ROXANE GAY Difficult Women. Reviewed by Linda Godfrey
Women’s difficult lives are laid bare with a surgeon’s precision in this collection.
This is a collection of 21 short stories about women in relation to the men in their worlds. I had to think long and hard about the title. The more I read the stories, the more I thought that the title does do the collection justice – the women are not difficult but their lives are, and the world they are living in makes it hard for them to be themselves and to get about without being brutalised. Many of them are branded difficult because they have opinions, lives, feelings and bruises of their own. There is a whole story – ‘Difficult Women’ – devoted to defining these women. The categories are: Loose Women, Frigid Women, Crazy Women, Mothers, Dead Girls.
The Dead Girls category gets to the heart of the matter, the solution to the problem of women and girls. Here’s one ideal for women living in the patriarchy:
Death makes them more interesting. Death makes them more beautiful. It’s something about their bodies on display in final repose – eyes wide open, lips blue, limbs stiff, skin cold. Finally, it might be said, they are at peace.
The first story, ‘I Will Follow You’, is probably the hardest to bear. It tells of two sisters who are inseparable. It is revealed as we read that, as girls aged ten and 11, they were abducted and abused. Mr Peter used a common trick to get the children to comply, saying to the youngest that if she did what he wanted, he would not touch her sister or kill her family, so she gave herself up. Naturally, later he abused the older sister. As adults the sisters go everywhere together. For the older sister to have time alone with her husband, the younger one has to be specifically requested to leave, but she always returns. The twist in the title is that when the abuser gets out of gaol, he stalks the two young women and writes them letters:
Mr Peter found God. Mr Peter wanted our forgiveness. Mr Peter needed our forgiveness so he could get parole.
And on it goes. The lists that vomit from him are intolerable. The young women know what to do. The narrator says that when they were little, they had to beg for everything from Mr Peter, so now they will make him do the same. They are impervious to his pleas. The part that brings tears to my eyes is when the older woman’s husband finds out that Mr Peter is sending them letters and reads the latest one:
When he was done, he turned to look at us. ‘I may not seem like much of a man, but that SOB isn’t gonna hurt you here, and won’t find you either.’
And it’s not that it is a protective man saying that, it’s the depth of care and understanding that is shown to those two women by another human being.
Not all the stories are about sexual abuse, but a fair few of them are. Women seem to get roughed up and bruised through having sex and there are the outright rapes, as in the story ‘La Negra Blanca’ where a young university student who supports herself by pole-dancing in a club is raped by one of her clients. He congratulates himself that he has finally broken a taboo in his family about having sex with a black woman. In ‘The Mark of Cain’, a woman is shared by twin brothers who do not mention that they have swapped with each other, but she prefers one brother anyway: he’s much gentler with her. The woman in ‘Break All the Way Down’ has a relationship with an abusive man to better feel the depth of her pain after losing her baby – her husband is too caring. She recovers when she is given the baby of her boyfriend’s girlfriend to raise.
There are many stories about race and class. In ‘Florida’ a couple from the mid-west moves to a gated community. Marcy goes to the gym to lose weight. The gym instructor tries to befriend her, but race and class are invoked by the rest of the class: white Marcy cannot associate with Hispanic Caridad. Caridad goes home and tries to talk about her loneliness with her boyfriend, whose only response is to pester her for sex. ‘Noble Things’ is a futuristic story about the second secession of southern USA from northern USA. It is a remarkably prescient story of the voting divide in the 2016 American elections:
Parker sat with him, studying a map for a geography project. There were the Western territories, dry land full of people who didn’t realise their water came from Michigan and now paid exorbitant prices to quench their thirst, and the Republic of Texas, soon to be annexed by Mexico. The Federated States of the North included pretty much every state that didn’t secede, stretched across much of the country, skipping most of the West and including California and Hawaii.
One of the many things highlighted for me in this book is how much women who live within the patriarchy internalise misogyny. As well as being bombarded by sexist propaganda and kept down by violence in all its forms, we women also have to be on guard that our thinking is not colonised as well. Roxane Gay has done us all a favour by laying all this bare with the precision of a surgeon wielding a scalpel.
Roxane Gay Difficult Women Hachette 2017 PB 260pp $29.99
Linda Godfrey is a writer, editor and Program Manager of the Wollongong Writers Festival. She is studying towards a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong, writing a novel about cults.
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