Roxane Gay is well known as a social commentator and writer of nonfiction. She is the author of Bad Feminist, a book of essays advocating an intersectional feminism, and of the memoir Hunger, which reveals her gang rape at age 12 as the trigger for her later obesity. However, as evidenced by Ayiti, Gay is also a fiction writer of considerable power. This power is derived in part from her weighty subjects, which revolve around violence and race, but also from the stylish lucidity of her prose.
Gay is the American daughter of middle-class Haitian immigrants. Several of the stories in Ayiti provide portraits of the Haitian–American experience. “About My Father’s Accent” is a two-pager that poetically celebrates the voice of the narrator’s father, which “sounds like Port-au-Prince, the crowded streets, the blaring horns, the smell of grilled meat and roasting corn, the heat, thick and still”. However, the narrator becomes aware of her father’s Haitian accent only because “the world intruded” and insisted upon it. “Cheap, Fast, Filling” is another short short-story, which portrays an illegal Haitian immigrant, Lucien, who has been drawn to the United States by the masculine romance of Miami Vice. He finds himself sleeping “on the floor in an apartment he shares with five other men like him, all of them pretending this life is better than that which came before”.
Some stories are set in Haiti. “Sweet on the Tongue” is longer – and both complex and intimate – exploring the trauma experienced by a woman who is sexually assaulted by a gang of Haitian men, and the relationship between that assault and her later bisexuality. The problem of violence in Haiti is also the subject of “In the Manner of Water or Light”, which revolves around the traumatic aftermath of a historical massacre of Haitians ordered by the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.
Gay’s stories provide an interesting counterpart to the work of the Dominican writer Junot Díaz, whose The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao similarly depicts abuses of political power (by the US as much as Dominican dictators), toxic masculinity and sexual violence on the island of Hispaniola. Given that Díaz’s own possibly toxic masculinity has recently become a subject of concern, thanks to the Me Too movement, the timing seems right for Gay’s profile to rise as a fiction writer of the Caribbean diaspora. KN
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 23, 2018 as "Roxane Gay, Ayiti". Subscribe here.