Noise An Arts Blog

Q&A: Roxane Gay discusses her new book "Difficult Women," writing about love, and more

Even though Roxane Gay isn't from here, she sets her story, 'La Negra Blanca,' in Baltimore. The story follows Sarah, a meticulously gorgeous stripper who lives in the county (Towson, specifically), but works in the city—taking classes at Johns Hopkins and stripping to pay the bills. Sarah is bi-racial, although she looks white. She catches the eye of a wealthy white Guilford man who is obsessed with hip-hop culture.

Sarah's story is one of 21 in "Difficult Women," a collection of short stories by Gay, a writer and professor. The women in "Difficult Women" are all deliciously complex, and their relationships are just as multifaceted. In lots of other literature, "difficult," i.e. complicated, intelligent, thoughtful women are often rewarded with loneliness, as if they must use either their hearts or their heads but never both. Here, however, they mostly get the love they deserve, although not always in the ways you might expect.

Take Kate, a black woman ensconced in icy Michigan where she teaches structural engineering. In between enduring casual racism (everyone asks her if she's from Detroit) and overt sexism (her students and at least one co-worker hit on her without shame), she attracts the simple devotion of a white mountain man. Instead of falling in love back, however, she fights it and turns prickly.

Then there is the short essay from which the book takes its name. It's kind of a loose essay-poem that gives added depth to dismissive female archetypes: loose women, frigid women, crazy women, mothers, and dead girls.

In the section titled, 'Who a Loose Woman Looks Up To,' she writes "never her mother. She is trying to kill her mother, or, at least, those parts of her mother lurking beneath her skin. When she spreads her legs she hopes the distance between her and he mother will gape ever wider. She does this because she remembers too much; she has seen too much."

Gay knows how to write women. Her first novel, "An Untamed State," is the haunting story of a woman named Mireille who is kidnapped while visiting her wealthy family in Haiti. And Gay's book of essays, "Bad Feminist," picks apart stale feminist conventions, in the simple, graceful way that she can.

In 'Feel Me. See Me. Hear Me. Reach Me,' the first essay in "Bad Feminist," she writes about the struggle to be seen as black, accomplished, and good enough all at once. "I will keep writing about these intersections as a writer and a teacher, as a black woman, as a bad feminist, until I no longer feel like what I want is impossible. I no longer want to believe these problems are too complex for us to make sense of them."

Gay will be in Baltimore to promote "Difficult Women" this week. Ahead of her visit, she graciously agreed to answer a few questions by email.

City Paper: I want to start with 'La Negra Blanca,' because it's set in Baltimore. You were able to capture the way Baltimore (more than a lot of other cities) is a completely different place based on where you physically are in the city. You even understand the weird way that the county is a whole other place, although it's heavily connected to the city proper. How did you get that right? Why did you set the story here?

Roxane Gay: I set 'La Negra Blanca' in Baltimore because of the very specific geographies of the city you note in your question. This story was a re-imagining (of sorts) of Nella Larsen's incredible novel "Passing." In tackling the complexities of race, Baltimore seemed like an ideal backdrop for the story. In terms of getting the city right, I did research and read about the city and its nuances.

CP: One of the things that annoys me about the way romance/love is often depicted in books and movies is that it's usually in black-and-white terms—either magical and perfect or miserable and flawed. The love relationships in these stories all have a little bit of both—they're flawed but usually with bits of sweetness, too. What are you telling us about love? How did you learn what you know about love?

RG: In my stories I am trying to show love for the impossible, breathtaking, overwhelming, frustrating, magnetic force that it is. It is joyful to love someone but it's also a lot of other things that aren't always great because people are a mess and when you love a mess you also have to deal with a mess. I guess I learned this by just… living and reflecting on my relationships over the course of my life thus far.

CP: The first story in the book, 'I Will Follow You,' reminds me a lot of "An Untamed State," in that I felt like I was being dragged through something I didn't want to experience, something I'd be way more comfortable shutting my eyes to. Why do you do this to me?! How do you write through such hard, difficult stuff and stay sane and happy?

RG: I like to write dark stories that still offer some hope. I like for there to be something at stake in my fiction and clearly, I like to make the reader uncomfortable. Writing is one of my anti-depressants of choice so I guess that's how I write through such hard difficult experiences. I don't know that I am sane and happy.

CP: Why do you think readers need to meet the women in this book now?

RG: The women in "Difficult Women" are forces of nature and they are interesting and their stories are good.

CP: There aren't enough black voices with platforms to address the stuff that needs to be addressed. Since the presidential election, it seems like those opportunities are shrinking even more. You have a platform, but is it difficult being the voice for all of us? Does that take a toll on you?

RG: I do feel a lot of pressure at times but I recognize that I cannot be the voice for "all of us." That isn't possible. I just do my best to use my voice in ways that will bring attention to those issues I care about most.

Gay will be at Maryland State Library for the Blind & Physically Handicapped, 415 Park Ave. (UPDATE: The event has been moved to The Church of the Redeemer, 5603 N. Charles St.), on March 23. The event starts at 6:30 p.m.

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