Literary Fiction by People of Color discussion

An Untamed State
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message 1: by jo (last edited Oct 31, 2014 07:31PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo | 1031 comments hello gentlefolks! i will be leading the november discussion for this amazing book and i confess i feel nervous. this is why. it is a book about brutal, prolonged, extremely graphic, über-sadistic sexual torture of a woman by a group of men.

it is a book about PTSD.

it is a book about race and representations of race and race in haiti (a country the conception of which is very very fraught in the united states).

it doesn't pull ANY punches. if you know Roxane Gay you know that one thing she does, she says her own truth, bravely and awesomely.

i invite you to visit her tumblr because it's beautiful and strong and vulnerable and simply fantastic.

so, why am i nervous? because the likelihood that some of us will be triggered into really painful mental states by this book is 100%. also, let me say blunty that men are not portrayed kindly in An Untamed State, so men in our group are going to be hurt. and let me say also that black man are not portrayed kindly in this book (roxane gay is a black haitian).

so, on the one hand there will be those of us who find the book incredibly painful, mostly women but of course not only (if you are a rape or sexual assault victim, or this topic is traumatic for you for any reason at all, i would like to issue the most strenuous TRIGGER WARNING). on the other hand there will be those, mostly men but not only, who will find the book unfair. i'm simplifying, but you see why i'm nervous don't you?

so this is what i ask of you: let us all tread very very lightly in discussing this book. let us give each other lots and lots of room to explore injury and injured feelings. let us NEVER, EVER attack, belittle, ridicule, or make light of each other. people say stuff that hurts us, that makes us feel misunderstood -- let's explain why we feel hurt, but let us not attack. ever.

i am wondering whether to say that i and the other moderators reserve the right to delete offensive comments but this group is not into offending, so there is no need for that yet, and hopefully there won't ever be a need for that. let us just be really, really careful of each other's sensitivities, k?

i would particularly like to issue a plea to those who have not suffered from sexual trauma (directly, indirectly, etc.). let us honor our friends who have. they have a truth we can't begin to fathom. they are entitled to it. we are not entitled to question it.

thank you.


William (be2lieve) | 1249 comments Mod
Hey Jo! I'm a little surprised that you'll moderate this discussion. Was it something that you felt that you simply had to do? I say that because I've heard you say in the past that this or that particular book was too horrendous or painful and that you especially steer clear of books portraying violence towards women. I am about 2/3 done and can say that this book is the single most traumatic book I have ever read. About half way through I was weary and now I'm kinda just wishing it would end. However, its importance cannot be under-estimated. Should make for quite a November discussion.


message 3: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo | 1031 comments william, i was strong-armed into it! but i also think it's amazing and fabulous and that it deals with violence in a really intelligent way. i will no longer read laura lippman, though. too many needlessly slaughtered young women. the pain has to have a meaning. as for traumatic, i'm right there with you. there was a point in which i put the book down and shook for about 20 mins.


Shannon I'm not sure how widely known it is, but Gay was a victim of gang rape as a teen. I've never seen her speak about it anywhere except for the one mention of it in an article. She did not even tell her family about it until she was an adult. Maybe this book was her release. I am in agreement and alignment with what you've written as an opening to this discussion. Looking forward to it.


message 5: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo | 1031 comments thank you shannon. i didn't know it, but it's not a hard thing to suspect. have you read the book yet?


Shannon jo wrote: "thank you shannon. i didn't know it, but it's not a hard thing to suspect. have you read the book yet?"

I have read it. And finished it in 2 days! She really wowed me with An Untamed State. I immediately read her first book, Ayiti, shortly thereafter. Then I went ahead and purchased her third book, Bad Feminist, which I'm reading now.


message 7: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo | 1031 comments Shannon wrote: "jo wrote: "thank you shannon. i didn't know it, but it's not a hard thing to suspect. have you read the book yet?"

I have read it. And finished it in 2 days! She really wowed me with An Untamed St..."


wow. so cool.


message 8: by jo (last edited Oct 31, 2014 12:47PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo | 1031 comments this just out: An Untamed State is one of the 10 best books of the year according to library journal!


