‘Home is an island in the Caribbean. Some call it a jewel. Everyone who leaves the place calls it home though few of us actually want to be there, not the way it is now’.
‘Sweet on the Tongue’
I became aware of Roxane Gay a few years ago when Bad Feminist first came out. It was, and still is, a much-needed book of essays exploring how there isn’t one clear-cut way of being a feminist. She showed me the importance of embracing all the contradictory parts of myself whilst also confidently calling myself a feminist – better to be a bad feminist than no feminist at all, right? At the time, in 2014, I had heard of her debut novel, An Untamed State, but I had no idea she had published a collection of short stories before that in 2011.
Entitled Ayiti, the Creole for Haiti, Gay explores everything from the diaspora, sex tourism, poverty and the devastating impact of colonial history. Each short story, even if only half a page long – such as ‘What You Need to Know About a Haitian Woman’ – feels concise and fully-formed; deep and packed with meaning. There is so much ground Gay can cover in such a short amount of space. Her style varies from straightforward prose to mythic surrealism. Her characters range from a young teenaged boy being bullied at school to heterosexual and lesbian women embracing or reclaiming their sexuality without shame. Her themes explore the depths of human suffering and all that love can endure. And the thread connecting each tale is Haiti. Whether set in the heart of this often misunderstood nation or in the USA, Haiti is a character – with all its strengths and flaws – woven into the body of each story. There is no way we could understand these characters or their lives without knowing the place they have come from – a place that is deeply rooted in their psyche whether they are planning to leave for the ‘American dream’ or stuck festering in one of the poorest and most exploited nations in the Western Hemisphere.
However, shot through these stories is an underlying beauty – of the Haitian landscape, family ties, and history – that cannot be extricated from the pain and tragedy of each story. Beauty and tragedy are complicatedly entwined deep within Haiti and its people. From the exchange of letters between two cousins in ‘The Dirt We Do Not Eat’ – one still in Haiti, one in Miami – where stereotypes exist of a nation so deep in poverty they supposedly eat mud cakes, Elsa – the cousin still living in Haiti – remarks with pride and dignity that although they may wake up starving most days, the dirt beneath their feet they do not eat, to ‘In the Manner of Water or Light’ where the narrator visits the place her grandmother and mother were born and understands for the first time that Haiti is ‘a place run through with pain’. The beauty of the prose juxtaposed with harsh living conditions, with Haiti’s brutal past, creates an often uncomfortable reading experience. As readers we become voyeurs of these people, yet it is better to witness than to be ignorant of the facts.
It can be easy to forget that Haiti was the first independent nation in Latin America and the first black-led republic, especially as the outside world only ever broadcasts the fact that Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Defined by ‘what you have not’, Gay’s characters are at once fiercely proud of their rich history and cultural heritage, but they are also yearning to leave. The Haitian diaspora is explored in such intimate detail by Gay, yet we can never really know if those who reached America found what they were searching for; if their expectations were met. Brilliant, beautiful, breathtaking, creative, surreal and tragic, Roxane Gay’s Ayiti is a stunning debut collection. Without its reissue by Grove Atlantic I may never have come across them as soon as I did.
‘Ayiti’ by Roxane Gay was published on 19th June. Thank you to Grove Atlantic, via Netgalley, for the review copy.