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“My father has never known how to be gentle with those who do not live up to his expectations,” Apricot Irving writes in her new memoir, “The Gospel of Trees.” Ms. Irving spent part of her childhood in Haiti, where her father, an agronomist, was a missionary. He believed strongly, often stubbornly, in the benefits of reforestation in the country. Against the backdrop of Haiti’s natural beauty, Ms. Irving witnessed political turmoil and lived through her family’s own strife. Below, she discusses how time in Indonesia helped her decide to tell this story, feeling like a “reluctant memoirist” and more.
When did you first get the idea to write this book?
My very first draft, which I found in a box, unfinished, was written when I was 10 or 11. Even then, I understood that the missionary compound was a place I could only untangle with words. By the time I was in my early 20s, a recovering missionary’s daughter, all the questions that I couldn’t answer about that experience — about privilege, inequity, failure, strength, sorrow, beauty — felt suffocating. I wrote this book in order to breathe, in order to find my way through a story I didn’t know how to tell.
The books that I looked to for insights about the missionary experience didn’t resonate with what I had lived. There seemed to be two versions of the missionary narrative: the church newsletter version, full of glory stories, and the grim depiction of missionaries as agents of colonial exploitation. Both felt incomplete. I wanted a story that reflected the complexity and contradictions of a missionary childhood.
At 23, I moved to Indonesia to teach at an international school. It was my first time spending lots of time with kids growing up between languages and cultures. They asked beautiful questions. So much about it was familiar, even though Haiti was in so many ways unlike Indonesia. There were echoes of my own childhood. I thought at first I would write about Indonesia. But I started a writing program in nonfiction, and my adviser said, “It sounds like you already understand what you have to say about that subject. What’s something you don’t understand?” That’s when I asked my parents about Haiti, and they dragged the boxes out of the barns, and it started.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
It has taken me 15 years to finish this book, which allows for many opportunities to be surprised. The first was discovering, in a box of musty newsletters that my father dragged out of the barn, that he had also given me his journals. For the first time, I saw Haiti through his eyes. It was a perspective shift that changed how I remembered those hard years. We fought so much when I was a teenager that I didn’t understand how much he loved Haiti.
Later, when I returned for the first time with my parents and my husband in 2003, 12 years after we’d left the missionary compound, I was surprised by how much beauty and strength and dignity was still flourishing in Haiti, despite the odds stacked against it. 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.
Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?
The Scottish land artist Andy Goldsworthy, whose work is featured in the documentary “Rivers and Tides,” is an inspiration. His book “Ephemeral Works” is folded open in our living room, and my husband and I take walks in the woods with our 10- and 12-year-old boys, creating art out of moss and icicles and river rocks and leaves. Goldsworthy describes how he listens to the materials — the ice, the stones, the branches — as he creates, which is how I would describe the process of weaving together the interviews, transcribed cassette tapes, journal entries, historical research and memories that compose this memoir.
In another life, I would so much prefer to be a land artist. Sentences are so permanent and exacting. I admire the freedom of creating art that disintegrates, or grows, or shifts into another form; there is such wisdom in the act of letting go.
Persuade someone to read “The Gospel of Trees ” in 50 words or less.
It’s a memoir in many voices about a fractured family finding their way back to each other through words. It’s a meditation on beauty in a broken world, loss and privilege, love and failure, trees and why they matter. It bears witness to the defiant beauty of an undefeated country.
This interview has been condensed and edited.