Sugar Isn't Alway Sweet: Roxane Gay's Collection "Ayiti" Explores Haitian Diaspora

Sugar Isn't Alway Sweet: Roxane Gay's Collection "Ayiti" Explores Haitian Diaspora
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Roxane Gay’s 2011 short story collection Ayiti is getting its re-release this month from Grove Press. The stories center on diverse characters of the Haitian diaspora: from a first-generation teenage boy in the U.S., to a college student in New York City playfully dabbling in voodoo, to a pair of lesbian lovers in Haiti. Some of the stories are just a few pages, while one takes up a large chunk of the book. They aren’t all equally strong, but the ones that do grip, dig in hard. They twist their talons of love and resilience and generational transference and gender and pain, until they’ve made your heart bleed.

So basically, this is typical Roxane Gay fare.

There are certainly overarching themes that bind these stories. Many of them explore what it means to be a woman of the Haitian diaspora, to carry politics in a body – to bear the history and pain of a family and a nation. Women are often burdened with this responsibility. The burden is physical as much as it is spiritual. It is sometimes visible and sometimes just a shadow.

 In Voodoo Child, for example, a young woman in college pretends to practice voodoo in order to mess with her roommate and get what she wants, but later meets an old Haitian woman – who she “knows but doesn’t know” – on the street who tells her she’s a famous mambo, or voodoo high priestess. This seems to be an allegory for the invisible ways in which diaspora is inevitably connected.

Intergenerational transference of cultural and political history is also explored as an inevitable and essential part of being Haitian or of Haitian descent. In In the Manner of Water or Light, the narrator’s grandmother survives a massacre at the sugarcane field in which she worked. For the rest of her life, she is repulsed by the smell of sugar, of sweetness. Her daughter, the narrator’s mother, is afflicted with the unrelenting smell of blood in her nostrils all of her life. The images of rotting fruit and rotting flesh, the river choked with murdered bodies and flowing red – these specters make up a map, the “geographies of grief,” that define this family.

"We are the keepers of secrets. We are the secrets ourselves,” Gay writes. “We try to protect each other from the geography of so much sorrow."

That sugar – something humans love to consume, something that lights up pleasure in the body, something so sweet – is also a root of personal, political, physical and global strife is almost ironic. But sweetness is never pure. Humans on the hunt for pleasure have always caused pain. In Haiti, sugar plays a large structural role in politics and economics. (Which, of course, necessarily involves the region and globe). Thus, its role in the lives and histories of the diaspora is unavoidable.

Sugar saturates these stories.

 It's possible that I love Roxane Gay's writing, I guess

It's possible that I love Roxane Gay's writing, I guess

In Sweet on the Tongue, the book’s longest story, two threads of the narrator’s past are set against a background of bitter sweetness. In the present-day thread, an almost-hookup with another woman reveals the narrator’s outwardly idyllic life of wealth, the perfect husband, a young son. The other thread uses literal sugar as a setting for horror. The woman is kidnapped for ransom in Haiti while on vacation with her husband and taken to a sugarcane warehouse. What happens to her there clogs her life like the sugar permeated her body. Her journey through the trauma is harrowing, but effectively told with the juxtaposition of past and present. The structure and length of the story allow for great nuance and powerful scenes, and is one of the stronger stories in the collection.

“My grandmother’s tongue, like my son’s, is awfully fond of sugar,” the narrator writes. This inescapable sweetness, this ubiquitous agricultural product, this burden of history being inevitably carried into the future across generations – this theme is particularly visible here.

So, too, is the recurrence of caretaking women. In Sweet on the Tongue, the narrator wants to save her husband and family from the worst of the horrors she experienced by keeping them to herself. In In the Manner of Water or Light, the grandmother tells the story of a Clark Gable-looking man who rescued her from the slaughter and became the father of her child. It seems obvious that this story is untrue, that likely something far worse happened to her, but she builds the story into the foundation of the family history, marks it as a landmark on the grief map.

Some of the stories in Ayiti take on a more parable-esque narrative, as in There is No “E” in Zombi, Which Means There Can Be No You or We. In this story, a young woman named Micheline falls in love with a young man named Lionel, who fancies himself king and conqueror as he has been fed the story that his father was Toussaint L’Ouverture. The story revolves around possession – Micheline is possessed by her desire, Lionel by his power. She makes him a zombi to control him, to keep him. They both want to conquer, but in the end neither do. The difference between their methods and sources of power are definitely gendered, but the wider parable seems to be about self-aggrandizement and its broader political consequences (i.e. colonialism, dictatorship, etc.).

In my very biased opinion, Of Ghosts and Shadows is the best story of the collection. It is magic and would make picking this book up worth it even if the other stories were misses (which they’re not). This spare, beautiful hummingbird of a story tells of lesbian lovers in Haiti, girlhood friends who fell in love – a love they must keep secret to avoid not only ostracization, but violence and threats to their lives. Queer safe spaces – house parties, commonly – are routinely raided. The courage and energy it takes to love under such circumstances is remarkable, and Roxane Gay’s language describing the girls’ love for each other and drive to persist is gorgeous:

Amélie’s courage tonight, however blind it might be, makes me want to be just as brave. Her courage makes me wonder if we really have anything to fear – as if it is only ghosts and shadows forbidding our passion.
…In the morning, my mother will find us like this, limbs entangled, bodies as one, breathing each other’s breath. My mother will think she is seeing ghosts or perhaps shadows. She will be right.

I would say that the only weak spots in the book can be found in some less-interesting clichés, such as the pretty meh line “I know there is wisdom in those hands” in A Cool, Dry Place. The wise callused hands of men  (or people in general, but mostly men) is kind of an overused image. I wasn’t taken by its use here, nor the story it was featured in, which stood out more because of how taken I was with pretty much everything else in this collection.

Overall, Ayiti is a wonderful work of prose from a writer whose voice I love. It’s especially impressive for a debut collection, but that’s probably why Roxane Gay is who she is in her writing: prolific, bold, curious, thoughtful, and able to create giant tiny worlds in fiction or essay. Each story in Ayiti dropped me into one of these worlds, which made each one feel complete, from the shortest story to the longest one. While Hunger remains my favorite Roxane Gay work, and one of my favorite books of all time, Ayiti is no slouch, and I would classify it as a must-read for everyone.

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Disclaimer: I received a free copy of Ayiti as an ebook from Edelweiss, but the opinions are my own. I am also a Book Depository affiliate; if you decide to purchase any of the books I review via the links I provide, I will receive a (very small) commission.