“My throat was raw. All of me was raw. I didn’t give a damn. I would not leave my child alone. Finally, Ben snapped out of his trance and dragged me away. I fought him hard. When he finally got me in the car, he stood by my door. He pointed and said, “Stay, baby,” then ran around to his side of the car. Sweat trickled down his face and neck. There were damp arcs of sweat around my neck and below my armpits. We were rotten, filthy with grief. He turned and looked at me. “You’re stronger than I thought.” I pressed my hand against the car window as we pulled away. I said, “You have no idea.”
There is a place within familiar narratives of female passion and woe, a secret, labyrinthine chamber that contains the hurt, the sweat, the tears, the blood; a place that isn't afraid of the dark, but refuses to shun the light; a room that consumes, and dies, and heals, and bears fruit. Roxane Gay writes from this room. What has always struck me about her writing is the remorselessness of it: she doesn’t balk or falter, she doesn’t mince words or provide needless garnish. She is unapologetic in her ability to write through, and about, some of ugliest aspects of humanity - a line between carelessness and caution that she toes with unerring accuracy. In her nonfiction and fiction alike, she plumbs the deepest depths and most astonishing highs, never losing her firm grip on the characters she creates, their stories that beg to be told. In Difficult Women, the full gamut of her talent for fiction is on display. This collection thrums with life.
The title does not lie: these women are difficult. Difficult in that they refuse easy categorization. Boundary lines blur, shift, and snap; promises are made, retracted, broken. The title story presents small snapshots of different women - crazy women, frigid women, loose women, mothers - as they navigate their lives, the monikers acting as signifier and prison cell; each vignette concluding with a soft epiphany: these women are more than their epithet. They can transcend what is expected of them, whether they ultimately choose to or not. “Requiem for a Glass Heart” depicts a stone thrower who “lives in a glass house with his glass family,” including a glass wife, who despite his betrayal, never cracks, never shatters - despite his seeming terror (or is it subconscious wanting?) that she is ever at the brink.
In “The Sacrifice of Darkness”, a man desperate for light consumes the entire sun, leaving his son and the rest of the town to grapple for sanity and survival in a perpetually moonlit world. A young woman befriends the son, and the two of them share a deep, abiding friendship that slowly blossoms into love, in spite of the darkness, in spite of the hate and fear that encompasses around them. They name their eventual daughter Dawn, a hesitant promise, a gesture of faith. The days grow brighter. There is an elemental power in the women in these stories: a deep, ancient strength that either manifests, or burns at their core like molten metal. Some stories venture into the wilds of science fiction, others stay firmly rooted in reality. And yet, within a collection that meanders in and out of time, space, and logic, its cohesion is unerringly found in Roxane’s commitment to emotional realism. The women in this story are difficult, yes. But they are solid. They are undeniable.
Difficult Women, Roxane Gay, Grove Press (an imprint of Grove Atlantic), New York, NY, 2017.