A book is a mirror: if an ass peers into it, you can’t expect an apostle to look out.
The best fiction, I think, works hard to teach you something about the world or the human predicament without sounding like a raging shithead. Didacticism in writing tends to ruffle when it means to instruct. Perhaps this statement is a first step toward my theory of good writing. I don’t know. What I do know is—holy shit: I’m woefully ignorant about Haiti. (Add it to the list of other countries I know squat about. This is not a point of pride.) I start with my lack of knowledge because I want to show how Roxane Gay’s Ayiti owns a set of perspicacious eyes that aren’t so much knowing as they are accountable. (In the spirit of disclosure, I’ve met Roxane once, and she was lovely. She also writes for Vouched sometimes.)
First, I have to say again I’m ashamed (esp. after reading this book) of not knowing a lot about Haiti—and further, I don’t think my reading was ruined one way or another by my ignorance. Gay does a thorough job of delineating the most important aspects of life on the island and off. I imagine the whole book as a catalogue of possible ways to answer a Protean question, something like: “What is Haiti?” or “Who’s Haitian?” or “What does Haiti mean?” There’s no doubt that the answer isn’t gentle. In the book—which is truly a love letter, of sorts—Haiti doesn’t catch many breaks. People are constantly trying to flee the country or are reluctant to go back when they escape. And even when they find sanctuary in another country—generally the U.S.—they’re confronted with prejudice, ignorance, or fear, as if they’re aliens in a godawful terrarium.
For example, the third story in the collection, “Voodoo Child.” An unnamed female narrator takes advantage of her college roommate’s stereotyping after she finds out the narrator is Haitian. The roommate automatically assumes she’s into voodoo.
I do nothing to dissuade her fears even though I was raised Catholic and have gained my inadequate understanding of the religion from the Lisa Bonet movie that made Bill Cosby mad at her.
The narrator has no problem manipulating the roommate for better accommodations.
I leave a doll on my desk. It looks just like my roommate. The doll is covered with placed strategically pins. I like fucking with her. She gives me the bigger room with the better dresser.
A pattern within the collection is alive here: first, second, or third generation Haitians turning a person’s ignorance back around on the perpetrator, using a sideways version of their culture as a way to show a fool the foolishness. But follow “Voodoo Child” to the end, and you find that the narrator fulfills her own prank, when the women come out of a train station and meet an old woman, speaking Creole. The narrator asks what she wants, a bit worried, and when the old woman states the narrator is a famous mambo, or voodoo priestess, the old woman kisses her hands. The story ends: “I was still imagining all the dirty New York boys my roommate and I would later find.”
Does the narrator believe she’s a mambo or not? Will she take her new self-knowledge and ply witless men with it? Does it matter?
Mind you, the story is seven paragraphs, and what I didn’t quote adds even more the characters’ personal histories. The emotional arc of “Voodoo Child” is sharp, drastic, and fast. When I finished this story, I thought I knew what to take away, but everything lingered into the next story. And the next. This is a horror story, I thought. Surely. A story that starts in comedy with the narrator messing with her roommate for laughs, then realizing that what she was fooling with is real. Or maybe not. The old woman could actually be crazy. For me, the end is unresolved, and more accurate because of the dodge.
In “There Is No ‘E’ in Zombi Which Means There Can Be No You or We,” the story is broken into two parts: a “primer” on how to make zombies and “a love story” that uses the recipe mentioned at the fore. What I want to highlight here is how versatile most of these stories are with tone and content. While reading this story, I was reminded of H.P. Lovecraft (and similar writers) in a scene where a spurned lover is converting her objet petit a into a zombi: “They slept entwined for three days. Lionel’s skin grew clammy and gray. His eyes hollowed. He began to smell like soil and salt wind.” Then the story becomes erotic: “When Micheline woke, she whispered, ‘Turn and look at me.’ Lionel slowly turned and stared at Micheline, his eyes wide open, unblinking. […] ‘Touch me,’ and Lionel reached for her with a heavy hand, pawing at her until she said, ‘Touch me gently.’”
