Review: Roxane Gay’s ‘An Untamed State’ gives torture survivor a voice
“I was no one.” These four words are the refrain of Mireille Duval Jameson, a young Haitian American attorney held captive for 13 days and brutally tortured by local criminals in Port-au-Prince. The story told in Roxane Gay’s debut novel, “An Untamed State,” is Mireille’s way of regaining her identity after her release.
Gay is a writer attuned to inequality, a condition she explores in fiction and nonfiction. From her prose collection “Ayiti” to her Twitter feed to her forthcoming book of essays, “Bad Feminist,” she does not shy away from calling attention to all forms of disenfranchisement. She is no stranger to providing a voice for those who may have obstacles to sharing theirs.
Written from Mireille’s perspective, “An Untamed State” is an account of what is normally unaccountable: a level of trauma that, even if it is survived, is often too painful to relate.
From the first sentence, we know Mireille has found a way to craft her story to make it bearable. She frames it as a fairy tale: “Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.”
Mireille is visiting her parents’ estate in Port-au-Prince with her husband and baby when she gets abducted. We are witnesses to her intimate thoughts during the 13 days she is held captive, when her body proves “breakable but unbroken.” Her recollection of every sensory detail captures the horror of her abuse by the Commander and the men under his command. Before her first rape, she describes her impression of the man: “He rubbed his hands together. I would never forget that sound, the empty whisper of soft hands preparing to do hard things.”
The reason Mireille spends two weeks in a small, hot box of a room or tied to the Commander’s bed is that her father refuses to pay her ransom, convinced the kidnappers will not stop extorting him if he submits. As a result, Mireille’s body and survival are used as instruments of negotiation between selfish and prideful men.
The book is divided into halves — “Happily Ever After” and “Once Upon a Time.” The first half depicts Mireille’s imprisonment, and she weaves these details with memories of what she repeatedly calls “before.” The child of a wealthy Haitian family, Mireille meets her future husband, Michael, during grad school in the Midwest — a “tall, thick-bodied, blond-haired man” her parents refer to as “Mr. America.”
Their romance is contrasted with the incidents of violence that occur during those 13 days, and at times, it rings false, as if Mireille wants to demonstrate how she resisted the courtship of her husband as a show of strength.
Gay has created a straightforward style and defiant voice that drive Mireille’s recollections. Her captivity experience is suspenseful, immediate and at times mercilessly realistic. Mireille’s memories of her time before the kidnapping provide a respite for her and the reader. Because Mireille is portrayed as a flawed, three-dimensional person, not just a symbol of suffering, Gay’s novel puts a face, a name and especially a voice to the rampant global violence against women. In the eventual aftermath of her kidnapping, Mireille reveals the truth for many women who survive such a traumatic event: “I had no idea what to do with myself, how to move forward from one moment to the next, how to be alive.”
Gay, herself Haitian American, has focused on the Haitian diaspora before in the collection “Ayiti,” which includes the original story from which this novel was developed. In “An Untamed State,” Mireille observes of Haiti that “there is nowhere in the world both as beautiful and as ugly, as hopeful and as hopeless.” Her parents live behind towering walls in a compound protected from the island’s poverty and desolation. “It was easy for my father to overlook the country’s painful truths because they did not apply to him, to us.”
Before the abduction, Mireille buys into her father’s frame of reference, insisting that her husband must learn to love Haiti: “I hoped he would understand he could not love me without loving where I am from.”
After the abduction, it becomes clear that, as Gay writes, walls can keep you safe only if you hole up behind them in “comfortable lunacy.” Mireille loses many things through her ordeal, including her homeland. As she explains, “I longed for the Haiti of my childhood. When I was kidnapped, I knew I would never find that Haiti ever again.”
Daley is a writer who lives in Los Angeles.
An Untamed State
Black Cat/Grove: 370 pp., $16 paper
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