Roxane Gay, Artistically Declined Press, 2011, 126 pp., paperback, $9
Ayiti, How Shall We Kill the Bishop?, The Beach at Galle Road and Sidewalk Dancing are first story collections by women who have traveled extensively. The settings of the books are various and distant, and what ties them together is that they allow readers to understand something essential about a faraway place and its inhabitants. It's true that you don't have to set a story in a distant land in order to show the reader another world—a collection like Winesburg, Ohio, set in Small Town, USA, becomes a lens on a place that feels foreign by virtue of the attention to geographical and cultural details. However, the four books reviewed here offer a powerful combination—one I cannot resist—of vivid, complex characters who live in places I've never been, like Haiti and Sri Lanka and Kenya.
I grew up in Conroe, Texas, and from a young age, I got to travel alone to New Orleans to visit my grandmother and my great-aunt. The difference between East Texas and the French Quarter impressed upon me at an early age that location can change everything. In my limited [End Page 177] experience with travel as a young person, though, I thought that people were different everywhere you went. As an adult, the more time I spend reading books and magazine articles about faraway places, the more I see that people, no matter where they live, actually have a lot in common. Several books on my nightstand address this notion—that on the surface we may seem different from each other, but actually, we are quite similar. The Hummingbird's Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea is set in Mexico in the late 1800s, and one of the central themes of the book is that we all suffer: young and old, rich and poor. In River Town, Peter Hessler, one of the first Peace Corps volunteers to Fuling, China, is able to connect with his students through literature, even though they have been indoctrinated by the Communist Party all their lives. In The Yellow Cross, René Weis meticulously maps out the last years of the Cathars in thirteenth-century France, and what is so striking about his descriptions of the Cathars is not how different they were from modern Westerners but how similar they were. The most recent addition to this stack of books set in faraway lands—the collections I'm reviewing below—will have you convinced, I hope, that characters from distant lands may at first seem unrecognizable, but if you stay a while, if you read a little further, you will see that they are actually quite familiar.
Roxane Gay's debut collection, Ayiti, brings together fifteen stories connected by the geography of Haiti. "Ayiti" is Creole for "Haiti," the first indication that what follows will be a series of stories told by those who know the language and know Haiti from the inside, which is often a very uncomfortable position. Gay's characters range from a just-off-the-boat teenager trying to navigate the treachery of high school in the United States to a lovesick young Haitian woman desperate for a love potion to a Haitian American living in Michigan, among many others. Some stories are a few paragraphs long; others go on for pages, years. The variety of stories—some are [End Page 178] letters; some are told in an anonymous collective voice; some read like confessions—defies easy categorization. Gay's book was published by a small publisher, Artistically Declined Press, so the size (thin) and cover (unassuming) and general lack of fanfare might lead readers, especially those unaware of Gay's online presence, to believe this collection doesn't have much to say...