In Roxane Gay's divine little debut short story collection Ayiti, a woman being aggressively pursued by a man blurts out the thesis statement for the book in a moment of pure exasperation: "Why do men always assume women are angry when they are honest?"
It's a good question. At first glance, Ayiti feels like a book that is shimmering with rage. These are not impartial stories; Gay is a partisan God who enacts justice upon some characters and vengeance on others. But when readers fall under Ayiti's trance, Gay's rage is slowly revealed as nothing more than the rawness of truth.
Ayiti is mostly concerned with the stories of Haitians. People, mostly women, living in Haiti. Haitians who have moved to America. Haitians who miss home. Haitians who want nothing more than to leave home. They fall in love and they are betrayed and they soldier on despite seemingly the entire world pushing against them.
What Gay is interested in here is creating a mythology for the Haitian diaspora, rooted in history and family and folklore. One of the best stories in the volume, "There Is No 'E' in Zombi, Which Means There Can Be No You or We," is flat-out genre fiction, a tale of horror that wouldn't be out of place in an anthology of scary stories. It's probably no coincidence that the tale is based on Haitian folklore.
The story opens with a description of how to create a zombi:
You need a good reason, a very good reason.
You need puffer fish, and a small sample of blood and hair from your chosen candidate.
Instructions: Kill the puffer fish. Don't be squeamish. Extract the poison. Just find a way. Allow it to dry. Grind it with the blood and hair to create your coup de poudre. A good chemist can help. Blow the powder into the candidate's face. Wait.
The language in this passage is not like Gay's plain-hewn prose elsewhere in the book. It's got a cadence and a rhythm all its own. That "Don't be squeamish" following instructions to kill the fish immediately puts the knife in the reader's hand, the bleeding lump of gill and muscle on the cutting board in front of her. And the "Just find a way" turns what could have been a slightly bizarre recipe into an outright quest, a challenge. (That could have been another title for this book, Just Find a Way.)
Ayiti was originally published by a small publisher named Artistically Declined Press in 2011. It received good reviews in a number of small outlets — shout-out to Monkeybicycle for being ahead of the curve! — but it promptly disappeared the way debut short story collections from small presses often do.
And then, thanks to social media and a moment rising to meet an author, Roxane Gay became Roxane Gay. And now this delicate and lusty little collection (many of the stories were originally published in erotica anthologies) is living its own afterlife, courtesy of Grove Press. We should be grateful to get another shot at appreciating this collection, which weaves memoir and legend together with a kind of raw power that evokes the crackle of other debuts like Maxine Hong Kingston's brilliant Woman Warrior.
These are stories that play with magic. "Voodoo Child," at a scant two pages long, opens with a paragraph that could just as easily have inspired the premise of a novel:
When my college roommate learns I am Haitian, she is convinced I practice voodoo, thanks to the Internet in the hands of the feeble-minded. I do nothing to dissuade her fears even though I was raised Catholic and have gained my inadequate understanding of voodoo from the Lisa Bonet movie that made Bill Cosby mad at her as if he had the nerve to be mad at anyone about anything.
It's a gorgeous setup: conflict, racism, pop culture, and comedy in the span of less than a hundred words.
And "Voodoo Child"'s protagonist establishes another theme of Ayiti: the naive hero, meddling with powers beyond her understanding. Other characters in this book conceive children in cursed rivers that run red with the blood of the massacred, they play with weapons of war as though they're children's blocks, they come to America not fully comprehending the ignorance that they're wading into. They welcome the cruise ships full of ogling Americans:
The Americans, the men, they like us and want us. They think we too are for sale as part of the Hispaniola experience. They offer us their American dollars and expect us to be impressed by the likeness of Andrew Jackson. We prefer the countenance of Benjamin Franklin.
After reading Ayiti, I'm filled with hope that Gay will return to the short story as her primary literary outlet. Her essays are splendid, her memoir is an essential dispatch from the current moment. But these stories in Ayiti are alive in a way that few short story collections can muster. They are short and sometimes they are brutish. They are elegant and passionate. But most of all, more than anything else, they're honest.
And in a time when parents and their children are being separated at the border when they come to this country seeking asylum, we could use a lot more of this honesty. Anger, on its own, just isn't doing the job.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant