An Untamed State

An Untamed State

by Roxane Gay


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“Once you start this book, you will not be able to put it down. An Untamed State is a novel of hope intermingled with fear, a book about possibilities mixed with horror and despair. It is written at a pace that will match your racing heart, and while you find yourself shocked, amazed, devastated, you also dare to hope for the best, for all involved.”—Edwidge Danticat, author of Breath, Eyes, Memory and The Dew Breaker

Roxane Gay is a powerful new literary voice whose short stories and essays have already earned her an enthusiastic audience. In An Untamed State, she delivers an assured debut about a woman kidnapped for ransom, her captivity as her father refuses to pay and her husband fights for her release over thirteen days, and her struggle to come to terms with the ordeal in its aftermath.

Mireille Duval Jameson is living a fairy tale. The strong-willed youngest daughter of one of Haiti’s richest sons, she has an adoring husband, a precocious infant son, by all appearances a perfect life. The fairy tale ends one day when Mireille is kidnapped in broad daylight by a gang of heavily armed men, in front of her father’s Port au Prince estate. Held captive by a man who calls himself The Commander, Mireille waits for her father to pay her ransom. As it becomes clear her father intends to resist the kidnappers, Mireille must endure the torments of a man who resents everything she represents.

An Untamed State is a novel of privilege in the face of crushing poverty, and of the lawless anger that corrupt governments produce. It is the story of a willful woman attempting to find her way back to the person she once was, and of how redemption is found in the most unexpected of places. An Untamed State establishes Roxane Gay as a writer of prodigious, arresting talent.

“From the astonishing first line to the final scene, An Untamed State is magical and dangerous. I could not put it down. Pay attention to Roxane Gay; she's here to stay.”—Tayari Jones, author of Silver Sparrow and Leaving Atlanta

“[Haiti’s] better scribes, among them Edwidge Danticat, Franketienne, Madison Smartt Bell, Lyonel Trouillot, and Marie Vieux Chavet, have produced some of the best literature in the world. . . . Add to their ranks Roxane Gay, a bright and shining star.”—Kyle Minor, author of In the Devil’s Territory, on Ayiti

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802122513
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 05/06/2014
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 121,674
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Roxane Gay’s writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, Virginia Quarterly Review, NOON, The New York Times Book Review, The Rumpus, Salon, The Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy culture blog, and many others including her Tumblr, She is the co-editor of PANK and essays editor for The Rumpus. She teaches writing at Eastern Illinois University. She tweets at @rgay.

Read an Excerpt


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.

It was hot, nearly a hundred degrees, the air so thick it felt like warm rain. I dressed my son, Christophe, in a pair of miniature red board shorts and a light blue T-shirt with a sailboat across the front. I covered his smooth brown arms and his beaming face with sunscreen. I kissed his nose and brushed his thick, dirty-blond curls away from his face as he pressed his palms against my cheeks and shouted, "Mama! Mama! Mama!" My husband, Michael, the baby, and I said goodbye to my parents, told them we would be back in time for dinner.

Michael and I were taking Christophe to the ocean for the first time. We were going to hold him in the warm salt water as he wiggled his toes and kicked his chubby legs. We were going to throw him toward the sun and catch him safely in our arms.

My mother smiled from the balcony where she watered her plants, wearing a crisp linen outfit and high heels. She blew a kiss to her grandson. She reminded us to be safe.

We put our son into his car seat. We handed him his favorite stuffed animal, a little bulldog named Baba. He clenched his beloved toy tightly in his little fist, still smiling. He has his father's temperament. He is usually happy. That is important to me. Before getting into the car, Michael double-checked that Christophe was strapped securely in his car seat. He put our beach bags into the trunk.

Michael held my door open. When he closed it, he pressed his face against the window, and blew air until his cheeks filled. I laughed and pressed my hand against his face through the glass. "I love you," I mouthed. I don't say those words often, but he knows. Michael ran around to his side of the car. After he slid behind the steering wheel and adjusted the rearview mirror so he could see the baby, he leaned into me and we kissed. He rested an arm on the armrest between us and I idly brushed the golden wisps of hair on his arms. I smiled and rested my head on his shoulder. We drove down the long steep hill of my parents' driveway and waited quietly for the heavy steel gates, the gates keeping us safe, to open.

