By: Vanessa Garcia
Here are two books that sit quietly upon my sill and both are made and lived in Neverlands. I've read them through and through, and begin my review like this, in fairytale mode, because the books deserve nothing less, and quite a bit more. They deserve to be heard. One book, Jenny Boully's not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them, is set in the Never Never Land of Wendy and Peter Pan, that old tale, forever new in Boully's hands. And the other is Roxane Gay's book Ayiti, which is like a compass, showing us the way to the Haitian Diaspora-a diaspora that is neither north, south, east, nor west, but somewhere in between, and that leaves the needle wavering, if always, finally pointing toward the heart of Haiti.
Both books, slim yet dense volumes, explore submerged worlds, both of them bending genre as they do so. Gay's publisher refers to Ayiti as a "unique blend of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry." Boully's work is classified under "fiction/poetry." Both books also examine the lives of women living, many times uncomfortably, in these submerged worlds-as if pushed beneath a line they desire to rise above. It is perhaps this aspect that I am most drawn to.
Last spring, Cate Blanchett accepted an Academy Award for best actress for her performance in Blue Jasmine, a powerful role, which she performed stellarly-with all the madness of superficiality and loss with which Woody Allen imbued his protagonist. In her acceptance speech, she reprimanded Hollywood for its "foolish" perceptions of women in film and TV."The world is round, people!" said Blanchett, admonishing those who are still "clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences .... They are not. Audiences want to see them."
I would argue the same is true for literature. Readers want to read work written by and about women. And no, this work is not justfor women but also for all readers, and that's the crucial part of this argument. These books, Ayiti and not merely, among others, are not "women's writing" or "chick lit," or a vast array of other condescending titles attributed to work written by female authors. These two books are a prime example of loud and powerful voices that have not yet found the audience they should find. Boully and Gay make an argument fiercer still than Blanchett's, because they dispel the fairy tale that, in some ways, Blanchett still embodies by fulfilling Hollywood's particular ideals of bright, white, and impossibly thin female beauty. Boully and Gay, on the other hand, force their readers to turn expectation on its head.
In one of Ayiti's IS poem-story-essay hybrids called "Things I Know about Fairy Tales," we come to the fast realization that there is no such thing as snow or Snow White in Haiti.
The story begins, "When Iwas very young, my mother told me she didn't believe in fairy tales. They were, she liked to say, lessons dressed in fancy clothes." The tale then continues to detail the kidnapping of the story's narrator. Aswe traverse the chronicle, we see the narrator being bid for, paid for, violated, raped, and we see her, by the end, changed. All of this happens in the first person of a woman's voice, and all of this ends without a "happy ending." "Alice had choices in Wonderland. Eat me, drink me, enjoy tea with a Mad Hatter, entertain the Queen of Hearts, down, down the rabbit hole," says the narrator. But by the end, after Gay's narrator is released from her captors, she stares at herself, "a stranger in the mirror," she says, and "[imagines] going down, down the rabbit hole of [her] own happily ever after," which we know by the tone, is not a happy voyage at all, but one much more complex and layered. Vanessa Garcia "
For Boully, there is a similar play upon the inversion of fairy tales. In not merely, we see the story of Peter Pan through Wendy's eyes, though often the voice moves into some of the male characters as well (an interesting move which slows down the book in a positive way, I think). For much of the story, however, we see Tinkerbell and Toodles, Tiger Lily, Peter, and Hook through the eyes of a real girl-turned-woman in the land of lost boys.
Throughout the book, there is a constant struggle between what lies below and above the ground; between what lies in the "real world" and the "home under ground," represented by a literal delineation on each page that looks like footnotes without the specific points we are meant to reference. It is as if each page were a balancing act between two hemispheres, each page burning on the edge of a figurative equator. In one "underground" note, Wendy says, "Dearest Tink, should you and I together unionize against the Peter? Equal pay for equal work, we'll say. We'll say. Because we don't like those times when he plays at favorites, at least not with anyone else. We would all like some benefits, we'll say. And what about old age? Have you, Peter, a pension plan for us? Shall there be a point system for how many times you'll come to visit?"
The undergrounds that Wendy, Boully, and Gay have been forced to inhabit are not only delineated by gender, but also by race. Boully and Gay are both "ethnic-American" writers, for lack of a better term. Gay is Haitian- American, Boully Thai-American (and a quarter Cherokee as well). Their ethnicities also inform the struggle and tensions at play in these narratives. In an essay for TriQuarterly Review entitled "A Short Essay on Being," Boully discusses what it means to come from Thai roots in America. In this essay, Boully begins by making a distinction between Pad Thai and Pot Thai. Pot Thai is what she has always known; Pad Thai is the Americanized version of the food, injected with hipsterism and high fructose syrup. In the essay, a friend corrects Boully, telling her it's not "Pot Thai," it's "Pad Thai," despite the fact that it's Boully who is of Thai origins. "Instead of correcting her, I thanked my friend from grad school for correcting me," writes Boully, "because that is just the Thai way. You move about quietly. You don't show others their errors-you let them eventually come to learn the errors of their ways and have them come to you for forgiveness later. Sometimes, it takes a long, long time." There is enough irony here for everyone.
Hopefully, however, we will not have to wait so very much longer for books by gifted female, hybrid writers to land firmly out in the world-equal pay for equal work. I, for one, am tired of having them sit quietly on my sill, unreviewed, come and gone without any fanfare. Both Ayiti and not merely were published in 20II, and it is fair to say they have not gotten their proper share of attention, though that may change soon. Gay is about to explode onto the literary scene (in 2014 her novel, An Untamed State, was published by Grove Atlantic, and her ess~y collection; Bad Feminist, will be published by Harper Perennial), and Boully has been not-so-quietly writing away for years, her work widely celebrated by the nonfiction community since it was first anthologized by John D'Agata in The Next American Essay.
Away from never, never toward yes and always, consistently-that's the goal. VIDACount (http://www.vidaweb.org/the-count-2013/) is playing a big role in this progression, tallying and counting the gender disparity among major publications, literary reviews, and journals. Here, they count how many women get reviewed versus how many men, how many female reviewers published compared to male. Though the ratios are getting better, there's a long way to go. The London Review of Books, for instance, reviewed 245male authors in 2013 versus 72 female. The Atlantic, also in 2013, had 14 male reviewers compared to 3 female reviewers. This is a problem because, in essence, publications such as these are the ones deciding "who gets to be our storytellers," as Amy Wheeler so eloquently stated in a column she wrote for VIDA'swebsite.
Recently, Gay has helped widen this discussion to include race. She took it upon herself, as she explained in a blog for the Rumpus titled "Where Things Stand," to make her own VIDA-likecount. "Race often gets lost in the gender conversation as if it's an issue we'll get to later. I've wondered about where race fits into the conversation and who will take up that issue with the same zeal with which VIDAhas approached gender," writes Gay. Employing a graduate assistant to help her with the work, in 20II Gay looked at 742 books reviewed by the New York Times, across all genres. Of 742 books, 655 were written by Caucasian authors, only 217of which were women. Thirtyone were African American or African writers, 9 Hispanic, 33 Asian/ Asian- American/South Asian. Needless to say, these are not good numbers, nor are they fair.
The good news is that there are small presses like Artistically Declined Press and Tarpaulin Sky Press that take on authors like Gay and Boully early in their careers, editing their work with vision and care. They create beautiful books that match the artistry within. More good news: as readers, not only do we have a say when we purchase and pay for books such as these, but we make progress burning through the underground and help women writers and women writers of color rise above ground, past the unquiet line of race and gender inequity. We unionize against the Peter and find our moral compass to the heart of Haiti, and so many other human hearts that we should want to know better.
About Vanessa Garcia
Vanessa Garcia is a writer and mulit-media artist