The Work of Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay is one of my heroes. I first discovered her short fiction on a trip to Portland while I was browsing in Powell’s Books. Difficult Women was the first book I read and I was both entranced and awed by her writing. She did not become my hero until I saw her interviewed by Trevor Noah about the publication of her book Hunger. 

Today, I want to honor all of the books written by Roxane Gay. The title of this post definitely refers to the body of writing Roxane Gay has created, but it also refers to the emotional work that is required when reading either her fiction or nonfiction. I have also included a quote from Gay before each book description to give you an idea of her voice and her politics.

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Difficult Women

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…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.

Gay’s quote about Difficult Women captures the essence of this short story collection. The stories explore a range of different women’s experiences. There is loss, unthinkable abuse, and complicated relationships and marriages. Not only are the stories about a range of experiences, but the characters in each story stand out individually. There are two inseparable twin sisters, a grief stricken mother, a stripper, a wealthy suburban housewife, and an engineer. This beautifully written collection makes you look, even when you don’t want to, at the realities and experiences of a wide cross section of women.

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Ayiti

The waters did not run deep. It was just a border between two geographies of grief.

This compact collection was Gay’s writing debut and is comprised of what I would think of as short shorts. The stories explore a range of experiences about Haitians in their native Haiti and the diaspora experience. The subjects of the stories are varied and even though the collection is compact, it is powerful in its succinctness.

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Black Panther: World of Wakanda

I didn’t realize I would be the first Black woman writer at Marvel. It is overwhelming and also pretty frustrating because this is 2016 and there are many Black women and other Women of Color who are working in comics. I cannot think about the hype. I just cannot. It’s too much pressure. I’m focusing on what I’ve been asked to do, which is to tell the story of the Dora Milaje.

Gay co-wrote the first book in this series with Ta-Nehisi Coates and it takes place in the kingdom of Wakanda. It is a love story about two Midnight Angels, Ayo and Aneka. The two women have both been recruited to be a part of the Dora Milaje, a prestigious cadre of soldiers trained to defend the crown of Wakanda. The kingdom desperately needs their help and Ayo and Aneka must figure out how to balance the kingdom’s needs and the love they have for each other.

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An Untamed State

There are three Haitis—the country Americans know and the country Haitians know and the country I thought I knew.

An Untamed State is Roxane Gay’s debut novel and it tells the story of Mireille Duval Jameson, a successful attorney in Miami and the daughter of one of Haiti’s wealthiest men. Her life appears to be perfect until the day she is kidnapped by a violent group of men while vacationing in Port au Prince. Mireille assumes her father will quickly pay ransom, but instead he is resistant to this idea. Mireille endures unthinkable violence while being held captive. Her perfect life from the past is juxtaposed with her brutal existence in the present day and she struggles to get back to the person she once was.

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Bad Feminist

No matter what issues I have with feminism, I am a feminist. I cannot and will not deny the importance and absolute necessity of feminism.

This New York Times bestseller is a collection of essays spanning a wide range of topics that include politics and feminism. Gay writes about these subjects in relation to herself with humor and clarity.

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Hunger: A Memoir of my Body

This is what most girls are taught — that we should be slender and small. We should not take up space. We should be seen and not heard, and if we are seen, we should be pleasing to men, acceptable to society. And most women know this, that we are supposed to disappear, but it’s something that needs to be said, loudly, over and over again, so that we can resist surrendering to what is expected of us.

In Hunger, Gay shares the horrific sexual trauma she experienced at age twelve and how it changed the trajectory of her life and her relationship to her body. The courage it took to write this book is unimaginable. She gave and continues to give many female survivors of sexual abuse a gift, reminding them that they are not alone on their journey to recovery.

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Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture

We have spent countless hours focused on manners, education, the perils of drugs. We teach them about stranger-danger and making good choices. But recently I’ve become aware that we must speak to our children about boundaries between the sexes. And what it means to not be a danger to someone else. To that end, we are making an effort to teach our sons about affirmative consent. We explain that the onus is on them to explicitly ask if their partner consents. And we tell them that a shrug or a smile or a sigh won’t suffice. They have to hear yes.

This timely collection of first person essays was selected and compiled by Gay and includes an introduction that she wrote. The essays address many topics and personal experiences related to what it is like to live in a rape culture. The contributors to this collection include established writers, never before published writers, men and women, and queer and transgender individuals.

