Tuesday, January 24, 2017

"Difficult Women," by Roxane Gay (And the Seventh Anniversary of This Blog)

A horrific event in the childhood of two sisters changes their lives forever; the sisters suffer unendingly, yet unwaveringly, taken to extremes, support each other through childhood and into adulthood. This story, “I Will Follow You,” is the first in Roxane Gay’s new short story collection, “Difficult Women” (Grove Press, 2017). The book ends with an equally violent, shocking, and heartrending story, “Strange Gods.” The stories in this book are deeply disturbing, troubling, even brutal at times. They vividly illustrate the widespread abuse and violence that many girls and women experience. Yet there is a vein of humanity, caring, strength, resilience running through them as well. The main characters are all women, as the title indicates, and they tend to be bruised (often literally) and beaten down by life, but somehow are still strong, stubborn, and autonomous. The women are damaged, but still in charge of themselves and their lives. These characters are complex and believable. I do not mean, however, to make this point in any kind of redemptive way; no matter how well the women cope with sexual abuse, it is a terrible thing, and it leaves lifetime scars. These are complex stories, never simple narratives of violence or, on the other hand, of inspiring “we shall survive and flourish” sentiments. Some other (interrelated) elements of the stories: great love, great lust, great loss, much sex, much infidelity. There are many marriages that feature deep connections, sexual and otherwise, yet are fraught with difficulties. Although these are common elements of much literature, Gay’s stories contain many twists and turns, many psychological byways, many surprises. There is the woman who pretends not to know that her husband and his twin sometimes switch places. There is the couple that both knows the other is having affairs. There are the intersecting lives of rich and poor families in a subdivision in Florida. There is the black scientist who works in Northern Michigan and feels totally isolated; well-meaning but ignorant people keep asking her if she is from Detroit (as if that is where all black people come from). These stories are fierce (but not didactic) meditations on race, class, and, especially, gender. Gay, also the author of “Bad Feminist,” a collection of essays (discussed here on 10/29/14), is a truly compelling writer, whether of fiction or nonfiction. She is an important voice who should be widely read. Now I am eagerly waiting for the upcoming publication of her memoir, “Hunger.” (And on another note: This post marks the seventh anniversary of the StephanieVandrickReads blog.)
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