Book Review: AYITI by Roxane Gay

Originally published in a limited run by Artistically Declined Press well before Roxane Gay was a household name, Ayiti was recently republished by Grove Press. It’s a short story collection about Haiti and the Haitian diaspora; just as she did in her bestselling 2017 short story collection, Difficult Women, Gay excels at breaking apart a big theme into digestible pieces that are at once acrid and vulnerable, bitter and sweet. I didn’t like Ayiti quite as much as Difficult Women–I think Gay has sharpened her craft significantly since Ayiti was first published in 2011–but it’s still a beautiful collection of stories and I’m glad it’s gotten the chance to reach a wider audience this time around.

You can read my full review below.


Ayiti Cover
cover description: An illustration of highly stylized red flowers with blue-green leaves.

Ayiti by Roxane Gay

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Grove Press (Grove Atlantic)
  • publication date: first published in 2011; Grove Press edition published in 2018
  • length: 320 pages

On the first day of school, as he and his classmates introduce themselves, Gérard stands, says his name, quickly sits back down, and stares at his desk, which he hates. “You have such an interesting accent,” the teacher coos. “Where are you from?” He looks up. He is irritated. “Haiti,” he says. The teacher smiles widely. “Say something in French.” Gérard complies. “Je te déteste,” he says. The teacher claps excitedly. She doesn’t speak French.

–from “Motherfuckers” in Ayiti by Roxane Gay

One of my favorite themes in Roxane Gay’s fiction is righteous vengeance. Her characters accumulate tiny humiliations like dust, eventually snapping in fits of satisfying pettiness and rage. When I read one of her stories, I know I will have catharsis; even when I don’t love one of her stories, I’m always entertained and I never regret making the time to read it.

Ayiti, Gay’s 2011 short story collection about Haiti and its diaspora that was republished for a wider audience in 2018, is full of moments like these. In “Motherfucker,” a sullen, bullied immigrant teenager fights insults with cologne, in “Voodoo Child,” a Haitian college student manipulates her ignorant roommate who believes she practices voodoo, in “Gracias, Nicaragua y Lo Sentimos,” a personified Haiti bittersweetly passes the dubious torch of being the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere to Nicaragua, knowing the title will eventually return.

Even when certain stories in the collection falter–the longest story, “Sweet on the Tongue,” is powerful but hard to follow and has at least two too many subplots–Ayiti as a reading experience never loses its momentum.

After reading both Ayiti and Gay’s later collection, Difficult Women, I’m convinced that Gay and her editors are the best in the business when it come to theming short story collections and ordering the stories within them. The stories in Ayiti don’t hammer us over the head with their themes of home and diaspora, but they keep a steady enough rhythm to keep us fully engaged to the last page. (I finished this book in a sitting.)

Gay is my favorite short story writer working today, and the fact that this feels like a slightly lesser work in her catalog speaks to just how terrific her catalog is. Ayiti is wonderful, both on its own merits and as a peek into the ascendancy of such a marvelous writer. ★★★★☆

Reviews and books you might also enjoy:


I got my copy of Ayiti from the library and was in no way compensated for this review.

I publish book reviews every Tuesday and Thursday.

Book Review: DIFFICULT WOMEN by Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay’s highly anticipated (and well-received) 2017 short story collection, Difficult Women, is, in short, worth every bit of that anticipating and receiving. Difficult Women is everything I want out of a short story collection and a lot more: the stories on their own are excellent; together, they’re transcendent. This is easily one of my favorite books I have ever read.

You can read my full review below.


Difficult Women Cover
cover description: A shattered pink glass heart against a black background.

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Grove Press
  • publication date: 2017
  • length: 272 pages

Boys don’t really know how to hurt girls.

–from “Baby Arm” in Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

I’ve loved Roxane Gay’s short fiction for many years, even before she became as beloved and well-known as she is now. As a teenager, between writing my own short stories, I would pore over the “Writing” page on her website, tracking down and devouring every short story I could find that wasn’t behind a paywall.

Yet even that abiding love for Gay’s uncollected work did not prepare me for how much I would adore Difficult Women.

Difficult Women‘s parts are extraordinary, but as a whole it’s even more powerful. I don’t think I’ve ever read a collection so artfully assembled. Themes are established with exquisite care; one of my favorite runs of stories builds from metaphor to magical realism to straight-up science fiction about society and prejudice. Without that onramp, the sci-fi story (set in the near-future) would have felt jarring in an otherwise realistic collection. With the onramp, it only strengthens Gay’s real-world themes.

Another standout run of stories is about fertility and infertility, without ever feeling like it’s about fertility and infertility. A moral kills a short story; luckily, each story in Difficult Women has the desperate feeling of a message in a bottle sent from a place where morals have unraveled.

This is, unsurprisingly, a difficult book. It is not essential reading. It is not a crystallization of our times. It is not palatable, exactly. But it is gripping, sharp, indulgent, and pleasurable in the way of an excellent meal had at an expensive and unfamiliar restaurant.

