The Kreyòl phrase kay manman mwen translates in English to “my mother’s house,” which is the title of Francesca Momplaisir’s debut novel, set in the Ozone Park neighborhood of Queens. The house in question is a haven for immigrants, predominantly Haitian, who refer to it in shorthand as KAM, and who gather there to socialize, get legal advice, search for work, and eat the food they know from home. But behind its communal façade, KAM hides crimes and secrets sinister beyond belief—events so dark that the house is compelled to “take” its own life through self-immolation. Amid the flames we hear its anguished cries of difé!—fire! And it is there that our story begins.
Or rather, returns to a time before the blaze, when we meet KAM’s aging owner, Lucien, one of this novel’s three third-person narrators. (Another is Sol, who arrived in America from the Yucatán Peninsula, “where the corners of Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico fused and confused the nationalities of their inhabitants,” and an object of Lucien’s sexual pursuit; the other, in the author’s semi-successful stab at surrealism, is KAM itself.) Back in Port-au-Prince, Lucien worked as a pimp in a local bar while pursuing Marie-Ange, a teenager nine years his junior. He marries her after her family is “disappeared” during a failed coup, then brings her to the United States, where he hustles for work, struggles to help raise their three daughters, and battles the ghosts of his past. Through it all Lucien and Marie-Ange also study American law and institutions, eventually mastering the convoluted inner-workings of the immigration system before starting KAM to help other immigrants in exchange for fees and favors. Now, a decade after the death of Marie-Ange and estranged from his grown daughters, Lucien is fixated on rescuing some of his possessions from KAM before it faces demolition.
With Lucien, Momplaisir crafts both a victim and oppressor, a man deserving of pity and contempt. There is something evil about his womanizing and hoarding—which are not unrelated. His frantic materialism stems from his own fears of being discarded, like the “dejected, unloved wretches” who once owned the spoils he collects on late-night drives through New York City streets. “Hollow and corroded,” he is trapped between past traumas and the harsh realities of life in twenty-first-century America, where a system whose fault lines are drawn along divisions in income, immigration status, and skin color drives people to desperation, and threatens to break them. In jolting moments of self-awareness, dwelling on the pain he’s both suffered and inflicted on others, Lucien recites a three-word mantra: I am nothing.