Under the Radar: Short Fiction 2017

Short fiction has been on my mind a lot this year, both reading it and writing it. Many years ago, my minor as an undergraduate at the University of Washington was creative writing. Over the years, the time I have dedicated to this art has dwindled. This year I decided to reconnect with writing and take a short fiction workshop at the Hugo House in Seattle. It was an inspiring class and I had the opportunity to complete writing exercises, readings and a new piece of short fiction. I was reminded of why I enjoy short stories so much: the accessibility; the compactness that often contains something so profound; and the ability to finish reading something from start to finish in one sitting.

2017 brought us many powerful collections of short fiction and some common themes. Many of these collections are by women; some collections are Gothic and macabre, teetering on horror; some are strictly realistic and one or two will make you smile, if not laugh. So in no particular order, I present you with some of the most excellent short fiction collections of 2017 along with some of my own ramblings.

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Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen Maria Machado’s stories start off based in realities most women are familiar with: a marriage, a shopping mall, an inventory of what appears to be past relationships. Machado deftly twists these realities and suddenly you are in a world that you might only dream of and often these dreams turn into nightmares. The stories feature a variety of women: one with a permanent green ribbon tied around her neck and the husband who wants to untie it, women suffering from a disease in which they slowly fade away, and one woman who watches those around her die of a terrible plague.

Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides

One of my all time favorite novels is Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, so I was excited to learn of his most recent collection of short stories. The first story in his collection is called Complainers and spans the life of a friendship between two women, Della and Carol. The story is a commentary on the lives of Della and Carol and the emotional neglect that has been shown by their husbands and sons. Eugenides has an astute vision of the human psyche and human nature.

The Veneration of Monsters by Suzanne Burns

Suzanne Burns creates incredible atmosphere in her stories about our modern day lives, but they are not stark depictions of everyday reality. Instead, there is a lovelorn vampire, a man who is a mere figment of a woman’s imagination, and a woman who is so consumed with attracting a vicious predator that she becomes one.  The stories definitely have a Gothic edge to them, but there is humor too.

Funny Girl edited by Betsy Bird

If you need to laugh out loud, then pick up this book and read it or better yet, read it out loud to a kid. This is a children’s collection of hilarious stories written by various children’s authors including some of my favorites: Cece Bell, Raina Telgemeier, Rita Williams-Garcia and Shannon Hale. My eight year old daughter devoured it and she said I must write about the story Over and Out by Lisa Graff. The story is about a younger sister and an older sister, an older sister who has hit her teen years. The story involves walkie talkies, a pink bra (that belongs to the teenager) that falls in the toilet (while the younger sister is going to the bathroom) and the arduous task of cleaning a now soiled pink bra.

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Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay is well known for her collection of essays, Bad Feminist and her memoir, Hunger. If you have enjoyed either of these books, then I highly recommend reading her short fiction as well. Each exquisite story in this collection features a diverse cross-section of strong women who have endured all that life has brought to them. Some have experienced unimaginable childhood trauma, others have lost children, and some are in terrible marriages while others are in loving relationships.

Because You Love to Hate Me: 13 Tales of Villainy, edited by Ameriie

This Young Adult collection is comprised of 13 different fairy tales and myths, mostly told from the villains point of view. The stories are written by a talented cast of Young Adult authors that include Nicola Yoon, Marissa Meyer and Adam Silvera. The interesting part of this collection is that each story is paired with a booktuber’s (passionate readers who upload videos of themselves to Youtube discussing books) commentary.

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout is well known for her novels that include Olive Kitteridge and My Name is Lucy Barton. She writes masterfully about family dynamics and the constant struggle of finding out who we are. My favorite story in the collection is called Sister. It chronicles the return of the adult Lucy Barton (from My Name is Lucy Barton) to the home where she grew up. She has not seen her brother and sister for seventeen years and the pain that exists between them is palpable. As difficult as many of these stories are, there is warmth and some hope at the end of each one.

Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez

This collection of short stories is Mariana Enriquez’s English-language debut. Each story takes place in Argentina and is a commentary on both Argentina’s past and present. There is nothing light about the stories and sometimes the darkness verges on horror. The subjects range from three girlfriends who revel in self-destruction and another is about women who start setting themselves on fire in protest of the pervasive misogyny and abuse inflicted by men.