Beverly | 2871 comments Mod
jo wrote: "william, i was strong-armed into it! but i also think it's amazing and fabulous and that it deals with violence in a really intelligent way. i will no longer read laura lippman, though. too many ne..."

I too was surprised that you were moderating. I have put off reading this book until now because of the violence within the story. This is a book I know I will be reading in the daytime.

I just finished reading A Brief History of Seven Killings: A Novel (which is one of my top reads for the year) which also deals with violence.


message 10: by Jean (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jean | 140 comments This book is a tough one. It made me ill physically and psychologically.


message 11: by Rebecca (new)

Rebecca | 386 comments jo. I love your intro. AWESOME JOB!! I am informed and therefore I choose to pass on this one for me this time. I will be missing out for sure. You are going to do great.


Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments The brutality in this book was somewhat blunted for me because I read an even more brutal book immediately before it - Kingston Noir. I can't, in good conscience, recommend it because it's still giving me nightmares.


Virginie (chouettblog) | 83 comments I am a little apprehensive about this book. I found it difficult to read about violence of any kind, but I will give it a try. Will we be following a timetable?


message 14: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo | 1031 comments so i got me the book today (i listened to the audiobook). timetable to come! is anyone currently reading it?


Virginie (chouettblog) | 83 comments jo wrote: "so i got me the book today (i listened to the audiobook). timetable to come! is anyone currently reading it?"

I haven't started yet as I am trying to finish a book I am currently reading. How do you feel about reading An Untamed State twice?


message 16: by Jean (last edited Nov 02, 2014 04:19AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jean | 140 comments I read it last month and Thursday I whined to the librarian (as only I can) until she let me check out a copy until December 12.


message 17: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo | 1031 comments i'd really like to see you whine to the librarian, jean!


message 18: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo | 1031 comments Virginie wrote: "jo wrote: "so i got me the book today (i listened to the audiobook). timetable to come! is anyone currently reading it?"

I haven't started yet as I am trying to finish a book I am currently readi..."


i feel fine, actually. it's a great book and now that the story will have less of a sting on me i'll be better able to appreciate the language!


message 19: by Jean (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jean | 140 comments jo wrote: "i'd really like to see you whine to the librarian, jean!"

It's not pretty. Looking forward to sharing ideas with the group about this one.


message 20: by Omkar (new)

Omkar Kudalkar | 2 comments An Untamed State is the story of an American lawyer who’s kidnapped while visiting her rich parents in Port-au-Prince. For more than 200 pages, she’s beaten, burned, sliced and sexually exploited. Owing to the power of Gay’s prose, the immediacy of the narrator’s voice and the graphic nature of this ordeal, it’s some of the most emotionally exhausting material I’ve ever read. You will come to know why Gay is known as a bad feminist.


message 21: by Omkar (new)

Omkar Kudalkar | 2 comments It is the story of an American lawyer who’s kidnapped while visiting her rich parents in Port-au-Prince. A story of brutal experience of a woman.


William (be2lieve) | 1249 comments Mod
Finished it this morning. Really glad to be done with it. It was not a pleasant experience. And I have some problems with the authors portrayals of race, gender, class and "truth" in "fiction".
Don't worry, I'm not gonna argue that men, Black men in this case, don't brutalize, rape, gang-rape, and torture. No, my problems are at the edges, the stereotypes, and generalities that I found discomfiting in the novel.


message 23: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo | 1031 comments i am waiting to see how many of us have finished. if people have finished it there is no point going by chapters but we can instead go by phase (before the kidnapping, after the kidnapping, the family, michael, etc.). if people are just starting to read now, though, it makes more sense of course to go by chapters.


Virginie (chouettblog) | 83 comments Hi Jo,
I actually just got my copy yesterday so I am yet to start.


ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3702 comments Mod
Just finished an hour ago.


Louise | 138 comments I finished it today and was really disappointed with the second half actually. More when we get there.


ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3702 comments Mod
Louise wrote: "I finished it today and was really disappointed with the second half actually. More when we get there."

I actually enjoyed the second half about 10% more than the first half. I guess it's all relative though.


Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I have finished it.


George | 759 comments I'm about 200 pages into it.


Beverly | 2871 comments Mod
jo wrote: "so i got me the book today (i listened to the audiobook). timetable to come! is anyone currently reading it?"

