January 20, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Roxane Gay's story collection Ayiti is filled with powerful depictions of Haiti and its residents, and is an auspicious debut for this talented author.
Necessary Fiction wrote of the book:
"Throughout Ayiti, Gay surely doesn’t paint an overly optimistic image of Haiti, but she offers an honest one, an image of Haiti that is alive and breathing, not static and doomed. Ayiti offers the reader a more nuanced perspective of Haiti than the simplistic view that the easily accessible TV news and Internet tend to provide. The collection brings us to attention in two ways. First, it forces us to realize that we are complicit in the idea of Haiti as a nation of nothing but poverty and destruction, because no work is required to maintain that vision. Second, and perhaps with more impact, it suggests that tragedy and beauty are not mutually exclusive, that in fact, these two realities can share a complicated space."
I am the daughter of Haitian immigrants. I am Haitian American. It is from this identity that I have tried to make sense of what it means to be Haitian, what it means to leave a country like Haiti, what it means to stay, and what it means to go back, or go home. The writing in Ayiti represents a lot of my older work. In this collection, I am trying to make sense of what Haiti is and what people assume Haiti to be because they are such vastly different things. I grew up in the Midwest, never near relatives or large Haitian communities. It was only when we would go to Haiti during the summer that I could start to see what it was like to be surrounded by people who looked like me and sounded like my parents and shared the same blood. The Haiti of my childhood was quite different from Haiti today. I loved those visits and sometimes, I remember that time with a bittersweet taste on my tongue. Haiti is a country that is always changing. In my book, I hope I've managed to find some part of the country that was my first love.
"Baissez Bas" by Tabou Combo
Growing up, we lived, off and on, in Omaha, Nebraska. There was a very small Haitian community—a handful of families who lived in Omaha, Lincoln, and even parts of Iowa. Nebraska is very different from Haiti. It was never going to be home but when these families got together regularly, it was a small piece of home to hold onto. On these nights, my parents could be around people who looked like them and talked like them and laughed like them. My brothers and I, and the children of the other Haitian parents, hated the regular get-togethers. The adults would hang out upstairs at the patriarch of the community's house, talking, often about Haiti, each person with an idea of how to fix her problems. We kids would spend all our time in the basement sulking and complaining. There was an organ we were not allowed to touch and when we pressed the keys, an adult would come racing down the stairs to stare at us sternly. There was always lots of Haitian food—steaming bowls of rice and fried and boiled plantains and legumes and griot and picklies. Late in the night, the parents would join us in the basement and listen to konpa The one song I always loved was "Baissez-bas" by Tabou Combo. Baissez bas is a command—it means get down low. When the song came on, everyone would dance with wild abandon, lowering their bodies to the floor while rocking their hips to the beat. I still know all the words.
"Mon Colonel" by Sweet Micky
The current president of Haiti is Michel Martelly but he is better known as the musician Sweet Micky. I would say, only in Haiti but Ronald Reagan was president of the United States for eight years. Stranger things have happened.
"Mi Tierra" by Gloria Estefan
There is a sizable Haitian community in Miami and that city has always fascinated me as this place that is in the United States, but that often feels like Port au Prince. When we traveled to Haiti we flew out of the Miami airport and many times, because of the odd ways of connecting from the Midwest to the West Indies, we'd have to spend the night at a hotel in Miami. I loved how when we drove down the street, I could hear all kinds of music, music we never heard in Nebraska. If a Gloria Estefan song came on, my mom would hum along and dance in her seat. Watching her always felt so magical because she did not let herself relax like that often.
"This Woman's Work" by Kate Bush
The story, "In the Manner of Water & Light," is all about women—mothers and daughters trying to reconcile history with their relationships to one another and the unavoidable ways that mothers and daughters must sometimes betray each other. I've always loved Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work," for what the song says abut how sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we can fail each other.
"I'm on Fire" by the Chromatics
Haiti has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world and better yet, the water is so very warm because the island is hot. Sometimes, the air is so thick and hot, you can't help but feel like you are on fire. It's the best kind of burning.
"Voodoo Child" by Jimi Hendrix
It's surprising how often people, upon learning I am Haitian, have asked me if my family practices voodoo. I was raised Catholic, so for many years, I hardly knew what the question meant. The older I got, the more I started to invent outlandish responses. It became a game to see what people would believe (apparently, anything).
"I Can't Make You Love Me" by Bonnie Raitt
Unrequited love is something I love to write about and in "There is no ‘E' in Zombi Which Means There Can Be No You or We," Micheline learns that even when she has the power to command the man she loves to love her, that love might not feel the way she needs it to.
"I Am a Town" by Mary Chapin Carpenter
When I lived in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, I saw what rural American poverty looks like in new ways. It always frustrated me to see that kind of poverty in a country that is, purportedly, the wealthiest country in the world. It felt (and is) senseless. The U.P. was also an interesting place from within which to consider poverty in countries like Haiti, where it is different—more absolute, equally senseless. The essay, "All Things Being Relative," is where I think through the differences in these poverties.
"They Can't Take That Away From Me" by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
Growing up, my parents taught us that Haiti was the first free black nation in the Western Hemisphere and they always said this with pride. Today, I say those words with pride. Haiti is many things and Haiti struggles but more than anything, Haiti is free. Nothing will ever change that.
Roxane Gay and Ayiti links:
Fictionaut contributions by the author
HTMLGIANT contributions by the author
The Kenyon Review interview with the author
Monkeybicycle interview with the author
Other People with Brad Listi interview with the author
The Rumpus contributions by the author
Vol. 1 Brooklyn interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists