Posted By jatyler - 1st October 2011
A debut title is a difficult endeavor for any writer. What does it say about its author? What does it tell its readers? How will it provide legs for a second or a third or a fourth book? Ayiti, Roxane Gay’s debut from Artistically Declined Press, is so solid and so wonderfully layered that she doesn’t need to worry. This is a debut that automatically sets Gay towards success.
To begin with, the single greatest beauty in Atiyi is its intentional use of contrast. Consider this excerpt, where a slang and swearing title heads up eloquent lines and tangible depth:
His father splashes his armpits with water, then lathers with soap, then rinses, then draws a damp washcloth across his chest, the back of this neck, behind his ears. His father excuses Gérard, then washes between his thighs. He finishes his routine by washing his face and brushing his teeth. Then he goes to work. Back home, he was a journalist. In the States, he slices meat at the deli counter for eight hours a day and pretends not to speak English fluently.
Gay, unlike most writers, doesn’t relegate herself solely to one mode – instead, she rests her stories between worlds, where the unrefined meet the formal, where the beauty of poetic language is never fully swept away from the dirt and grit of honest and genuine moments. And this use of juxtaposition filters into the content of Ayiti as well, with a great example in ‘Things I Know About Fairy Tales’ – a story that uses an A/B pattern to neatly converse about what a Haitian family believes of both fairy tales and kidnapping:
They put a burlap sack over my head and shoved me into the backseat of one of the waiting cars. They told me, in broken English, to do as they said and I would be back with my family soon. I sat very still. The air was stifling. All I heard was their laughter, my son crying and the fading wail of the car horn.
My father is fond of saying that a woman’s greatest asset is her beauty. Snow White had her beauty, and her beauty was her curse until it became her greatest asset
There is in fact, no shortage of opposites and opposition in Ayiti. The Haitians detest and envy Americans, Haitians living in America long for an idyllic Haiti, Haitian immigrants come to terms with what American is not or will never be, and even Haiti itself is embattled, the people contrasted one against another, creating a resounding layered story-telling, a tremendous depth of meaning that gives us so much to digest (and love) in Ayiti:
The soldier moved in. Every night, he returned to Marise’s well kept home, complained about the heat, the heavy air, the trash everywhere, the dark shiny people throwing rocks and bottles and angry words. He ate her food. He shared her bed, touched her body with his soldier hands; he filled her and frightened her and she felt something she didn’t understand.
Ayiti is a book at once memoir, fiction, and cultural-biography, and Gay does it all via precise and engaging mini-narratives woven into one gaunt and poignant book. This is a debut that feels more like a veteran, and it makes me very excited to see what will come next.
[ stay tuned for our interview with Roxane Gay in the coming days ]