by Roxane Gay
“We are keepers of secrets. We are secrets ourselves. We try to protect each other from the geography of so much sorrow. I don’t know that we succeed.”
Sweaty! Sticky! Airless! Humid! Ayiti exudes uncomfortably clammy adjectives – though one senses no single word could ever adequately describe the insufferable sultriness of a typical Haitian day without even a small electric fan to stir the fug.
Haiti became the world’s first black-led republic and independent Caribbean state after first abolishing slavery and then ousting its French colonizers in the early 19th century. Situated on the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the Dominican Republic, this land of sugarcane plantations and colourful shantytowns is one of the poorest in the Americas; and since 1957, when Dr. François Duvalier (known to his people as ‘Papa Doc’) became President, the Haitians have endured one reign of terror, catastrophic Act of God and degrading ordeal after another.
The beleaguered island is also famous for voodoo (or Vodou, in Haitian Creole) – a religious cult combining elements of Roman Catholic ritual with traditional African magical rites. These beliefs were used by the Duvalier dynasty and the much feared Tontons Macoutes (members of a paramilitary force masquerading as ‘Bogeymen’) to subjugate the population. Following an earthquake in 2010, many locals believed that vodouists were responsible for this natural disaster (and a subsequent Cholera epidemic), which led to Vodou priests being lynched.
Professor Roxane Gay was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1974, at a time when Duvalier’s playboy son, Jean-Claude (or ‘Baby Doc’) had succeeded his late father and was leading the country into a fresh cycle of torture, killings and financial ruin. Her family is of Haitian descent, but she has always acknowledged her “privileged background” compared to others (though she could hardly be said to have ‘had it easy’) – but her circumstances have never prevented her from exploring the Haitian condition in her writing. She is now a successful author and cultural critic who teaches English at Purdue University.
I have followed Gay’s columns in The Guardian since about 2014, delighting in her astute observations on topics as wide ranging as the Oscar Pistorius case, living in Florida, being overweight and Valentine’s Day. She is the author of the critically admired essay collection Bad Feminist (2014), the novel An Untamed State (2014), the short story collection Difficult Women (2017) and an award-winning memoir entitled Hunger (2017).
Ayiti was Gay’s debut collection – a blend of fiction, poetry and personal memories concerning the “Haitian diaspora experience” – originally published by a small press in 2011, but now reissued with additional content by Grove Press. Some of her compositions are short and punchy but, for me, the really powerful pieces, are the lengthier and more fully developed stories like Sweet on the Tongue (about the trauma of kidnap and gang rape) and Of Ghosts and Shadows (on the closeted life of a lesbian couple).
The most potent parts of this collection are those which explore the quotidian: the lives of individuals, either on the island or exiled to somewhere like ‘Little Haiti‘, as they survive each hot, hungry, difficult day – frequently exhausted, sometimes frightened – and through sheer strength of character, keep going.
Gay’s work is remarkable. We badly need writers of her calibre in the modern world. I keenly await publication of her new collection, Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture.
Many thanks to Grove Press for providing an advance review copy of this title.