Juliana Lamy’s collection You Were Watching from the Sand is a lyrical and poignant debut that explores the lives in diasporic communities.
Kevin Brockmeier wrote of the book:
“Every sentence Juliana Lamy writes is like a match being struck. Not many authors debut with her clarity of vision, inventiveness, and verbal agility, and I would wager almost anything that You Were Watching from the Sand will mark only the first chapter in an important body of work.”
I snatched the title of my collection, You Were Watching from the Sand, from the story that opens the piece. The opening story does in miniature what the collection does en masse—permits the sprawl of Haitian life, Haitian disgust, Haitian joy, Haitian consciousness to cover as much geographical, emotional, and imaginative ground as is needed. When the collection was still young, when I was still trying to figure out how to arrange its limbs and how it should hold its head and whether I should bend the knee to a bit of math and divide the fucks in the project evenly among the twelve stories, I found it suspicious that I’d come to its title so quickly. No, no, I thought, this could do with a bit of complication, some convolution. I came up with a slew of alternate titles, none of which I can remember, but I don’t doubt that each and every one of them was some sort of bizarre and prescient anagram for You Were Watching from the Sand. The title summons to cover-page the collection’s witnesses, but it is also the announcement of a beginning, a launch, a setting-afloat of character life. Though many of the folk who populate this collection begin from a place of witnessing, their stories proceed in the vein of character action and reaction, of revenge and anger and mischief and impulsivity. All Black, all Haitian, all the way through. In some way, each of the songs below speaks to the brashness required to live such an active-reactive life when one’s body, country, and personal autonomy are under siege.
“All Along the Watchtower,” Jimi Hendrix (1968)
Often credited with heightening the sonic tumult of the original Bob Dylan version (1968), this is the song that contours the most unabashedly dramatic story in my collection. “Eli” is a piece that finds its narrative launchpoint in tumult of a different sort—it begins with the daylight kidnapping of a young man named Kit by the enemies of his drug trafficking father, an event that is, for me, eternally syncopated to the first nine seconds of this song. In those first nine seconds, the bass guitar and snare drum are a tandem rhythmic force storming up to the first peal of Hendrix’s spectacular electric guitar in a dun dun DUN dun dun dun aural pattern. “Eli” is a story that borrows many of the trappings of the cinematic action genre—guns, drugs, balding tires—and finds itself replete with many and more of those elements, but it is a piece that, at deliberately chosen points, finds itself sparse of these elements so that attention may be redirected to character work. One of the boys Kit meets during this ordeal is Eli, a young man who Kit’s father has taken under his wing. Tied to a chair by his kidnappers in a vivid purple room, Kit wonders how responsible we are for our own actions after circumstance has had its say, and whether we are our father’s keepers, and whether all fathers are worth keeping. While the soundscape of “All Along the Watchtower” is thickly populated with kick drums, tambourines, cymbals, and more, there’s something particularly arresting about Hendrix’s guitar speaking in its glossolalic tongues, wielding its unmistakable linguistic agility. It is both a part of and apart from the other features of its sonic environment, so similar to how Kit and Eli’s interaction slots into “Eli.”
“Lolé lolé,” Wesli (2018)
This piece by the Haitian-Canadian musician Wesli is a multiplex of Caribbean influence and original acoustic sound. Though the festive, uptempo momentum of the expertly played banjo might suggest otherwise, the lyrics speak of a complex, gnarled, beautiful yearning for not just a country, but a country preserved as if by cellophane—just exactly as one left it. The yearning for a Haiti preserved in a particular period of time is an individual desire that becomes collectivized by the sheer number of characters in my collection who share it (a phenomenon that is, in my experience, true to life). But “Lolé lolé” accomplishes more than the articulation of this complex yearning; with Wesli’s effortless maneuvering of vocal pitch, with the banjo that announces itself at the very beginning of the piece and then melts into the ensemble, with the accordion a ubiquitous and reedsy presence in every single snippet of the song beyond the five-second mark, this piece conjures a vivid emotional and geographical topography that speaks to the distinct folk traditions of much of Haitian music. It allows for psychic travel for those members of the diaspora, both real and fictional, who desire it. What’s more, Wesli’s lyrics sing of a Haiti whose “mizé” (misery) does not come pre-fashioned, does not come without a single historical or geopolitical source to ascribe it to; his Haiti has sustained havoc from external and internal forces with competing interests, his Haiti has a history, his Haiti has a future. When he sings that “anba la mizé timoun pa grandi” (under misery, children do not grow), the misery is not Haitian, the children are. I can picture the child protagonist of “We Feel it in Punta Cana” having this song sung to him by his older Haitian co-workers in the Rodrigo household, or my zombie girl Ché humming it to herself in “The Oldest Sensation is Anger” while she fixes her scarf around her neck and sets out for the day.
