Roxane Gay On Writing "Difficult Women" and Her Outlook On 2017
The title story from "Difficult Women," Roxane Gay's new collection of short fiction, is a misogynist's taxonomy of the opposite sex. On the narrator's short list: loose women, frigid women, crazy women, mothers, and, finally, dead girls, the most alluring of all.
"Death makes them more interesting," writes Gay (tongue firmly in cheek, if it’s not obvious). "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."
You likely can picture it; you've seen that tableau a thousand times, on television, in movies, in the news. And it's a provocation, of course, like the notion of the "difficult woman" is, or like her predecessor, the bad feminist of Gay's much-celebrated 2014 essay collection.
"I think women are oftentimes termed 'difficult' when we want too much, when we ask for too much, when we think too highly of ourselves, or have any kind of standards," the author explains by phone. "I wanted to play with this idea that women are difficult, when in reality it’s generally the people around them who are the difficult ones."
The dead girl is easy because she’s inert; the rest of the women in these stories are challengingly, wonderfully alive. They are carnal: Sex for them is a mysterious, sometimes dangerous balm. They have it, crave it. They become pregnant, give birth. They mother their babies and lose their babies. Many of these characters are victims of sexual assault. Others willingly court or submit to sex so rough and vicious that it's tough to read as safe.
The violence is shocking but not manipulative, omnipresent but never the main point. The point is how these women respond to it, or, sometimes, what it’s in response to. In "Break All the Way Down," a woman's perverse attraction to a savagely cruel boyfriend is a distraction from the real source of her pathos: her broken love for an estranged husband and her grief over their dead child. In "I Will Follow You," two adult sisters live aimless lives and float along into early adulthood moored only by each other. Eventually we realize that they were abducted as children, forced by a sadistic adult to do unthinkable things. The focus, though, is not on their relationship to their tormentor, but on the way their tormentor clarified and made indelible their relationship to one another.
Many of these stories are woven through with strands of magical realism. One narrator's psychic pain is keen enough that she cuts through a deer carcass with a fingernail and perform an emergency Cesarean on her sister with her bare hands; another, a miner, craves light so badly that he flies to the sun; a third, a stone thrower, marries a glass woman, then cheats with someone more durable.
Another jilted wife, conned into sleeping with her ruthless husband’s softer identical twin, observes her lover’s knuckles, covered in scars from making "miniature models of grand ideas with sharp knives" in architecture school. It's not a bad image for these stories, each a precise, miniature exploration of the ideas that crop up elsewhere in Gay's impossibly prolific, diverse body of work: She’s a novelist (2014's An Untamed State), an essayist (the aforementioned Bad Feminist), a memoirist (the forthcoming Hunger), a comics writer (the recently released Black Panther: World of Wakanda), a New York Times contributing op-ed writer — and she balances it all with a healthy Twitter habit and a day job as an associate professor of English at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.
These stories actually predate all that: She wrote them mostly during her days as a graduate student at Michigan Technological University on the Upper Peninsula. "Difficult Woman" proved difficult to sell. "A lot of editors thought it was too dark and depressing," she remembers. "I told one, 'That's exactly what I'm going for.'"
She shelved the project until the success of "An Untamed State," and "Bad Feminist" allowed her to revive it. "I think books come out when they’re supposed to, even if they don’t come out when you want them to,” Gay insists. Dark stories, then, reflect dark times? "Men write dark stories all the time, and rarely is that darkness obsessed over," she offers. "But when women write dark, all of a sudden it's a thing. It’s like: Why so dark? I mean, have you seen the world? It’s an appropriate response."
We talked more about Gay's outlook on 2017 and beyond, and about the stories in "Difficult Women": dark, yes, difficult, yes, but also luminous, transporting, and totally worth the effort.
Have you ever been referred to as a difficult woman?
Oh, definitely. And I have no problem with that label. If having a personality and having opinions makes me difficult, then yes, I am very difficult.
These stories were all published before. In compiling them, were there obsessions that became clear to you? I noted a lot of recurring motifs: twins; deer; knives; mold; water.
