If I didn’t know better, I’d say that Roxane Gay were prescient. Her new novel, “Untamed State,” released today by Grove Atlantic, has at its narrative center a kidnapping. In the book’s opening pages, a Haitian woman, Mireille Duval Jameson, is wrenched from her American husband and their toddler at the gates of her childhood home. What follows is harrowing, politically complex, and deeply frustrating. It’s an elegant, horrific story, and it would’ve been riveting enough, had it arrived in bookstores back in February when I first read it. But in the weeks leading up to today’s official release, the subject matter of “Untamed State” has taken on added gravitas.
As the world’s attention continues turning toward northern Nigeria, with the help of a persistent social media campaign #BringBackOurGirls, abduction is in the foreground of our thoughts. Early readers are already making connections between Gay’s novel and the constantly shifting narrative of nearly 300 Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped on April 14 by the terrorist group Boko Haram.
Narratively, the similarities between the events of the book and the details we know about the schoolgirls end at the kidnappings. Arguably, the captors’ motives also hold parallels. In both instances, women are taken by groups of insurgent men, rebelling against poverty and progressivism in their own countries. Boko Haram hates the empowering effects of “western education” on Nigerian women and girls. Mireille’s captors resent her family’s ability to maintain wealth and prominence as destitution ravages much of their Haitian community.
Thematically, fiction and reality are even more eerily linked. I’m not giving much away if I tell you that Mireille survives her abduction. She tells you as much herself, in first-person narration, very early in the story. But the length of time she spends with her captors, the truly heinous things she endures, and the core cause of it all — willful, deliberate inaction — are particularly discomfiting when read in light of what’s unfolding in Nigeria. More than anything else, it’s a failure to move expeditiously and cooperatively that lengthen Mireille’s nightmare. With each day that the Chibok schoolgirls remain in the custody of insurgents, we see how much havoc governmental and societal torpor can wreak on those in captivity.
Moving too slowly on raising awareness and taking direct action has led to any number of calamities for these girls. Few can be confirmed, but the rumors are awful enough. Here, Gay’s novel can also expand one’s imagination about what captors are able and willing to do with hostages.
But perhaps the most poignant correlations to be found between “Untamed State” and the Chibok tragedy can be found in the novel’s second half, when the reader discovers what happens after Mireille’s captivity. It becomes clear that, while she was gone and upon her return, no one who loves her has known what to do about what’s happened to her. It results in missteps both tactical and emotional, each prolonging her horror.
Now that Americans are invested in the recovery of the Chibok schoolgirls — an interest that seems to have only taken sprawling root in the past several days — we are taking to social media and proposing all kinds of immediate direct actions — everything from petitioning to retweeting the recently released names of at least half of the captured girls to demanding that the U.S. military or the United Nations intervene post-haste. When we have become incensed and moved to act so late, there seems to be too little time to study Nigeria’s complex history with Boko Haram or to consider that aggressive intervention from outside nations may well exacerbate long-term bloodshed. While we’re virally sharing memes and (quite effectively) proliferating a hashtag in solidarity, we should also be following as many vocal, credible Nigerian writers, activists, and citizens on social media and in print as possible. Doing so will quickly show us all that, though search-and-rescue is the earnest desire of everyone’s heart, the approach to it must be precarious and deliberate.
The high emotion of global communities has its place in the face of an international tragedy, but sometimes the best — or only — way to effectively support those suffering is to educate ourselves about the motivation for and ripple-effects of that suffering, then to raise other’s awareness of the same. A novel like “Untamed State” may seem an unlikely source for this kind of education, but its focus on kidnapping from a victim’s perspective provides a unique vantage from which to learn what happens to the captive when those who mean them well ignore the demands and grievances of those who do not.
That alone makes it a great place to start.