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.
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 **
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?