Jun 6, 2014

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

An Untamed State by Roxane GayAn Untamed State by Roxane Gay

This is not going to be a review in the traditional sense of the term, mostly because I don’t think I can bring myself to dwell on this novel for much longer. Which isn’t to say I don’t think it’s good — it is. I’ve been following Roxane Gay’s writing online for years, and she’s become one of my favourite feminist thinkers and cultural critics. She’s also an amazing writer. There’s ample evidence of that here.

All the TWs in the world for the rest of post.

A Untamed State is about Mireille Duval Jameson, a Haitian-American woman who’s kidnapped just outside her parents’ house in Port au Prince when she’s visiting from Miami. Mireille is taken by a gang of armed men in front of her husband and baby son. She’s held captive for thirteen days while her father negotiates her ransom, and during this time she’s repeatedly beaten, tortured, and brutally gang raped. An Untamed State is about those thirteen days, about Mireille’s life up until that point, and about the months that follow. How do you survive something like this?

I knew A Untamed State was going to be difficult to read, but even so it was more difficult than I could have imagined. Over the years I’ve had many conversations with friends about novels like Deerskin, Tender Morsels and Bitter Greens, and about feminist writing about sexual violence in general. That’s in part what this post is going to be about, but before I get there, I wanted to make it clear that there’s nothing gentle about this novel. There’s no fade to black here: the violence is graphic, the brutality is detailed and plain to see, and I completely understand and respect the fact that some readers will not be able to go there.

I tried to read A Untamed State alongside something comforting, but I couldn’t do it. The contrast was too jolting. In the end I stayed up until nearly 1am to finish it because I needed it to end. I needed to put this story behind me. But of course that I never will, not entirely, and that’s part of what this novel is doing. There’s no putting the reality that we live in a world where something like this can and does happen behind you.

There are plenty of people I respect who won’t read about rape, and I completely understand where they’re coming from. I understand staying away from the subject because it’s triggering. I understand doing so because it’s upsetting. And I understand being wary in general, especially when so many fictional depictions of sexual violence are lazy, exploitative, glamorised and poorly handled. I understand caution and fatigue. Having said that, I always have a pretty strong emotional reaction to seeing rape carelessly listed among “overdone tropes”, unless that statement is very, very carefully qualified, for all the reasons Kari Sperring explains in her brilliant post “Rape in Fiction: A Rant”.

I’ve gone back to that post more times than I can count over the past two years. None of the people I know who avoid stories about rape are actually saying “Enough of this. We’re bored of rape. We won’t hear it” — and yet I’ve seen the two be conflated much too often. What I’m trying to get at is: I’d never, ever tell anyone that they have some sort of moral duty to engage with a story about something that deeply upsets them. I’d never evoke “awareness” to justify pushing a brutal and upsetting narrative on someone — plenty of people are aware; that’s why they need a break. But at the same time, I’ll always maintain that a novel can be as brutal as An Untamed State and still be fiercely feminist. And I’m grateful that smart and thoughtful feminist writers like Gay are writing novels like this, because otherwise the only depictions of sexual violence we’d be left with would be the crass, exploitative, misogynist ones.

To explain how I made sense of An Untamed State, I’ll have to make use of a concept from something else I’ve read recently — The Ministry of Stories and Truth from Kristin Cashore’s Bitterblue. For those of you who haven’t read Cashore, this is an institution created by a young queen who’s trying to help her country recover from more than thirty years of brutality inflicted by her father. Bitterblue is one of the smartest, most compassionate stories about recovering from trauma I’ve ever read, and this is part of the reason why. Here’s how Bitterblue puts it:
She had one more ministry to build. Of all of her ministries, it would be the one with which she would take the most care. She wouldn’t force it on anyone, but she would make its existence widely known. It would be a ministry for all the people whose pain could be acknowledged, maybe even eased, by the telling and recording of what their own experiences had been.
As I said last year when I wrote about Rose Under Fire, there’s no universal trauma survival narrative — there are only different stories, and we need all of them. We’re all individuals, and you survive however you survive. This is why revisiting the specific details of the very worst thing that happened to someone can matter. As someone who heals through words, I understand the impulse to say it out loud, write it down, and get it right, down to the very last bruise. This won’t be true for everyone, of course, and not even necessarily for the same person from one day to the next — sometimes we need to just leave things alone. But for some of us, some of the time, there’s potential for healing in stories about the very worst kinds of experiences. There’s solace in hearing them and telling them, and that makes me grateful for their existence.

In his Washington Post review, Ron Charles says the following about An Untamed State:
But the boundless savagery of Mireille’s kidnappers soon makes any kind of sociological apology for their behavior sound obscene. Despite the beatings she receives for talking back, she shreds her captors’ pompous class-warfare cant, refusing to let them imagine that the injustices they’ve suffered absolve them. We’re left not with the tidy explanations of Karl Marx, but the fathomless mystery of evil and what it wreaks on one woman.
I understand what this is getting at, but at the same time, I’m very wary of conflating sociological analysis with apology. Of course that what happens to Mireille happens within the context of deep inequality and is impossible do dissociate from this context. But addressing this (very untidy, if you ask me) fact doesn’t equal giving her captors a free pass. Mireille’s experiences are still the result of a group of men deciding they were willing to brutally hurt a woman. And there’s a second layer of sociological analysis that’s relevant here: why is this brutality so clearly gendered? Why do angry, terrified, hopeful and desperate men so easily imagine that the most effective way to hurt another man is by brutally raping his daughter? Why was Mireille stripped of her humanity in yet another way — by being thought of as a means to an end? There’s no apology or absolution in seeking to understand the structural gender inequality that plays into this, and I appreciated Roxane Gay’s willingness to ask all these questions.

