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‘Bad Feminist’ by Roxane Gay **

9781472119735I have previously read Gay’s short story collection Ayiti, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  Her writing has such a startling beauty to it.  I was therefore looking forward to reading her first collection of essays, Bad Feminist, and expected to be similarly blown away.

My interest was piqued particularly after I read the thoughts of one of my favourite authors, Elizabeth McCracken, on the book.  She writes: ‘Bad Feminist shows this extraordinary writer’s range…  Roxane Gay is alternately hilarious, full of righteous anger, confiding, moving.  [It] is like staying up agreeing and arguing with the smartest person you’ve ever met.’  Indeed, there is a lot of high praise surrounding Bad Feminist.  In the quotations published at the front of the book, Gay and her work are variously described as ‘alternately friendly and provocative, wry and serious’, ‘[She] playfully subverts the borders between pop-culture consumer and critic, between serious academic and lighthearted sister-girl, between despair and optimism, between good and bad’, and as ‘a necessary and brave voice when it comes to figuring out all the crazy mixed messages in our mixed-up world.’

The book has been split into five often overlapping sections.  Two of these concern Gay as an individual, and the others are ‘Gender & Sexuality’, ‘Race & Entertainment’, and ‘Politics, Gender & Race’.  In these essays, Gay deals variously with such topics as the language surrounding sexual violence, ‘The Trouble with Prince Charming’, homosexuality, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, and Twitter.

In her introduction, Gay justifies her reasons for writing such a collection of essays, using the term ‘bad feminist’ as she is both ‘flawed and human’.  She posits, as one might expect, that in large sections of culture and the workplace, women are overlooked and subjugated: ‘Movies, more often than not, tell the stories of men as if men’s stories are the only stories that matter.  When women are involved, they are sidekicks, the romantic interests. the afterthoughts.  Rarely do women get to be the center of attention.  Rarely do our stories get to matter.’  I feel as though this all-or-nothing viewpoint is a little limiting, and can think of many films and books written before Bad Feminist was published, which do demonstrate the strength of women; the film Erin Brockovich is a striking example.

The style of Gay’s writing in Bad Feminist did not really work for me.  I found it rather repetitive at times, particularly from one essay to another, and some of the things which she said were, I felt, a little obvious.  Evidently, the book has been aimed at a general audience, but the odd balance struck between relatively highbrow, academic and data-informed writing and the chatty tone which Gay adopts felt a little awkward.  I also had an issue with the pop culture references which are used often throughout; they were, as one might expect, geared solely to a US audience, and I had no knowledge of some of the programmes and people whom she mentioned.

Bad Feminist was not at all what I expected it to be.  The beginnings of each essay failed to grab my attention, and I felt that sometimes more interesting points which Gay made were overlooked, or not worked to their full potential.  Few of the essay subjects really jumped out and grabbed me, and nothing had me on the edge of my seat as her fiction so often does.  Despite my largely negative feelings about Bad Feminist, I do intend to read her newest book of non-fiction, Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture.

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2

Two Books About Haiti

I have noticed of late that a few reading friends tend to theme the books which they read, choosing several about the same topic and reading them in quick succession.  Having been granted two galleys about Haiti at around the same time, I thought that I would read them back to back, for what I hoped would be an immersive cultural experience.  One of the books, Roxane Gay’s Ayiti, is a short story collection, and the other, Maps Are Lines We Draw by Alison Coffelt, is a travel memoir.

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Ayiti by Roxane Gay ****
I have heard nothing but praise for Roxane Gay, and this collection of tales set entirely in Haiti – ‘a place run through with pain’ – really appealed to me.  Ayiti is accurately described in its blurb as ‘a powerful collection exploring the Haitian diaspora experience’.  Some of the stories included are little more than vignettes, or fragments of tales, examining one or two elements of the migrant experience, and covering just a couple of pages.  Others are much longer, and have a lot of depth to them.

Gay’s prose has a sensual vivacity to it.  The second story, ‘About My Father’s Accent’, for example, begins: ‘He knows it’s there.  He knows it’s thick, thicker even than my mother’s.  He’s been on American soil for nearly thirty years, but his voice sounds like Port-au-Prince, the crowded streets, the blaring horns, the smell of grilled meat and roasting corn, the heat, thick and still.’

Many themes are touched upon and tackled here.  Gay writes about racism, misconceptions about the Haitian culture, superstition, medicine, tradition, sex and sexuality, violence, crime, the changing face of Haiti over time, and the family unit.  The stories in Ayiti are emotive and thought-provoking; every single story, no matter its length, is memorable, and there is a real power to the collection.

 

Maps Are Lines We Draw: A Roadtrip Through Haiti by Allison Coffelt ** cover127304-medium
Throughout Maps Are Lines We Draw, Allison Coffelt rather briefly details a trip which she takes across Haiti, along with Dr. Jean Gardy Marius, founder of the public health organisation OSAPO.  In Haiti, she writes, ‘she embarked on a life-changing journey that would weave Haiti’s proud, tumultuous history and present reality into her life forever.’

Maps Are Lines We Draw is rather a short travel memoir, told using an entirely fragmented style which weaves together experiences from Coffelt’s trip, childhood memories, and many facts about Haiti.  Whilst it was interesting enough to read about her trip, there was quite a jarring edge to the structure.  I found it quite bitty and inconsistent due to the seemingly randomly placed fragments of thought and memory.  The author uses a lot of quotes from various guides, but there is rarely an exploration of them; rather, they feel like random appendages which have been placed willy-nilly in order to make up a wordcount in a GCSE essay.  At several points, it read simply like a factbook.

I love the fragmented style of prose when it is used in fiction, but I do not feel as though it works well with regard to non-fiction.  There needs to be an overarching, controlled structure for works such as this.  Only the sections on Haiti’s history have been approached well.  Whilst Maps Are Lines We Draw is enlightening in some ways, it is markedly problematic and frustrating in others.

 

 

I have very much enjoyed my first deliberate experience of reading two books with very similar subject matter, despite enjoying one far more than the other!  Is this something that you personally do often?  Do you have any books along the same themes, or about the same topic or geographical location, which you would recommend reading one after the other?  Would you like to see more twinned reviews like this on the blog?

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