"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."
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.