“Difficult” does not have to mean unpleasant, distasteful, or uncomfortable. Difficult Women is a blueprint for how to write a difficult book that’s a delight to read.

I think much of that comes from how embodied Gay’s writing is. Gay is a top-notch sex writer who understands, and uses, sensation completely.

Difficult Women encompasses a wide variety of bodies: thin ones, muscled ones, fat ones, wounded ones, transparent glass ones, sadists, masochists, bad priests. Gay (presumably) only has one body, but she transports readers effortlessly into all of these different and contradictory bodies. Even when I didn’t totally love or understand a story’s plot, I was always so taken with its feel that it hardly mattered.

It’s difficult to choose favorite stories since this collection fits together so well, but with a gun to my head I might pick “Baby Arm,” about a fight club, “North Country,” about an isolated engineer in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, “Requiem for a Glass Heart,” about a woman made of glass and her careful careless husband, and “I Am a Knife,” about a woman (the knife) and her husband (a gun).

I can’t wait to re-read Difficult Women. Many reviews I’ve seen of this book describe it as a deeply relatable book, about women like “us.” I didn’t find it that way. I didn’t understand these characters at all. Sometimes a book is better for being unfathomable; I think Difficult Women is unfathomable in the best way, an endlessly fascinating Rorschach test kind of way.

If you missed Difficult Women during all its initial fanfare, please come back for it. I’m glad I did. This book is a treasure. ★★★★★

Reviews and books you might also enjoy:


I purchased my own copy of Difficult Women and was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 1.5.18

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

I ran a little wild in the nonfiction and memoir section of the Kindle Store this week and have an abundance of riches to share, so my descriptions of each book will be more abbreviated than they’ve been in previous weeks.

Ready? Let’s dive in.


9781492649359The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: This real-life story of the factory workers who were poisoned by the glow-in-the-dark radium paint used to paint the faces of watches is almost too sad and bizarre to believed. I find radioactivity fascinating and would be interested in this book for that alone, but as a bonus, this book has also received rave reviews.

9781250080547The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: In a culture that has a difficult relationship with sex to begin with, sexual crimes and abuse become even more difficult to unpack. Marzano-Lesnevich’s memoir contrasts her own horrifying history of being sexually abused by a family member with that of a man whose murder of a child was sexually motivated. This book has received less critical adoration than some of the others I bought this week, but I’m intrigued by its blend of true crime and raw memoir.

9780544786769This is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare by Gabourey Sidibe

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: I love Gabourey Sidibe’s particular brand of carefree style and her amazing sense of humor. I’m not usually interested in celebrity memoirs, but Sidibe isn’t an ordinary super-rich, disconnected celebrity. Best-known for her Oscar-nominated role in Precious, Sidibe has also appeared on American Horror Story: Coven, Difficult People, and Empire. She’s one of the celebrities I’d most like to meet in real life, and I’m hoping this memoir is just as down-to-earth as I’ve found her online presence and acting to be.

9781616204624Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History by Bill Schutt

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: This was my biggest impulse-buy of the shopping spree. Who knows if this book will turn out to be as compelling as its eye-catching cover, but I love good science writing and I’ll admit that I’m curious as to why cannibalism is such an intensely repulsive taboo. The line between “animal” and “human” has always seemed disconcertingly thin to me, and it looks like this book will explore that quite a bit.

9780062422910My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward: A Memoir by Mark Lukach

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: I’ve experienced a week-long stay in a psych ward myself, and I absolutely love memoirs about psych wards, as painful as they can be to read. I know that my own experience of mental illness has been devastating–although my health has improved a lot since that week five years ago–and I’m intrigued about the perspective Mark Lukach has as the spouse of someone with severe mental illness. I’m sure that this is going to be a heart-wrenching read for me, but I hope it will be a healing one, too.

9780062379290The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: I love food, I love history, and I especially love Southern food and Southern history. What a treat for me that this book includes all of that. Twitty explores the unique forces that have shaped African American cuisine in the Deep South, from slavery to African heritage to religion. I’ll have to keep snacks on hand while reading, because I can guarantee that this book will make me hungry. Its goal of tracing African American lineage in the South reminds me a lot of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, a novel I adored, so I’m excited for that element as well.

9780062362599Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: I love Roxane Gay’s Twitter and used to obsessively read her short stories available online, but I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t read any of her books. Bad Feminist, her collection of essays, has been sitting on my shelf for years, and I’m planning to finally tackle it this month–but I’m actually more excited about this memoir, which unpacks her history of disordered eating. I’ve struggled with guilt about my weight for years and am looking forward to reading a book by another fat person about the complexities of the experience.

9781328663795Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: Okay, so this one’s cheating a little bit…this book was actually my Christmas present to my partner during our annual trip to Barnes & Noble, where we each pick out a book for the other. An account of the relationship between Nazi Germany and drugs, particularly heroin and methamphetamine, this book caused quite a stir when it was initially published in Germany and I can’t wait to read it when she’s finished.


See books here that you’ve already read or that are on your to-read list? What are you excited to read this week? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!