Diverse Book of the Month: Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

Happy April, everyone, and welcome to the first “Diverse Book of the Month” review! We’re kicking things off with one of the most-talked-about releases of 2017 (thus far): Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women.

Summary: Difficult Women is a collection of short stories that revolve around, well… “difficult” women. Or at least, women that society might deem “difficult.” Gay’s female characters might typically be reduced to stereotypes (“sluts,” “bitches,” “frigid prudes,” “fat/lazy,” “crazy/hysterical,” etc.), but their stories reveal that they are far from shallow. These are complex, flawed, very human characters, and readers will find themselves sympathizing with them more often than not.

What Makes This Book Diverse: Roxane Gay is a bisexual Black woman, and the stories in this collection deal with issues specific to women (specifically Black and other non-white Women of Color) and the LGBTQIA+ community. This is definitely an “In Our Own Voices” book.

Genre: This one’s hard to place in a narrow genre. Generally it can be categorized as a collection of “short fiction.” But there’s a little bit of everything within the collection. Most stories are gritty realistic fiction, and all of them have a little (or a lot of) romance, love, and sex. But there are some that contain elements of science fiction and dystopian fiction. There are also a couple of surrealistic allegories. There’s a little bit of something for everyone!

Trigger Warnings: Be warned that this is a very heavy collection. Some of the stories are hard to read. Many of them contain:

  1. sexual assault & rape, including gang rape
  2. domestic abuse/violence
  3. sexism
  4. racism
  5. and one story in particular is about the death of a child, witnessed by the parents.

But these topics are handled well; they are not merely there to create a cheap shock factor. Gay shows each of her characters handling these situations in realistic ways that encourage the reader to sympathize and/or empathize with them. The characters’ reactions are believable and Gay tackled the topics with compassion and consideration. Unlike some writers, she addresses these issues without being disrespectful towards those in her audience who may have faced the issues themselves.

Pros:

  • Gay’s writing is phenomenal. Each story has a unique tone, but there is a hint of the author’s voice that weaves its way through each story and will let you know, “This is a story written by Roxane Gay.”
  • The stories are memorable, short as they may be.
  • It’s clear that Gay’s goal was to produce a collection that focused on complex female characters, and she achieved that goal. Like their stories, these women are hard to forget, and despite the different subgenres, these stories complement one another.
  • Not every story is about just one woman. All of the women in Gay’s stories, primary or secondary characters, protagonists or antagonists, defy stereotypes.
  • The men are complex too. There’s a wide array of male characters, some lovable, some not, all human. There are even stories told from the point of view of men, but even then, those stories are about the women who complicate their lives.
  • There is LGBTQIA+ representation. Gay herself is bisexual, and she does not leave that part of her identity out of the stories.
  • Whether she writes realistic fiction, science fiction/dystopian fiction, or allegory, Gay’s writing packs a powerful punch. Every story is emotional.
  • The stories are relevant. Gay tackles issues of sexism, racism, and more that are still (unfortunately) prevalent in the news. (The dystopian story feels a little too much like a possible future under Trump’s presidency…) Her voice and her input on these issues is valuable.

Cons:

  • The biggest con is that this is an exhausting book. Yes, each story is emotional, but they’re hard — not in the sense that the language or style is unapproachable (quite the contrary), but in the sense that they deal with very difficult topics. It is not easy to read it all in one go; I might recommend taking long breaks between stories, maybe reading the collection over the course of a couple months and breaking it up with other books/stories in between.
  • Because each “chapter” is a different story with a different cast of characters, there are a lot of characters to remember. If you’re in a book club or any type of discussion group, and you don’t tend to leave notes in the margins or sticky-notes stuck to the pages, it can be easy for the characters to blend together in your memory. This large cast of characters isn’t a bad thing at all — in fact, given the nature of short story collections (and this one in particular), it’s pretty much necessary and expected — but it may put some readers off as a pet peeve. But if you can handle Game of Thrones, I’d argue you can handle this pretty damn easily. As I said, the stories will likely remain in your memory for a long time — even though characters’ names may fall by the wayside.
  • I’ve seen a few complaints in Goodreads reviews that Gay didn’t include any representation of transgender women or asexual women. If you’re looking for that representation particularly in Difficult Women, you will unfortunately be disappointed. That being said, as I mentioned above, there are still other types LGBTQIA+ representation, particularly a few lesbian/bisexual characters.
  • Some of the stories do have rather abrupt endings. I personally felt that the endings all made sense, but some readers on Goodreads (readers who admittedly don’t usually read short fiction) found this jarring.
  • Did I mention that it’s emotionally ravaging? No, seriously, your heart will hurt. If you’re looking for literature to escape the grim reality we currently live in, this book is probably not for you.

Personal Reaction: Despite what I just said in that last point, I’d like to note that the final story in this book, “Strange Gods” — indeed the hardest to get through, especially knowing that it’s mostly autobiographical — ends on a happy note. It was my favorite in the collection, a very strong and strategic close to the book, about understanding and coming to terms with your past before moving towards healing. I interpreted it as a love letter from Gay to her current or future lover, whoever that may be. The final paragraph was beautifully written and made me cry. Happy tears, though. In my opinion this was the story that Gay poured most of her heart into, and that shows.

Gay does let you know right off the bat what the overall tone of the collection will be. The very first story, “I Will Follow You,” is about the abduction and sexual abuse of two young sisters. If you can make it through that story, you can make it through the whole book. I didn’t find it too overtly graphic, especially because it deals largely with the aftermath of the event and only alludes to what the antagonist, Mr. Peter, does to the sisters. Gay very carefully avoids going into too much detail, which proves just how much she understands the (mis)use of sexual abuse in the media and entertainment industry. But some readers may still find it hard to stomach.

My personal favorite stories (aside from “Strange Gods”) were “FLORIDA,” the title work “Difficult Women,” “How,” and “Best Features.” But honestly, all of the stories in this book are well-written. None of them felt like a chore to read for me, at least not in the sense that they were boring. As I said, “Strange Gods” was hard to read because of the topic explored (that is, the gang rape that Gay experienced as a young girl). So was “Break All The Way Down,” the story about the parents coping with the violent death of their toddler. But all of the stories were still fulfilling.

I would recommend this book to anyone who:

  • like me, is a huge fan of “unlikable” female characters, the type of reader that would fight tooth and nail to defend those characters
  • is looking to learn a little bit more about what it’s like to experience sexism, racism, body shaming, etc. (whether you are male or female or non-binary)

Even if you don’t typically read or enjoy short fiction, I would recommend Difficult Women. The stories provide complete glimpses into the lives of these women, and they fit neatly together in a way that makes it clear why Gay chose to put them all in one book. Roxane Gay is arguably one of the greatest feminist voices in literature today.

That’s all for Difficult Women! If you have any questions or comments, whether you’ve read the book or are considering it, feel free to comment below.

I’m also considering opening a Twitter poll about which books I might review in the future. I have a ton already that I’m hoping to read, but if you have any requests, you can leave that in the comments as well.

Happy reading!

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