[Kathy Acker: Kathy Goes to Haiti (1978 / 1993)]
Acker, K. (1978). Kathy Goes to Haiti. In Literal Madness: Three Novels by Kathy Acker. New York: Grove Press, 1994. pp. 1-170.
Kathy goes to Haiti, and she’ll take you too. However, before you pack your bags, be prepared to read beyond Kathy’s feigned naïveté, and her penchant for interminable sexual encounters with misogynist strangers. In doing so, an unconventional journey through Haiti awaits, where themes of race and gender are explored against a historical backdrop, along with the character of Kathy, who is not as simple as she initially seems.
In the late 1970s, author and self-proclaimed plagiarist/pornographer Kathy Acker was offered eight hundred dollars to write a pornographic novel (Danticat, viii). The result is Kathy Goes to Haiti (1978), a travelogue in which travel narratives are layered with pornographic material. The novel follows the journey of Kathy, a twenty-nine-year-old, New York-based artist, to the Republic of Haiti. From the moment Kathy steps off the plane in Port-au-Prince, she encounters an endless stream of men who want to be her guide, protector, and lover. Taxi drivers, school boys, and businessmen all advise Kathy that, “Women in Haiti don’t go around alone” (p. 22), and despite Kathy’s weak protestations that she’d rather be on her own, she remains in the sexually charged company of others, eventually falling in love with married, mulatto rum-baron Roger.
While Kathy Goes to Haiti is billed as a novel, the boundaries between fiction and reality feel decidedly blurred. This is attributable to Acker’s reputation as a controversial avant-garde writer, and because Acker and the main character share the same first name. From the outset, I couldn’t help but wonder if Acker actually travelled to Haiti, and recorded her experiences under the guise of fiction to reject traditional modes of literary classification. Alternatively, I wondered if Acker took this approach simply to be known first and foremost as an author, rather than the woman who remarkably engaged in anal sex while suffering from dysentery. Either way, the novel is an intriguing mix of simplicity and complexity, which simultaneously frustrate and challenge the reader.
Acker cleverly addresses themes of race throughout Kathy Goes to Haiti, employing a reverse ‘othering’ by continually drawing attention to Kathy as a “white girl”, but initially refraining from racially profiling her suitors. Acker plays on racial stereotypes in descriptions of white buildings, symbolic of the supposed order the American occupation bought to Haiti, and contrasts these with Roger’s trade in the dark commodities of lumber, coffee, cocoa, and rum. While white is portrayed as non-threatening in a “clean whiter-than-the-sun mansion” (p.9); black is decidedly sinister as “Black shapes pass each other in front of … black walls” (p. 28). However, when Kathy naïvely states, “Everyone in this country is black” (p. 118); her simplified view of race is deconstructed, and we learn of the complexities of race relations between Haitian blacks and mulattoes.
Gender themes run rampant in the novel. As Kathy takes in pleasure via every orifice and orgasms without fail, one could be forgiven for thinking that she’s engaging in a new type of gender freedom. However, Kathy’s sexual abandon is contrasted with assertions that, “Women still don’t have their freedom here” (p. 32), and as the novel progresses, this becomes apparent in the lives of both Kathy, and the women of Haiti. The taxi driver won’t fuck Kathy while she’s using her diaphragm; Haitian women wear torn skirts, implying sexual violation; and Roger takes a frightening level of control over his wife Betty’s menstrual cycle. While Kathy demands Roger’s respect stating “I am a woman” (p. 138), Acker undermines this declaration by continually describing Kathy as a girl, and initially imposing a nauseating level of simplicity upon her character.
Acker seamlessly weaves a historical subtext throughout the novel, inviting readers on a light-hearted tour of the seedier side of Haitian history, or to venture off on our own to explore the greater forces that shaped the nation. Contemporary readers are given an insight into the sex tourism industry of 1970s Haiti, where horny American’s flocked for libidinous fun in the sun. While Kathy is bombarded with comical offers from men and boys who grind their cocks against her, she instead becomes involved with Roger, engaging in a passionate, yet clichéd and therefore doomed holiday romance. Acker also piques reader curiosity on the broader aspects of Haiti’s history. As Kathy asks questions about a statue of Toussaint L’Ouverture, is recommended the book Papa Doc, and experiences the Haitian religion of Voodoo, readers can choose to engage lightly with Haiti’s history within the novel, or to step outside its pages and delve deeper.
However, to access the themes of race, gender, and history present in Kathy Goes to Haiti, readers must be prepared to tolerate the intolerable Kathy. Thanks to Acker adhering to a reductive style of writing expressed in the third person, Kathy initially appears painfully simple. Early in the novel, Kathy repeats to anyone who will listen that she doesn’t understand what’s going on, yet her innocence is so spurious, she may as well mumble this with a cock in her mouth. At times I was left open mouthed as Kathy admitted she couldn’t keep her hands of young boys while teaching; that she is puritanical about drug use but takes acid, pot, opium, and a plethora of other drugs; and that she “used to fuck around all the time just fuck anyone” (p. 48), as if anal sex with a taxi driver on her first night in Haiti doesn’t count. However, Kathy isn’t as simple as Acker’s simple prose implies, and we’re jolted by a sudden shift in writing style, which introduces us to a more complex side of Kathy, a Kathy that is self-abusive: “You’re a demented abortion on God’s earth … all of you is one mass of squirming and totally disgusting worms that squirm against and hate each other” (p. 86). This knowledge informs the remainder of Kathy Goes to Haiti, where Kathy’s tolerance of misogynist Roger, while excruciating, is somewhat understandable.
Kathy Goes to Haiti invites you on an unorthodox tour of the Caribbean nation, but only if you’re prepared to read beyond Kathy’s tiresome naïveté, and more cunts, cocks, and arseholes than you’d care to see in print in a lifetime. My advice is best relayed in the words of Kathy, who when hearing Betty’s complaints about the homestead garden responds, “You’re just in it too much. You can’t see it anymore”. If you can set aside any prudish sentiments, step outside the graphic sex scenes, and read with an open mind, you will be rewarded with an entertaining exploration of character and country.
Danticat, E. (2004). Preface. Research in African Literatures, 35(2), vii-viii.