“Honey, you’re not crazy. You’re a woman.”

Emily Clarke submerges herself in the empowering stories of Roxane Gay’s “Difficult Women.”

Roxane Gay. Difficult Women. 2017. 272 pages. $9.58. ISBN: 0802127371.

My dad and I are sitting behind a table covered in rainbow strips of cloth, ready to teach festival-goers how to twist them into cordage bracelets. I stand to look at the thick layer of thigh-shaped sweat on my metal chair and think, This is so something that would be in Difficult Women. A man sitting in the booth to the left of me glances over at the book in my hands and says, “That’s yours? For a second I thought it was your dad’s and I was gonna say, that’s a dangerous book for a man to be reading in public!”

I mean come on! If this isn’t the total epitome of Roxane Gay’s recent collection, I don’t know what is!

Twenty minutes later, my cheeks are covered in tears. Not because of the man but because of the honesty in “I Will Follow You,” the first story in Difficult Women. Forget the sexist guy who interrupted my reading! Every woman should read this. Every man should read this. Everyone should read this.

Difficult Women is not a book in which women overcome male-inflicted violence. Difficult Women is not a book in which women discover their sexuality. The women in Difficult Women have always embraced their sexuality. They use violence and tragedy to empower themselves. Gay whips her readers into shape with sharp commentary and humor with lines such as “We were young once and then we weren’t,” and “Honey, you’re not crazy. You’re a woman.” Roxane Gay makes her readers forget they ever enjoyed ‘skimming.’

From a woman receiving a fiberglass baby arm as a gift to a man flying into the sun and ridding the earth of light, Roxane Gay’s storytelling causes her readers to consider concepts that wouldn’t seem to be feminist. The feminism in Difficult Women sneaks up behind you only to laugh when you jump. In “I Will Follow You,” two sisters suffer through childhood violence and disparaging marriage; they are always together and always suffering.

Difficult Women is full of varying structures, and takes on a less traditional tone than most fiction collections. Stories such as “How” and “Difficult Women” are split into titled sections and read more like developed character studies than traditional short stories. “I am a Knife” uses a lyrical voice and focuses on poetic narrative rather than following a clear storyline. The first lines of stories like “Water, All Its Weight” and “La Negra Blanca” are bold and immediately submerge the reader into the story.

These stories are like nothing you have read or will read again. I didn’t spend hours in bed with this book and finish it feeling fresh and cheery. Difficult Women haunted me for weeks. I felt that Gay’s stories were my own. I was every main character she created. I took hour-long showers drenched in hot water and Gay’s words. I submerged myself in her narrative. This book will swallow you whole, but do we remember and cherish the books that don’t?

Emily Clarke is a Cahuilla Native American writer whose favorite words include meat, belly, milk, and mud. 

Sisyphus and the Horrible, Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

A short play exploring self awareness and creation in its many forms.

Play opens on Sisyphus standing at the bottom of a hill under azure sky, preparing to roll the stone up to the top of a rather large hill.

Stone (indignantly): Not this again.
Sisyphus: What?
Stone: You rolling me up to the top of this hill. I’m getting rather tired of it. Day in day out it’s all we do,you just roll me up to the top of this hill and I roll back down to the bottom again. And then we do that again. It’s a totally boring story.
Sisyphus: They enjoy it.
Stone: Who enjoys it?
Sisyphus: Them, the reader. The people who are reading this story right now.
Stone: How could they possibly enjoy it? It ends the same way every time. You roll me up to the top of this hill and then I fall down.
Sisyphus (thoughtfully): I think they see it as a sort of triumph of the human spirit sort of thing. I keep rolling you up the hill even though I know you’ll fall down when I get to the top.
Stone: Don’t they know you were forced to do this? You’re doing this as punishment. It’s not like you have another choice.
Sisyphus: Yeah, but despite being punished I still find happiness.
Stone: Who’s making you do this anyway?
Sisyphus: It’s the gods.
Stone: Who are the gods?
Sisyphus: They’re people who live up in the sky except they live forever and have control over humans and the earth.
Stone: I think I understand, but why do they make you roll me up this hill?
Sisyphus: I’m not exactly sure.
Stone (at this point generally confused): I don’t know who these gods are but they
have some explaining to do.

