Roxane Gay is an Assistant Professor at Eastern Illinois University. Her work appears or is forthcoming in NOON, Salon, Cream City Review, Mid-American Review, Chattahoochee Review, The Rumpus, and many others.
"These are powerful stories written with verve and there's this great sense at the collection's close that."
"[Haiti's better scribes], Edwidge Danticat, Franketienne, Madison Smartt Bell, Lyonel Trouillot, Marie Vieux Chavet, have produced some of the best literature in the world. Add to their ranks Roxane Gay, a bright and shining star."
Ayiti is the first book I have ever read by an author whose work I discovered on a blog. Roxane Gay is a regular contributor to HTMLGIANT, “the internet literature magazine blog of the future,” which I unearthed (and obsessed over) in my senior year of high school, desperate to become a part of the “indie lit. scene.”
I enjoyed Gay’s posts so much that I began following her personal blog where Gay writes with wit and heart about writing, rejection, teaching, her life — oh, and films, brilliantly, uproariously. (I read her reviews of both Transformers 3 and Breaking Dawn at work and nearly choked trying to suppress my laughter.) To this day the only things online I check more frequently are my email, Facebook, and xkcd.
Gay’s first book, Ayiti, is infused with every one of her blog’s virtues: it’s funny, sad, bristling, kind, and contemplative. The collection comprises stories, poetry, and nonfiction, and the divides between the three are artfully blurred. Its subject is Haiti, its central topic the Haitian diaspora experience, but its themes — among them the strength/fragility of familial bonds and the real cost of human dignity — run far deeper.
It is refreshing, after reading and hearing ad nauseam the same maudlin but feel-good narrative about Haiti, to see its stories told tenderly, straightforwardly. Like most great literature (and unlike much shameful journalism), this collection profoundly respects the complexity and diversity of the situations of real human beings.
Gay’s prose is patient and, better, patiently-revelatory. Ayiti is smart but never erudite. Frequently, the pieces feel like glimpses of personal secrets. The reader plays the role of close confidante, a receiver of souls spilled forth.
The first piece, “Motherfuckers,” begins: “Gérard spends his days thinking about the many reasons he hates America that include but are not limited to the people, the weather, having to drive everywhere, and having to go to school every day. He is fourteen. He hates lots of things.” Gay knows how to express complex truths, evoke specific senses, without asking the reader to meet her halfway.
In November, 2009, in a blog post titled, “Wish I May, Wish I Might,” Gay worried about the fate of Ayiti, then unpublished. Was it too “ethnic” for publication? She wondered, “Are there any independent publishers who don’t mind such intensely thematic writing? When I see what’s being published, I really worry that there just isn’t a place for a collection like this to find a home.” This story ended happily — Gay’s beautiful little book found its home — but the questions behind her worry remain relevant, even essential.
Ayiti is unapologetic in its focus. It is brave enough to concern itself with a million facets of human life, to employ unique lens after lens, without wavering in its decision to be about Haiti and Haitians. This quality is rare in modern American literature. Ayiti, I hope, will be encouragement that collections of its kind are valuable, even necessary. But it is, of course, an outstanding debut before it is a political statement. And more than anything I hope it is a step toward earning Roxane Gay the readership her work has long deserved.