Oh my - You listened to the audiobook! I do not think I can do that. I am much better dealing with books with this type of violence if I read the book.


Beverly | 2871 comments Mod
I have finished the book.


message 32: by jo (last edited Nov 03, 2014 08:31AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo | 1031 comments here's a proposed schedule.

-- nov. 3-13 chs 1-10

-- nov. 13-23 chs 11-24 (end part one)

-- nov. 24-end part 2

would this work?

i would like to start at the very beginning, actually, because it came to haunt me significantly later. here's how the narrator starts (and therefore frames) the novel:

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.

what do you think of this beginning? i'm going to leave this entirely open-ended cuz it seems to me there is so much in these lines... the promise of a book that may or may not have been written.

as for **SPOILERS**. it seems to me that this novel is not easily spoiled. we know what happens in it. it's horrible. we know how it ends because the beginning tells us about the end. so let's feel free, i suggest, to introduce possible spoilers, maybe with the exception of (view spoiler). yes?


Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I saw the beginning lines as a fairy tale that the protagonist had to tell herself to keep living.


Beverly | 2871 comments Mod
My initial reaction was what elegant language to describe a raw experience.

I also thought this would be a storyline about a life that after the kidnapping would no longer be able to have the life they had before the kidnapping. And thereafter - everything would be thought of before and after.


Virginie (chouettblog) | 83 comments Hello all,
Will be starting reading over the weekend and join in the discussion.

@Jo, thanks for setting up the timetable.


Shannon Jo, I actually felt the same about the dedication, "For women, the world over." I was really conflicted about it after reading the book. I wonder about people's thoughts on that as well.


message 37: by Jean (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jean | 140 comments Wilhelmina wrote: "I saw the beginning lines as a fairy tale that the protagonist had to tell herself to keep living."

My thinking is along the same line as yours, Mina.
She says, It was not personal. I was not broken. At least this is what I tell myself.
I see it as a means of coming to a place in her mind that allows her to live as sanely as possible.


message 38: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo | 1031 comments Shannon wrote: "Jo, I actually felt the same about the dedication, "For women, the world over." I was really conflicted about it after reading the book. I wonder about people's thoughts on that as well."

thanks. that's a good point shannon.


Emmaculate (e-mmaculaterose) | 1 comments Beverly wrote: "My initial reaction was what elegant language to describe a raw experience.

I also thought this would be a storyline about a life that after the kidnapping would no longer be able to have the life..."


I agree that the language was very elegant when describing such a raw and horrific experience.
Even her showing slight compassion for the young men's circumstances was more than I would have anticipated in the opening paragraphs.


Paige (paigeawesome) | 59 comments I was really excited when the group voted for this book because I have read a lot of Roxane Gay's articles and I follow her on Tumblr and I really respect everything I have read from her. In my mind Roxane Gay and awesome are linked pretty heavily.

But I have to say I have some pretty strong negative feelings about this book. So much I stopped halfway through. I guess I'll try and pick it up again for the group discussion. It wasn't the violence that bothered me; I've read "worse"--by which I mean, for myself personally more traumatizing or disturbing--accounts of rape and brutality, and I do believe it can be a useful device. The hard part for me was the Miri/Michael relationship. It bothered me so much that after a while I would actually find myself hoping to get back to the actual torture scenes, where at least the abuse and creepiness was meant to be abusive and creepy. I couldn't get over how pushy Michael was and how immature and abusive/manipulative Miri was. But then, like a romance novel heroine, Miri was actually wishing that he would disregard her boundaries and not respect her words. And of course he was clueless at times, annoyingly so, but the way to deal with that is not through projectiles. I don't need my characters to be likeable or even all that believable, but I didn't really get the impression that their dynamic was actually being commented on or critiqued with awareness. If it was, I guess it went right over my head and would someone please point it out. I really want to like this book. And this may change in the second half of the book, but I didn't actually notice much commentary on race, race relations, class dynamics, etc. I mean, yeah, it's mentioned--bluntly and superficially--for a sentence or two here or there. But based on the nonfiction I've read by Roxane Gay, I guess my expectations were pretty high.

