Our Own Maps
Roxane Gay was shortlisted for the 2015 PEN Open Book Award for An Untamed State. In the novel, the strong-willed youngest daughter of one of Haiti’s richest sons is kidnapped in broad daylight by a gang of heavily armed men in front of her father’s Port au Prince estate. The following is an excerpt from the book.
Even hours after he stalked out, the Commander’s threat lingered, trapped in the thick heat of my cage. I whispered my father’s words. There is nothing I cannot get through if I try hard enough. My chest throbbed, my breasts still swelling, rock hard. Leaking milk spread over the cotton stretched across my chest. I had never planned on breastfeeding Christophe but when I first held him, so soft and mewing, his tiny lips quivering as they sought my breast, I couldn’t help but hold him to my chest; I couldn’t help but give him what he needed. Now, my son was alone with his father, needing me and there was nothing I could do. I gritted my teeth.
Growing up, my father told my siblings and me two things—I demand excellence and never forget you are Haitian first; your ancestors were free because they took control of their fate. When he came home from work each night, he’d find us in our corners of the house and ask, “How were you excellent today?” We needed to have a good answer. If he approved, a rare thing, he smiled, squeezed our shoulders. If he disapproved, he’d remove his glasses and rub his forehead, so wearied by our small failures. He would say, “You can be better. You control your fate.”
His disapproval was constant and quiet and exhausting. Mona and Michel largely ignored my father’s demands but as the youngest, I took him very seriously, made myself sick with the pursuit of perfection, the better he might love me for it. I had near-perfect recall of most everything I ever saw or heard or read—I was just lucky in that way. It wasn’t so difficult to become excellent. My memory drives the people in my life crazy because I remember everything, always, in exacting detail. My memory was a gift until it became a curse, until no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t forget things I desperately needed to forget so I might survive.
One day, when we were fooling around, my brother and sister and I found a secret world about a mile from where we lived—an undeveloped tract of land with a small creek and lots of trees, all beyond a steep hill. People would go there to throw away their junk so there were always new, interesting things to play with and explore. We called it Pitfall, like the Atari game, and whenever we were done with our homework, we would jump on our bikes and head to a place where we weren’t Haitians in America or Americans in Haiti, where we could make our own rules and draw our own maps. We only wanted to understand some small part of the world.
As I waited for something to happen, I began to draw a mental map of where my kidnappers were holding me, to make sense of this world I wanted no part of. That’s what my father would want—for me to take whatever control I could. Starting at the door, I pressed my hand against the wall and began counting out the number of paces it took to walk the length of each wall—seven steps, ten steps, seven steps, ten steps. I tried to memorize these measurements; I tried to understand the terrifying shape of the walls holding me.
I wasn’t tall enough to look out the window so I overturned the large bucket and stood on it. The window looked onto an alley littered with trash. Occasionally I saw the legs of a passerby. When I banged on the window, no one paid me any mind. “Help me,” I shouted, until my throat hurt. “Please help me.” Sometimes, a pair of legs stopped then quickly walked away.
This was not the Haiti my parents wanted to return to, this land of mad indifference. They remembered the country differently, almost fondly, and the beauty of their island only blossomed the further through time they moved away from it. Like most people, they, or at least my father, created a Haiti that only exists in his imagination—a country that would willingly embrace him.
“Our Own Maps” is excerpted from An Untamed State © 2014 by Roxane Gay; reprinted with permission of the publisher, Grove Atlantic, Inc.
Read more from the 2015 PEN Open Book Award Finalists
• “The Messenger,” from City Son by Samrat Upadhyay
• “You and Your Partner,” from Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
• “Amina,” from Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole
• “The Beiruti Hustle,” from An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine