Roxane Gay: Difficult Women

Read When Safe

Award-winning author and powerhouse talent Roxane Gay burst onto the scene with An Untamed State—which earned rave reviews and was selected as one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post, NPR, the Boston Globe, and Kirkus—and her New York Times bestselling essay collection Bad Feminist (Harper Perennial). Gay returns with Difficult Women, a collection of stories of rare force and beauty, of hardscrabble lives, passionate loves, and quirky and vexed human connection.

The women in these stories live lives of privilege and of poverty, are in marriages both loving and haunted by past crimes or emotional blackmail. A pair of sisters, grown now, have been inseparable ever since they were abducted together as children, and must negotiate the marriage of one of them. A woman married to a twin pretends not to realize when her husband and his brother impersonate each other. A stripper putting herself through college fends off the advances of an overzealous customer. A black engineer moves to Upper Michigan for a job and faces the malign curiosity of her colleagues and the difficulty of leaving her past behind. From a girls’ fight club to a wealthy subdivision in Florida where neighbors conform, compete, and spy on each other, Gay delivers a wry, beautiful, haunting vision of modern America reminiscent of Merritt Tierce, Jamie Quatro, and Miranda July.

As the world reels from yet another major sexual assault scandal, here is a book filled to the brim with story after story of women and the men who hurt them. Not every story is about sexual assault, but they are all filled with pain and longing, twisted love and harmful relationships.

I found it most interesting that the book is called “Difficult Women,” because it puts the blame back on the feminine, as is so often the case–women who are trying to survive are “difficult” to deal with. Even though the stories are about these women, they often have the passive voice, and the men are the stronger characters–the aggressors, the initiators–they have the power, not always, but usually. They don’t necessarily, however, drive the story. It’s a very interesting contrast.

Even though the stories are individual shorts, there are several parallels: character names, places, themes. Gay has published these stories elsewhere, submitted them for awards, etc, so it would seem to me as if she took familiar threads and just wove them into different blankets to fit her creative thought process at the time. The result is Difficult Women, a collection of the same story repeated over and over in the lives of different women. It’s a cool and complex anthology.

There were some stories I loved, some I didn’t connect to at all. All of them have some kind of triggering element, so proceed with caution, especially for assault, abuse, and violence. Read When Safe.

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