a resentful teenage missionary’s daughter. I had to lay bare my grief and fears and longings alongside the research and the interviews. To make it sing, I had to let my voice be heard.
"The father that I have been trying to love my entire life gave me a pair of hiking boots just before I left home at seventeen, along with my first overnight backpack, metal-frame and clunky; old-school wilderness style. It was the first gift I can remember him giving me. He isn’t fond of shopping. His second gift – the one I can never repay – was to give me his journals from the years when we were missionaries to Haiti."
The Art of Decomposition
Original essay for Powell's Books
The first draft of The Gospel of Trees was well over a 1,000 pages, three times longer than the book contract had specified. I knew that I had to let it go. My writing studio in the woods looks down on an empty shed with a moss-covered roof, so I climbed up a ladder and set the manuscript next to the licorice ferns. By the next morning, slugs had traced silver patterns across the damp pages. It has been shat on by birds, buried in snow, gouged by rain. Once, a seedling tree even took root in its crumbling pages — a rather splendid symbol — although it didn’t survive the summer.
The writer Elie Wiesel observed: “There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred that is a result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred are there, only you don’t see them.”
An excerpt from "The Gospel of Trees" wherein my 8-year-old self lays bare her not-so-admirable jealousy for the girl on the cover.
"My father adored Ti Marcel. I considered her a menace. I hated how gently he spoon-fed her gulping hunger, as if he would do anything to rescue her. ...Even now, I can remember the texture and shape of my jealousy, wadded up like a loose sock under the heel of my roller skates, grating against my anklebone every time I rounded a corner. Jealousy jarring and black-heat-abrasive, like the skid of sweaty knees and palms on jagged concrete when I hit gravel and my skates flew one way and my arms another — blood from broken palms and a skinned nose leaking into my sobbing mouth. At eight years old, I didn’t care what became of her. I wanted my father back."