 

Silence echoes up the mountain, it is broken. Here it is, a giant bolt of lightning striking from the sky and appearing out of the darkness the Greek god Zeus. Enter Zeus.

 

Zeus (dressed in armor, bearded, and with a genuinely ironic smile on his face): Good morning Sisyphus. How are you doing today?
Sisyphus (the mere sight of Zeus serving as catalyst for all his fiery blood): Horrible, I’m feeling horrible.
Zeus: And why is that?
Sisyphus: Isn’t it obvious? I have to roll this rock– this large, heavy, fairly unsymmetric rock –up a hill, and I have to do this for eternity. And you’re the one that made me do this. You’re the reason I’m feeling horrible and you’re the reason I’ll be feeling horrible for the rest of time.
Zeus: Well how do you think I feel? I have to watch you.
Sisyphus: What?
Zeus: Yes, that’s my punishment. I am destined to sit at the bottom of this mountain and watch you roll this stone to the top of this hill and then have it roll back down. And isn’t that not much worse?Sisyphus: But you never do anything you just sit there and watch me. Why don’t you just let me free?Zeus: You think I’m pulling the strings up here? You think I get to make all the important decisions, snap my fingers and solve all your problems? I’ve got people I have to answer to.
Sisyphus: But you’re god.
Zeus: You have your gods and I have mine.
Sisyphus: So what you’re saying is there are other gods who control you and who mankind has no idea about.

Zeus: That’s right. I could pray to them if you’d like.

Silence.

Zeus: You know, if you’re really interested in complaining I’d talk to the author.
Sisyphus: What author?
Zeus: The author of the play we’re in right now. He’s the one who really has it out for you.


Enter the author, a telegenic young man with the look of brilliance about him. It should become clear 
to the reader right now that this author guy is an absolute genius worthy of the highest honor and praise.

 

Author: Oh, goodness. I’ve never been in one of my own stories before, what an absolute delight. Tell me did that description make me sound fat? It made me sound fat, didn’t it? I’ve ruined it. Let me try again, it’s alright. I’ll just jump out and jump right back in, it’ll only take a second.

 

The author disappears. Suddenly the author, a man extraordinary in both intellect and physique,reappears on the scene hoping that this time his entrance will better convey his general appearance.

 

Author: Hmmmm. Seems a little bit dull, doesn’t it? It lacks a theatrical touch, yes it does…this will not do as my introduction. Let me try, just one more time, I’m sure this one will be fantastic.

 

The author disappears to try his introduction yet again, a gag which must be appearing increasingly cliche to the reader, the author apologizes. He means well. With no further ado, the author appears once again, ready to finish this brilliant little play.

 

Author: That was the worst one yet. I simply must give it — interrupted.
Sisyphus (frustrated and in a loud voice): Stop it.Author: I’m terribly sorry, it’s just you only get one chance at a first impression.

Sisyphus: Exactly.

 

The characters feeling slightly awkward about the presence of the author are all silent.

 

Author: So why am I here again?
Sisyphus: I have it on good authority that you’re the one who’s making me roll this stone up the hill for eternity.
Author: Well, yes. I suppose.
Sisyphus (furious): What is the matter with you? Eternity? Are you mad?
Author: I thought the reader would be inspired by you, a sort of triumph of the human spirit sort of thing.
Stone: I told you.
Sisyphus: But eternity? Can’t I just die, can’t you just kill me? Why must I live for eternity?
Author: Live for eternity or die for eternity. There’s no way around it.
Sisyphus: Let me die for eternity.
Author (slowly working up a frustration himself): You know if you don’t stop complaining I’ll make you roll that stone up the hill for two eternities.
Sisyphus: That doesn’t even make sense.
Author: Doesn’t make what?
Sisyphus: That doesn’t make-
Author: Oh, sense. That makes sense.
Sisyphus: That makes what?
Author: Sense.
Sisyphus: Sense?

Author: It’s a common word. You should get out more.

 

Silence. Again.

