From Haiti to Corbett: Local author's complicated history
While writing her memoir, "The Gospel of Trees," Apricot Irving placed her original 300,000-page bound manuscript on the roof of a shed — and let the draft decay.
"It was a really helpful symbol for me because so much of what we do in any profession doesn't yield fruit," Irving said. "So much ends up on the cutting-room floor."
Watching the pages decompose was therapeutic, and it helped her edit down the manuscript, which in its original form would have been more than 1,000 pages. Instead, Irving transformed it into a focused 373-page memoir that earned her a prestigious Oregon Book Award in April.
Once she made the cuts, the remaining portion was a narrative about the 43-year-old Corbett resident's experiences growing up in Haiti as part of a missionary family. The autobiography interweaves her childhood narrative with the destructive history of colonization on the island.
The book won the Sarah Winnemucca Award for Creative Nonfiction on Monday, April 22, at the annual Oregon Book Awards event in Northwest Portland. The award honors Oregon writers who work in genres of poetry, fiction, graphic literature, drama, literary nonfiction and literature for young readers.
Narratives about missionaries tend to fall into two categories. They are typically either written through the lens of Christian culture and celebrate missionary pursuits, or critiques and expose-style narratives.
Irving pointed to the 1986 film "The Mission" or the Barbara Kingsolver novel "Poisonwood Bible" as critical portrayals of missionary work. The examples she cited are fictional pieces of work, but still paint missionary endeavors in a negative light.
"The book that I've written is a critique of the community that I was profoundly shaped by, but it's written with a lot of love," Irving said, "and a lot of empathy towards people who were going with good intentions to try and make the world a better place and not understanding all the ways that we were inadvertently interweaving with this really old story of colonization, and doing harm without intending to."
Road to missionary life
Irving lived in Oregon until she was 16 months old. As a toddler, her father was finishing his Oregon State University agricultural degree.
Following his graduation, her family moved to the California desert, where they grew organic vegetables on a date ranch in the winter. The desert reaches temperatures of 130 degrees in the summer, making produce impossible to grow in those months.
To avoid the extreme desert summer heat, her family headed to the mountains where her father worked as a forest ranger.
Irving has two younger sisters who were born in California. Her five-member family lived in an 8-foot-by-10-foot trailer in the winter, and a one-room 12-by-16 foot cabin in the summer.
"We lived modestly, (but) not unhappily," Irving said. "Dad loved it, but Mom found it really hard. She was on the verge of walking out when my grandma gave her this devotional to read."
The daily bible reading led her mother turning to religion for an answer.
"She had this really profound encounter with God through this devotional while trapped in a life she really didn't want," Irving recalled. "It was really transformative for her because that next Sunday she went to the first church she could find, and started attending regularly."
At the church, Irving's family was recruited for missionary work in Haiti, and with their rugged living conditions — along with their agricultural expertise — they were told "you have the requisite pioneer spirit," she said.
The church needed someone to run an agricultural center in Haiti for a year while another missionary family went on a year-long furlough.
But her mother didn't know where Haiti was and initially declined the offer. After praying about it, Irving's parents changed their minds and decided the service trip would be a worthwhile endeavor.
"It was kind of this sense of adventure to just go for a year," Irving said. "Dad loved it as soon as he landed. It was a place where he felt like he could be useful."
After one year working on the agricultural center, her family stayed for two more years, and worked on a missionary hospital compound.
While in the island republic, her father saw the devastation caused by colonization, and helped plant trees in an over-logged section of the country.
Irving's feelings about missionary work are mixed, but she appreciated her father's tree restoration efforts, and her fondness for trees remains to this day.
Irving's early childhood understanding of Haiti was limited to the exposure she got inside her missionary bubble. As an adult, Irving knew she was — through the lens of Christian ministry — somewhat sheltered.
"We celebrated American holidays on the American missionary compound," she said. "In our school, we learned about St. Patrick's Day. We celebrated Valentine's Day. We did not learn about Haitian history. We did not celebrate Haitian holidays."
Stuck between the worlds of the United States and Haiti, Irving thought she would never find a culture to call her own. That changed after her 23rd birthday. She moved to Indonesia to teach literature, journalism and drama at an international school in the mountains above Jacarta.
"For two years I taught all these students who were so much like me," Irving said, "and I hadn't realized that these were my people. They were stranded between worlds. They spoke many languages."
Two years later, Irving again returned to the United States, with stacks of notebooks filled with stories regarding her students.
She enrolled in a creative nonfiction master's degree program at Portland State University intending to work on those pieces, but an adviser instead challenged her to write about an issue she didn't understand.
"I knew immediately what it would be," Irving recalled. "It was this missionary childhood that I did not know how to describe. I think it was a story I didn't know how to tell. After we left when I was 15, we really didn't talk about it as a family."
As the last year and a half spent there was tough going, her family had not left Haiti on a high note.
"The country was going through all manner of political upheaval," Irving said. "We were told the missionary hospital would be burned to the ground by nightfall. We sensed the resentment against us as these foreign do-gooders who thought they knew best of what should be done, and it was painful to feel so resented."
At Portland State, she pursued an independent study with the professor who challenged her, and Irving began crafting her memoir.
During the initial study, Irving poured through Haitian history books. She began to understand Haitian history from different angles.
Returning to Haiti
In 2010, the island republic experienced a 7.0 magnitude earthquake. Billions of dollars in American relief aid poured in.
Following the natural disaster, Irving returned to her childhood missionary home. She reported on the restoration efforts as part of an in-depth radio piece for the nationally syndicated radio program "This American Life."
Irving posted a sample chapter from "The Gospel of Trees," with the online version of the radio piece, and requested a publisher for her future memoir.
From the exposure, she not only found a publisher, but also received the Rona Jaffe award. The accolade goes to promising female writers in the early stage of their writing career and comes with a $25,000 monetary prize.
A year later, she also received a literary arts fellowship, and "The Gospel of Trees" was published in 2018.
"History is really messy, and sometimes, we want to tell a simplified version that shows us to be the hero — or someone else to clearly be the villain," Irving said. "I think what's more true is we're all a little of both. There's good in us, and we do harm. I feel that's the truth of this book, and I'm learning that's the way I need to approach this shared history."
About Apricot Irving
Corbett resident Apricot Irving moved with her family to Haiti when she was 6 years old and stayed until she was 9 for missionary work.
The family returned to the country again, for more missionary work, when Irving was 14, and stayed for a year and a half.
Irving wrote her memoir, "The Gospel of Trees," detailing her experiences in the island republic.
Irving, who lives in Corbett with her husband and two children, has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and a master's degree in creative nonfiction from Portland State University.
For more information, visit www.apricotirving.com.
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