Roxane Gay On Good Men, Bad Men And 'Difficult Women' | KUOW News and Information

Roxane Gay On Good Men, Bad Men And 'Difficult Women'

Jan 5, 2017
Originally published on January 4, 2017 2:26 pm

"Difficult woman" is a loaded term, but writer Roxane Gay isn't afraid of taking on ideas with baggage. (A few years ago, she wrote a book of essays called Bad Feminist.) Her new short story collection, Difficult Women, explores women's lives and issues of race, class and sex.

The book opens with "I Will Follow You," an intense story about a pair of sisters whose closeness is the result of a sexual assault when they were girls. Gay tells NPR's Audie Cornish that it's both dark and hopeful at the same time.

"Despite the trauma that these two girls endure, they remain very close and they have an unbreakable bond," she says. "And I was really interested in that unbreakable bond and in how they will follow each other no matter what, no matter where, because they've already been to the worst possible place. And so that felt like a really great way to introduce readers to my stories of women who go to impossible places but are fighting to find their way back."


Interview Highlights

On "North Country," a story about a woman engineer in Michigan's Upper Peninsula

She's an engineer, which is a male-dominated field, and so she and women who are in that field are often grappling with being a professional and acting professionally and having the men around them see them as a personal conquest and as dating fodder, rather than a colleague with whom they can be professional. ... I love exploring that sort of danger of who do you trust, who do you turn to when you never know who's a predator and who is promising?

On the book's messed up fathers and abusive boyfriends

It could absolutely be called Difficult Men. The men in these stories are oftentimes not great men. My dad is always like, "What did I do?" And I'm like, "Nothing!" He's — my dad's amazing. And so, you know, I think it's because I have an amazing father and amazing brothers — it's knowing how many good men are out there that allows me to explore the men who are difficult, who make horrible decisions. ... I do try to put good men into my stories, but there are more bad men than good. And I guess that's just an obsession of mine.

On writing stories that show women helping each other

I really love my friendships with other women, and I have found so much solace and joy and debauchery with other women. And so I definitely wanted to put that into the book, that — for me at least, the way I see the world — that women are very good to other women most of the time.

And now I know there are so many popular narratives and many people have had bad experiences with other women, like competitiveness and so on and whatever; but I also think that women, when it's necessary, can come together and will come together and support each other. Because I think we know things about what it's like to be a woman in the world and that common bond really is a strength.

On Hunger, the memoir she's writing about her relationship with food

Oftentimes when women write memoirs about weight loss, it's about triumph and it starts at the end of the journey. Look at all this weight I've lost. And so I was interested in writing a book about wanting to lose weight and working on it but not being anywhere near the end of that weight loss journey. What is it like to actually live in an overweight body and deal with the world that is not at all hospitable to such bodies? And so I go way more in depth in terms of physical realities in Hunger.

On why Hunger has been so difficult to write

Because it's terrifying, because I'm going to feel very exposed, because by nature I'm actually a really private person, to really be honest, and to sort of expose some of my innermost realities and fears and wants is terrifying. But at the same time it feels necessary because I just think that so many of us walk around pretending that we have it all together and that's not necessarily the case. And so I do feel like this book is necessary. I feel like the fear lets me know that I'm on to something.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A difficult woman - that's a loaded term. But Roxane Gay is not afraid of taking on ideas with baggage. A few years ago, she wrote a book of essays called "Bad Feminist." And with the new book "Difficult Women," she's written a collection of fiction, short stories exploring women's lives and issues of race, class and sex. She's here to talk more about it.

Roxanne Gay, welcome to the program.

ROXANE GAY: Thank you for having me again, Audie.

CORNISH: The opening story of this book is very intense.

GAY: Yes.

CORNISH: Not to make it a big spoiler alert, but it involves sexual assault and a pair of sisters, two young women who are very, very close as a result. And I remember thinking - first of all, I just put down the book (laughter) immediately after reading it. I was like, OK, maybe not my Christmas reading. But it did make me feel like...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Maybe not the right choice. But it made me wonder about that as a choice that you made as an author to say right out of the gate - OK, folks - this is the world we're going to be in.

