Post Road Magazine #27

Ayiti by Roxane Gay

Alicia Erian

I teach a class called Literature Live at Northeastern Illinois University, in which we read only the literature of the six authors who have been invited to participate in our Visiting Writers Series for that year. Roxane Gay will be joining us on February 13, 2014, which is why we are currently reading Ayiti, an adorable little volume of prose that will kick your fucking ass.

When you love a book, and you share it with your students and they also love it—to the point where they do things like brazenly read the whole thing in one sitting, then send you an email containing all the comments they would've made in class had they been able to afford the gas to drive to school that day—it only makes you love that book even more.

One of the students reported in class that Ayiti is described on Amazon as consisting of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, though none of us can tell which is which. I said I would ask Roxane, since she's my friend and I know her to be very forthcoming, but then the class got off the subject and I never wrote to Roxane for clarification. I think that in the end, we liked the book much more than we cared about the labels. Labels, it seems, are only important when the students think a book sucks, because then they just want to talk about anything else except the book.

The power of Roxane's writing is such that as much as we've struggled in Literature Live with our discussions of this year's visiting poets, the longest discussion we've had in class pertaining to Ayiti was about the one piece not written in standard prose format.

The piece is called "You Never Knew How the Waters Ran So Cruel So Deep," and it's set up in three columns, like a ledger. The column headings are DATE, ITEM(S), and PRICE, and what lies beneath each heading is an accounting of belongings sold in order for the narrator and his wife to be smuggled out of Haiti and into the United States. The story takes up three of the book's cute little pages, and the list of things sold starts with Phat Farm jeans (to the narrator's gangsta cousin), then progresses to 1/3 share in the house the narrator's father built (sold for less than its value to the narrator's siblings, since they're angry that the narrator is leaving), and then, once the couple finally gets onto the boat, to "two hours alone with your wife in the captain's quarters, sold to the captain and two other men."

Huh? But—but—

And that's what I mean when I say Ayiti will kick your ass. There you were, just reading along, and then suddenly this happens. And the worst part is that it's totally believable, and that your shock only exists because you're too spoiled by your own safety to conceive of the loss of anyone else's. And Roxane Gay is by no means trying to shame you. She's just politely pointing out that the bottom is much, much lower than you'd ever thought it to be.

Which puts us in the minority, we readers of Ayiti. It's a theme that runs throughout the book: Brown Skin does not equal Minority in the true sense of the word; Privilege does. Most of the world suffers; few don't.

I spent a night with Roxane Gay in April 2012. I was in Chicago, interviewing for the position I now hold at NEIU, and afterward, took a train down to Eastern Illinois University, where Roxane teaches. I gave a reading and did a Q&A with Roxane's students in the class that followed. It was late when Roxane and I finally left campus, and I had an idea that we'd go back to her place, where I'd fall into whatever bed she'd made me, then be up again at 5 AM to catch my train back to Chicago.

But we never ended up sleeping that night. First we went to the new grocery story in the tiny town of Charleston for some snacks, then Roxane drove me past the house of a guy she was sort of dating. Back at her place, we ate the junk food we'd bought, then we each took a couch and settled in with our computers. At one point, I went out on Roxane's balcony to call my partner back home, then came back inside crying after I'd hung up. It was pretty embarrassing, but it would've been too obvious to try to cover up. I told Roxane my troubles, and she shook her head and said sadly, "Oh, Bill," even though she'd never met him.

That night, we told each other all our terrible stories. Roxane's were way worse than mine, and now, as I read Ayiti, I find myself scanning the pages, searching for her sorrows. And they're there, to be sure—or at least the ones I know about. But there's something else overlaying them that strikes me even harder. Bill once explained to me that the only purpose of toast is to serve as a hot butter delivery system. Similarly, I would say that what's most amazing to me about Ayiti is the way in which Roxane Gay uses that which haunts her to serve up some of the most delicious writing craft I have ever seen.

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