I recently read Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women and when I finished, I felt like I needed a surgeon to put my heart back together. This collection of short fiction is powerful, at times hard to read, so much so that I’d advise to you read it a story or two at a time.
Before my review, a caveat or two: Roxane Gay does not identify as a Black lesbian, which is generally a prerequisite for a book to be reviewed on this blog. We’ve decided to make an exception because, well, it’s Roxane Gay. You’ll also find a few queer characters in this collection, which might appease those of who you are looking for them. Interestingly, one of the few stories that has a happy ending, “How,” contains two queer characters.
Also, I have an inherent bias toward this author. I love her. I love everything she writes. I’m actually wearing my Bad Feminist t-shirt as I write this review. I follow her on Twitter, and it pleases me to no end that she is currently an associate professor at my alma mater. With that being said, it is entirely possible for me to write a critical review of this book, but I won’t. It’ll be more like a praise song, a love letter to my favorite Black feminist writer, if you will. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, my thoughts on Difficult Women.
As I mentioned earlier, this collection of stories is not for the faint of heart. The women in these twenty-one stories are sometimes desperate, lonely, abused, broken; yet they are beautiful, resilient, hopeful, and honest. In other words, these women represent the reality of women’s lives, in all of its messy, quotidian glory. Gay’s extraordinary gift is that she is able to create female characters that are difficult to love, but through the exquisiteness of her prose, convince us to root for them anyway.
For example, in one of my favorite stories, “Break All the Way Down,” which I admit broke my heart, the main character deals with the loss of her son by taking up with a man who abuses her. Before the accident that sends her spiraling downward into grief that leaves her broken and bruised, Natasha states “I looked at that boy and the man who helped me make him as we stood in the center of a perfect life. The heat of that joy could have burned us all.” As I read, I felt as if I were burning with them.
Be forewarned, it is difficult to identify with many of the characters in this collection, and as readers, I think we are conditioned to want to connect with them in some meaningful way. I’m not sure that that is Gay’s aim. I believe that she wants us to see these women, to recognize that they exist, to understand that pain and rage, disappointment and despondency are a part of our everyday existence. Most of us tend to ignore or berate what makes us uncomfortable, but Gay forces us to confront our biases and our fears in every story, every scene, every sentence.
Some of the stories are allegorical, and fans of magical realism will find themselves sated. “Requiem for a Glass Heart” and “The Sacrifice of Darkness” are exemplars of the form. Another favorite is “Noble Things,” prescient in that before the election of the current administration, Gay imagined what life would be like if the South seceded from the United States in modern times.
Read this book. Several of the stories are undoubtedly painful to read, with most evoking visceral reactions from even the hardiest readers. The women, as promised, are difficult. But Gay’s writing is superb, which makes every gasp, cringe, and tear worth it.
Reviewer: Stephanie Andrea Allen
Stephanie Andrea Allen, Ph.D., is a native southerner and out Black lesbian writer, scholar, and educator. She is the author of a collection of short stories and essays, A Failure to Communicate, (BLF Press 2017), and is hard at work on her first novel. Connect with Stephanie on Twitter, Goodreads, or Facebook.