In the backseat, Christophe cooed softly, still smiling. As the gates closed behind us, three black Land Cruisers surrounded our car. The air filled with a high-pitched squealing and the smell of burning rubber. Michael's tanned knuckles turned white as he gripped the steering wheel and looked frantically for a way out. His body shook. The doors of all three trucks opened at the same time and men we did not know spilled out, all limbs and gunmetal. There was silence, the air thin, still hot. My breath caught painfully in my rib cage. There was shouting.

Two men stood behind our car, machine guns raised. Michael pressed his foot against the gas pedal to move forward but a tall man with a red bandana across the lower half of his face, a man holding a machine gun, pounded his fist on the hood of the car. He left a small dent in the shape of his closed hand. He glared at us, then raised his gun, pointed it directly at Michael's chest. I threw my arm across Michael's body. It was a silly, impotent gesture. Michael's eyes were bright, and arcs of tears trembled along his lower eyelids. He grabbed my hand between both of his, held me so fiercely it felt like all those slender bones would be crushed.

Two men slammed the butts of their rifles against the car windows. Their bodies glowed with anger. The glass cracked, fractures spreading. Michael and I pulled apart, waited tensely, and then the windshield broke, the sound loud and echoing. We covered our faces as shards of glass shattered around us, refracting sharp prisms of light. Michael and I reached for Christophe at the same time. The baby was still smiling but his lips quivered, his eyes wide. My hands could not quite reach him. My child was so close my fingers thrummed. If I touched my child, we would all be fine; this terrible thing would not happen. A man reached into the window and unlocked my door. He started to pull me out of the car roughly, growling as the seat belt held me inside. After he slapped my face, he ordered me to unlock my seat belt. My hands shook as I depressed the button. I was lifted up and out of our car and thrown onto the street. The skin covering my face stung.

My body deflated. My body was just skin stretched too tightly over bone, nothing more, no air. The man sneered at me, called me dyaspora with the resentment those Haitians who cannot leave hold for those of us who can. His skin was slick. I couldn't hold on to him. I tried to scratch, but my fingers only collected a thick layer of sweat. I tried to grab on to the car door. He slammed his gun against my fingers. I yelled, "My baby. Don't hurt my baby." One of the men grabbed me by my hair, threw me to the ground, kicked me in my stomach. I gasped as I wrapped my arms around myself. A small crowd gathered. I begged them to help. They did not. They stood and watched me screaming and fighting with all the muscle in my heart. I saw their faces and the indifference in their eyes, the relief that it was not yet their time; the wolves had not yet come for them.

I was pulled to my feet and again I tried to break free, I tried to run, to reach for my son, to feel his skin against mine just one last time. I shouted at him through the broken window. I shouted, "Christophe!" banging my fist against his window so he would look at me. I said the things any mother would say to her child in that moment even though he was too young to understand any of it. My voice was stripped raw. He stared, reaching for me. He kicked his legs. I studied the dimples over each of his knuckles. I broke free and pulled the rear door open, wrapped the seat belt around my hand as a strange pair of hands tried to pull me loose. The man on Michael's side hit him in the face with a closed fist again and again. Michael slumped forward, his forehead pressed against the horn. The horn wailed, the whine of it filling the air. A thick, dark stream of blood slowly slid from my husband's forehead, down between his eyes, along his nose and over his lips. In the backseat, Christophe started crying, his face burning a bright red.

The cold steel of a gun barrel dug into my skin. I froze. A voice said, "Go easy or we kill your family. We kill everything you've ever loved." I did not move. The gun dug deeper and deeper. I unclenched my fingers and stood. I stared at my family. I do not love easy. I raised my hands over my head. My thighs trembled uncontrollably. I could not move. A hand grabbed my neck, pushing me toward a waiting vehicle. I turned to look back, a sudden calm filling me. Michael slowly raised his head. I looked at him hard, wanted him to know this was not how our story would end. He shouted my name. The desperation in his voice made me nauseous. I mouthed I love you and he nodded. He shouted, "I love you." I heard him. I felt him. I watched as he tried to open his door but passed out again, his body slumping.

My captors put a burlap sack over my head and shoved me into the backseat. The delicate construction of bone in my cheeks throbbed angrily. My skin hurt. My captors told me, in broken English, to do as they said and I would be back with my family soon. I needed to hold the fragile hope that I could find my way back to my happily ever after. I didn't know any better. That was the before.