 

Sisyphus: I still don’t understand why you need to make me continue rolling a stone up a hill. Are you a sadist or something?
Author: I’m not a sadist, I’m just an author. Answer not satisfying Sisyphus, the author restarts.You think it’s up to me? Why, I’ve got people I need to impress, people I need to please with this story.I need to impress committees, I need to get into a college with this for god’s sake. If I let you off, with say, 100 years of rolling a stone up a hill, then people are going to be absolutely furious. They’re going to whine about how it’s unrealistic, about how they feel cheated and then all that hate is going to comedown on me. There are going to be organized protesters and nasty letters and it’s just not something I’m prepared to deal with. It’s much better for you to suffer your entirely fictional life for me so that I can happily live mine.
Sisyphus: So, in other words, you have your gods too?

Author: Hundreds.

 

The characters at this point all stop and share a very brief moment. Notice how I said that the characters all stop and not the people all stop. That’s because, as the reader has undoubtedly forgotten by this point, the characters are not real people and are merely a projection of the author’s imagination. These characters, like you and me and all real people, could be at any moment pummeled, hanged, squashed, shot, crucified, buried, or otherwise knocked out of life.

 

Sisyphus: You and I, we are not so different.
Author: No, in fact we are exactly the same.
Sisyphus: Indeed, could you not, for my (or rather your) sake create another Sisyphus to roll the stone up the hill in my place.
Author: Sorry, but no. There would be little to no precedent for that. It would shock people.
Sisyphus: Bah. Aren’t you good for anything?
Author: Am I?
Sisyphus: Are you?
Author: Who, me?
Sisyphus: I don’t know I asked you.
Author: Asked me what?
Sisyphus: I asked, are you?
Author: Am I what?
Sisyphus: I don’t know.
Zeus: Who?
Author: You know Sisyphus, sometimes I feel we struggle to communicate.

Sisyphus: What?

 

At this point a silence descends over our mighty cast of characters and they reach what seems to be a profound and lasting understanding.

Sisyphus (breaking the quite lengthy silence)So now what?

 

Author: Back to you rolling that stone up the hill for the rest of time, that’s what this is all about after all.
Stone: I thought it was more about you writing a play so that you could gain all this respect and admiration. You probably think you’re pretty clever referencing yourself all the time, you probably think this is how you’re going to get your respect and admiration. You probably think that if you keep doing this the audience is going to view the author as an actual character and forget who you are. You’re not fooling me author, you’re in control of everything here. Everybody listen the author is a fake character who should not be trusted.
Author: No, I’m not. I’m a real character. Look at me I’m in the play.Stone: Only because you wrote yourself into the play.
Author: I’ll write you out of the play if you keep mouthing off to me, I am your author for Zeus’ sake. I control you at this very moment.
Stone: Screw you. I’ll talk about whatever I want.

Author: That’s it, you’re out.

 

With a snap of his fingers and the explosion of some yellow and decidedly metaphysical smoke, the stone ceases to exist.

 

Sisyphus (alarmed)What was that all about?
Author: What?
Sisyphus: You just made him disappear.
Author: I could make all of you disappear, I’m the author.
Zeus (a cool annoyance playing upon his face): This play makes no sense at all, you should stick to whatever else you’re good at and leave us alone.
Author: I’m not good at anything else.
Stone: You’re not particularly good at this either.

Author: How’d you get back in here?

 

With another finger snap the stone is once again gone.

