Ayiti by Roxane Gay

A powerful collection of short stories that explore the Haitian diaspora experience.

For as long as I have seen or heard about Haiti in the media, it has always been a narrow narrative of a nation constantly plagued by extreme poverty, natural disasters, high aid dependence, soaring crime, and an unstable political climate. These views are not incorrect but they do not capture all that is about Haiti and its people.

“Millions in Haiti face hunger in 2020” – CNN

Then Gay comes in with fifteen short stories that vary in length, mostly written outside of the traditional short story methods, and she changes the narrative. Ayiti introduces us to stories we don’t hear about Haiti, it expands and reaches into the people’s lives, their traumatic, triumphant, and resilient experiences.

Many of the stories capture Haitian women’s experiences.

It dispels the many misconceptions that we have of the nation, while honestly and daringly showing us the depth of some of its people’s challenges and struggles.

Sweet on the Tongue is a deep and powerful story about a woman’s traumatic experience with rape. It examines the pain, the shame, and the silence, but it also shows the effort to overcome these difficulties, with support and love through such a challenging ordeal.

Motherfuckers is flash fiction, two pages about a fourteen-year-old immigrant who expresses his hate for the US, and his experience being taunted in school for his foreignness.

A woman was conceived in a river where many of her people were massacred and the sharp smell of blood has always been with her, her whole life. In this story, In the Manner of Water or Light, we get a deep and illuminating account of generational impact from what happened in what would be known as The Massacre River, an actual site of executions of Haitian families that did take place.

“The waters did not run deep. It was just a border between two geographies of grief.”

The stories examine what it means to be Haitian in Haiti and America, but one brief and bold story, The Harder they Come shows the experience and behaviour of American tourists in Haiti, from ignoring the troubled Haiti that is “out there” to the sexual encounters with the locals.

“They say they quite like this Haiti, so clean and calm, so pleasant, not at all like on CNN.”

There is so much in this gut-punching, authentic, and haunting collection. There is homosexuality – the hiding that results from fear of what will happen if seen or discovered, but also the boldness in finding moments and spaces to express themselves and enjoy their passions. There is also love and sensuality, deep within the complexities of economic adversities.

Gay is astute at creating these real characters that spring out of the pages and lead you into their world, providing such an intimate experience of their realities. She leaves you with something to think about through her clever, cutting, and compelling writing. It’s a beautiful book and every single one of the stories matters.

Roxanne Gay: TIME

Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution

By Mona Eltahawy

A fascinating and shocking call to end misogyny in the Arab world.

“Why do these men hate us?”

Mona Eltahawy was shocked into feminism and she shares her experience living in Saudi Arabia and in Egypt. This book is an essential read that zooms into the brutal injustices against women in the Middle East and North Africa. Mona dismantles religion, belief, Western involvement, politics, and many aspects that tie into the misogyny that prevails in these places.

Headscarves and Hymens

On veiling, she points out how many girls and women, just like she did, go through a personal struggle with their hijab. She shows how they can defend it even when in private it’s a burden or a struggle. In some places, even though women will claim their covering is a choice, they do not have much of a choice, and in other places, women are aggressively pressured to cover up.

The violation of women in these regions goes way deeper than one can even begin to imagine. It spreads and pours into so many facets of the girls’ and women’s daily lives. Eltahawy shows how these violated women and girls have no platform to share their experiences and nowhere to find solutions.

Headscarves and Hymens

There are many examples and stories she gives to highlight the daily traumas that women go through and the forces used to keep the treatment of women as second-class citizens in place, as well as aggravating the problems they face.

The veiling of women is used as a way to tell women to cover up for their own safety against harassment and assault in the street. The onus is on the women to protect themselves instead of men being told not to commit these crimes. However, in some cases, not even a hijab can stand between the victim and the perpetrator.

There are so many heartbreaking and horrendous concerns that she shares, such as rape in its many forms and how it is handled. For example, where a girl or woman is raped, the punishment for the rapist is to marry her. This also serves to “save” the victim from committing a crime of honour. The few outcomes from reporting a crime of assault do not include true justice for the victim. They could be killed by their own family for bringing shame to the family. They could be sexually assaulted by the very police they run to.

