JUNE 6, 2014
ROXANE GAY’S haunting new novel begins with a simple premise: a young woman returns to her family’s native Haiti for a vacation with her husband and infant son. Mireille Duval Jameson, the book’s protagonist, is the daughter of one of the wealthiest men on the island and a “dyaspora,” a member of the privileged class of Haitians who can afford to live and travel abroad. Soon after her homecoming, Mireille is kidnapped by a gang of armed men in one of Port-au-Prince’s toniest neighborhoods, just beyond the security gates of the Duval’s luxurious house. Her father refuses to pay the one million dollar ransom, and the rest of the novel chronicles the daily realities of her brutal captivity, during which she is raped, beaten, and mutilated by her captors. Thirteen days later, her father capitulates and Mireille is released into a life she no longer recognizes, struggling to heal her mental and physical wounds as she readjusts to the United States.
Throughout her abduction and its aftermath, Mireille struggles to understand why she and her family inspire such rage and violence in her captors. In Haiti, whose triumphant and historic revolution has given way to a bitter postcolonial inheritance of government corruption and economic uncertainty, the answer to that question can only ever be partial.
The kidnappers’ anger is, of course, much larger than Mireille and her body. It can be partly attributed to the difference between these men from Haiti’s underclass and Mireille’s own status as a dyaspora. In Gay’s novel, “dyaspora” is often used as a slur expressing “the resentment those Haitians who cannot leave hold for those of us who can.” Fellow Haitian-American writer Joanne Hyppolite has called the cultural and class difference embedded in the dyaspora’s constitutive characteristic a “connection and disconnection” to the life of Haiti. That paradoxical relationship enables the arrogance, ignorance, and sense of security from which Mireille and her analogs behold the island’s struggling masses.
For example, during her captivity, Mireille escapes her violation through dreamlike reveries of her former life, including summers spent traveling from the United States to the “motherland.” These memories also highlight the ways in which dyaspora ambivalence is indexed by the class differences that arise in the gulf between the US and Haiti:
It was easy to sift through our clothes — nice outfits for church and visiting distant relatives, swimsuits for the beach, T-shirts and shorts to play with our cousins. The more difficult packing was the various goods we were expected to bring — American movies on videotape and later, DVD, Gap clothing, large bottles of olive oil and industrial sized bags of rice from discount warehouses, small electronics, Nike sneakers, cornflakes, Tampax … At the airport, we would stand in line with all the other dyaspora and their unfathomably large suitcases [….] It was easy to spot the Haitian families not only from their suitcases, but from the hovering mass of American-born children hiding in plain sight at a comfortable distance.
The structural and material inequality that cleaves dyaspora from island-bound Haitians is nicely rendered here through the “unfathomably large suitcases” of the returning expatriates, who also become vessels bulging with the spoils of empire. Those same suitcases, and what their contents represent, turn the dyaspora into the most reviled citizens of the nation for Haiti’s underclass.
Mireille pleads for mercy from the ringleader of her captors, known only as “the Commander,” arguing that she “did not create the problems in this country nor did my family.” His unequivocal response articulates both the impossibility of maintaining the status quo in Haiti, and the violence always simmering beneath the postcard landscapes of “the pearl of the Antilles.” “You think you control everything and can have anything,” he tells her. “One day all of you will live like the rest of us. You will know what it’s like to live the way the real people of this country do.” In the interim preceding that day of judgment, the Commander exacts his revenge upon Mireille’s body, though his rage is really directed at her father, who behind his security gates and the tinted windows of his expensive cars, represents all that has been denied to Haiti’s underclass. In the Haiti of Gay’s novel, the price of poverty and the price of male pride are always excised from the female body.
Mireille stands in for more than just a ransom — an arbitrary sum that might grant her kidnappers a temporary reprieve from the conditions of life in the slums. She also becomes the receptacle for the historical trauma suffered by her male attackers. Scenes of sexual violation are interrupted by the men’s stories of mothers raped by wealthy Haitian men, of parents who sold them into indentured slavery for a mere $25, of the sons they want to save from poverty. Perhaps the most perverse and troubling moments in the novel are those in which an attacker named TiPierre rapes Mireille but touches her “like a lover,” coercing her violated body to surrender a tenderness and care he has never known. After one such episode, TiPierre confesses that he dreams of moving to Miami and reinventing himself as a “deejay in a fancy nightclub” celebrating the good life alongside Mireille who would “be his girl and look pretty for him.” Our protagonist can only mourn his suffering: “I pitied him,” Mireille says, “how carelessly he had been loved, how easily he had been discarded, how little he knew of love or true desire. I loathed myself for my compassion. I loathed him for making me feel anything toward him at all.” In attending to the humanity that lies behind inhuman acts and the sympathy that tries to make some sense of suffering, Gay implores the reader to examine the conditions that produce Mireille’s waking nightmare. We are asked to look at her captivity and the trauma she is subjected to from a broader — though no less troubled — perspective that offers no easy explanations, and no easy answers.
An Untamed State performs its most haunting work in this exploration of the body’s capacity for care and violence. While the dyaspora conflict catalyzes the novel’s organizing action, Gay’s incisive prose sharpens around its representation of a woman’s descent into madness as she struggles to survive the inhuman abuse she receives at the hands of desperate men. When the Commander orders the entire gang to rape Mireille, it is not merely her body, but also her sense of autonomy and security, that is violated:
He ripped me wide open. Everything tore. All I could think about was my body, how the first time in my life I understood the very weakness, the utter fragility of human flesh […] Before I could move, before I could hope for an end to what had begun, there was another man who simply climbed on top of me without ceremony […] My body was not my body; it was less than nothing.
This scenario, in which Gay condenses female abjection and the casualness of male violence, repeats itself time and again throughout the captivity. Each iteration brings forth new depths of violation, new fractures in the self that Mireille must destroy in order to survive. “I became no one,” she observes, “I became a woman who wanted to live. That was my fight.” The novel dilates on Mireille’s suffering in captivity, and that narrative is only broken up by poignant reveries from her past. For some readers, these moments may feel excessive and especially difficult. Some readers may find the novel’s visceral descriptions of rape and female battery warrant the “trigger warnings” often used to identify potentially traumatizing aspects of contemporary art. However, the rawness of Gay’s narrative does urgent and transformational work in taking us well beyond our comfort zones, demanding that we be with Mireille’s suffering even when we might want to look away. When reader and protagonist come out the other side of the novel’s immediate traumatic scenes, the world looks and feels different. Mireille can never be as she was; she would “always calculate the worst possibilities of being alone with any man but my husband.” Language also becomes subject to calculation: the reader cannot help but see how seemingly innocuous words like “milking machines” and “wifebeater” inscribe violence against women into the banal objects of our daily lives.
An Untamed State is a novel about the cultural politics of belonging, and the precarious condition of women in a world organized by male violence. It is important to remember that it is also an exploration of a particular historical moment and place. Gay writes about a Haiti “that belonged to men who obeyed no kind of law.”
Haiti is the only country in the Western hemisphere in which slaves successfully threw off the yoke of their colonial oppressors. Its liberation has been met with fear, neglect, and marginalization by its neighbors from the beginnings of the 19th century to the present day, as Haiti has largely been left to cut its own path through a series of natural and political disasters. While Gay avoids a didactic recitation of Haiti’s political struggle, that history weaves its way into the novel in oblique but loaded references. The invocation of historical names like Dessalines or L’Ouverture recall a more familiar image of Haiti.
A campaign poster for the Fanmi Lavalas party, seen from Mireille’s cell in the first days of her abduction, signals the complex recent history of social struggle in Haiti. Fanmi Lavalas, famed for its populist commitments and opposition to the neoliberal policies and austerity demands of institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), drew the ire of both domestic and foreign-backed political factions. The party was ousted from power via coup d’etat in 1991 and 2004. The glimpse of a poster shows how subtly Gay treats the problems that define contemporary Haitian statehood. In a similar vein, a newspaper dated July 10, 2008 sets the action in the novel in the immediate wake of a food and oil crisis that erupted into riots that choked the streets of Port-au-Prince in April of that year. The condensation of both long and short political histories underlying the narrative of An Untamed State serves as a marker indicating how little Mireille and her readers “truly understood or could ever understand about this country.”
Looking back on her experience, Mireille reasons that there are at least three Haitis: “The country Americans know and the country Haitians know and the country I thought I knew.” Haiti might ultimately be unknowable to Mireille and Gay’s American readers, but An Untamed State works to illuminate the difference that sutures that unknowability across national borders. Readers won’t forget this painful, beautiful, and important novel.