And before this? Fucking, nail-digging, scratching. But used to a sad effect! Imagine that! In a story where you witness a woman concocting a method by which she hopes to ensnare a man, rarely do you predict that the man will die into a zombie. And I knew the formula beforehand. Shame on me. Why didn’t I see it coming? I suppose it’s a testament to Gay’s story structure and paying out of the details. There’s a real sense in the shorter stories that Roxane Gay loves a challenge—the challenge of brevity. Much like those who write verse in form exclaim that the form is a freedom, pure liberty. I read the shorter stories and see the diligent precision of which sentence goes where and at what moment. Every short short is a highwire act. Or should be, dammit. (Take note, noobs: writers interested in short form should make this required reading.)
Anyhow, the back of my brain knew what was up, but my storylocator was too interested in moving forward. Further, the sad part is that Micheline has to make Lionel a zombie. Though, I absolutely sympathize. As a metaphor (more later), it’s devastating. What better way to anchor a love object that you know will deceive or leave you than by magic, by rural alchemy? These emotional turns, from one story to the next, are where Gay manipulates the preconceived knowledge of Haiti and its inhabitants. In one story, you’re mistaken, and implicitly upbraided, for thinking a character is a voodoo priestess, and in the next, the main character is actually in connection with a voodoo priestess.
In other news, on August 8, 2011, the U.S. Dept. of State Bureau of Consular Affairs released this advisory statement:
The Department of State strongly urges U.S. citizens to consider carefully all travel to Haiti. Travel fully supported by organizations with solid infrastructure, evacuation options, and medical support systems in place is recommended and preferable to travel in country without such support structures in place. U.S. citizens traveling to Haiti without such support have found themselves in danger in the past.
U.S. citizens have been victims of violent crime, including murder and kidnapping, in Port-au-Prince. Some kidnapping victims have been physically abused, sexually assaulted, shot, and even killed. No one is safe from kidnapping, regardless of occupation, nationality, race, gender, or age. In a number of cases this past year, travelers arriving in Port-au-Prince on flights from the United States were attacked and robbed shortly after departing the airport. At least two U.S. citizens were shot and killed in such incidents. Haitian authorities have limited capacity to deter or investigate such violent acts, or prosecute perpetrators.
More than one story in Ayiti points to this kind of social chaos that exists right now, but I’m thinking specifically of “Things I Know About Fairy Tales,” where the narrator, a mother visiting family, relates the events leading up to, during, and after her kidnapping from Port-au-Prince. Interspersed between her narration are short fragments that shine insight on the nature of the heroines of fairy tales. Put in juxtaposition like this, you realize that a story about kidnapping is the perfect current analogy for what Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, et al. went through. They were all, in some way, cornered, trapped, ensnared, or penned-in. Here are two of the fragments:
Sleeping Beauty was cursed by her birthright, by her very name. In one telling, her fate was sealed by Maleficent before she ever had a chance. Even hidden away, she could not escape the curse placed upon her.
The thing about Rapunzel was that she had the means to her own salvation all along. If she had only known that, she would have never been cast out by the enchantress and been forced to wait to enjoy her ever after with her prince.
There’s a tone in the story that is cold. The narrator has talked about kidnapping before, with her mother, has thought about, has contemplated what would happen—“I couldn’t take it personally, being kidnapped”—and when it does, she goes into a neutral state, what I interpreted as a state of pure logic. Such emotional states are reserved for life/death situations, where the brain says: “You have no time to process emotions—get with the program!” You move by rote, by force. Without getting too lit. crit. on this story, I thought it was, in one way, an analogy for how those who live on the island and leave never are fully expunged. Or perhaps it was just a horrific story of an abduction and how it can irreparably ruin one’s consciousness? The story, again, sits on the fence and lets the reader decide.
After the first days of my abduction, when negotiations began in earnest, I understood that the money my family would pay for my safe return was not for me. It was for the daughter, wife, mother they had last seen. I had become a different person. It seemed, somehow, unfair for them to not get what they were paying for.
