DIFFICULT WOMEN by Roxane Gay Grove Press, 272 pp., $25.00
The stories in “Difficult Women” tackle the intimate realities of race and gender in America.
Reviewed BY RAFIA ZAKARIA
January 27, 2017
A little over two years ago, a grand jury announced they would not prosecute Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. I was in Ferguson the night of the verdict, and happened to speak to the white owner of a bike shop not far from the police headquarters where the crowds had congregated. “We had no idea our neighbors were so angry,” the man told me after I had used the restroom. I remembered his words later as the streets erupted, crowds pulsing with passion became riotous, and the air filled with fire and tear gas and sorrow.
Much has been written about the insularity of white America, particularly since then. Many analyses of the riven edges of American race relations have been astute and revelatory, exposing realities that have been for too long omitted from public debate. But the violence of exclusion is not limited to our public institutions: Racism, and reflexes learned in response to it, seep deep into our inner lives and shape our most intimate relationships. Manifestations of all of these very private American realities can be found in the pages of Difficult Women, Roxane Gay’s debut short story collection. The protagonists of her stories are not always black or brown, nor always women, but they are, all of them, complicit in the infliction or perpetration of intimate violence, racked by secret desires and seething rage. All of it deftly and terrifyingly underscores the absurdity of a society tacitly ordered by skin color and the privileges accrued by those who have ended up at the winning end, circled and watched by those who have not.
One of the most powerful stories in the collection, titled “La Negra Blanca,” features William Livingston III, a rich white man obsessed with black culture and black women. He satisfies this predilection by visiting strip clubs where he can pay Sierra—a biracial dancer who looks white but has inherited her black mother’s booty—to dance in his lap. Sierra, however, is not the origin of Livingston’s obsession; in a hidden closet he “keeps the urban clothing he sends his assistant to West Baltimore to purchase—Sean John jeans and Phat Farm hoodies and Timberland boots.” His understanding of what kids are wearing these days is dated, Gay notes, but it doesn’t keep Livingston from putting on his clothes and “posing in front of the full-length mirror and grabbing a handful of denim-clad crotch.” The scene is redolent with transgression, Livingston’s foray into blackness secret and forbidden. There is, of course, a family history of this obsession. In a moment of father-son bonding, William Livingston II and William Livingston III gather to ogle their black former housekeeper. Livingston the Elder dutifully reminds his son, however, that “you can look boy, but you cannot touch.”
There is, it turns out, no need for such caution. Livingston’s wife, a Connecticut transplant, is willfully ignorant as her husband sits in his study listening to gangster rap on his expensive headphones, surveilling via secret cameras the black housekeeper he has already sexually assaulted. This is not the limit of his violence. When Sierra, the white stripper with the black booty, rejects his advances, he follows her home and then brutally rapes her. When Alvarez, Sierra’s crush (whom she cannot understand because he speaks no English), returns and finds her violated, he wants to call the police. Sierra stops him: “occupational hazard,” she says. William Livingston III gets away with everything.
Just like Haven Monahan got away with everything.