Roxane Gay’s Stories Fight Back

Of course, you’ve heard of the “difficult woman:” Lilith was the first. Today, you see her on television, in the Senate, in class, at home with her kids, pacing the streets at night. You have raised and been raised by her, and you probably embody her yourself. She opposes the rigid, patriarchal box she is placed in, and once she steps out, she is “difficult.”

According to Roxane Gay, a difficult woman has battled both structural and ingrained misogyny, supremacy, grief and betrayal, but she is still is able to practice compassion, pick up her own pieces, and ask for help when it’s needed. But she is no saint. She explores desires that she might not understand, cannot rationalize, or may not be good for her.

Roxane Gay is a master of narrative, but what makes Difficult Women (Grove, $25) remarkable is the way in which she uses her platform to give voice to women outside of the hegemonic narrative. Difficult Women is transformative, and Gay’s style is commanding and powerful, as those who’ve read—and quoted from—her essays in Bad Feminist and An Untamed State know full well.

Gay’s strong and unapologetic writing is captivating and witty, poetic and blunt. The strength of her storytelling, in a society that insists on questioning the truths of such stories, validates the experiences of race, class and sexuality by women who’ve been exploited and marginalized. Mothers who give life and face loss, sisters who remain loyal even in the face of trauma, victims of sexual assault who suffer and persevere, women who face both corporeal and ethereal challenges in a patriarchal world. Women who have experienced abuse and abandonment, who have been underprivileged and undervalued, yet who have reclaimed their agency. They are imperfect. And they transcend solely by continuing to exist. The difficulties that the women in these short stories face are not the center of their narratives. The spotlight is on the women themselves. Gay’s difficult women have real lives, histories, and futures. In each story, they leave traces of themselves and form a collective of individuals: “We were here.”

In a new wave of proud nasty women, people with privilege and power must make room for all women to tell their stories and be willing to listen. It is imperative that we share our truths, no matter how difficult they are for others to hear.

Roxane Gay echoes Audre Lorde’s assertion that what is most important must be spoken, even at the risk of being misunderstood. Difficult Women encourages us to do just that. To be difficult. Be nasty. Be bad. But be there for each other.

Shira Gorelick is a former Lilith intern who currently lives and works in Los Angeles.