Pulled from your car with your family in it by rough men. Gun butts in the face, burlap sacks over the head, broken glass, screaming, crying. Then kept in a tiny room, alone, bored, interrupted only by abuse or rape. Drastic, unrefundable changes happen in moments like this. In the airplane, on the way home, the narrator goes into the bathroom. “After I threw up, I stared at the stranger in the mirror.” The story itself, in a modern way, resembles an urban fairy tale, but one that has no storybook-pleasing ending for the characters.
Other shorts explore similar dense emotional territory. “Motherfuckers” opens the collection, fixing on a boy’s imposed nickname and how cursing and words employ power early in life. “Gracias, Nicaragua Y Lo Sentimos” is what I thought of as a poem to Nicaraguans from Haitians.
You should know this: every news story every written or
aired in perpetuity, whether on Euro News,
Univision, ESPN or ABC, CNN, CBS, FOX or
NBC, will begin and end referring to your beloved
land as the poorest country in the Western
Hemisphere. You are what you have not.
And “You Never Knew How the Waters Ran So Cruel So Deep,” which is in the form of a ledger kept by a man who is trying to get him and his wife from Haiti to America on “a somewhat seaworthy vessel.” The ending is subtle yet horrific.
Then, the unavoidable topic that almost appears in each story: sex. In some stories, it’s used as a weapon by men on women. In others, as a stand-in for love. Ayiti does steer toward eroticism or indulge the erotic… Sigh. Man, I hate that word. “Erotic.” I think of the neglected sections of bookstores that men give wide berth to and older women frequent. I wish there was a better way to say that Roxane Gay’s stories have fucking in them. Honest fucking. Desperate fucking. Oh wait. ROXANE GAY’S STORIES HAVE FUCKING IN THEM. But the sex isn’t simple titillation. Intimate moments in reality have a hard time translating into prose (movies, maybe not so much—think: visual cues), perhaps because we’re so used to reading the typical methods of conveyance. E.g., “His throbbing member” or “Her moist cleft” or “He entered her.” Is she a garage? A foyer? Why is entrance a sexy word? Why’s it not? This kind of writing-for-the-sake-of-immediate-sensory- gratification falls flat if we’re trying to accurately describe a true sexual situation: distended, awkward, rushed, perhaps sexy in a banal way. It reminds me of a scene from White Noise when Babbette is talking to Jack in bed.
“I will read,” she said. “But I don’t want you to chose anything that has men inside women, quote-quote, or men entering women. ‘I entered her.’ ‘He entered me.’ We’re not lobbies or elevators. ‘I wanted him inside me,’ as if he could crawl completely in, sign the register, sleep, eat, so forth. Can we agree on that? I don’t care what these people do as long as they don’t enter or get entered.”
“‘I entered her and begun to thrust.'”
“I’m in total agreement,” I said.
“‘Enter me, enter me, yes, yes.'”
“Silly usage, absolutely.”
“‘Insert yourself, Rex. I want you inside me, entering hard, entering deep, yes, now, oh.'”
Despite this satire of DeLillo’s, Roxane Gay, on the other hand, doesn’t give in to hackneyed tropes. And the importance of handling sex well should have attention paid. Too often sex in literature is pushed aside, avoided, or scorned as mere porn or unsophisticated blue material. The truth is that sex—true, real, honest sex—is a bedrock within most lives, even though sitcoms fade away from it, movies elegize and mythologize it, and pop music fetishizes it into an unrecognizable shapeless thingy for tweens and sugar-glazed queen dreams.
Like, say, in the story “The Harder They Come.” On the recto page, under the title, I’ve written in red ink: “How literal do you want it?” And by “it” I mean your literary metaphors. The story takes place in Haiti, from the P.O.V. of a first person plural narrator, what I thought of as a certain subset of Haitian women in Labadee. If you don’t know what Labadee is—like I didn’t—then here’s the first paragraph from the Wikipedia page:
Labadee is a port located on the northern coast of Haiti. It is a private resort leased to Royal Caribbean International. Royal Caribbean International has contributed the largest proportion of tourist revenue to Haiti since 1986, employing 300 locals, allowing another 200 to sell their wares on the premises, and paying the Haitian government US$6 per tourist.
