By Kathleen Lacey
Each semester, in an early discussion about understanding gender as a social construction, I ask my introductory Women’s and Gender Studies students what traits or behaviors are stereotypically associated with women and girls.
Inevitably, a young woman (and it is always a woman) will speak about the expectation to “be nice,” to avoid being “rude” lest we hurt someone’s feelings, often at the expense of our own comfort or well-being. Should we assert the right to our own time or to bodily integrity, we are considered “difficult,” rather than, say, reasonable.
One of the things I admire about Roxane Gay is her refusal to acquiesce to such expectations. Her recent collection of short stories, Difficult Women, is a celebration of such women in all their terribleness, tragedy, and complexity. In an interview with Greta Johnsen at WBEZ Chicago, she also remarks about the writing process itself as difficult: “[D]irty realism is probably my wheel house…I never allow myself to be constrained by what I’m most comfortable in because I don’t know that that’s where my best writing happens.”
Of her novel, An Untamed State, she says, “The greatest challenge was writing about the darker parts of the story, particularly what Mireille experienced during her kidnapping and the aftermath. It was difficult to allow myself to ‘go there’ as a writer. I also spent a great deal of time considering how to approach writing sexual violence and trauma in ways that served the story without being exploitative or gratuitous.”
But gritty writing and subject matter are only part of the “accusation” of being a difficult woman. I am also impressed by the way Gay responds to those who waste her time, misinterpret her work, or expect her to regale them with stories about her pain as though she is a walking Lifetime movie. In an interview with Mensah Demary of Electric Literature, she is impatient with the idea that fiction is “thinly veiled autobiography.” “Those presumptions make for an impoverished reading experience,” she says. “I cannot imagine thinking so little of a writer’s capacity for imagination.”
She is often hounded on Twitter for daring to have an opinion. In response to her recent op-ed about the reboot of Roseanne, she figuratively flicks her wrist at “Ryan” (whose comment, curiously, is no longer available): “Sorry Ryan. My time is occupied by Bravo reality TV and I cannot accommodate your request. Good day.”
And while she often speaks about how humbled she is by women who write to her about the life-changing affect her writing has had on them, she has little patience for those who feel entitled to stories about Black bodies in pain.
In much of her work, Gay writes or speaks about how difficult it is to be selfish with her time; yet, her female characters and Gay herself bristle at the expectation that they be available, compliant, or nice. In her interview with Demary, for example, she is blunt about her distaste for readers’ lack of confidence. She does not hedge or try to make her response sound polite. In her response to Twitter Ryan, she is dismissive. Presumably, he has requested (or demanded, or ordered) her to do something. In each case, she defies expectations. She refuses the feminine script and dispenses with the niceties.
She is wonderfully, joyously, difficult.
I, too, aspire to “reclaim my time,” to honesty, to be “difficult.” After all, when we talk about “difficult women,” we’re really just talking about women who refuse to compromise their worth.
Roxane Gay will be speaking at 7pm on Saturday, April 21 at the KI Convention Center Ballroom. You can reserve tickets here.