I kind of feel like an ass for saying all this, especially since 1) I really admire this author, and 2) I do believe the book has sincerely moved many people. So many people on my GR friends list read it and loved it and I really respect their opinions. Something about it really rubbed me the wrong way though; I feel like there has to be something I'm missing. Maybe the second half will bring it all into alignment. I see Columbus at least enjoyed the second half more so maybe I will too.


message 41: by Shannon (last edited Nov 04, 2014 05:58PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Shannon Paige, I appreciate your honesty. This is a tough book to critique and I plan to keep my comments pretty generic. I was bothered by Miri and Michael's relationship but my problem was actually with her. Particularly in the "after." Considering what she went through, I think heading down the path of drawing any conclusions about her may be off limits. Or at least I'll leave it to someone that may be able to handle it more eloquently that I'm convinced that I can.

I wonder if the differences in race was supposed to contribute something. I found myself forgetting that Michael was white until it was alluded to with the mentions of his hair texture or complexion from time to time.

It's a difficult book to say that I "enjoyed." Could a person enjoy this? But the fact that I could not put it down obviously means that it rated high for me and it compelled me to buy her other books immediately.


William (be2lieve) | 1249 comments Mod
Shannon wrote: "Paige, I appreciate your honesty.... I found myself forgetting that Michael was white"

I immediately recognized that Micheal was white when he first met Miri and she commented that he was dressed like a Republican. And it "colored" my view of the book thereafter. She also comments early on about the blond curls on the head of the son they produced. There were a lot of unfortunate and unnecessary negative stereotypes played out in the novel. Can you imagine that this novel would have ever been published if Miri (who in my imagination is very light skinned) were also white?


message 43: by George (last edited Nov 04, 2014 07:54PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

George | 759 comments of course, he isn't simply white, he's an ethnic German cornhusker from Nebraska and grew up on a farm and wrestles. doesn't get any whiter than that. Can I get a yee haw? he was rather a stereotype himself. I found myself wondering just why she created that particular character, except perhaps to make him the antithesis of Miri's father.


Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments All I could picture was Robert Redford in his younger days. Very white. "American" meant "white" in this book. Not an African American in sight anywhere. African Americans seem very hard to find in many books by black immigrants. I think I made a similar complaint when we read All Our Names. We are invisible.


William (be2lieve) | 1249 comments Mod
Wilhelmina wrote: "All I could picture was Robert Redford in his younger days. Very white. "American" meant "white" in this book. Not an African American in sight anywhere. African Americans seem very hard to find in..."
I find that most immigrants of color to the U.S. have but one picture of African-Americans. Thugs, lazy, and without any redeeming qualities. While on one hand they absorb our music, dress and culture, most would gladly start a fight if you called them Black. See: Americanah)
I'm not blaming immigrants from the diaspora. If you recognize the media and negative stereotypes of Blacks here, imagine starting with a clean slate and hearing it 10 times worse oversees! But, Gay, an author of some note should have been cognizant of her audience and the implications of race in her story.


ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3702 comments Mod
Yes, Paige, I enjoyed the second half of the book better, but then only moderately so - and then I was grading on a curve, I didn't enjoy this book at all for many, many, many reasons and it had absolutely nothing to do with the violence. It's been really hard for me to describe how the violence in this book made me feel. It just seemed so phony, fake and unreal, the dialogue I mean. Like a screenplay for an original Cinemax movie. Is Cinemax still around? The dialogue between Miri and Michael - as you mentioned - was even worse. Straight out of a bad Lifetime movie event; stilted, forced and formulaic.

How did this happen? I just (yesterday) came across an essay by Roxane Gay that appeared with a group of other edgy writers where it was requested that each author write about a topic currently in the news and advised to keep it at a limited number of words. It was only the second essay I've read by her and I found myself shouting, "Yes, Yes, Yes" while reading the story. Just incredibly good and I immediately checked my library to see if Bad Feminist had moved from "in process" state to "available." Really, really moving article. There was none of that euphoria for me in An Untamed State.


Virginie (chouettblog) | 83 comments Columbus wrote: "Yes, Paige, I enjoyed the second half of the book better, but then only moderately so - and then I was grading on a curve, I didn't enjoy this book at all for many, many, many reasons and it had ab..."