This is the place that continued to receive cruise ships after the 2010 earthquake. The extended metaphor is one culture fucking another. The “We” of the story tell in simple, general terms that sound like they’re mimicking a pamphlet or brochure about how lumbering Americans come and buy the “Haitian experience.” Blinking in bright neon in my mind when I finished the story was the phrase: HAITIANS GET FUCKED IN THE ASS BY AMERICANS, FIGURATIVELY AND LITERALLY. Figuratively through capitalism and literally through, well, fat sweaty American men.
They say they quite like this Haiti, so clean and calm, so pleasant, not at all like on CNN. The Americans ask questions but rarely listen to the answers. Beyond the pier and the heat of the white sand beach with the striped chaise lounges and the thatched huts with brightly colored roofs there is a thick line of lush palm trees and behind the lush palm trees is a very tall fence lined with barbed wire separating this Haiti from that Haiti. The Americans never ask to see that Haiti. The Americans know that Haiti is there.
They fuck us from behind with our hands and cheeks pressed against the burning rocks. They fuck us behind the market or against the fence beyond the thick line of lush palm trees. They never take long. They never say thank you. The Americans, however, always come.
Read that last line again. Now read this one again: “This is the place that continued to receive cruise ships after the 2010 earthquake.”
The keystone story of the collection, I feel, is “In the Manner of Water or Light.” I can’t properly portray my affection for this piece. To break it down would be to ruin the reading experience and belabor the point. But I can say that the story is told by a daughter about her mother and grandmother and the latter’s experience in the Parsley Massacre of 1937. It encapsulates the optimism that I think Roxane Gay has for Haitians, immigrants, and humans in general. Some of my favorite lines are in this story.
I understood Haiti was not the only place in the world run through with pain.
I listened to the sounds of everyone else sleeping. I tried to understand the what and why of where we were.
It was just a border between two geographies of grief.
The collection makes you question what you have to offer by way of your personal experiences as a person in the world. “You are what you have not.” All my desires make up who I am, all my absences, and my losses? In context, we label those who suffer as sufferers because they don’t have a car, a job, or food. The Wealthy Western World pities and looks down its polished brass nose at the Poor World. How wrong. Haiti isn’t Haiti because of the earthquake or the Parsley Massacre or a cholera outbreak, just as the U.S. isn’t the U.S. because of school shootings, rampant obesity, or our ass-backwards political system. Definition by negative space is cruel and untrue. Oddly, though, many of these characters are Haitians without a Haiti, in a way, making the statement true by paradox.
I think that if you want to get to know what a culture and a people are going through, the lesson here is to read its literature and observe its arts rather than listen to the laundry list of news channels that glamorize the filth of destitution and tragedy and not offer a solution. It’s no surprise that stations like CNN get a less than savory mention throughout the collection.
So I return to what I mentioned up top. What did this story teach me about Haiti that I didn’t know before? Well, through what I think is an extended metaphor, it’s possible for a person to fulfill their heritage just by merely acknowledging it. Often in the collection, tension lies between a young woman and an older one. It’s as if Haiti exists right there between them. They’ve been taken back home. In opposition, we’ve got no guarantee that our homelands will make sense of themselves for us. It’s our job to explain it, to narrate it—and even then, we can often fuck it up because we’re too attached to a non-reified version of it.
My point is that Ayiti makes me reconsider what it is I am focusing on in my own work. Where is the acuity aimed? And why? How many books do you read where you think to yourself: Holy shit, I, too, need to highlight the issues of my community or family. Books that light fires in your head and under your ass are more than welcome.
The epigraph at the top of this review is something I cribbed from W.H. Auden’s A Certain World, his published commonplace book. I try to keep it squarely in front of me as I attempt to be a responsible reader, a better reader. I don’t think I’m necessarily an ass, per se, but I do think I’m ignorant. And I use that word in a traditional sense, as in, “lack of knowledge in general.” Ayiti was mirror. A mirror made of words. Never expecting something so noble as an apostle to peer back out from the book’s pages, I rather hope for a felicitous transmogrification into a lower, more honest form. Something more pedestrian: like, say, a human.