I sat very still as two men flanked me. Their muscular legs pressed against mine. Each man held one of my wrists, so tightly they would leave dark red circles. The air was filled with the stench of sweaty young bodies and my blood and the sunscreen I had rubbed into my child's skin. Before I passed out I heard cold laughter, my son crying and the desperate wail of the car horn.


I opened my eyes and couldn't see anything but bright spots of light and gray shadow. My head hurt. I gasped and began thrashing wildly as I remembered where I was, my baby crying, my husband. The burlap sack made it difficult to breathe. I needed a breath of clean air. A strong hand grabbed my shoulder, shoved me back into the seat. I was warned to sit still. I began to hum. I hummed so loudly my teeth vibrated. I rocked back and forth. A hand grabbed the back of my neck. I rocked harder. Someone muttered, "She's crazy."

I was on the edge of crazy. I hadn't fallen in yet.

I was scared, dizzy and nauseous, my mouth dry. As the car lurched I leaned forward and vomited, bile seeping through the burlap, the rest dripping down my shirt. I was repulsive, already. The man to my left started yelling, grabbed me by my hair, slammed my head into the seat in front of me. My mouth soured as I tried to protect my face.

And then, inexplicably, I thought about my friends in Miami, where Michael and I live, and how they would talk when news of a kidnapping reached them. I am a curiosity to my American friends — a Haitian who is not from the slums or the countryside, a Haitian who has enjoyed a life of privilege. When I talk about my life in Haiti, they listen to my stories as if they are fairy tales, stories that could not possibly be true by nature of their goodness.

My husband and I love to entertain, dinner parties. We cook fancy meals from Gourmet and Bon Appétit and drink expensive wine and try to solve the world's problems. At least we did this, in the before, when we were less aware of the spectacle we were and when we thought we had anything even remotely relevant to say about the things that tear the world apart.

At one such party, where we entertained his friends and my friends, some of whom we liked and many of whom we hated, everyone drank lots of wine and danced to a fine selection of music. We ate excellent food and engaged in pretentious but interesting conversation. Talk turned to Haiti, as it often does. We sat on our lanai, illuminated by paper lanterns and candles, all of us drunk on the happiness of too much money and too much food and too much freedom. I was on Michael's lap, drawing small circles on the back of his neck with my fingernails, his arm around my waist. Everyone leaned forward, earnest in their desire to understand a place they would likely never visit. One of my friends mentioned a magazine article he read about how Haiti had surpassed Colombia as the kidnapping capital of the world. Another told us about a recent feature in a national magazine on the kidnapping epidemic — that was the word he used, as if kidnapping were a disease, a contagion that could not be controlled. There were comments about Vodou and that one movie with Lisa Bonet that made Bill Cosby mad at her. Soon everyone was offering their own desperate piece of information about my country, my people, about the violence and the poverty and the hopelessness, conjuring a place that does not exist anywhere but the American imagination.

That night, I buried my face against Michael's neck, felt his pulse against my cheek. He held me closer. He understood. There are three Haitis — the country Americans know and the country Haitians know and the country I thought I knew.

In the back of the Land Cruiser the day I was kidnapped, I was in a new country altogether. I was not home or I was and did not know it yet. Someone turned up the radio. A song I recognized was playing. I began to sing along, wanted to be part of this one familiar thing. Someone told me to shut up. I sang louder. I sang so loud I couldn't hear anything around me. A fist connected with my jaw. I slumped to the side, my head ringing. I didn't stop singing though my words slowed, slurred.

I was supposed to be at the beach with my husband. I was supposed to wrap my legs around Michael's waist as he carried me into the ocean and away from the shore while our son napped. I would trace his jaw with my fingertips and my lips. I would taste the salt and sun and sea on his skin and he would hold me so tight it hurt to breathe. We would ignore everything around us and he would kiss me like he always kisses me — hard, with purpose, the soft of our lip flesh bruising, pulpy, his tongue in my mouth, a hand twisting through my hair possessively. He always tries so hard to hold on to me because he does not realize I am with him always. We are a lock and key. We are nothing without each other. When the sun became too much, when our desire became too much for that moment, I would pull away and we would climb out of the water, our bodies heavy. We would lie on the hot white sand with our sleeping son between us. The salt from the sea would dry on our skin. We would drink something cold and bask in the perfection of our happily ever after.