Hi Columbus,
I would be interested in getting old of the essay just to compare it to the writing style in the book when I get to read it this weekend.
How did you get hold of it?


message 48: by ColumbusReads (last edited Nov 05, 2014 05:42AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3702 comments Mod
Virginie wrote: "Columbus wrote: "Yes, Paige, I enjoyed the second half of the book better, but then only moderately so - and then I was grading on a curve, I didn't enjoy this book at all for many, many, many reas..."

I was thinking about where I might have read that when I sent the posting and couldn't remember. I'm going to check my history on the devices and see if I can find it. I wasn't really that familiar with her writing other than the book. So, when I read that I was floored since I disliked the novel so much.


message 49: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo | 1031 comments strong opinions already, and strong negative opinions! i myself found the book pretty fantastic, each part of it, though i actually agree with some of your critiques (more about that at some other time).

it's good that we are getting off our chest the things about the book that infuriated or disappointed us. it's also good to take it slowly and see exactly what gay is doing here. there's a bit she's not doing but there is quite a bit she IS doing.

so, yes, first of all, the son christophe is immediately identified as the son of a mixed couple. we don't know yet that we are in haiti (only a "far off land," which haiti isn't, physically, but only metaphorically) and we also don't know that miri is black. we just assume that she is, because the author is, and because miri's parents live in haiti. in order to decipher miri's race we ask ourselves, do white people live in haiti? when i was listening to the audiobook, riveted by the story but also careful to decipher cues, i found myself thinking, "why would a white person live in haiti?" the implication, in my mind, was: haiti is a miserable place in which to live --> if you can live elsewhere you will --> if you are white you can live elsewhere --> therefore you will. i'm reporting this racist train of thought because racism plays a huge part in the book. PAIGE is right, there is not a whole lot of reflection about race in the book. it's as if the topic were not an issue. and my thought here is: gay, a very skillful writer, someone who thinks about these things a lot, left is all like this because she wanted us to do the race work.

the race work can be done through anger and outrage (see comments above), through unwitting racism (see my reaction) or by deciphering the text. same with class.

that's why it seems to me that that little beginning i quoted is important. it's the only point in the novel in which class, race, and post-colonial misery are hinted at. at it's right at the beginning!

as for stereotypes, let's give gay the benefit of the doubt here (she deserves it! she's earned it!) and believe they are there for a reason. if you write a(n upside down) fairy tale, you need stereotypes. that's how fairy-tales are written -- prince and princess and all that. the subversive power of the tale lies in the points where the stereotypes go wrong, when the stereotyped characters don't play to part.

so, let's go in order:

in the first chapter we have a faraway land, a possibly black possibly haitian woman, a possibly white husband, everyone speaking english, a blond baby, a clearly-marked wealthy family, and a group of moneyed kidnappers (with land cruisers). we also have a tremendous amount of violence, straight off the bat. and we have an idyllically happy family that gets smashed (literally) by this violence.

let's start from here. how did the kidnapping scene feel to you? and what is gay doing by giving us a few lines at the beginning about "terrified young men" and then showing us only horror and brutality, and not a second of this supposed terror?

and then let's talk about the actual violence miri endures. it's a big big central part of the book. we need to talk about it. we need to get deep inside it. ask ourselves why things happen like this (because they do), and what goes on in the minds of men when they tear apart women's bodies so brutally. this is the big challenge of the novel. we can close ourselves to the violence, explain it away, or we can deal with it in the exact terms in which it's being presented to us. i suggest we do the latter.


message 50: by George (last edited Nov 05, 2014 08:37AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

George | 759 comments finished the book this morning. rather mixed opinions, I'm afraid, but I'm still processing it all. Certainly, the violence is viscerally disturbing by clear intent. The violence and it's effect on Miri seem to be primary thing of interest in the book.

there are some white people living in Haiti, especially if you include Arabs who run various businesses. the word blanc doesn't exactly mean white though or isn't limited to people of European heritage anyway. More like foreign, non-Haitian, not "us". We'd all more or less be blanc in Haiti. there's a huge amount of anger etc. directed against mixed race Haitians. When the Marines took over in 1915 and ran the place for the next 20 years, they relyed mostly on mixed race Haitians to run things.

I'm afraid I don't think I'll be able to offer any insights into what men are thinking when they do such things though.


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