Author: Roxane Gay
Publisher: Corsair, Hachette UK
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction
Rating: 4 Stars
We are sometimes (perhaps most of the time or even all the time) lost in our individual bubbles – the ones that we create, the ones that protect us from most realities, so much so that we aren’t even aware of them. I say this because before reading “Ayiti” by Roxane Gay I wasn’t aware of what the Haitians went through or are going through on a daily basis and for that, I have no one else to blame but myself.
Having said that, “Ayiti” (the way Haiti is pronounced by the Haitians and is the original way of referring to their country) has made me want to know more about the country. How it was ruled by the French and how did they get their freedom and what were the consequences that made it reach this state in the larger scheme of things.
Roxane Gay’s prose is not forgiving nor is it all roses along the way. Her stories are brutal, real, visceral and jump at you without warning – just the way a well-written short-story should be. At the same time, humanity (or the lack of it) runs deep in these fifteen stories – some medium-sized, mostly vignettes and three long stories that will cut through your heart and make you sometimes weep with helplessness.
“Ayiti” is a collection that makes you see the mirror of the world. A country that is forgotten not only by the world but sometimes also its own people. The people who have perhaps given up on a God to come and rescue them from their fate. Some of whom who make it to America and try too hard, so their family can make it. The people who will eat mud in Haiti because there is nothing else to consume. The characters are always in conflict – between home and what they want to make a home but will never be.
“Haiti is not a perfect home, but it is a home nonetheless” thinks the protagonist of the last story in this collection, “A Cool, Dry Place” – a story of a couple who want to leave Haiti – dreaming of Little Haiti in Miami, where there is air-conditioning and cable TV all-day long. And yet, she doesn’t want to leave. She wants to stay with their loved ones, the familiar. Between them, what keeps them going is the love and lust they share.
Roxane Gay’s stories are for sure semi-autobiographical if not all-autobiographical in nature. She was born and raised in the US, though Haitian and I am sure there must have been stories that traveled and found their way in this book.
These stories were published earlier in 2011 and are now published in a new format, but the voice, the situations, the conditions are still the same. The book couldn’t have been more relevant than today when the world is in a state of limbo – when we need to be human, accept, own and belong. In a world where children are being separated from their parents, the part of the world in which Trump makes decisions, we really need to wake up and smell the coffee.
“Cheap, Fast, Filling” was another favourite of mine – about a man named Lucien and his arrival in the United States via Canada and again right into Miami. He has been told that eat Hot Pockets until he finds a job since they are cheap and taste good. He survives on those and Super Big Gulp. To him, even this taste is wonderful. All he wants is his children left in Haiti, to be able to taste these treats.
“We are the keeper of secrets. We are secrets ourselves. We try to protect each other from the geography of so much sorry.” These are some of the thoughts of the narrator of “In the Manner of Water or Light” – a story of a woman conceiving her daughter on the bank of a river while running away from a horrific massacre. The story is achingly told from the perspective of the granddaughter.
“Sweet on the Tongue” is a story of humiliation, love, redemption and somehow making peace with the ghosts of the past. It is also the story of women loving women, women who love their men fiercely and sometimes when it becomes difficult to love your own child.
Roxane Gay’s writing is not limited by anything. The plot could take you anywhere. Even in the shortest of vignettes, she packs a punch of a nine-page story. “Of Ghosts and Shadows” is a longish story of two women who just want to be left alone, loving each other and not caring about the world. The world they are born into and must whether they like it or not care about. This is one story I could relate with the most – maybe because being gay is really the same anywhere after all.
Gay’s Haiti is weak, broken like one character says something to the effect that it is turning on into itself. Its people do not want to leave and yet there is no choice. The ones who have left try every day to get their loved ones home, USA – which could never be what Haiti is or was and yet it seems like a lot for now. “Ayiti” is a book that must be read and after you have read it, read more on Haiti and its people, its history – what came to be and why. I know I will.