The Past in Kirsten Imani Kasai’s “The House of Erzulie”

Note: You can win a copy of Kasai’s The House of Erzulie. Just tweet or retweet this post (make sure to tag me so I know you Tweeted it  @silaslapham). The winner will be chosen randomly at noon Saturday January 13.  

Recently, I had the chance to read Kirsten Imani Kasai‘s The House of Erzulie (Feburary 2018 Shade Mountain Press), a novel that, on the surface, reminds me of novels such as Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979), Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) and Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season (2013).  The House of Erzulie tells the intertwined stories of Creole slaveholders Emilie and Isidore Saint-Ange in 1850s’ New Orleans and Lydia and Lance Mueller in present day Philadelphia. Imbued with the Gothic, Kasai’s novel explores the ways that the characters, specifically Emilie and Isidore, confront their “ethnic identity” as mixed-race individuals, specifically in regard to the ownership of slaves such as Albert, Poupette, and Emilie’s relative Chlotilde. With this, the novel needs to be considered alongside novels and works such as Ernest Gaines’ Catherine Carmier, a novel that contains Gothic elements while appearing as if it doesn’t, Lyle Saxon’s Children of Strangers, Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, George Washington Cable’s The Grandissimes, Charles Chesnutt’s Paul Marchand, F.M.C., works by Alice Dunbar-Nelson,  and more.

Initially, what makes The House of Erzulie so compelling is that Kasai deploys a narrative technique similar to both Butler, Morrison, and Locke. In all of these texts, the past and the present collide and the psychological horrors and residue of slavery manifest themselves in the present. Like Dana and Kevin Franklin in Butler’s Kindred, Lydia and Lance Mueller are both academics. Lance was Lydia’s teacher, they got married, and have a son together. Taking a job to help create a history of Emilie and Isidore’s Belle Rive Plantation in Louisiana for Adelaide Randolph’s foundation as they try to restore the plantation and transform it into a bed and breakfast, Lydia comes in contact with Emilie and Isidore’s story through Emilie’s letters, Isidore’s diary, and personal artifacts belonging to them both, including Isidore’s blood-letting kit.

While Dana physically goes to the past to save Rufus Weylin, Lydia does not get transported to 1850s Louisiana in a physical manner; rather, Lydia moves into the past through psychological means, even appearing during a séance where Emilie and Isidore hope to contact their recently deceased child. Likewise, Isidore and Lydia come into contact with one another, even though they never talk with one another, through their dreams which typically occur in a Gothic structure that Isidore is afraid to navigate. Kasai speaks about having similar dreams during the composition of the book and that “[d]reams are their own marvels. Fantastical or mundane, they serve as portals into other lives, worlds, and points of time. It seems plausible, then, that we might somehow walk through those doors and discover ourselves merely a character in someone else’s dream” as Isidore and Lydia do.

Crumbling houses and plantations are characteristic of Gothic and Southern Gothic literature, and The House of Erzulie draws upon this trope to chronicle Isidore’s and even Lydia’s mental illness. As Owen, Adelaide Randolph’s assistant, tells Lydia, “[T]he move to America and plantation life, especially the traumatic events of witnessing Albert’s whipping and hanging, [his brother-in-law] Prosper’s death, and yellow fever deaths caused PTSD, culminating in a psychological break.” These events, and more, cause Isidore to dream of an enormous house whose dangerous walls bowed around [him], threatening collapse.” The stories that Lydia uncovers from Isidore and Emilie run counter to what Adelaide wants for Belle Rive.

Like Belle Vie in Locke’s The Cutting Season, Adelaide wants to turn the former plantation into a destination for weddings, for tourists, for company retreats, and for people to escape their lives and return to an idyllic past. With the artifacts that she sends to Lydia, Adelaide writes that it would benefit everyone to “bring to light only that which best supports modern lifestyles and preferences,” essentially eschewing any reference to slavery. Lydia comments that this is “Adelaide’s polite way of requesting that [she] present the plantation as a stately old home filled with honeyed light and perfumed air that exemplifies the very best of Southern living” as a “beautiful facade.” This moonlight and magnolia presentation denies Albert, Poupette, Chlotilde, and other enslaved individuals their humanity and very existence by erasing them from the narrative in the same manner that the owners of Belle Vie erase Jason from their official narrative.

Presenting that past as it was, not as one wants it to be, is only a part of The House of Erzulie. The novel explores the spiritualist movement on the nineteenth century, the abolitionist movement, the sexual predation enacted upon enslaved women, the practice of vodou, mental illness, and other topics. All of these threads come together in the intertwined stories from the 1850s and the present, showing the ways that the past continues to affect and shape our own cultural moment. We must consider the past, its lesions as well as its beauty, in order to live our own lives. Until we face the trauma of the atrocities of slavery and come face to face with it, rather than skirting the issue as Belle Rive, Belle Vie, and countless real-life foundations do we will not be able to heal the wounds caused by racism. We will constantly open the wound and watch it bleed.

All of this makes me think about the continued affect that systemic racism has on the psyche of individuals. I cannot imagine how it would feel to hear that an overseer raped Poupette causing her owner to blame the incident on Poupette because of “the destructive nature of the African libido.” I cannot imagine how it would feel to see a loved one like Eric Garner die on national television at the hands of police while saying “I can’t breathe.” That trauma takes a toll, both physically and mentally. Amer Hassan Loggins, writing about the death of Eric’s daughter Erica Garner, states, “Black men and women like Erica Garner who reside in hyper-policed spaces are constantly reminded of police terrorism–the source of their trauma–not only by way of their personal experiences but also through the experiences of others.” This is the world that Poupette, Albert, and Chlotilde existed within, and it is one that continues today, under a different facade.

The Gothic plays upon our fears, and it typically, as Robert K. Martin notes, adheres to conservative fears of the Other. However, as Maisha L. Wester points out, African Americans constantly experience a  “gothic existence,” and this has led African American authors to “appropriate and revise the genre’s tropes in unique ways to both speak back to the tradition’s originators and to make it a capable and useful vehicle for expressing the terrors and complexities of black experience in America.”  This is what Kasai does in The House of Erzulie. She draws upon Gothic conventions to explore “the terrors and complexities of black experience in America.” As such, Kasai’s novel exists within a line of Gothic texts by authors such as Butler, Morrison, Locke, and others that work to expose the tangible manner in which the past still affects us in the present.

There are other aspects that I could discuss with The House of Erzulie, but I do not want to give too much away. Make sure you pick up a copy soon, and when you do, let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.

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