Roxane Gay’s collection Ayiti is a blend of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. While the poems and stories vary widely in genre and scope, they are all linked through their characters’ unyielding longing for satisfaction. They seek that satisfaction through sex, rum, zombie arts, a place to call home, family, and the deepest primordial yearning: the desire for freedom. The tastes, sounds, politics, heartbreak, and triumphs of Haiti are detailed extensively throughout the collection. Whether the story is set on the banks of the Massacre River in Haiti, a stifling shack in Florida, or the Upper Michigan peninsula, which is “vast and densely forested, filled with ghosts and skeletons wandering through the industrial ruin,” the setting is another character, sometimes petulant, other times a paradise, but always corporeal.
Gay’s characters include a young Haitian man seeking acceptance in a U.S. high school; a woman kidnapped in Haiti and raped until her family can come up with her ransom money; a half Jewish, Half Haitian girl haunted by the specter of her grandfather, a man her grandmother knew for less than a day before soldiers gunned him down; and another man who survives on Hot Pockets and sporadic work in Florida so he can send money to his wife and children still in Haiti.
The content of Gay’s stories and poems is as eclectic as their characters. “There is No “E” in Zombi” draws in the reader with its bizarre “how-to” manual form. The poem introduces a story where a woman engages zombi arts in order to keep a man named Lionel Desormeaux who, “when he walked, people swore they could hear the bass of a deep drum.” Another poem takes the form of an expense ledger and details the crushing sacrifices a man must make to secure passage for himself and his wife from Haiti to the U.S.
One entry details the sale of his wife to the captain and two other men for two hours to avoid getting thrown overboard. This reality is later contrasted with the collection’s final story, which focuses on the strength of another Haitian couple’s love as they, too, risk their lives in flight to the U.S.
Pride in Haiti’s people and culture thrums throughout Gay’s book like the bass drum that sounds when Lionel Desormeaux walks.
When one character asks if a media report claiming that Haitians are eating mud is true, another character assures, “We chew on our pride. The dirt we do not eat.”
Gay writes that Haiti is a land of contradictions; so is her collection of stories and poems. The rapists and kidnappers are contradicted with a husband’s unending capacity to love his wife. Poverty is contrasted with success. Nearly dead zombis fill pages next to young women who tremble with hope and life. The sweetness of rum and Coke runs parallel with the bitter taste of blood and mud.
All of these contradictions create a collection that is both an exploration of and lesson on the tenacity of the human spirit and of the soul of an island called Haiti.
Kylie Kinley is an instructor in the Kansas State English Department.