Roxane Gay is one of our generation’s best social critics and most prolific feminist writers, both online (just check her Twitter account) and in print. In Difficult Women, she has produced a book of short stories so compelling and unpredictable that the reader is left feeling a little unmoored, never knowing what gems the next story will bring.
There is a little bit of everything in this collection of 21 short stories. Gay writes entirely from the female perspective, and moves effortlessly from the fantastical, to the surreal, to events based firmly in reality. She covers the stories of women whose stories are often told, but rarely listened to, of strippers and abuse victims, and women who live seemingly perfect lives behind closed doors.
Sometimes these stories are long (at 20 pages or more) and some are only a couple of pages long. Gay stays true to form in this follow-up to the NYT best-selling Bad Feminist and is not one to shy away from difficult topics: sex, sexual violence and the complex nature of human beings run like a current throughout the book.
Some of the standouts from this compilation include the magically surreal story “Requiem for a Glass Heart,” which tells the story of a woman made entirely of glass and her Stone Thrower (that’s his occupation) husband. Together with their glass son, they lead an ordinary, but fragile life as extraordinary individuals.
In another of the more fantastical stories, “The Sacrifice of Darkness,” a miner leading a life of quiet desperation becomes so empty that he one day takes flight like Icarus, with the intention only to see and feel the sun up close. His need was so great that he left the world without the sun. It is the story of the fallout and the darkness and hardships of the family that he left behind.
And then there’s the story of the all-woman fight club, filled with those who seem to have perfect lives, but who need an outlet to let loose some of the rage and frustration that they feel and aren’t allowed to publicly show, girls who “keep their ugly beneath the skin where it belongs.”
There are heart-breaking stories too—stories of women who have suffered insurmountable losses and the grieving process. In “Break All the Way Down,” a mother who loses her first-born son to a senseless accident cannot forgive herself and looks to numb the pain by having another man (not her faithful and kind husband) beat her senseless in its aftermath.
In another, “I Will Follow You,” a pair of young girls, kidnapped and enslaved for months by a pedophile, have a life-long bond that no one understands. As they try and fail to learn to navigate relationships as adults, they cannot escape this trauma.
In this collection, the author is direct and graphic at times. She addresses issues relevant to today, such as racial, gender and economic inequality and does not gloss over difficult concepts like rape and abuse. As we read these women’s stories, we find that no matter their circumstances, they are all self-aware and powerful and that the difficulty, more often than not, lies with the men in their lives.
My only criticisms is that, at times, it can be exhausting to read about the abuse these women experience at the hands of men. Overall though, I found this book to be a great mix by an author who bravely experiments with fiction and takes unabashed risks.
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Whitney Z. is a native Pittsburgher. She is currently a substitute Library Assistant who loves audiobooks, music and movies. She believes firmly that NASA made a mistake in demoting Pluto and would sincerely like for said decision to be reversed.