Most of these stories were written between 2008 and 2012, when I was going to graduate school in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which is deer country. A lot of these themes are just around what was going on in my life at the time. To look at the stories, I can definitely see: Oh, girl, what were you doing?
But I think that writers have obsessions. Often we write the same story over and over, in slightly different ways. It means you have found your voice.
Elements of these stories call to mind autobiographical details, which you’ve written about in essay form. Are you working things out in fiction before you tackle them in nonfiction? You’ve tweeted, for example, that your forthcoming memoir, Hunger, which is about your relationship to eating and your body, was particularly difficult to write. In this collection there’s a short story (“Best Features”) about a woman who is overweight and how she thinks about it.
I'm a fiction writer first. I wrote many of these stories well before I ever wrote an essay. I’m relatively new to nonfiction. So when I’m writing fiction, I’m not thinking about “issues” that I want to tackle. I have a story idea and I write it. It’s just about storytelling. I think because of my own personal interests you can see connections between my fiction and my nonfiction. I’m thinking about feminism, bodies, sexual violence, relationships, and the like. But I never have an agenda. When I’m writing nonfiction, of course I do.
Sexual violence, as you acknowledge, plays a role in many of these stories. It's also part of your novel, and something you’ve personally experienced and written about. Rape culture, the question of representation of violence against women, trigger warnings — it's such a major conversation now. Has your thinking on this evolved since you wrote these stories?
I have definitely just tried to be ethical in terms of writing about sexual violence. Trying not to make it gratuitous. I definitely struggle with the question of how to write about it in fiction. I wrote an essay about that.
I don’t have any firm conclusions. I do know that I try not to make it prurient. It has to be necessary to the story. The reality is that many women experience sexual violence. That shows up in my stories. It’s a necessary exploration. And clearly it’s something I can’t get away from. It’s definitely an obsession. I don’t stress about it anymore. I accept it. I just remember to write about it in ways that are effective and ethical and germane to the stories that I’m writing.
There are stories in here that felt eerily prescient. In "How," about an economically depressed northern Michigan community, there's the line: "It has been 15 years since the mine was closed, but Red still calls himself a miner." "Noble Things" is a portrait of a family in a future America where the Southern states have once again seceded from the Union. These stories were written long before our current political situation, but they read like responses.
I think that a lot of the issues we’re dealing with are cyclical. I wrote "How" while I was living in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. It used to be copper mining [country] there. When the copper dried up, the mining went away and the economy was devastated. So I was writing about the people that are left behind when an industry disappears. We saw that in Detroit with the automotive industry. We’re seeing that in the Rust Belt. We're seeing that in coal country. It’s prescient because those things come around over and over, and we don’t seem to learn.
"Noble Things" is the last story I wrote. I wrote it in 2013, after looking at an electoral map from 2012. The map made it seem like there was a significant rift in the country along the lines of states that were part of the Confederacy during the Civil War and states that were part of the Union.
There’s all this talk now about how we ignored the warning signs that Donald Trump would win and failed to take the temperature of the country. You live in a flyover state. You studied those electoral maps. Did you have any sense that Hillary Clinton might lose?
I had no idea. I really believed that Hillary Clinton was going to win. I just knew in my soul that this was her time; we had fought the good fight.
I was so wrong, which lets me know that wishful thinking is a very powerful thing. But I genuinely believed that the country was not as racist as it turns out it is. And I don’t know why I thought that. I live in rural Indiana where it’s extraordinarily racist.
There are more people who are progressive than not, but the electoral college is positioned in such a way that the power of progression is sometimes thwarted. So it was a wake-up call that we can't be comfortable. We can’t ever assume anything.
You're an associate professor at Purdue in West Lafayette, Indiana, and before that you taught at Eastern Illinois University. You’ve written about your desire to move to a bigger, more progressive city. Do you feel like that more urgently than ever, or do you feel any duty to stay put?
