“Difficult Women” by Roxane Gay

Pub. Date:   Jan. 3, 2017difficult-women

Publisher:   Grove Atlantic Press

Sexual trauma is a theme shared by all of the short stories that make up Roxanne Gay’s Difficult Women.   Due to their trauma, they act out in ways causing them to be considered difficult.   The stories feature women from variable backgrounds and lifestyles.  They are dark, thorny, and not easy to read.  Sometimes, I had to close my eyes for a minute to escape their grief.   Sometimes, I wanted to jump into the pages to attack their male offenders.  In this collection, Gay not only takes on the difficult subject of traumatized women, but also examines the meaning of motherhood, often focusing on racial, gender, class and sexual orientation inequality.

A number of the stories are straightforward, while others are undoubtedly metaphors and fantasy.  Requiem for a Glass Heart is metaphoric.  I do not usually enjoy reading mystical fiction, yet the power in the words of the essay-winning (2015 PEN Center USA Freedom to Write Award and the recipient of 2016 Paul Engle Prize) feminist author, Roxanne Gay, wins me over.  She manages to show the fragility of marriage in a common phrase, a figure of speech.  In Glass Heart, the husband is only referred to as a “stone thrower” and his spouse is only referred to as his glass wife.  Of course, they live in a “glass house.”   When the glass wife cries glass tears at her husband’s infidelity with a human woman, I cried with her.

In many of Gay’s stories, the women are seeking, sexual violence that goes beyond consensual, atypical sex.  They travel into rough neighborhoods deliberately looking for cruel men who will batter them in and out of the bedroom.  She exemplifies that her female characters are struggling to find ways to punish themselves for sins they may or may not have committed.  In Break All the Way Down, after the loss of her toddler son, a young mother leaves her loving husband for an abusive lover.  Sadly, only physical pain can help the young wife forget the mental pain stemming from her unwarranted guilt.

In Strange Gods, a biracial woman tries to sabotage a loving relationship she is in with her white fiancé.  Her fiancé is a decent man who cannot understand why she does this to them.  This story is not linear.   It takes a while for the reader to learn that as a young teen she was gang raped (a word that is hard to even type for most of us females).  Initially, I didn’t care for this narrative, which is the last in the collection.  It felt repetitive after the other tales.  I almost grew bored with it.  How many self-destructing females did I want to read about?  But Gay skillfully brought my interest back into the story as I read about this girl’s first love.  He is a beautiful white boy, with blonde hair and green eyes.  He is the type of boy who wears a high school letterman jacket, the type of boy whose parents welcome into their home as her boyfriend.  They rode bicycles and laughed together.  He taught her the sweetness of her own body.   And then we read how he viciously betrays her.  This teenage girl is hurt so bad, she later learns (as the woman who is engaged to a decent man) that she will never be able to carry a child.  After learning this, I was no longer bored.   I was a livid mother demanding justice for her daughter.  This does not happen in the story, making it all more difficult to comprehend.

Each of the stories’ characters engages in sexual activity.  These scenes are not graphic but are so effectively written they do not need to be.  In many cases, I feel they were not even needed because the author’s writing is so sensual.  Not every story is as good as the ones I mention, but it is hard not to admire Gay who writes raw, risk-taking literature.  She is never subtle.  This book is not for those easily offended.  Her tales leave the reader feeling exposed while she forces you to understand her heroines’ demons.  She reminds the reader that by simply being born a female one is vulnerable to verbal attacks on appearance, and physical assaults to one’s body.

Though they will break your heart, again and again, these women will also inspire you.  In Best Features, an obese woman knows the only reason she snags a handsome boyfriend is because she provides him with expert fellatio.  Yet, she also knows that he should desire her because she is intelligent, kind and a better human being than he is.  I am not sure if I am brave enough to read this author again, but if you have the heart of a warrior, I recommend that you give her a try.  Roxanne Gay is a very talented writer who is not afraid to share her own life’s complex insecurities through her stories.

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