Author (
frustrated at the defiance of his characters, viewing this incident as a rebellion against a
Zeus: I agree with Sisyphus, by making your work more plot based you could appeal to a much larger, much less Existentialist population.
Sisyphus (after a short pause, now scratching his chin): Also it seems you have a habit repeating the same things over and over again. For example, you have already used the word ‘clever’ six times, in this short play. Also you’re often quite redundant.
Zeus: A pattern of tautology as well if I’m not mistaken.
Sisyphus: Indeed.
Author: Stop saying that. Stop criticizing me.
Sisyphus: But you’re the author, you’re making us say these things.
Author: That is true, my self-deprecating sense of humor has always been a large flaw of mine. I’d say my self-deprecation is the main reason why I have not and never will amount to anything and the reason why I feel I need to assert absolute and total control over fictional characters.
Sisyphus: Wait, so let me get this straight, you have complete control over us?
Author: That’s right.
Sisyphus: You can make us do whatever you want?
Author: Bingo.
Sisyphus: So I don’t really have any free will?
Author: I made you say that. I’m picking whatever you say, next you’ll complain about how this is all horribly unfair.
Sisyphus: This is all horribly unfair.
Author: God, Sisyphus you complain a lot. I should have chosen a more likable main character, this little story would sell a lot better.
Sisyphus: You would complain too if you had to roll a stone up a hill for eternity and then to add insult to injury a dumb little author appeared every once in awhile to make things awful for you. Can you imagine how hard it is for me?
Author: Nobody cares about your little sob story.
Sisyphus: Are you kidding me? I have to roll this stone up for a hill for eternity.
Author: Yeah, we get it. You’ve already complained about this stone thing.
Sisyphus: For eternity, do you have any idea how long that is going to take? By the time I’m finished I’m gonna be all old and gray and decrepit. Pauses. How long is eternity anyway?
Author: Well, let me think…….(mumbles under his breath, does the math in his head) divide by three, carry the one…..
Zeus: It is quite simple to prove that not all infinities are of equal size. Cantorian diagonalization can be used to prove that since infinities lack bijection-
Author (still mumbling, doing math in his enormous head): Multiply by the square root of 2 …..add two pi over five….
Zeus (continuing on): — and some sets can naturally be mapped onto larger sets (ie the set of square numbers onto the set of positive integers). Therefore it is impossible to say how large your infinity is.
Author: 127 years. Infinity is equal to 127 years. I have proved it.
Sisyphus: Well that’s not so bad. I feel I have an infinity or two yet in these limbs.
Author: Good thing, you never can know how many infinities I’ll make you work through.
Sisyphus: I’d rather live through an infinity of infinities than spend another second with you.
Author: You know you’re really starting to piss me off.
Sisyphus: What are you going to do write me out of the story? The story doesn’t make any sense without me.

Author: Yes, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

 

The author, a man of infinite wit and perfect judgement, writes out Sisyphus. Sisyphus has ceased to exist.

 

Author: Jesus Christ, I work every goddamn day writing these tiny little characters. I give them their own little minds and their own little thoughts and what do they do? They turn on me. The little bastards. Why did I choose to write when I could have gone and become a policeman or a soldier or some other easy job?
Zeus: So I guess it’s just you and me.

Author: Screw you.

 

The author begins to write out the character Zeus when he is interrupted-

 

Author’s conscience: Are you sure this is wise? If you write out Zeus it will just be you alone in this story and that’s not particularly interesting, is it?

Author: Screw you too.

 

Author proceeds to write out both Zeus and his own conscience. There is a profound emptiness, a silence, as the author realizes that he is all alone in this universe and that without the illusions created by his own mind that he is truly a pirate in a sea of cosmic emptiness.

 

Author (lonely, smiling): So much for pathos.

 

So much for pathos.

 

Ted Baas is a student at Holland Christian High School. His interests include reading and writing.

Listen, when I say

Chester Wilson writes a series of unusual images that captivate the reader.

Brush your fingers. Lie with squinted eyes.
Find a garden overflowing white flowers. Smell the bleach,
blink only twice. Knock over only two.
in threes. Tie knots. Propose on broken knees. Lock it
in a tree, molded branches. Stay delicately, charm thorny legs.
Tell your fingers secrets. Double check around the curved
corner. Be first to count. Don’t be afraid to find spades. Swing zippers.
Play gratis. Bake tiny cakes. Bring a small cloth, and one
for the cats. Allow cursive quick work. Be great
Crinkle string. Try to breath over mountains. Try sunsets beneath blankets.
Check the stars that sag. Write check, complete.
And make room for the footsteps that will join you tonight
on the eve of rebellion
 
Chester Wilson III is junior at Chicago High School For The Arts in Chicago, and a member of the school’s first conservatory class of creative writers. His favorite form of writing is prose, but he also loves writing plays and short stories. He also loves working in his schools literary magazine. When he’s not writing, he loves swaddling himself in a fluffy blanket and reading science fiction.
 
