Difficult Women

  • By Roxane Gay
  • Grove Press
  • 272 pp.
  • Reviewed by Samira K. Mehta
  • February 13, 2017

A deeply evocative collection that's both disturbing and brilliant.

Prior to Difficult Women, I knew Roxane Gay through her nonfiction. As an essayist, Gay is incisive, sometimes journalistic, other times autobiographical, willing to call out a world in which inequity is omnipresent. In Bad Feminist, she writes, “Feminism is flawed, but it offers, at its best a way to navigate [our] shifting cultural climate.” Feminism is flawed, she argues, because “it is a movement powered by people and people are inherently flawed.”

Difficult Women, Gay’s new collection of short stories, remains concerned with many of the themes of multifaceted oppression, and with the flaws of the people who face those oppressions.

In the title story, she describes the inner worlds of a range of “difficult women”: loose women, frigid women, crazy women, mothers, and dead girls. Her voice, however, is no longer that of the essayist. Rather, the subtitle, “Who a Loose Women Looks Up To,” is answered with the reflection, “Never her mother. She is trying to kill her mother, or at least the parts of her mother lurking beneath her own skin.”

The themes of Difficult Women are the themes of Gay’s more political essays. The insight remains, but rather than presenting her reader with well-reasoned cultural criticism, she evokes an emotional landscape, or lack thereof.

Gay’s Difficult Women is about women who appear broken from the outside. And while some of them are, they are also women who, in whatever way, keep going. These are women coping with the harshness of their worlds, not always adaptively, but in ways that make sense.

She writes about the loss of children though miscarriage and through accident, and the scars that those losses leave on mothers. She writes about sex. Satisfying sex, unsatisfying sex, sex with spouses and lovers and strangers and people who fall into more than one of those categories at the same time.

She writes about sexual sadism, sexual masochism, and sexual abuse. Sometimes, the sex is healing. Sometimes, it is violent. Often, while the women invite the sex, they absent their bodies while it occurs.

Throughout, Gay writes about the myriad ways men damage women, the unintentional ways, and the deeply deliberate ones. And she writes about how people, both men and women, can care for each other and give love despite their own deep brokenness.   

While the vignettes are highly evocative, the longer stories are inherently more satisfying. The opener, “I Will Follow You,” tells of two sisters who have been inseparable ever since they were abducted and sexually abused as children. One sister, Carolina, marries at 19, but when her husband leaves town, she stays behind with her younger sister, the narrator. Years later, the sisters go together to build a life with him. In his own words, Darryl “may not seem like much of a man,” but by the end of the story, the reader and the narrator understand why Carolina has chosen him.

At times, Gay’s genre shifts are disorienting. While most of her stories are set in the quotidian world, some are anchored in alternate futures or are elaborately constructed metaphors. “Water, All its Weight,” for instance, imagines a woman followed everywhere quite literally by “water and damage” in the form of rain and seeping moisture.

And “Requiem for a Glass Heart” tells of a human man with a glass (and therefore transparent) wife. Gay writes well, whether in realism or the fantastical, but transitioning between the two can be jarring, though perhaps it would be less so if one were dipping in and out of the collection.

Regardless of genre, Gay deploys metaphor powerfully throughout the collection. In “North Country,” a black woman engineer, newly arrived in the Upper Peninsula, is set apart by race and gender. Gay’s use of winter to underscore the narrator’s loneliness is not original, but it is masterfully done.

Similarly, her use of hunting and of meat as metaphors for physicality are both deeply evocative and recur throughout otherwise unconnected stories. Men smell of hunting as they smell of other women, or as women smell of them after sex. Hunters cut open deer, “warm innards steaming out into the air,” as doctors cut open women pulling “frail, bloody” children from their wombs.

Men are “bone and beating blood, organs and sinewy muscle” while ribeye steaks are “richly marbled with fat” that is “hot and salty and gelatinous” between teeth. These metaphoric lines result in a collection that is artistically, as well as thematically, cohesive.

Difficult Women, as its title suggests, is not easy or precisely pleasant reading. The collection is often dark and disturbing, but also deeply empathetic. In Gay’s attention to damage, she highlights survival, strength, and humanity. In her deliberate and often exquisite attention to detail, she crafts stories that will haunt the reader long after the book has been put away.

Samira K. Mehta teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Albright College. She holds degrees from Emory, Harvard, and Swarthmore. Her work can be seen at Religion Dispatches, Religion and Politics, and the Jewish Daily Forward.

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