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.