Review: Difficult Women

TW: rape.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of Roxane Gay’s short story collection Difficult Women. I’d heard of Gay’s novel about a woman who’s kidnapped and raped, An Untamed State, through the Tournament of Books; I knew it was harrowing. And I also knew of her work as a feminist blogger.

So: I was expecting Difficult Women to be uncompromising, or, as a colleague said of the cover, confrontational. I wasn’t expecting so many of the stories to be speculative, or at least speculative-adjacent.

What most of these stories are doing, to a greater or lesser extent, is disrupting our expectations of narrative – either by introducing speculative elements, as in “Water, All its Weight”, in which a woman is inexplicably followed by damp, or by simply not going where we’d expect the narrative to go, as in the short “Open Marriage”, in which a husband’s proposal that he and his wife sleep with other people utterly fails to precipitate a crisis in their marriage. Those formal disruptions are in service of a thematic one: all these stories are about difficult women, women who do not conform to ideals of femininity or to our expectations of how they should respond to trauma.

Let me illustrate that by talking about my favourite story, “La Negra Blanca”, in which a white-passing stripper is raped by an entitled white man. Which, I’ll admit, sounds pretty grim. It is. What’s important about it, though, is its ending. The stripper’s sort-of boyfriend wants to report the rape; all she wants is a bath, and sleep. And he listens to her. He looks after her and makes her feel safe and the whole thing is so sweet and tender it made me cry. The rapist gets away scot-free; but that’s not the point. The story is privileging this traumatised woman’s emotional needs over our readerly need for justice or closure (which is coded male, through the boyfriend’s desire to report the rape). It privileges restorative rather than retributive masculinity, and it seems to see hope in that, despite the abuse its heroine has suffered.

So: these stories are often traumatic. As well as rape, I’d mention content warnings for child death, child sexual abuse, self-harm and misogyny in all its many and varied forms. But they’re not gratuitously so. There’s horror, but there’s also fragile hope – whether that’s a way through the horror, or just the simple fact of these difficult women allowed to be difficult, and specific, and real; to resist the prevailing narratives of how women should act, what they should like, how they should work psychologically.

Unfortunately, trans women don’t make it into this collection of difficult women, which is a glaring omission given the book’s politics. (There are gay women, bi women and poly women – which possibly makes the omission of trans and non-binary narratives even odder.) That missed opportunity makes the book feel like a flawed collection – but, for my mileage, one still worth looking at. (I certainly didn’t expect to feel so protective of it while reading negative reviews on Goodreads and the Guardian.) There are just so few books in which women get to be this…individual, where they get to respond to the world so idiosyncratically without being judged for it. That’s still a privilege retained by men.

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