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.