Absolutely not. I have lived in rural America for the past 12 years. I’m from Nebraska, but from a city, Omaha. I’ve done my time in the Midwest. I think the emotional sacrifice required of living in a place like Lafayette is too much. The only obligation I feel is to stay at Purdue, because there are so few black professors. I feel like black students need to see what is possible. They need to see we are capable of teaching. I’m going to stay at Purdue as long as I can, but I already have one foot out the door. I rented an apartment in Los Angeles in October. My partner lives there.
Speaking of the election: You launched your last project, your new comic, Black Panther: World of Wakanda (about two queer black women), on November 9. What was it like to have that project enter the world on that day?
It was strange. I actually had an event in my town. There are some great comic book stores in West Lafayette. I went to Von’s comic shop. I didn’t really want to do it. I wasn’t in the mood. But I couldn’t cancel with such little notice. So I went. It turned out to be great. There was a line all the way around the store, full of like-minded people who were very distraught over the election. We commiserated together. So it was a mixed day: professionally very exciting, but personally devastating.
You wrote in The New York Times just after the election that you needed time to consider where we go from here. It’s been about two months. Do you have any clarity on that?
I still don’t know. I really still am — and, of course, I have the luxury of this — but I'm still stunned. Like, how did this happen? What on earth? White people: What on earth?
I think there is a lot of symbolic action that's happening. I think that action is designed to help people feel better. And I get that. We need to feel better right now. But we also need to start being more realistic. We need to start thinking about the midterms and the 2020 elections. Because if Hillary Clinton cannot win the presidency, who on earth are we going to find to beat Donald Trump in 2020? We have to stop living in the fairy tale of: If we march, something is going to happen. It’s not. The march is a good idea because it allows people to be collective. But is that going to affect the 2020 election? No, it's not. We have to find good candidates.
What’s been your response as a writer? I know for myself, I wrote a lot about politics during the campaign; then, postelection, have really struggled to engage at the same level.
You know, I haven’t been able to really write anything about politics since the election. I’ve just been working on World of Wakanda. I wrote a screenplay for my novel. I’ve been focusing on fiction. I’ve not been ready to dive back in. I was so confident about Hillary Clinton, and I was so wrong. I have lost some confidence about prognosticating. What can I possibly say? We fucked up.
Something about the experience of being so confident and then so wrong felt humiliating, particularly because what we got wrong was in part the truth of how much of this country feels about women.
Definitely. Humiliating. Frustrating. How did I underestimate racism and misogyny this much? I’m not an optimist. I feel particularly chastised because I really should have known better.
Back to your book: Fairy tales seem to be a major influence. Now you’ve got this comic series. What draws you to these kinds of allegorical stories? Do they have particular resonance postelection?
I’ve always enjoyed fairy tales, both the real ones and the more sanitized versions we’ve come to know. They’re these morality tales about good and evil. I think it’s an interesting structure for storytelling.
I’m writing within that tradition. When you’re a younger writer, you work more with traditions. You walk before you run. That’s why I think fairy tales are a common motif in a lot of my earlier work. Back then I was very interested in good and evil and finding ways to tell those stories.
But it also feels timely now. After the election I heard stories of schools hiring grief counselors for all the freaked-out little kids, who saw Trump as a comic book villain. They weren’t wrong. It feels like we’re living in a world now where good and evil are that stark. Writing fairy tales and comic books: Maybe that is exactly the right way to channel what’s happening.
I do think Donald Trump is a comic book villain. I think he's exactly who we think he is, exactly that bad, and much worse.
I do think there are some people out there who are being really hysterical about what a Donald Trump presidency is going to hold. For most of us who have Internet access, and have plenty of free time to bullshit on Twitter all day, I don’t think our lives are going to change all that much. It’s the people who are vulnerable, who have always been vulnerable, who are made more vulnerable under Trump. He doesn’t care about people who have no money, no safety net, who have no health insurance. That’s villainy, I think. We have to frame it exactly as such. Because to not care about what happens to other people, it’s horrifying. It’s macabre.
Sometimes the best way to get that message across is through storytelling. We see these motifs in comic books all the time. So it does feel fitting that I’m working on a comic book right now.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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