One last thing: I’m terrified that if I go looking for more reviews of An Untamed State, I’ll eventually come across one that praises Mireille for being “strong”, for remaining defiant, for not begging for mercy or breaking down crying. Conversations about victims of violence are often framed in such terms, and this kind of praise makes me furious because of its implied counterpart: you praise “strength” as opposed to “weakness”; you admire a lack of tears while deriding their abundance. This understanding of things is seeped in, as this piece puts it, a deep-seated contempt for pain and the people who show it. What would you think of a woman who did cry and beg for mercy? While reading An Untamed State I felt deeply for Mireille, an individual human being who is subjected to appalling violence and who responds however she can. But all my compassion for her didn’t mean I placed her above some imaginary “weaker” counterpart. A woman who responded differently would be just that — a different human being. She wouldn’t be any less deserving of my compassion, and her story wouldn’t be any less horrifying.

There’s no right or wrong way to respond to something like this, and there’s no way I can conceive of Mireille’s story as anything other than an account of one individual woman’s experiences with horrifying violence. Which brings me back to why I value novels like An Untamed State — because we’ll always need more stories, more voices, more perspectives. It’s only by capturing the infinite variations within even the most horrifying experiences that we can understand and do justice to all the different ways you survive: as a unique human being, which is, shock and horror, what women are.

They read it too: 1330v



  1. Phew, so many great things here. I absolutely love this statement "I’ll always maintain that a novel can be as brutal as An Untamed State and still be fiercely feminist." because this is exactly how I felt reading this book. It's hard to say that it's my "favorite" book of the year, but it's definitely the best I've read. Your last paragraph is so spot on...we just need books like this.

  2. >>But at the same time, I’ll always maintain that a novel can be as brutal as An Untamed State and still be fiercely feminist.

    Very, very, very true.

    Also, I am one of those people you respect who won't read about rape -- or at least, I am very very very reluctant to read about rape in fiction. I haven't been able to come up with a satisfactory explanation as to why that should be. It is like slavery: I can read nonfiction about it with no problem (and I do), but I just can't do the fiction. I get sick to my stomach and have to stop.

  3. I wish this novel (and others) dealt more with rape in its totality. The publishing world seems to be fascinated with the parts of rape that allow for voyeurism - the discussion of soft legs or smooth thighs - but very, very hesitant to tell the stories of people who don't allow the reader full access to their naked body. And many equally true aspects of being raped are rarely meaningfully discussed: the ER visit and follow ups appts, the gastrointestinal side effects of emergency room medications, buying medication to treat an STD, the physical therapy sessions, the multiple calls to crisis hotlines, the carefully planning needed to avoid triggers, etc. Publishers/writers/maybe readers seem to have a low tolerance for that. The immediate violent act is interesting but the aftermath...well, that lacks the strange hands on her back and ripping of her shirt.

  4. There can never be enough stories, voices and perspectives. Where I live there were a series of brutal murders at the end of last year and the beginning of this year. Women were murdered by their ex-boyfriends and ex-husbands.

    There was then a call by various organisations, and not for the first time, to improve the legislation on domestic abuse and sexual violence, to better protect women. Then someone had the gall to say that the women were to blame, and that they were/are provoking these men to violence with things like infidelity and disrespect.

    And the scariest part about the whole situation is that a lot people seemed to agree with this misogynist fucktard. I'd never been more ashamed of being man.

  5. Shannon: I honestly don't even know how to compare it to my other reading this year, because it was just... I don't know how to finish that sentence. But I know what you mean about it being the best.

    Jenny: Please don't ever, ever feel that you have to justify it *hugs*

    Ellie: I very much agree that that's a problem as a whole, and that there are so many conversations we as a culture could and should be having about *how* we write about rape - conversations that go far beyond an unhelpful "We've had enough of this topic". We've had enough of certain kinds of narratives, while as you say others are ignored. But I don't know if it's fair to say this novel in particular ignores the aftermath and the health complications that follow. The same is true of Tender Morsels, for example - I love it exactly because it's all about the aftermath of sexual violence.

    Kwame: Ugh. Unfortunately victim blaming is very prevalent everywhere :(

  6. Also, I just wanted to add that I felt that Gay did a good job of staying away from "soft legs", "smooth thighs", "strange hands on her back" and other gross sexualised rape descriptors. Mileage may of course vary.

  7. Good for you for reading this, Ana. I just can't. Every time I read about how good it is, I'll read the description and just say Nope. I have a very difficult time reading about fellow human beings being brutalized, especially fellow women. Sometimes I can handle a brief passage but this sounds like too, too much.

  8. Chris, that's 100% legitimate and totally understandable. Honestly, I don't think having been able to get through it is anything I should be bragging about. We're all different and have different limits and no-go areas, and what we're willing to engage with at a certain moment is certainly not a measure of how much we care. All this to say: I understand.

  9. Ana, what a touching piece about personal limits, politics, and how to approach violently difficult subjects. I have nothing to add; thank you for writing this.

  10. Superb looking read - thanks for posting about this one.

  11. You always write the most interesting, thought provoking, and careful posts. It's so obvious that you really think when choosing words and structure. Lovely post.


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