(Shelter Island, NY: Black Cat, 2014)
Rape culture is a term, somewhat overused lately, that describes the normalization of sexual assault in a society. Break it down, and you have two charged, weighty words that mean vastly different things to different people. How do you write a novel then that speaks fully to the life-altering damage inflicted by sexual violence? Or, one that takes on the daunting task of demystifying a culture as foreign as Haitian society? The answer is that shrewd writing does not tackle ideas as formidable as rape and culture in simple, handy terms. Instead, it concentrates on delivering the singular experience of a living, breathing, sweating, and courageously flawed woman and the fight to save any part of herself after being stripped of her dignity, identity, and love for the Haiti of her childhood.
From first breath, An Untamed State, never flinches or glosses, but is a moment-by-moment brutal examination of kidnapping, sexual assault, and the concessions people make in order to stay alive. Framed as a fractured fairy tale, the grim but beckoning narrative draws from the dark origins of fairy and folk lore as cautionary tales that used fear to teach survival:
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.
They held me captive for thirteen days.
They wanted to break me.
It was not personal.
I was not broken.
This is what I tell myself.
The shattered fairy tale myth thrums throughout the novel, cautioning against the modern delusion of happily ever after as an achievable finish line, one that will keep you safe. Narrator Mireille Duval Jameson’s happy ending is erased when a gang of men kidnap her right outside the gates of her father’s Port-au-Prince estate. Her All-American, adoring husband can only hold on to their infant son as his wife is taken captive by the self-proclaimed leader of these men, who calls himself the Commander. Ransom negotiations devolve into a power struggle between Mireille’s headstrong father, as he stands by his belief that giving into the kidnapper’s demands will only further threaten his family, and the Commander. As her captivity stretches out, Mireille’s body and spirit are snapped between the punishing wills of these two men, caught in the lawless rage of a land defined by its extremes.
Before their first visit to Haiti, Mireille tries to prepare her husband for the conflicting reality that is life in Port-au-Prince, “I explained how he would see things he might never see in the States, difficult and painful things. I explained that there is nowhere in the world both as beautiful and as ugly, as hopeful and as hopeless.” However, as the novel deftly weaves in-and-out between scenes from Mireille’s youth, her passionate – yet tumultuous – love story with her husband, her abduction, and its aftermath, it is this constant push/pull between elegance and joylessness, manifested both in the Haitian landscape and its people, that grounds the story. This makes Mireille’s gruesome tale as captivating as it is assaulting. “Years later, I still did not understand Haiti, but I longed for the Haiti of my childhood. When I was kidnapped, I knew I would never find that Haiti ever again.”
Other terms frequently associated with rape culture include objectifying women and dehumanization, where sexual violence against victims is condoned because they are thought of merely as objects instead of a fellow human. In contrast to this, essayist, blogger, and debut novelist Roxane Gay constructs a resonant and vivid portrait of a fellow woman, one who is no saint, but can never be thought of as a mere object. The novel’s narrative voice is saturated with trauma, yet unnervingly steady throughout. “I waited for my father to pay the ransom or for my husband to find me. I stared at the door and thought, ‘It has been long enough. Someone will come. I will survive this.’ I waited for salvation. No one came.”
An Untamed State is an uncompromising study of a proud, hot-tempered woman, fragile in her humanity, yet resilient, and the impact her kidnapping has on her relationship with her husband, family, and the country she never understood, but once loved. The novel humanizes both the victims and the perpetrators of sexual assault, underscoring the tragedy of a culture where anything about rape is considered normal.
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Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons’s work has appeared in Liars’ League NYC, Serving House Journal, Hypertext Magazine, and HiLoBrow. An alum of the Writers Boot Camp screenwriting program, she co-wrote the web series Intersection. She also created and produces No, YOU Tell It!, a “switched-up” storytelling series open to anyone who wants to share his or her story and experience someone else’s.