on audiobooks (ii)

Stirring and fast moving, the stories of Roxane Gay’s Ayiti portray the suffering and resilience of Haitian and Haitian-American women.

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First published in 2011 by Artistically Declined Press, but recently rereleased by Grove Press, Roxane Gay’s debut collection consists of four fleshed-out stories and eleven short sketches. The sketches are only a few single-sided pages each, while the stories comprise the bulk of the 173-page collection. Like other readers, I felt the stories were more fully realized, but the collection as a whole still seemed thoughtfully crafted.

All of the stories center on the rich inner lives of Haitian and Haitian-American women, namely those who have faced great loss or survived acts of violence. Many pieces also share the themes of Gay’s subsequent work, from collective memory to women’s pain to the experience of immigration. One of the longer stories, “Sweet on the Tongue,” even anticipates the brutal plot of her debut novel, An Untamed State, in which a recently married woman is kidnapped, raped, and impregnated.

Several stories deal frankly with violence, but hope recurs throughout the collection. “Sweet on the Tongue” ends with the mother meditating on the unfathomable scope of her love for her child, in spite of how he was conceived. “Of Ghosts and Shadows,” the penultimate story, tells the tale of two women’s hidden love for each other, but it concludes with a defiant embrace in the face of heteropatriarchy. Gay’s short stories often take unexpected but moving turns, and they always are full of keen observations.

Gay recorded the collection’s audiobook herself: her narration is crisp, self-aware, and brisk. The audiobook takes a little less than three hours to finish, and it can be listened to easily at almost twice the normal speed. I played it at 1.75x, with few difficulties. Gay expertly captures the cadences of her prose, and had I not listened to her narrate her work, I’m not sure I would have realized just how much she laces her short stories with humor.

While not flawless, Ayiti is a compelling debut collection and one that leaves me excited to read the rest of Roxane Gay’s short fiction. I would recommend listening to the audiobook as well, given the high quality of the performance.

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