GAY: Yes. You know, it was difficult when I was thinking about which story to put first. And - so it is this dark story, but it's also, I think, a hopeful story in that despite this trauma that these two girls endure. They remain very close, and they have an unbreakable bond. And I was really interested in that unbreakable bond and in how they will follow each other no matter what, no matter where because they've already been to the worst possible place. And so that felt like a really great way to introduce readers to my stories of women who go to impossible places but are fighting to find their way back.

CORNISH: Throughout these stories, there are a lot of messed up fathers...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...A lot of boyfriends who were bad in varying degrees...

GAY: Yes.

CORNISH: ...And a lot of abuse. And I definitely had - the thought occurred to me that it should be called "Difficult Men."

GAY: It could absolutely be called "Difficult Men." The men in these stories are oftentimes not great men. My dad is always like - what did I do?

(LAUGHTER)

GAY: I'm like, nothing - you're - he's - my dad's amazing. And so...

CORNISH: Yeah.

GAY: ...You know, I think it's because I have an amazing father - and amazing brothers - it's knowing how many good men are out there that allows me to explore the men who are difficult, who make horrible decision, yeah.

CORNISH: That's really interesting 'cause for me, I definitely was like - I don't know any men like this. Like, I like my husband a lot. He seems kind of nice.

GAY: Yeah, absolutely.

CORNISH: And it did make me wonder if you knew any nice man.

GAY: I know many. You know, I do try to put good men into my stories. But there are more bad men than good. And I guess that's just an obsession of mine. But it is fiction, and so I take liberties.

CORNISH: You've also been working on a book called "Hunger," which I understand is a memoir that deals with your relationship with food.

GAY: Yes.

CORNISH: And in "Difficult Women," there are also a lot of descriptions of people's bodies and their weight and physically - like, how they physically move in the world. Are you kind of working this out in both places (laughter)? Are you trying out the ideas in both places?

GAY: Yes and no. I write about bodies because we live in bodies. We can't escape them. And so I don't want to write fiction that ignores physical reality and that there are different kinds of bodies in the world. And "Hunger" is, in many ways, the same thing. I was interested in writing a book about wanting to lose weight and working on it but not being anywhere near the end of that weight-loss journey. What is it like to actually live in an overweight body and deal with the world that is not at all hospitable to such bodies? And so I go way more in-depth in terms of physical realities in "Hunger."

CORNISH: Yeah. In "Difficult Women," there are moments where people are described as, like, the flat of her stomach (unintelligible) didn't and their diets - that that also is kind of hanging over everything, the presence of understanding how the world sees you.

GAY: Absolutely. It strikes me that most of my friends are dieting constantly. And it's exhausting, especially, like, as we get older. And it's like oh, my God. Like, when do we stop dieting? My mom's on a diet.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

GAY: And I'm really interested in that. And so I - that's also coming out in some of the stories, like that we're always on some sort of deprivation module. And that's exhausting.

CORNISH: Finally, with "Difficult Women," I will say that there are many, many stories where women are helping each other...

GAY: Yes.

CORNISH: ...Where they have very close friends, loving relationships that get them through all of these things that they're experiencing. And now, that was nice to read (laughter).

GAY: Yeah. I really love my friendships with other women. And I have found so much solace and joy and debauchery with other women (laughter). And so I definitely wanted to put that into the book - that, for me at least, the way I see the world is that women are very good to other women most of the time. And now I know there are so many popular narratives. And many people have had bad experiences with other women, like competitiveness and so on and whatever. But I also think that women, when it's necessary, can come together and will come together and support each other - because I think we know things about what it's like to be a woman in the world and that that common bond really is a strength.

CORNISH: Well, Roxane Gay, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GAY: Thank you for having me again.

CORNISH: Roxane Gay - her new collection of short stories is called "Difficult Women."

(SOUNDBITE OF COLD CAVE SONG, "LOVE COMES CLOSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.