Fiction | 126 pgs
Artistically Declined Press
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?