Sex was all around us in school. We knew everything and we knew nothing. We looked up the meaning of fuck in the dictionary and giggled all day. A boy passed around a condom in class and said it wasn’t too different from a balloon. We read Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul and wondered if we would ever have sex the way American teenagers were having in the backs of their cars – some of us are still wondering. We read Sidney Sheldon’s Rage of Angels and imagined being possessed by someone like Michael Moretti. I have always wanted to write about sex, but I can never find the right words or the right information. I know I will end up sounding trite or foolish.
If I had read Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women in school, I might have grown up thinking sex was mostly nasty, always dirty. It resembles violence, it leaves the woman hurt if she was lucky and bruised if she wasn’t. This is a recurring theme in Roxane Gay’s collection of short stories – the women may be different from each other but they appear to derive pleasure when they are not treated well. One woman actively seeks a man who hits her, another woman instructs her man to not be soft with her. They seem to enjoy the loss of dignity.
By contrast, these women find some warmth and safety in the relationships they share with other women. There are more recurring themes – women who are sisters to each other (by blood or otherwise), the desolate and wintry north as a setting or a character by itself, twins and the peculiar connection they share, women of colour, men who leer and lust, babies that die. But at the center of all these stories are the difficult women – difficult because they cannot be easily categorized. They make us uncomfortable, they are troubled, they look at the world with weary and knowing eyes, they are never too tired for sex.
Sometimes the stories are realistic, and horrifyingly so. Other times, they are set on the edge between the real and the fantastical, falling on to either side whenever they please. There is a woman who is followed by dampness wherever she goes, a woman made of glass, a woman who is a knife.
Roxane Gay is a public figure – a thinker, writer and feminist, openly so. Knowing this makes Difficult Women difficult reading. Maybe it is a commentary on the position women increasingly find themselves in, or a way of letting us know women can find agency in the most peculiar ways. A bit like the cover design – which could be a heart, or a vagina.