I have yet to have any playlist, regardless of the context, escape the inclusion of a ROSALÍA song. A riveting alloy of Catalan lyrics, flamenco syncopation, and major piano keys, “Milionaria” is partially an ode to upward economic mobility, as its lyrics speak of a much younger Rosalia aspiring to millionaire-hood. But it is also partially a tongue-in-cheek denouncement of money’s sheer sway over the comfort or discomfort of a life, as delightfully evidenced by the recurring refrain, sung in English, of “fucking money, man.” I could picture one of the protagonists of “Muscle Memory,” one of the suite of four stories that closes this collection, mumbling this bit of frustration under his breath as he comes to realize his degree of economic constriction. “Muscle Memory” is a story, set in north Miami, of a pair of middle-school aged boys who break into houses in order to steal, and later pawn, items, so that they can afford the things that their working class parents cannot buy for them. Makai and Leto are coming into a recognition, painfully intersected with all of the other complications of puberty, of class distinction, and the social capital of disposable capital even in the school yard, and frustrated desire. “Milionaria” plays in my own psychic montage of Makai and Leto’s house hits, ironic and fun and agonizingly real.
“Something For Your M.I.N.D.,” Superorganism (2017)
Superorganism’s “Something For Your M.I.N.D.” is a gorgeous, eclectic composite of lap steel guitars, time-warpy reverb sounds, recitative verses, and lead singer Orono Noguchi’s pacific, trance-inducing vocals. From verse to verse, note to note, there is an associative quality to this song that immediately got to me, the way that we’re moved from an interpolated sample of a train station’s “Please Mind the Gap” announcement to a Korean exhortation to “put something in your mind.” “Wynwood,” one of the stories that forms the middle of my collection, opens with its narrator’s panoramic physical observation of the Miami street down which he walks. In the narrator Juanlu’s observations, there’s that same use of associative connection, that sense of things being caught up in the dragnet of a particular consciousness. Juanlu opens “Wynwood” with a bout of frustrated honesty: “I always remind people of other people.” It is an intangible, nameless, odorless feeling of being delocalized in, and made a stranger from, one’s own body, one’s own life. Even when Juanlu comes across two perfect strangers on his way to his own home, their encounter with him unwittingly confirms that intangible, nameless, odorless feeling.
And he finds himself wondering: what is it about himself that is so externally obvious, so universally known, that it would even trigger reactions from strangers? There is a moment in “Something For Your M.I.N.D.,” towards the end of the song, when an intensely distorted voice spells out that titular M.I.N.D. But the distortion of the voice rounds out every single letter spoken, so that the “M-I, M-I, M-I-N-D” might be misheard as a hesitant, disquieted question: “am… I, am… I, am… I empty?” One of Juanlu’s chief concerns is his apparent status as a vessel — where the hell is his own substance?
“Come Down,” Anderson .Paak (2016)
Anderson .Paak’s “Come Down” is contemporary funk at its finest and freshest. With a bassline you feel in the bones of your chest and arms before it registers as actual sound, with a hi-hat that cuts through the heft of that bass at perfect intervals with its own brighter tones, this song is a marvel. With this piece, there is the feeling of charging towards something with your bull horns glinting, a sense of absolute daring. .Paak belts verses that reference his own (well-deserved, in my extremely biased opinion) ascendance to mainstream stardom, warning us that “if [I] get to high now sugar, come on, [I] might never come down.” There is something so complicated and dynamic about the audacity on display here, the self-awareness of one’s own capability with a sort of “yeah, I know I’m the shit” nod to talent. But there’s something equally interesting and playful and tongue-in-cheek about the hedging, the “if” and the “might.” Most of the characters in my collection have this complicated relationship with audacity, this intrepidness striped here and there with other elements of personality. “Come Down” captures the same sort of kinetic, unrepentantly brisk pace of life that I strove for in all of my collection’s stories. Momentum, momentum, momentum.
Juliana Lamy is a Haitian fiction writer with a bachelor’s degree in history and literature from Harvard College. In 2018, she won Harvard’s Le Baron Russell Briggs Undergraduate Fiction Prize. She spends much of her free time baking, because the measuring it requires is the best she’s ever been at anything math-related. She splits her time between Iowa City, Iowa, where she is an MFA candidate in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and South Florida, where she was raised after immigrating from Haiti. Juliana currently resides in Boynton Beach, Florida.