Gay has released five books over the past year, including Marvel’s Black Panther, World of Wakanda, along with a virtual library of essays. One of her latest, “What Fullness Is,” details her recent weight-loss surgery with startling honesty, unwrapping her skin and soul to help us rethink all that we know not only about losing weight but also about our health-care system. She edited two books in 2018: The Best American Short Stories and Not That Bad, an anthology of first-person essays on rape culture. The reissued Ayiti, a word that means “Haiti” in Kreyol (Haitian Creole), is in the vein of the classic assemblage The Thing Around Your Neck by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and recalls the fiction anthology Everyday People: The Color of Life, edited by Electric Literature’s Jennifer Baker.
Gay’s stories about the “first free black nation” are presented with her characteristic unapologetic realness. Her characters sat beside me, close enough to touch, while I read of their deepest, darkest secrets and struggles. Sex dancing on the edges of pain and pleasure, heat, sweat, and stifled air, the loveliness of sugar cane, coconuts, and the blueness of a Haitian sea are set beside blood, tears, and longing. Men longing to be men, and women longing to live. I am not from an island, but I was born near the coast in Nigeria, which is, like Gay’s Haiti, a magnificently tropical, black place. She captures perfectly the oppressiveness of a hot, wet daily existence, where water, though one is surrounded by it, doesn’t always come easy, where air conditioners are few, and where one endlessly longs for “A Cool, Dry Place,” the title of the last piece.
In Ayiti, Gay reveals the black mind and offers a diasporic way of understanding our place in the United States and globally via the Haitian, immigrant, and Haitian-American experience. Although women anchor her narratives, the men are portrayed just as fairly. The book opens with several short dramatic but comical pieces that read like poetry. In “Motherfuckers,” you laugh at the simple humor of an ordinary day for Gérard. He is 14, new to the States, and quickly “decides that he hates each and every motherfucker he goes to school with” because they tease him about his accent. You also realize that you have been Gérard. The brilliance of the story, which is just two pages long, is that at some points in our lives we have all been Gérard, and at others the “motherfuckers.”
With “Sweet on the Tongue” and “In the Manner of Water or Light,” two of the longest and most powerful stories, it becomes clear Gay is painting, in glorious prose, a world in ruin. Both stories explore the tensions between pain and pride in “the country where you were born” and share a common thread of magical realism that is reminiscent of Maxine Hong Kingston’s eloquent memoir The Woman Warrior and Gay’s later collection, Difficult Women. In “Sweet on the Tongue,” after becoming engaged, the narrator, who is a confident medical resident in Los Angeles, holds a wedding in her native country, an unnamed island in the Caribbean. She chooses to do so, she says,
because a reporter on CNN said the country was safer now, said the beaches were once again full of pale American tourists, Canadians, too. The troubles, the reporter said, would soon be a distant memory. We believed him because I thought it would be wonderful to marry the man I loved on the soil of the country I loved before I learned how to love anything else.
While on her honeymoon, though, she is violently assaulted and must live forever with the consequences of her attack. “In the Manner of Water or Light” is a family saga of generational secrets, terror, and passionate romance. The first-generation Haitian-American narrator pieces together the evening her grandparents met in the Dominican Republic from her mother’s fragmented memories. They hid in a river as soldiers in their town murdered Haitian immigrants. Her “mother was conceived” on that night, in what “would ever after be known as the Massacre River.” The “sharp smell of blood has followed her” ever since, and when “she tries to explain how she is haunted by the smell of blood, she says that her senses are suffused with it.” Here, like Kingston, Gay uses lyrical, sensual language to make the unimaginable real. Rather than merely imagining what these women have lived through, we feel it.
