It’s no secret that I admire Roxane Gay for her ability to write (An Untamed State broke me, and Bad Feminist was at turns funny, raw, and made me be so reflective it hurt to think). Her new collection of short stories out today, Difficult Women, shares the story of women—women too strong for life, who keep secrets, who give too much of themselves or choose to keep enough of themselves sacred and untouchable. It tells the story of women as we are—not how other people wish we would be.
In Difficult Women, Roxane Gay tells stories of compromises women make, and the ones we grow tired of making. She delves deeply—and artfully—into the pain women carry with us and refuse to share because of a deep-seated, ingrained fear of looking weak. But there is also the clear thematic idea that feeling pain makes us stronger. I found myself identifying with some of the women, and empathizing with or feeling sympathy for some of the others. I did not know their struggles, necessarily, but I definitely felt what they did.
Several times, I was close to tears as I felt along with the women in the stories. There were stories of men who “love too carefully” and so never learn who their wives or lovers really are. There were stories of grief so harrowing the emotion was palpable on the pages; then again, the satisfaction and happiness were also there, and I felt those, too. But the satisfaction always came from working hard, and working through or around obstacles. The satisfaction came along with the knowing that when we—women—achieve something, there is almost always a cost, almost always a handsy researcher waiting to try to remind us that we could be dominated physically even though we’ve already dominated them intellectually. Or there is the satisfaction of escaping, of getting away from a situation that is so emotionally draining and abusive that the memory always haunts us. Or the satisfaction of being able to feel and breathe again after so terrible a loss, it tears us apart even as we learn to breathe deeply again.
I had to put the book down more than once, twice, three times. But I always went back, because even if the women never named themselves in the stories, they existed in such huge ways that I had to know if they made it through—I had to know that there was hope after loss, and being broken “all the way down,” and having one’s heart broken so completely there seems no way back.
Ultimately, “difficult” women are only difficult insomuch as people cannot or do not want to understand what they’re going through or have been through—and in this collection, Gay pushes us toward each other and says, “Yes you can. And you must.”
Minute observations: “North Country” and “Break All the Way Down” made me cry. “Difficult Women” broke my heart but reminded me I am not alone.
Award-winning author and powerhouse talent Roxane Gay burst onto the scene with An Untamed State and the 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 elder sister’s marriage. 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.