Author: Roxane Gay (A)
You know that moment when you first hear a dirty joke, and you don’t get it, and you really want someone to explain it to you, but no one does? You have to find a stealthy way to make sense of it all. Often enough, you wound up giving up and just asking your mother or father, who were then horrified that you knew such things and found a way around telling you what they really meant. Nowadays, we use the internet.
That was how I felt reading the very first story in Roxane Gay’s Ayiti, a short story collection that came out last year. The piece in question is titled Motherfucker, and the thing I didn’t understand was the character’s enforced school nickname, HBO. Of course I got it after a fashion, without consulting friends or the internet. When I reached the conclusion, I felt a sort of sickening sinking feeling in my stomach, the kind that means this is going to be both awesome and painful.
Ayiti- the way a native Haitian pronounces the name of their country- is a study not just of Haiti and its conflicted, structureless state, but also the stories that simmer there. Haiti, in Ayiti, is more than just a place or a state of mind. It is almost a shadow, a dragging poltergeist that doesn’t throw glasses or lift chairs but rather sucks at the weakest spots until those who love and hate the country are dried out, filled with emotions that they can’t name.
I found the structure, style, and wording of Ayiti to be engaging and minimal. The stories rarely exceed seven pages, with the story In The Manner Of Water Or Light being the longest. Unlike other short story collections Ayiti isn’t broken up into parts- all fifteen stories are presented in in a row, their titles taking up a page by themselves. I found that to be a clever design choice. It breaks the reader out of the last story and neatly slides them into the next, like climbing a set of stairs.You don’t question the placement of the story or why it might precede or follow the ones on either side. That contemplation is for a later date. Rather, you understand that the piece you are working on right then is solitary. You need to read it as such. That’s important.
There are moments in Ayiti which will make you (assuming I’ve yet to amass an overseas audience, let’s pretend you’re all US citizens) raise your eyebrows, grind your teeth, suck your bottom lip in frustration. A simple example is the story There Is No E in “Zombi” Which Means There Can Be No You Or We. It is a primer. First, it identifies what Americans do not know about Zombis. Next, it speaks of how to pronounce the word. Finally, it gives step by step instructions on how to create one. It’s easy to get hung up on a single word in this book. Can you guess what that word is?
If you guessed American, give yourself a solid gold cupie doll.
The author of Ayiti is Haitian American, born in the US. The characters of Ayiti, while some are immigrants to the US, are all born Haitians. There is a lot of hate for America in Ayiti. There is also a lot of love.
That’s the beauty of Ayiti, I think. You read it and are tempted to get angry, depending on your age, your patrotism, your political views, none of which should theoretically come into play when reading a work of fiction, but which always do.
“what the fuck is this,” you want to say when you reach the piece The Harder They Come, “who told you we were all like this, don’t compare me to those assholes on cruise ships.”
The word ‘American’ doesn’t mean you.
The word ‘Haitian’ doesn’t mean Gabrielle, or Gerard, or Micheline. These are labels we give ourselves, identifiers, placeholders. And the word Haiti sticks like tar. People will love and hate themselves, regardless of where they live. People will feel arrogant, superior, clinging to what they have left of their pride in both a lawless country lost to itself and this grand beautiful mess we call the United States.
You won’t put Ayiti down. At first it will be curiosity; you won’t be able to help yourself from connecting book to place, and you only ever hear about the terrible things that happen in countries like that. The more you read the more you realize you are taking a walk down a path into a place that you wouldn’t normally go if Gay wasn’t holding your hand tight. You won’t be comfortable. You will want to stop. You won’t, because you know that at the end there must be something, some spark, some important thing until you reach the final story and realize that they all were the important thing.
If it’s not about Haiti, then what is Ayiti about? It’s about ‘Haiti’- the long shadow that culture casts, even across oceans. These stories are the stories of people, of struggle and sacrifice and love that eats you up and love that spits you out and of reaching or not reaching and being saved. They are human stories. What other kind is there, really?
There will be a great temptation to match the artist with the art. Is it ironic that a Haitian-American author published her first book about Haiti? No, why should it be? Consider America, the country of Immigrants. We are the sum of our parts. Our parts, in case you’ve forgotten, are from all corners of the globe. Light shines on everything, even on Haiti, which we are trained to believe is nothing more than a lawless heap. We always look back on where we’ve been, so we know where we are going.
Trying to understand, to sympathize, is at its best annoying and at its worst just plain infuriating. I don’t pretend to understand the plights of Haiti or her people. I wouldn’t expect a Haitian to sympathize with frozen pipes in the winter or many feet of snow. I don’t know how it feels to be so hungry my belly is distended, or scared to walk down the street because I am a woman, to try and make it to Miami and dodge our sometimes well meaning but never well trained immigration agents. To act as though I do is an insult to those who still feel Haiti in their bones, where it will live, unexorcised, the most fragile and stubborn demon.
I do, however, read Ayiti and hope to feel something more than just what I’ve been told is true. Ayiti presents you with the truth, neatly packaged with a bow on top. It’s up to you to open it up and put the pieces together. Nothing like truth comes easy. If it did, writing would be a pointless endeavor.