Difficult Women, by Roxane Gay

She was smart enough to want more but tired enough to accept the way things were.

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Someone on Goodreads wrote that this book could be equally well titled “Sad Women Having Sex.” They’re not wrong. They don’t mean it in a pejorative way, though, which is good because Gay’s stories shouldn’t be patronised or belittled just because they are, in fact, about sad women having sex. Plenty of critics, I think, have been taught that women, let alone sad women, let alone sad women fucking, aren’t serious subjects. One of the great significances of Gay as a writer is how she affirms that they are.

In Difficult Women, she circles the same thematic territory over and over again. Many of these stories feature sexual abuse, rape or molestation. Many of these protagonists conceive a child and lose it, through miscarriage or tragic accidents. Many of them work through their damage by demanding to be hurt: rough sex, verbal abuse, slapping, choking. Several of them are set in Michigan; one of my favourites, “How”, is about a woman of Finnish descent, Hanna, who finally shucks off the thankless life she has lived in the service of her parents and husband, in favour of escape with her sister and her female lover. Another, “North Country”, follows a light-skinned black academic as she moves to a Northern town, fields constant queries about where she’s from Detroit (why else, her white neighbours assume, would a black person be in Michigan?), and lets go of her protective carapace enough to fall in love with a woodsy guy called Magnus.

Those stories have happy endings, more or less, endings where people meet their trauma on their own terms and force it into a shape they can handle. There are other stories, like the first one, “I Will Follow You”, where a happy ending is contingent and constantly marked by the shadow of the past. The narrator here follows her older sister, Carolina, to Nevada, where Carolina’s husband Darryl works. Slowly, the secret of their past is revealed: the younger sister was kidnapped as a child by a paedophile known to them only as Mr. Peter. Carolina, instead of running for help, jumped into Mr. Peter’s van just before the door closed—”I couldn’t leave my sister alone,” she says when asked why she did this. The narrator recalls the settlement they were awarded by a jury, after Mr. Peter released them and was arrested:

The jury awarded us a lot of money, so much money we would never have to work or want. For a long time, we refused to spend it. Every night, I went online and checked my account balances and thought, This is what my life was worth.

The worth of women is another recurring theme in this collection, often intertwined with race and class. “La Negra Blanca” is a story about Sarah, who strips to pay her way through college and who goes by “Sierra” while she’s working. She’s mixed-race but has white features and straight Caucasian hair. One of her regular clients is a man named William Livingston III, a white guy from a Southern family for whom blood purity is an unshakable tenet of the universe, but who also has a fetishising obsession with street culture, African-American music, and black women’s bodies. It is not the subtlest story I’ve ever read, although there is something convincingly, pathologically pathetic about Livingston’s secret forays into the hood aesthetic:

When he’s not watching his housekeeper, William listens to his music and repeats the lyrics about skeeting and Beckys and backing that ass up and living the gangasta life. His office has a small closet where he keeps urban clothing he sends his assistant to West Baltimore to purchase—Sean John jeans and Phat Farm hoodies and Timberland boots. His understanding of what the kids are wearing is dated. Sometimes he poses in front of the full-length mirror, grabbing a handful of denim-clad crotch, and sets his chin to the side and tries to recreate gang signs with his fingers.

It’s not the kind of behaviour I can even remotely imagine someone in Livingston’s position actually engaging in, but the story works if you view him, not as an individual, but as an embodiment of the way black culture gets turned into something that Western companies can use to make a quick buck. Isn’t Livingston just a logical extension of the way white people have stolen black people’s words, stories, hair, clothes? (See: Bo Derek’s dreadlocks; Miley Cyrus twerking at the VMAs.) He happens, also, to be a literal rapist. When he finds out that Sarah/Sierra is actually half-black, he is consumed not with guilt but with horror: “He has done something generations of Livingstons have had the discipline to avoid.” The truth is that they probably haven’t: the supposed purity of white Southern women has always rested on the fact that their men have been able to satisfy themselves on the bodies of black women. Livingston may think his father “looked but didn’t touch”, but that’s naive.

“A Pat” is a very short story, only two pages long, but it’s one of the subtlest in the collection: the narrator sees a man eating a burrito alone in a fast food restaurant. She sits down across from him, keeps him company, invites him back to her house “for a proper meal”. She cooks for him and he eats her dinner and they have sex and then he leaves. The narrator remembers her mother’s advice from her first day of school:

“You make friends with the ugliest kids in your class and you make friends with the loneliest kids in your class, the ones off by themselves. They will be the best friends you’ve ever had and they’ll make you feel better about yourself.” With a pat on the head, she pushed me.

