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

I Am So into Women

Exploring Women in Literature

I recently visited one of my favourite bookstores (where they’re a quarter-to giving me a mattress and a blanket), looking for non-fiction books by women. Bookstores are usually therapeutic for me, but this time I left frustrated and disappointed. In 2020, a lot of books I find by women are mostly fiction books. I don’t know how the stats stand but I later went to a bigger store, that has way more titles and I had the same experience.

I was looking for female non-fiction because I wanted to hear the voice of someone whose experiences I can relate to. We know that historically women have been kept out of everything and have had to fight to break down walls and burn gates. We’ve been misled to believe that men are the ones who created and shaped the arts, and well, everything in this world. It’s not that women never had anything to contribute, they were just not allowed to do it, they were not allowed to even dream of doing anything but stand and watch.

I spent a little time in the Classics section and was surrounded by Plato, Aurelius, Homer, Dostoyevsky, Nabokov, Twain, Salinger, Orwell, Achebe, Mphahlele and many others. Yes, there was Shelley, Woolf, the Brontës, Rand, Dickinson, and a few more, but the gap was still big. Male authors still dominate bookshelves. Even when I moved to business and self-help, the highly praised books are from names like Kiyosaki, Carnegie, Hill, Gladwell, and a million others. This is also frustrating because as great as these books are, when we women read them we often have to find ways to alter the message to make it apply to us, and sometimes, given the challenges we have, it is close to impossible.   

So all this frustration led me to think about what it is I want to read, what kind of messages I want to collect, what kind of solutions I’m looking for, and who I should get them from. I do not disregard men’s work, not at all. I have read many books by men that have helped me improve my life in tremendous ways.

However, I love the voice of women. I want to hear women and I want to hear about them. I want to read women. Give me women, please! I have read so many books by men with families whose success stories show that they were able to do things, have the time and energy to do them because their partners were taking care of everything else. I want to read about that woman, with kids and a home to run, and how she did or does it.

It’s not just in self-development books or classics. Across genres, the same problem exists. And so, on my quest to find these intelligent, brave, successful women, I’m going on a quest to read more women’s books.

“Women and fiction remain, so far as I am concerned, unsolved problems.”
― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

I want to read their biographies, their poetry, their tragedies and achievements, their struggles, and their successes. But I will not limit myself to only those stories, I do believe that there are male writers who have supported the voice of women in literature and there are men who have portrayed powerful and positive images of women. I am for that.

I don’t want any of that damsel-in-distress bullshit. I want to see women characters who show real women who don’t need to be saved. I want to dissect this vexatious yet interesting area of literature. The world should be seen through the eyes of the very people who live in it. Women, as members of society, should be able to express their existence in the same way as men do. In this open and inclusive manner, we can fully understand the world and understand each other.

When I made this decision, I went through my own shelf and saw how male-dominated it is. I’m ashamed. Honestly.

So I don’t think I’ll be able to read or write about women in literature following historical timeline. It will be challenging to find relevant books if I do it that way and it will be boring. Instead, I’m starting where I am, and from the unread books I have, what better way to start with women from cultures, traditions, and religions that are known or said to be oppressive? We’ll figure it out through the readings. So my first part will be on Muslim Women in Literature.

I have, on my shelf:

  • It’s Not About the Burqa edited by Mariam Khan
  • Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
  • The Chibok Girls by Helon Habila (I said I’ll include a few men who do justice to women’s voices
  • Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution by Mona Eltahawy
I have no idea how that book ended up upside-down 🤦🏿‍♀️

I’m starting with Muslim women because, I already have these books so it was an obvious choice, and also, because it’s so easy for the rest of us to look at Muslim women and conclude that they’re oppressed and miserable. I’d rather find out first, preferably, from them.

So, here we go.

I’ll repost the review of Infidel. I had already started The Chibok Girls and stopped because it was depressing, but it’s short and I’m almost done. And I don’t think there’s time to be depressed, if you go into something that talks about injustice, oppression, prejudice, discrimination, abuse…it will be depressing. It’s inevitable.

So let’s do this.

To women!