Difficult Women by Roxane Gay
Grove Press, January 2017
272 pages / Amazon
What does it mean to be a difficult woman? How would someone be able to define such a term? Through a compilation of short stories in Difficult Women, Roxane Gay masterfully depicts the different faces of “difficult” women. With the usage of haunting imagery and impactful variants of syntax, Gay writes about the different lives of women who are labeled as difficult by their societies. Each short story is centered around one or more female character as she struggles with topics such as sex, violence, race, social status, toxic relationships, and the fragility of motherhood. It is hard to find that delicate balance when writing about such serious topics, but Gay successfully walks that line. Her attention to details in the descriptions and her choices of diction pulls the reader into the minds of her characters. From the perspective of loose, broken, and cold women, Gay exposes the other side of the story that explains how these women came to be “complicated”.
In her opening story, “I Will Follow You”, we meet a pair of sisters who suffer from sexual violence as young girls. Gay observes how the people around them respond to this situation without understanding the intensity of the trauma they are going through. Gay writes, “They didn’t understand us. They did not know the girls who came home after Mr. Peter,” to express how one of the girls felt when returning home (17). Though the sexual violence they go through isn’t explicitly stated, Gay gives so much thought into the scenes before and after the events that it leaves you with the same raw emotions the girls feel without actually being there. Throughout these tense scenes, I knew what would happen, what was happening, and what had happened all within the same paragraph, which was so gut-wrenching but beautifully delivered at the same time. Gay’s choice to tell the story in alternating moments between the girls as adults and as children, depicts how the trauma they faced affected every aspect of their lives.
Gay’s choices in syntax, especially in “Water, All Its Weight”, mimics the thoughts and feelings of Bianca as she struggles with her emotional baggage, adding to the overall flow of the book. The Parataxis style of equally weighted sentences implies that no matter how Bianca tries to better her life, the results are the same. No matter where she goes, Bianca is unable to escape from the water and mold in her life. Everyone around her wasn’t able to “handle the watery rot that followed” her (27). At the first signs of trouble, they would leave, forcing her to deal with her emotional issues alone. This idea of carrying water around symbolizes her emotional baggage that is deemed unacceptable by society. With this captivating analogy, Gay allows the reader to use their own senses to experience the alienation that Bianca faces. We too are able to visualize the water stains, smell the molding wood, and feel the judgmental stares of others.
“Who a Loose Woman Looks up To… Never her mother,” is an ingenious statement Gay uses to pull our attention to the next short story, “Difficult Women” (37). Her creative format allows the reader to understand why a young girl might become a “loose woman” throughout her life. The repetitive structure of each chapter heading is used to convey the passing of time in the life of a loose woman as she grows older until she finally passes away. Gay reveals glimpses of the events that the character goes through in order to gain an identity for herself, thus highlighting how society dictates so much of her life. Where does a loose woman live? How does she sit at the bar? These are all questions that have been stereotypically answered by society. However, this time, Gay chooses to stray from the norm to give her own answers. With each question that is proposed, Gay responds with what a loose woman really goes through in order to gain the love and acceptance that she craves. Instead of allowing these women to be labeled as troublesome or difficult, Gay exposes their side of the story in order to break the stigma.
The art of subtext can also be seen throughout Gay’s writing. Whether a character is having a silent argument with her disapproving in-laws, or a disagreement with her husband, the dialogue between them is filled with hidden words that help to increase the tension and heighten the intensity of each scene. In “Open Marriage”, we meet a couple who are in a harmonious relationship, until the husband brings up the idea of wanting an open marriage. The husband tries to convince his wife that this change will only deepen their bond and not weaken it. In denial, the wife is sitting at the table eating expired yogurt, not fully listening to her husband. “It tastes sour,” the narrator thinks as she eats the inedible yogurt (167). Here in this moment, Gay allows the reader to see the wife’s true feelings towards the situation. Despite her claims of being agreeable to the idea of an open marriage, the symbolism of the expired yogurt tells another story. In her attempt to be strong and avoid being labeled as a difficult woman, the wife pretends that her husband’s words do not affect her in any way. Though the idea is sickening, like the yogurt, she has no choice but to eat it up and accept it.
This book allows us to experience the struggles of each woman as she faces the world around her. Despite how messed up her life is, or how society judges her, she is still unapologetically herself. Instead of trying to raise pity for their plights, Roxane Gay creates pieces that subliminally whisper about empowerment in a world where women are told to hide their emotions or risk being labeled as difficult. Every story leaves you with a punch that is so addicting you can’t help but to read the next one until you’ve reached the very end, 21 unique stories later.
Jules Le is a student at the University of Washington. She enjoys traveling with her family, experiencing different cultures, and learning new languages. During her free time you can find her curled up with a good book or freelance writing on her computer. She is passionate about the performing arts and enjoys attending musical productions whenever she can.