Roxane Gay’s DIFFICULT WOMEN makes for difficult reading. Which is not a bad thing. This collection is unequivocally excellent, but be aware: It is no easy read. In this short volume, Gay’s women experience rape, domestic violence, the loss of children and pregnancies, hopelessness, viciousness and a systemic helplessness in the face of these agonies. They also experience love, not the saccharine sort, but the soft love of a partner who understands the messiness of your soul, enduring love despite unceasing struggle, violent love that aches and burns, even --- and especially when --- they’re gone.
You may feel slightly ill reading these powerfully moving narratives --- I did --- because the realities they explore are sickening. At times, did I feel like it was too much? Yes, and I had to put the book down for several days and read something more warmly empowering than this shattering volume. But that doesn’t make it any less worthwhile. The stories are harshly unforgiving, with only a few breaths of joy. Yet this is the reality we inhabit, and for many women, these are the stories that don’t get told, that desperately need to be told, and Gay evokes them exquisitely.
"Do not pass this one over because it is a hard read; it should be.... Roxane Gay refuses to exploit. She gives voice to the exploited, and those voices will ring clear in my head for weeks to come."
DIFFICULT WOMEN is roughly urgent and skillfully timeless. Gay veers into the fantastic at times, weaving realistic stories through with metaphor and half-imagined imagery --- of a father who flew an air machine into the sun and doomed a town to darkness, of a stone-thrower married to a glass wife, of a woman who is a knife married to a man who is a gun. She entwines these clear and prescient images with stories rooted firmly in the banalities and stark intricacies of reality: a white man who cannot control himself to the detriment of a mixed-race woman who strips to save for school, a woman who watches her child die, a priest who can’t keep to the cloth, a woman who loses an unborn baby.
Gay’s voice is lyrical throughout, mesmeric and unflinching. Her voice is the throughline, along with the nature of her women. It is never her women who are difficult, but their circumstances. Planted, sowed and borne of and into soil that has been untenable for generations, Gay’s women live despite themselves, and their choices are never clean but always worth understanding. This collection shocks, despairs and triumphs. It does not ask you to think before you judge, to examine societal patterns and ingrained injustices. It presents moments in the lives of women who must exist within them, and allows the reader to sit with that reality. These stories are true, in the most important sense. We cannot pretend otherwise.
Do not pass this one over because it is a hard read; it should be. Narratives of domestic abuse, assault and trauma have been told before --- in fact, the contemporary canon is laden with them --- but the difference is in the frame. Roxane Gay refuses to exploit. She gives voice to the exploited, and those voices will ring clear in my head for weeks to come. I urgently hope more writers follow her lead.
Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on January 4, 2017