Then there’s the purity culture. She discusses the obsession with virginity as well as the use of female genital mutilation to keep girls sexually in control and make them suitable for marriage. It’s so saddening how the mothers or the figures that these girls could run to are the same figures who are right there when it happens, accomplices to this crime.

I absolutely fell in love with all the feminists and figures that inspired her and the ones she mentions throughout the book, who protest and stand up against this overpowering and dangerous hand that is so determined to squash women, to silence and control them. I also love how she advocates sexual freedom. Eltahawy shows the importance of sexual liberation and how suppression through violence, through language and through practice creates a negative experience for women and problems when they need to voice these negative experiences.

Read the It’s Not About the Burqa review here.

This book is packed! It’s heavy but every bit of it is necessary and deserving to be said. There’s a whole lot more to discover, to learn, and to help rethink some of the ideas we have about female oppression and the role of feminism. I admire her level of bad-assery and her determination to speak up – loud and clear.

She does not limit such treatment of women to the Arab world and does state that it happens in many societies and cultures, but this is her focus, experience, and knowledge, and she does it incredibly well.

It’s a powerful read. It’s a must-have and worth revisiting.

Mona Eltahawy: Twitter

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

“Mrs Dalloway is always giving parties to cover the silence”

Mrs Dalloway

Mrs Dalloway is a novel set in a single day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, an upper-class housewife married to Richard, a Conservative Party politician. It’s the middle of June in London, after World War I. She is preparing for her party in the evening and begins with buying flowers in the morning for the event. A former suitor and old friend, Peter Walsh pays her an unexpected visit, a visit flooded with heavy emotion and related thoughts of each other.

The story shifts to a number of both related and unrelated characters, but the most prominent of these is shell-shocked War veteran Septimus Warren Smith. We see him waiting for his appointment, and later the visit to psychiatrist Sir William Bradshaw. Sir Bradshaw’s solution for the suicidal Septimus is to have him in a mental institution in the country. Later that day Septimus jumps out the window and kills himself.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

The party guests include people from Clarissa’s past; Peter himself and the once-notorious friend from her youth, Sally, who arrives unexpectedly. Sir Bradshaw arrives late and his wife explains that it was due to a patient’s (Septimus) suicide earlier. Clarissa is not pleased with the news of the suicide being told at her party, but when she finds herself alone thinking about the suicide and her own life, she understands why the young man killed himself.

There are a number of issues explored in this novel, including the political air following the war and the British social system, but what stood out for me was the mental illness and internal struggles of the characters. In this single day of preparing for her party, we learn about who Mrs Dalloway is, through bits that are knitted from her past to the present, and the person she is when she’s with different people. There’s a tussle for balance between what goes on inside her and the reality in the external world, and the result is trouble with communicating what she truly feels. She makes up for this with, for example, giving a good party and being the perfect hostess.

Insanity

We also catch parts where she appears to be dissatisfied with her own appearance and qualities, where she compares herself to a woman she greatly admires a lot, whose qualities she considers ideal. Clarissa also goes through moments of travelling back to the past with questions and sometimes wishing to have a second chance to live her life again, differently.

Woolf’s writing is not linear and she connects all the dots that paint the whole picture of this particular day through minor characters and the atmosphere in London on that day, but the most distinctive (apart from Clarissa) is Septimus, a foil character. Septimus also gives a deep depiction of mental illness and a struggle with communication and inner turmoil. His mental state shows his internal disintegration as a result of the residues from the war, and his show of protest to being confined is through death, Mrs Dalloway understands how where she struggles to communicate, Septimus’s protest through suicide was his form of communication. She’s left feeling that, unlike him, she lives with this internal confinement and accepts it as her lot, her life as is.

Mrs Dalloway shows why Virginia Woolf was known as a ‘fine stylist’. This one day is neatly laid out into a full, satisfying, absorbing, and intelligent novel. It’s long enough to fill you up and short enough to maintain interest until the end.

Image: Britannica