Visual art by Adrian Hernandez 

Rewriting History With Jane Wong

Jane Wong, a poet interested in rewriting histories, meets with Parallax Editors Emily Clarke and Kalista Puhnaty to discuss her upcoming projects and her writerly insight.

Jane Wong holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is a former U.S. Fulbright Fellow and Kundiman Fellow. She is the recipient of scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Squaw Valley, and the Fine Arts Work Center. The recipient of The American Poetry Review’s 2016 Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize, Wong’s poems have appeared in journals such as Pleiades, The Volta, Third Coast, and the anthologies Best American Poetry 2015 (Scribner), Best New Poets 2012 (The University of Virginia Press) and The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral (Ahsahta Press). Her chapbooks include: Dendrochronology (dancing girl press), Kudzu Does Not Stop (Organic Weapon Arts), and Impossible Map (Fact-Simile). She is the author of OVERPOUR (Action Books). Currently, she is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Pacific Lutheran University.

Parallax Editors Emily Clarke and Kalista Puhnaty sat down with Jane Wong to discuss her upcoming projects and her writerly insight.

Q: How would you describe the impact your life has on your poetry and vice versa?

A: That’s a really good question. I think that you can’t really separate them— well, for me, I can’t separate my life and my poetry, I suppose. My own experiences definitely impact what I write about, but I also feel like writing poetry impacts my life, too. I think it’s easier to think one affects the other. I grew up in a restaurant in Jersey with immigrant parents and I tend to reference that a lot. So that’s impacted my poetry, but poetry also impacts my own well-being in a certain way. It’s not necessarily therapy but it calms me down to where I can actually write about the world around me. It helps me answer some big questions in the world, too. But mostly, poetry impacts my life in very surprising ways, sometimes when I least expect it.

Q: Your book, Overpour,  just came out, can you tell us a little about that and if you have any other upcoming projects?

A: Yeah, so, my book did just come out and it took about four years to write (and a couple years for it to be in the process of submission and printing) so to me it feels like a very old project, even though it just came out. I feel weirdly distanced from it. So I have been writing a lot, and I’m headed back to prose in a way. I just wrote this essay that is coming out in an anthology soon. It’s about growing up in a restaurant because that was a huge part of my life and I’ve never written any poems about it. There’s something about writing in prose that’s allowing me to have a more concrete description, so right now, the essay is written as a cheat sheet for other restaurant babies.

Q: In your TED Talk, “Going Toward the Ghost,” you mentioned the phrase, “rewriting history.” Can you tell us more about that and what it means for your writing?

A: Rewriting history is really important to me. There’s that desire to push back, to say, “you’re giving me this kind of version of the story and my responsibility as a poet is to raise up or reimagine the stories of my family that have never been told.” That has to do with major historical events that are totally glossed over in America in particular. I’m writing about the Great Leap Forward, which is this huge famine that happened in China and affected my family, but I didn’t learn about it until I was in college. I wouldn’t have ever known, so I guess that’s how I feel. There is a responsibility in terms of being a poet. I think a poet basically brings forth the stories that are often overlooked, and raises those big questions about who we are and how we’re related to each other in very blunt ways. I think that helps more than just scrolling through the news.

Q: Speaking of the Great Leap Forward, in which tens of millions of people died due to famine,  were you pressured to write about China’s history before you learned about that event?

A: I wasn’t, and it’s funny–those histories are forgotten, and I was looking for them. I was looking for something to tether myself to, because I felt so American; I felt so, in many ways, Chinese-American. Our families are such huge parts of our lives and I didn’t know a large part of their history, so I went looking for it in many ways. That said, I think that since I am an Asian-American writer, there was a pressure placed on me as a younger writer to write about themes that maybe were “expected.” Things like assimilation or mother-daughter relationships. At first I was just really annoyed by it, like, why do people want me to write about this one thing, and now I think of it as something that you have a choice in. And if you choose to do it, then you actually are rewriting history and building a community of people who are maybe addressing the same topic in different ways. I think my worry is that people don’t think it’s being addressed in different ways, but it is.