But we weren't there. I wasn't there. I was alone in a country I did not know, one that did not belong to me or my father, one that belonged to men who obeyed no kind of law.

We drove for hours along winding, narrow roads. The men discussed financial matters, speculating as to the kind of ransom I would fetch. A hand grabbed at my breast, slowly swelling with milk, and I sat straight up, my spine locked. I whispered, "Do not touch me." There was a laugh. A voice said, "Not yet," but the hand squeezed harder. I tried to pull away from the violation but there was nowhere to go. I was in a cage, the first of many.

"You're never going to get away with this," I said, my voice already hoarsening.

There was laughter. "We already have."


We stopped on a noisy street. My kidnappers pulled the burlap sack off my head and I swallowed as much air as I could. I squinted as my eyes adjusted to my surroundings. The sun was still out but fading into pink along the horizon. It was beautiful how the color stretched across the sky in sweeping arcs. I stared into that pink, wanted to remember everything about it, until a hand grabbed my elbow. I winced, stumbled forward.

A few people in the street stared but no one moved to help me. I shouted, "This is not right," knowing my words were useless. There's no room for such distinctions in a country where too many people have to claw for what they need and still have nothing to hold.

My captors walked me through a dark room with three couches and a large, flat-screen television. A woman sat on one of the couches in a red tank top, denim skirt, and flip-flops, the kind with a high chunky heel. My eyes widened as I watched her watching me. She didn't look surprised. She shook her head and resumed watching her program, some kind of talk show.

In another room, four men played cards. There were bottles of Prestige beer on the table and an overflowing ashtray. One of them licked his lips as we walked by. We passed through a child's bedroom. My breasts ached uncomfortably. I thought about Christophe, my sweet baby boy, whom I hadn't yet weaned, who hungered for his mother's breast and could not be satisfied.

Finally, we reached a room with a small bed along one wall and a large bucket against the other. There was a small window covered with bars looking out onto an alley, and below the window a faded poster for the Fanmi Lavalas political party, bearing the likeness of a man I didn't recognize. They threw me in this room and closed the door. They left me in a new cage. I immediately grabbed the doorknob, twisting it frantically. The door was locked. It was impossible not to panic. I started beating the door. I was going to beat that door down but the door was strong and my arms were less so.

When I was completely worn-out, I sank to the floor. The heat overwhelmed me. Already, my clothes clung to my body. I could smell myself. The edges of my face were damp with sweat.

Heat takes on a peculiar quality during the summer in Portau-Prince. The air is thick and inescapable. It wraps itself around you and applies pressure relentlessly. The summer I was kidnapped, the heat was relentless. That heat pressed up, so close against my skin. That heat invaded my senses until I forgot nearly everything, until I forgot the meaning of hope.

I waited and tried not to imagine what could happen to me. I could not allow myself to think of such things or there would be no reason to believe I would be saved. Instead, I tried to remember why my parents would ever return to the country they once left, the country they once loved, the country I thought I loved.


