When I first moved to the States in 2005 one of my chief aims was to acquire some friends with interesting names. Growing up in Northern Ireland in the 1980s I knew more than my fair share of sensibly-named Stephens, Claires, Catherine and Andys. I was in the market for some friends with exotic names. I had visions of returning to Ballymena to recount anecdotes populated with people who sounded like they might be lifted from an episode of My So Called Life. Within weeks of arriving in Portland I’d met a Tabitha, a Vandoren, Nate Grubbs, (who remains my best-named friend of all time) and a bunch of other friends who weren’t called after dead relatives or Biblical characters. Most of them made their way into the cast list of my first novel. The rest are just waiting to pop up in future stories.
I have to be honest and say that my first impression of the superbly-named Apricot Anderson Irving was entirely linguistic. I was a little jealous of the way her name ran off the tongue. I remember thinking, “that sounds like a writer’s name.” I could picture it written on the spine of a book. And sure enough, Apricot was a writer, even back then she was beginning to work on a book focused upon her family’s experience, living as missionaries in Haiti during the 80s and 90s. I was just starting to write stories. They weren’t very good. I remember Apricot being one of the first people to encourage me in my writing. I really took her encouragement to heart. I also remember being a little in awe of the way she could weave such gently magic with her words.
Portland was more than ten years ago. I still miss it sometimes. Mostly I miss the community of people I knew back then. Every so often I return to spend a fortune in Powell’s City of Books and walk up and down Hawthorne Boulevard breathing in the early evening smell of hot beer and patchouli. I try not to leave it too long between visits. Last October I managed to squeeze in five Portland days between book festivals and it was such a treat to meet Apricot in the Chinese gardens, to drink tiny bowls of petal-infused tea and catch up with each other’s lives. A lot has changed in ten years. Children. Books. Travel. Jobs. We lost track of time and when I realised I was almost an hour late for my next meet up, I had to leave in something of a rush. On the way out of the tea room, Apricot kindly gave me a proof of her book, The Gospel of Trees. It’s always something of a miracle to hold a friend’s book. To have talked about it and lived with it through the process of creation and finally be able to feel the weight of it in your hands. I’m very fortunate. I’ve shared in so many friend’s book births. But this one was special. It was a long time coming, and I knew what it had cost.
I finally got to sit down with The Gospel of Trees last week. I was floored by a nasty cold and stuck indoors for days. It was the perfect excuse to spend time with Apricot’s book. It’s the kind of book which requires time. This is the sort of read which, like Marilynne Robinson or Wendell Berry, forces you to slow down to a kind of earthy pace. Apricot’s writing is so tied to season and landscape and the small details of the natural world, it refuses to rush. Each sentence is perfectly crafted and incredibly evocative. It’s impossible not to imagine the sounds, the smells and vivid, searing images of Haiti she conjures up in her writing. It might have been the cold medicine I was taking, but for three straight nights I dreamt of the landscapes Apricot describes, though I’ve never been to Haiti. The Gospel of Trees is a memoir rooted in place. A love song to Haiti, but a very honest, warts and all kind of love song. Compelling as I found this book, it wasn’t the easiest of reads.
I finished reading The Gospel of Trees on Saturday evening. I stayed in with a glass of wine and read the last 150 pages in one sitting. I didn’t grow up on the mission field but so many parts of Apricot’s story -her honest wrestling with both the beauty and the hypocrisy of religion- struck so close to my own story, I found myself crying over several of the passages. Apricot did not set out to write a defence of the missionary influence in Haiti. Neither did she set out to write a sweeping critique. This is an incredibly measured book which bravely tells a difficult story with painstaking honesty, even when such honesty involves questioning her own actions and motivations. Essentially this is a story of white, Western Christianity and its mostly well-intentioned, but oftentimes blundering attempts to embrace another culture. Damage is done, but so is good. No one character is entirely saintly or thoroughly villainous. Apricot is both thankful and deeply saddened by her childhood experiences. By the book’s end I was a muddle of mixed emotions, unsure who to point the finger at, or whether there was any point at all in laying blame. In the end I left resonating with a beautiful quote Apricot has included in the closing chapters of her book, “If you have come to help me,” writes Indigenous Australian artist and activist Lilla Watson, “then you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up in mine then let us work together.”
I’m on my own personal journey with faith, religion and all the things I’ve inherited from Northern Irish Protestantism. It’s nothing like the legacy of having lived in early 90s Haiti, but sometimes it can feel like a very long and lonely walk. I don’t know if this is a tensions which will eventually resolve or something I’ll journey with for the rest of my life. I have my suspicions it’s the latter. I am thankful for Apricot and for books like The Gospel of Trees which don’t feel like they are screaming at me, arguing for one polemic or the other, forcing me to draw lines and take sides. This, for me, was a book which felt like a long, deep sigh, both weary and also full of relief. This is a book which seems to say we might not know what everything means or how to answer all life’s big questions, but at least we can be honest with each other. More than anything this is a book which made me want to continue wrestling with the difficult stuff. The hard art of holding on to what is good and true, of being able to let go of hurt and hypocrisy. The practice of remaining in relationship with other broken people, knowing you’re essentially flawed yourself. The freedom that comes with total honesty. And so I’m grateful to Apricot for her friendship and encouragement. And I hope we have many more long bookish conversations to come. And I am thankful for all the years she poured into this book, because I know I won’t be the only person who moves a little closer to liberation, through reading it.