[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Erin Bartnett (Electric Lit) interviews Roxanne Gay on the author’s recently reissued short story collection Ayiti, which, she writes, “explores beauty, desire, and resilience of Haitian people.” Here are excerpts. Read the full interview at Electric Lit.
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.” So opens the short story “Voodoo Child” in Roxane Gay’s recently re-released short story collection, Ayiti (the title is the creole word for Haiti). The people in these stories are tired of the assumptions, tired of everyone getting their stories wrong. The news cycle doesn’t help.
The stories create conversations that travel back and forth between Haiti and America to challenge the overpowering news narratives that undermine the beauty, desire, and resilience of the Haitian diaspora. The stories vary in length, and in each Roxane Gay illustrates how expansive the short story form can be. While some stories cinch an idea into two pages, another develops over 45 pages. The structures for her stories are novel and purposeful. “There is no E in Zombi, Which Means There Can Be No You or We,” for example, opens with a “[Primer]” told in verse: “[Things Americans do not know about zombis:]/They are not dead. They are near death./There’s a difference.” “Gracias, Nicaragua y Lo Sentimos” is a two-page short story written in Spanish and English in allegiance to the experience of being reduced to your country’s political and economic strife.
A glance at Roxane Gay’s work since Ayiti was originally published in 2011 illustrates the point we already knew — Roxane Gay is as prolific as she is purposeful. Since 2011, Gay has published a novel An Untamed State, the New York Times bestselling essay collection Bad Feminist, her second short story collection Difficult Women and her memoir, the New York Times bestselling Hunger. She also writes the World of Wakanda comic book series with poet Yona Harvey for Marvel, and is a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. And she’s at work on television and film projects. On the reissue of Ayiti this year, Roxane Gay and I corresponded over email about conveying the multiplicity of the Haitian diaspora experience.
[. . .] EB: You’ve made the critical distinction between the trauma and triumph of the Haitian diaspora. The word “trauma” means a lot of different things to different people. How would you begin to shape or define your relationship to the word?
RG: Trauma is something that has informed my life, by way of experience and my work, by way of where that traumatic experience took me and what I needed to say about it. As I get older, my relationship to trauma changes. With time there is distance and healing though as I write in Hunger, I am as healed as I’m ever going to be at this point.
EB: I read an interview you did with the Guardian in which you say: “I think writing always gives us control over the things that we can’t actually control in our lives.” Was there something in particular you were writing towards controlling or understanding in Ayiti?
RG: In Ayiti, I simply wanted to write about and convey the multiplicity of the Haitian diaspora experience. All too often in the American media, Haiti is only discussed in one narrow, limiting way. I wanted to offer something that is, I hope, different.
EB: In “Of Ghosts and Shadows” two Haitian women have a private romantic relationship: “For now, we are women who don’t exist. We are less than shadows, more than ghosts” because to be in love with another woman is an “American thing” which is stigmatized and even dangerous. How do you think desire becomes something dangerous, or a tool for other-ing? Do you think desire is (problematically, so) something some people have to be able to identify with in order to sanction?
RG: Desire becomes something dangerous when people outside of that desire don’t understand it. People are, generally, terrified of things they do not understand. Desire is not something people have to be able to identify with in order to sanction but unfortunately, many people in this world have not gotten that message. [. . .]