In “All Things Being Relative,” the narrator, who lives in the “copper country of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula” and whose parents were born in Haiti, explores the irony in both “forgotten” places. Though thousands of miles apart, the U.P. and Haiti, Gay’s “island of contradictions,” mirror each other. Both lands are rich in beauty and natural resources, but both lands are marked by a unique sadness. The U.P. is defined by the loss of the mines, where “once it was man who pulled the copper from the enriched soil […] then […] machine, and then there was no need for any of it, and then there was nothing left,” because “progress is not kind and human nature cannot resist the lure of possibility.” Though the geographical ravaging of the land in Michigan is devastating, we know that the state has adapted and that the U.P. is one area of land in a vast nation; more dramatic is the narrator’s description of Haiti, the “first free black nation.” It is a country in which “[f]reedom, it seems, has a price,” and whose people are “defined by what we are not and what we do not have”:
The sand is always warm. The water is so clear-blue bright that it is sometimes painful to behold. The art and music are rich, textured, revelatory, ecstatic. The sugarcane is raw and sweet. And yet, what most people think they know is this: Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
Haiti was the hub of France’s slave trade, and the Europeans fought hard to keep the island in their grip. Since independence, Haiti has come to be known primarily for the high cost it’s paid for freedom, a cost exhibited simply in “the grinding hum of the generator” and, more drastically, in the “gunshots” as “UN peacekeepers and roving gangs skirmish” in the “background.” As the narrator says, “the bitter taste” of it all “burns,” and this powerful story harkens back to the irony of infants separated from their parents as a logical route to immigration reform. How can we keep peace with guns? How can family separation end illegal immigration? How have the first “first free black nation” and the U.P., with its “breathtaking and irresistible” land, become forgotten? Haiti chose her freedom over colonial rule and the U.P.’s natural resources were sucked bone-dry once the United States made new machines that replaced the hands of her miners — both regions didn’t fit a certain economic model.
Other stories, like “There Is No ‘E’ in Zombi, Which Means There Can Be No You or We” and “Of Ghosts and Shadows,” explore the beauty, complexity, and danger of love through the lenses of homosexuality and witchcraft. Gay makes it very clear that there is no “one” story about the first free black nation. No one version can encapsulate its people. Each person has a story that deserves telling, and they are all valid because they are lived. Each is revealed as uniquely beautiful and significant in its own way, and forces the reader to confront herself while she lives with each character. “The Harder They Come” deals with tourism on the island and the American foreigners who visit. They “ask questions but rarely listen to the answers.” They “like us and want us,” as if “we too are for sale as part of the Hispaniola experience.” Gay uses French words and often several sentences at a time in Spanish, sometimes without any translation; in a country like the United States, where 60 million people are Hispanic or Latino, the joke is on us if we cannot read Español, if we don’t quite catch her meaning when she writes, “Nicaraguenses, nosotros Haitianos lo sentimos pero no queremos más el titulo del país más pobre en el hemisferio occidental. Le damos las gracias. El deshonor ahora es el suyo.”
She bookends the collection with tales of new beginnings. It opens with Gérard, the teenager at the start of a new life in the United States, and ends with a couple about to begin their own in “A Cool, Dry Place.” Desperate to escape “the heat, the dust, and the air redolent with exhaust fumes and the sweet stench of sugar cane,” the female narrator Gabi and her husband Yves “run away” to Miami, Florida, which they are certain is “someplace cool and dry,” unlike Port-au-Prince, where “the air is thick and refuses to move.” Part of a large group, they embark on the dangerous journey by boat. We are terrified for them, mindful of the countless reports of migrants stranded at sea and asylum seekers turned away at our gates. We’ve witnessed it many times before from the comfort of our homes and screens — television, computer, phone, iPad. From a safe distance, we have heard of people like Gabi that arrive on our shores, in our backyards, and knock at the fences of our back porches. We say goodbye to this particular Gabi as she and Yves make love below decks while she imagines that “[w]ith each stroke he takes me further away from the sorrows of home.” We, the readers, who are intimate with America’s sorrows, are left grateful that Gay has opened up for us another portal into the variety of immigrant experiences in our country.
Born in Nigeria and raised in Los Angeles, Utibe Gautt Ate is a writer and artist.