The year of excellent reading: 2014. The books that piled on my bedside table were books of learning, books of strong women, books of illumination. It was my unintentional year of feminist reading, and the year I solidified my feminist identity. I read Tavi Gevinson’s Rookie Magazine, Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl, Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and finally, Roxane Gay’s essay collection Bad Feminist. Before 2014, I knew I was a feminist at the core, but as a girl who got married straight out of her teen years, I felt like I was doing feminism wrong. Bad Feminist taught me otherwise.
And Roxane Gay’s newest writing, Difficult Women, is the perfect twin – short stories that compliment and comment on the issues explored in Bad Feminist.
I usually find short story collections problematic. Too often I love one or two but am indifferent to the rest. It’s not often that each new story completely captivates me, and I often discard collections if the stories are repeatedly mundane or beige. I will close the book, and most likely never open it again. Whatever bookmark I was using – train ticket, napkin, receipt, to do list – will be lost forever.
But, each story in Difficult Women has a woman with a voice. The voices were quiet and soft on the page but spoke so loudly in my head. And their shouted echo resonated for days.
The collection opens with a tale of two sisters who were abducted and abused as children. Following the incident, the sisters are inseparable. Titled ‘I Will Follow You’, the story is a testament not only to the strength of children but also to the strength of sisterhood, Throughout the abuse, they were each other’s hope and strength.
Difficult Women then meanders through tales of women who hurt and women who are strong. Women who were abused and beaten, and women who are grieving. Married women, single women, in-between women. Mothers and the mother-less. It was about women who love, who hate, who talk or stay silent, women who eat, women who dance, women who educate themselves, women who cry themselves to sleep.
Some of the stories are so short. They’re vignettes or glimpses into the homes and lives of these women. While others are fleshed out, spanning pages, exploring the complex emotions of sex and race and loss and belonging.
I wanted this book to give me hope, to let me know that things are changing, that the world is becoming a better place for those who are set apart from men and males by the prefixes wo and fe.
Yes, each story had a glimpse of hope and redemption for its heroine, but as a collection, the stories did not give me hope. Because Difficult Women is a book about women who are difficult in response to a world that will silence them if they are not.
Did Gay call the collection Difficult Women because women are seen as difficult? Or did she do this to imply that women face difficulty every day? In history, women have been labelled as difficult if they deviated from the path of the patriarchy – Rosa Parks, The Suffragettes, Jane Austen, Kesha, Malala Yousafzai, Hillary Clinton. Being difficult is an insult, and a command to disappear. But being difficult is our main weapon, a difficult woman is one who should be celebrated. And this book is a testament to her.
Difficult Women made me think of the language of the world. Why is our sex defined so strongly by a male lexicon? Why are we defined by the prefixes wo and fe? Maybe it’s time for wo and fe to shed their second syllable – to find new ones to affix to, or even better, to stand alone, proud and independent.
The world will call us difficult. And we will smile in reply, saying: yes we sure are.