It’s so short and it works so hard, this paragraph: the way it shows you that kindness can be pity can be mercy; the way that generosity can be selfish; the way that, somehow, it doesn’t matter what it is.

There are a lot of stories in this collection—twenty-one—and some of them are better than others, more purposeful or more interesting or with more varied sentence structure. (This has been, for me, a semi-permanent stumbling block with Gay’s style: when she’s writing straightforward, linear, present-tense prose, it’s often not very interesting on the sentence level; the effect is more cumulative and thematic, and sometimes I don’t have the patience.) But let’s be honest: you’re probably going to read Difficult Women anyway, because it’s Roxane goddamn Gay and no one wants to miss one of her books. This is worth reading not just to keep up with the zeitgeist, but because it contains stories and endings like “A Pat” and “How” and “North Country” and “I Am A Knife” and “Break All the Way Down”, stories that approach pain and sex and humanity from many different angles, stories that are considered and honest and, in the most important sense, true.

Many thanks to Susan de Soissons and the team at Corsair Books for the review copy. Difficult Women is released in the UK on 3 January.

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11 thoughts on “Difficult Women, by Roxane Gay

  1. For some reason, perhaps the title, I was under the impression that this correction was nonfiction. I really did not enjoy her book Bad Feminist and was one of what seemed like very few people on Goodreads who pointed out the way the essays wandered without thesis and mostly seemed to demand that movies, books, and TV cater to what Gay likes, which is confusing because as a bad feminist, her desires are contrary and specific. I have her novel but haven’t yet read it. I really enjoyed her first short story collection. I have a first edition that cost me almost nothing because it came out wrong at the printers (this was a very small press she started with).

    • Yeah, I thought so too—and I also thought that Bad Feminist was not the groundbreaking tome it was marketed as, but that was a problem more with the marketing. (Though I agree with you about the general lack of thesis—but again, if readers hadn’t been primed to expect it, we might not have been so surprised that her essays aren’t 100% academic rigour.) I’d recommend these stories, though I’m actually much more excited for the release this year of her memoir Hunger.

      • I’m excited to read Hunger, too. In terms of having a thesis, I don’t expect a statement of intent in a piece of writing, but a thesis is why we’re all reading. Implicit, explicit, all writing demands a thesis, even personal writing, if you want people to follow along with you.

  2. Oh, now this has definitely caught my eye… sounds a rich and rewarding collection not frightened to tread where others fear to! Particularly interested in how she addresses loss and resulting behaviour. Thanks Elle… first time I’ve spotted this and so pleased I have 🙂

    • Yayy! Her takes on the loss of children are really incredible—the narrator in “Break All the Way Down” is self-destructive in the most convincing way. I think you’ll enjoy it.

  3. I like to see a collection of stories about women! That alone makes it worth checking out.
    What you said about “A Pat” is making me think. Right or wrong, it reminds me of telling my children to always include other children and not to hurt their feelings. As I have learned, sometimes this advice backfires. Because my daughter was trying so hard not to hurt someone’s feelings, she ended up hanging around with a girl who was mean to her and she didn’t know how to get out of it. It was awful.

    • Yeah, they’re amazing stories, some of them pretty rough but unforgettable.

      Oh, your poor daughter. I totally understand how that happens. One wants to teach children to be kind and tolerant and accepting, but then one also wants them to learn to protect themselves… There’s no way to get it right. I guess you just do it one day at a time, and support kids when they need it. (This all makes me so anxious about parenthood in general. It sounds like the hardest job ever.)

  4. I’ve never read anything by Roxane Gay, and my library system owns zero of her books! Somehow I’m not sure this one would be the best place to start, and 21 stories definitely sounds like too much, unless any of them are flash fiction. What would you recommend I read first? (And is that an exploding pair of panties on the cover?)

    • HAHAHA oh my god I would love it if it were an exploding pair of panties! My copy doesn’t have a picture (just the title in big letters); I’ve been thinking of it as a pink glass heart! But maybe you’re right…

      I’d start with An Untamed State—I haven’t read it, but it’s her novel and I think probably the most powerful instance of her writing. Bad Feminist had some weaknesses that might not make it the place to start. Some of the stories in Difficult Women are pretty short, though!

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