March 29: “There Is No ‘E’ in Zombi Which Means There Can Be No You or We” by Roxane Gay

Welcome to Tuesday of AWP Week/Short Short Week at Story366! I am en route to Los Angeles right now and should land right around the time I’m done with this essay. I can confidently say that this is the first post I’ve ever done from thirty-two thousand feet. I don’t think that was ever an actual goal of mine, but hey, blogs are about exploration.

Today has been a heckuva travel day, as it started with me missing my 9 a.m. flight from Springfield—they changed the time to 7:30 and nobody bothered to tell me. I went back home for a few hours, got the kids to school, took the garbage out, then took a cab back to the airport. Probably the filthiest cab and cabbie I’ve ever encountered—the guy had on a white T-shirt, but looked like he had literally taken a plate of buffet food from Golden Coral and dumped it down his front, maybe a week or two ago. But he was a nice guy—has been a cabbie for over forty years—so I didn’t flinch when he quoted me a price, told me he wouldn’t bother to turn the meter on, and winked at me. I was also glad to find out that he had never been robbed as a cabbie, but most of his fellow cabbies have, and the entirety of our half-hour trip was a telling of the more interesting cabbie robberies in the history of Springfield, Missouri.

At the airport, I found out my new flight was delayed an hour, then another, and then they put me on a plane to Denver instead of Chicago, which is where I was supposed to go in the first place, had I left at 7:30; I actually caught the same connector flight to LA. So, what this boils down to is that I had a four-hour layover in Springfield instead of Denver. Is that good? Well, I got the garbage out and said good-bye to my family again, but didn’t get to partake in Denver airport food or shopping. You be the judge.

I slept the whole way to Denver, and tried to sleep the whole way to LA, but woke up after twenty minutes thinking I’d done so, the plane squarely on the ground, only to find we hadn’t taken off yet. We were waiting/taxiing on the runway for almost an hour after we boarded, which was fine, as the kid net to me watching the Cubs game on the headrest TV. Oddly, despite the day I had, I didn’t really care if we took off, because once we did, the free DirectTV turned off and I instead had to endure free silent episodes of The New Girl—Megan Fox seems to be replacing Zooey Deschanel—and Wahlbergers, where Mark and Donnie love their mother, pick on the non-famous brother, and routinely get called onto stage at Madison Square Garden to rap with 50 Cent. Note, it is not possible to turn off the headrest TVs. I.e., I should have paid the $5.99 to watch the last nine outs of the Cubs game.

What I did get to do instead was read Roxane Gay’s first book, Ayiti, a collecton of mostly short stories put out by artistically declined press in 2011. Gay has since gone on to publish two books of nonfiction and a novel, and is as close to a literary superstar she can be without … wait, she’s a literary superstar. I’ve had the pleasure of publishing her work a couple of times in Mid-American Review, but I was more than glad to discover this little book of stories.

Ayiti’s stories are all about Haitians, but mostly Haitian-Americans, the diaspora, those who have left for America and are not looked upon too kindly by the Haitians left behind, especially when they come back to visit. One of the stories,  “Things I Know About Fairy Tales,” juxtaposes some snippets about Disney princesses, the charmed lives they lead, with une diaspora’s brutal kidnapping when she returns to Haiti for a visit. Another story, “Motherfuckers,” the first in the book and the shortest, depicts the cultural gaps an immigrant boy faces when attending an American grammar school. Another story uses a handwriting font to mimic a ledger of treasured possessions, situated alongside a list of the paltry sums for which they had to be pawned. Gay seems to cover most every angle of the Haitian diaspora, every perspective in this collection, making it feel complete, unbiased, and extremely insightful.

The story I’m writing about today, however, is the sexiest, scariest, and most fun in the book, “There Is no ‘E’ in Zombi Which Means There Can Be No You or We.” As you might be guessing, this story is a zombie … zombi … love story, and really who doesn’t love those?

Gay starts off by setting forth a primer, listing the rules of real zombis, Haitian zombis, which are different from the kind you see in The Walking Dead, Zombieland!, or The Good Wife. They don’t like salt, which could be handy, they don’t eat people, they are not actually dead, and they can still be saved, turned back to humans. More importantly, Gay gives explicit instructions on how to actually make a zombie, which is like Chekhov’s gun, only we’ll call it Gay’s zombi: Someone’s going to use this recipe before the story’s over.

Of course, this all comes into play in the next part of the story, the love story, the story of Micheline, who loves Lionel Desormeaux, a local celebrity and notorious love-‘em-and-leave-‘em ladies man. Marceline actually knows Lionel, as their parents are friends and they went to first and second grade together. The normally conservative Micheline decides that she will seduce Lionel, become his lady for the evening, so she lets down the bun in her hair and heads to the club where Lionel picks his company for the evening. Without telling Lionel their connection—he never recognizes her, and she never explains—she succeeds in her mission, and they sojourn to his house, where they make wild, passionate, and perfect love. If Micheline was in love with Lionel before, she’s whatever’s a million times that is after spending the night in his embrace.

To Lionel, however, Micheline is just another night, another conquest, and refuses to see her again. She is devastated. Realizing that Lionel will never love her as she does him, Micheline has to come up with another plan to receive his undying affection. I’m not into revealing the endings of stories, but I’m sure you can guess which direction this all is headed, given what I’ve written already.

Ayiti was published before Roxane Gay was Roxane Gay, and really, I didn’t know this book existed until I went looking for Roxane Gay collections to read for this blog; Ayiti is the only one, but I’m sure that will change soon. It’s a gem of a book, revealing a culture I don’t know much about (though I read Edwidge Danticat’s books like fifteen years ago), so I learned something today, plus got a zombi love story thrown in to boot. My plane is descending now and I think I’m supposed to turn off my computer and put my tray table up. All in good time, dear flight attendant. Story366 calls.“

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