Roxane Gay’s debut collection Ayiti is a touching patchwork of stories, lists, modern fairy tales and poems, cataloging and exploring the author’s relationship with Haiti.
“You Never Knew HOW THE WATERS Ran So Cruel So Deep,” cautions the title of the sixth chapter in Roxane Gay’s Ayiti. The sixth chapter is a collection of prices, an itemized list of how much things cost in this world, where you can sell your ’92 Camry for $175 US, and buy passage for two “on a somewhat seaworthy vessel from Cap-Haitien to Provinciales, Turks & Caicos, then the United States” for $3,250. The prices do the talking here, commanding everything from sex to immigration.
The preoccupation with selling and possibly selling-out pervades the narratives of Ayiti. In the chapter, “Things I Know ABOUT Fairy Tales,” the narrator, a mother and wife, is kidnapped and held captive for thirteen days while visiting her parents in Port-au-Prince. During this time she remembers a dinner party at home in the States where the “pretentious but engaging conversation” turned to Haiti:
One of my colleagues mentioned a magazine article he read about how Haiti had surpassed Colombia as the kidnapping capital of the world. Another colleague told us about a recent feature in a national magazine. Soon everyone was offering up their own desperate pieces of information, conjuring a place that does not exist.
…Three years later, I would overhear one of these colleagues, trying to be charming at a cocktail party, telling a precocious graduate student that he knew someone who had been kidnapped in one of those Third World countries. When I walked by he wouldn’t have a strong enough sense of shame to look away.
Even as the narrators of Gay’s stories offer us intimate perspectives into lives and experiences we may never personally encounter, they remind us that we are voyeurs, even potential exploiters of these stories. So many of the voices in Ayiti are trapped in situations that are too difficult to bear, and yet they must. Possibly the reader faces a moral trap in the difficult stories that Gay has to tell—to hear and exploit would be one kind of betrayal, to refuse to hear would be another and possibly worse.
The longing for and resentment against diaspora is another cruel, deep water that overwhelms the stories of Ayiti. The word “Ayiti” is Creole for Haiti, the first independent nation in Latin America and the first black-led republic. There is fierce pride in this knowledge, in the rich history and folklore, and in the beauty of a home where the white sand can burn and “the water so clear blue it hurt my eyes.” Contrast this pride against the narratives:
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.
So much seems packed inside this awareness of Haiti’s reputation broadcast over the world: anger, shame, love, desire, knowledge, wisdom. The tension implicit in defending a country that often fails to defend and comfort you, is layered here as in so many of the stories, where the desire to leave is just as strong as the need to stay. It’s not clear if any of Gay’s characters gain what they hope to when they reach the United States. For what have they gained? A frantic purchase of over-the-counter sleeping pills and a home pregnancy test. A meander through a 7-11, culminating in the purchase of a Hot Pocket. Only the ones who have already acclimated, whose stories of humiliation are elided here, seem to have gained the promises of diaspora. And in this case, the blade cuts both ways, because it is the Haitian, so in love with Miami, who writes letters back to her cousin, asking “Is it true Haitians are eating mud pies?”
Gay’s writing has a declarative and knowing quality, which immediately reassures the reader that she is an expert of her material, if not on the matters that may have been discussed in “the political science class she slept through in college.” Gay’s expertise seems like a kind of physical knowledge, located beneath her skin and that of the people whose voices she has invented, recorded, eavesdropped upon and slept with. Where the stories are received, as in “In the Manner OF WATER or Light,” which recounts how the narrator’s mother was conceived in a river of blood following a massacre of Haitians by Dominican soldiers in 1937, the events’ aftermath are explicitly memorialized in the body. Both the mother and grandmother suffer from the smell of blood in their nostrils that cannot be helped by medicine. The grandmother feels a sharp pain across her back and shoulders whenever she sees a sugarcane field. She drinks the mud of Massacre River, bonding to her cells what she refuses to erase from memory.
Ayiti, as a collection of diverse voices and story forms, is its own kind of diaspora. There are fifteen named sections but dozens more stories within them, some so short you could read in sixty seconds but ponder for weeks. Roxane Gay has a gift in presenting the taste of a life in a single sliver. She will tell you what an immigrant couple purchased from a CVS on June 26 of an unnamed year, and from there, you could easily—or uneasily—imagine the rest.