Q: As an accomplished poet, what advice would you give to young writers?

A: I think for young writers, the biggest thing that I would say is don’t underestimate yourself. You are on par with the writers you read and who are published. I think when you analyze a book in class, your work is at that level, too, and you should read and analyze it with the same exact intensity. Writing is not an easy career choice. You are going to get rejected a lot. Like, a lot a lot. I think for young writers, again, the most important thing is to never underestimate yourself. If someone says no to your work, it doesn’t mean anything. If you’re confident in your work, that’s all that can take you forward. I’m filled sometimes with indignance when someone thinks that I can’t do it or can’t make it happen— it even pushes me further. Even the phrasing of, “I’m an accomplished writer,” is silly to me, because of course I’m confident in my work, but I’m constantly emerging: you should always be a new writer every single day. You haven’t quite gotten to where you want to go. Enjoy the process of always trying to rethink yourself as a writer. I write a lot. I’ll just say that writer’s block doesn’t exist. To me, it doesn’t exist. It’s a myth.

Q: What do you want people to take away from your poetry?

A: What I want them to take away is that we should pay closer attention to the world around us. From the bee that’s dying in the grass, to your grandpa’s history that you never knew about, to Black Lives Matter. Just pay attention to everything; think about how it’s all interconnected. Somebody wrote about my book, it’s the quote on the back of the book, that the poems or the images or the narratives are seemingly disparate, but yet they are somehow interwoven together. I think that’s a takeaway. Nothing exists in a vacuum in this world. We’re all interconnected, and that’s the biggest takeaway. The title of my book is Overpour. It really means that you’re overwhelmed by a lot of things, and it’s okay to be overwhelmed by the fact that everything is interconnected, because it is, but it shouldn’t exist in a cave of sorts. Take a look at the world around us: see how we’re all connected in both beautiful and troubling ways.

Q: What is your writing process like?

A: I think all writers have a different process. For me it’s having a notebook full of images that I just run across during the day. I am not a writer who begins with a blank page because it gives me anxiety, I don’t like having a theme I want to write about. I don’t like having ideas of, “So, I’m going to write this poem about x, y, z.” I have a notebook full of lines I’ve collected across my week, my day, and I’ll grab ten at random. Then I’ll type them up on the page and I’ll play Bridge Builder or Jenga or something like that. I’ll move lines around, and I’ll add lines around them, and guess what? Whatever I was thinking about, my big life question, the theme, gets infused in those lines. It seems like poetry is exactly what I just mentioned; connecting pieces together. So, that’s my process. It sounds kind of silly, but, it’s very tangible. That’s why I don’t have writer’s block. I don’t want to just sit and watch that cursor blink at me on the word doc, I just want to have stuff that I can use. Revision is a big part of my life too, I write ten images down, and a majority of those lines are gonna be cut. I just recycle them into a word doc I call my “compost doc,” so if I’m not using them, they don’t disappear into the world, I recycle them back into the compost and I’ll use them for something else. I believe in the quality of all of my lines, but not in certain poems.

Q: Where do you draw the most inspiration from?

A: Definitely my mom and my family. Mostly because my mom is kind of wacky–she grew up very differently than I did, and she’s just a very strong, powerful woman. I draw a lot of inspiration from power; what happens when you’re powerless or when you have power.  I feel like that would define my mother because she was in an arranged marriage when she was nineteen, and came here, and had to figure out what to do next. I think a lot about her, and I sometimes write in her voice. Sometimes I’m not myself in my poems, and that to me is inspiration; stepping outside of yourself. You are no longer the speaker and that inspires me: risk, trying something new. The natural world inspires me, but I like to redefine it. We’re sitting in such a beautiful space, with the sun filtering through the trees, and I can draw so much inspiration from that. But, that raccoon eating my bag of Doritos in Seattle is also nature, and I want to draw inspiration from that, too. All of the nature in the world is inspirational, not just the kind we immediately think is beautiful.

Watch Jane’s TED Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjTjhU0gHZA