Excerpted from "An Untamed State"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Roxane Gay.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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An Untamed State 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read part one of the book. The first half was so good that I read it again before moving on to the second half. I was almost scared to read the second half...scared that the main character wouldn't mentally and emotionally survive this ordeal. I finished the book in 3 days and have been recommending it ever since. Powerful and amazing story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read the book in a less than a weekend. I could not put it down. A difficult subject that was written so well. This book was recommended to me and I cannot stop recommending it. I would purchase any book that this author writes in the future Brutally honest treatment of a difficult topic. Well developed characters that are hard to forget
ReadAllNightLong More than 1 year ago
No! Just- no! I read this book, thinking it was a true story and excused its flaws and weaknesses with that thought in mind. But it is fiction and it feels contrived. The violence is over the top, and the response of the victim doesn't make any sense, especially after her rescue. In the end, it all feels like the author just squeezed as much bizarre brutality as possible into the story and never considered what the real effect would be on the characters involved. I wish I had never read it. I will never read anything by this author again.
Anonymous 17 days ago
Extraordinary. brutal and tender and haunting
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a captivating read. I was absorbed in the story in the first 30 minutes and never did want to put the book down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Gay tells a difficult story in the back drop of a beautiful love story with great balance.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a must read. I was enthralled and on the edge of my seat.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I could not put this book down, it was so intense.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I find myself thinking about this book a lot. The author captured the strength of a woman during a horrific time perfectly. We are survivors. Also, I thought the author gave a nice glimpse of the many sides of Haiti. Well done!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was highly disappointed with the level of brutality that was part of this book and the victim’s response to her capture before & after. The writer attempt to portrait the main character as a strong woman felt flat and disconnected. Another issue was the victim’s investment in protecting others and then blaming them for not being there for her; it didn’t make sense. Lastly, the end was so badly written who in their right mind would follow their abuser & confronts him after all she allegedly went through by herself. The book felt disjointed. The book or the writer should have prepared a better ending and illustrated a better course of a victim passage as she was recovering from rape!
Yeme More than 1 year ago
I read this book when it was first published. It was an excellent read. At the time of reading this book, I felt the main characters intense and desperate desire to be free of what plagued her. I was captivated by the sheer stripping away of the main characters integrity, feminism and humanity. I recommend this book to others who will open their minds to the story they are about to read.
archetype67 More than 1 year ago
Roxanne Gay takes a hard, unsparing look at race, privilege, violence against women, and how one woman survives the horror of an abduction. Mireille is Haitian, a daughter not of poverty but of wealth and a sheltered life. She admits that she has a fairytale life. That is, until visiting Haiti from their home in Miami, she is abducted by a group of men to gain ransom from her father. At first, she believes that such kidnapping as business transactions and that no serious harm will come to her. That her father would pay the ransom and she would be returned home. But, that belief is soon crushed and the level of cruelty and violence of her captors escalates, and her mental, emotional and physical state deteriorates. The novel is intense and almost exhausting to read - from the impressive opening lines to the closing incident that reminds the narrator that healing from such a life destroying traumatic event is fraught with setbacks and moments that can send her right back to survival mode. While I often read more than one book at a time, I found that I almost had to pick something else up to get a break from the unrelenting nature of the novel, to have the space to process and then return again. The title echoes the nature of the violence, poverty, and corruption of Haiti as well as the mental and emotional state of the narrator throughout the novel. Despite the presentation of poverty setting the dynamic that leads to kidnappings, the perpetrators are not excused, not drawn as sympathetic. That they do not distinguish between the privileged of Haiti whose wealth is from corruption and those who earned their life through hard work argues that the kidnappers talk of the injustice of their world, but are nothing more than opportunistic thugs that use violence and power to gain money and are just as corrupt and immoral as those they rail against. Between the harrowing moments of the kidnapping, we learn the story of Mireille, her family, and her love and marriage to Michael, a Nebraskan farm boy -- Mireille's family calls him Mr. America. This provides the before and after of Mireille's life, the person she was, and the person she was forced to be to survive. The format gives the reader space to breath, to digest, to recover from the relentless destruction of a woman. The novel does not end with her release. The reader follows the days and weeks, the months, and eventually years of Mireille's journey to be whole, to find who she is, to find not just a reason to live, but life worth living. Mireille's climb from the place where she cannot remember her own name or those she once loved because it was easier to survive as 'no one' to place where she feels safe and loved is as brutal a journey as her captivity. Interestingly, it is not the husband, or her own family that serve as her anchor, but her mother-in-law, Lorraine. Through Mireille's memories, she is portrayed as the negatives of the stereotype of the midwestern farm-wife. All is not as it seems in this novel, nothing is simple, none of the questions it poises have easy answers. Gay's writing isn't lyrical, the novel, not perfect, but both are powerful.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It's been a long time, since I read a Novel I couldn't stop reading. It took me right along side of Miri as she went through each stage of her life and kidnapping. I cried and could relate to some of her family situations. Emotions were high in this Novel. I very much wanted more when the story ended. Great read!
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LisaAhn More than 1 year ago
This is an unforgettable book. I loved Roxane Gay's writing in Ayiti, and here she is even stronger. Once I started reading, I couldn't put it down. Mireille, the main character, is powerful and compelling, even when she is most broken. I've never read a character like this, and Gay draws her with such mercy and precision, that Mireille leaps out of the pages and runs across the room. She's one of those characters you don't forget. Ever. I can't say enough to praise this book, the storyline, the characters, the writing. Phenomenal.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a well written story. A powerful voice on sexual violence against women for political/economic gains. It is a story that could be told anywhere into today's climate. While the book is a work of fiction it rings true for some many women.