News and culture through the lens of Southern California.
Hosted by A Martínez
Airs Weekdays 2 to 3 p.m.

Roxane Gay explores the complicated lives of 'difficult' women




File: (L-R) The New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore, writer Roxane Gay, and professor of history at Northwestern University Geraldo Cadava speak onstage at The Hillary Question during The New Yorker Festival 2015 at SVA Theater on Oct. 4, 2015 in New York City.
File: (L-R) The New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore, writer Roxane Gay, and professor of history at Northwestern University Geraldo Cadava speak onstage at The Hillary Question during The New Yorker Festival 2015 at SVA Theater on Oct. 4, 2015 in New York City.
Thos Robinson/Getty Images for The New Yorker

Listen to story

09:27
Download this story 13MB

It's been said that the best short stories are the ones that leave you hankering for more.

Compact little anecdotes become lengthy novels of their own in Roxane Gay's new book, "Difficult Women."

These short stories have appeared in various publications over the years. Bought together, they create a beautiful panoply of female characters:

The woman married to a twin, who knows full well that he and his identical brother often swap places. The best friends who take part in an underground battle — an estrogen-fueled version of Fight Club. The black engineer working at a university in Michigan's Upper Peninsula where she is always asked: "Are you from Detroit?" 

She is not.

These women and many more spring from the mind of writer Roxanne Gay, who sat down recently with Alex Cohen. 

In an interview with Alex Cohen, Gay began by reading an excerpt from her story titled, "What a Crazy Woman Thinks About While Walking Down the Street."

She tries to walk not too fast and not too slow. She doesn't want to attract any attention. She pretends she doesn't hear the whistles and catcalls and lewd comments. Sometimes she forgets and leaves her house in a skirt or a tank top because it's a warm day and she wants to feel warm air on her bare skin. Before long, she remembers. She keeps her keys in her hand, three of them held between her fingers, like a dull claw. She makes eye contact only when necessary, and if a man should catch her eye, she juts her chin forward, makes sure the line of her jaw is strong. When she leaves work or the bar late, she calls a car service and when the car pulls up to her building, she quickly scans the street to make sure it's safe to walk the short distance from the curb to the door. She once told a boyfriend about these considerations, and he said, "You are completely out of your mind." she told a new friend at work, and she said, "Honey, you're not crazy. You're a woman."

Alex Cohen: There is such an economy to your writing. There were moments when I would read something and just go "ugh," because it was so simple and yet so powerful. How do you do that? 

I think about necessity. I always want to make sure that I am using only the language that's necessary to get my point across — which is not to say that I don't enjoy rich description or ornate language. I find that sometimes you really do need to be sparing in order to allow what you're saying to really be heard and to really resonate. 

One of my favorite stories in this collection is one titled "North Country." It's about a woman, an engineer, called Kate. She's African-American, and she lands a job at Michigan Institute of Technology, where everyone keeps asking her if she's from Detroit. Kate is — in fact — from Florida, not Detroit. Is there some personal experience that went into this story? 

Certainly. North Country is fiction but that was a story I wrote when I was living in Michigan's Upper Peninsula as a black woman at a university that was predominantly focused on engineering and the sciences. I had been living there for about two years and I was learning to love the place, then I met someone who showed me some of the more interesting parts of the UP. And so, that story was, in many ways, a love letter to the Upper Peninsula, and a story about being a black woman in North Country because that was an unforgettable experience.

But again, there's the economy of writing. We hear Kate talking about the number of times she's been asked 'are you from Detroit,' but there's no explanation. Can you fill in between the lines here for us? What is it about that question?

There's definitely some culture context required for that question. When you're black in Michigan, people generally assume you're from Detroit, as if that's the only place where black people in Michigan come from. I was asked that question so often while I was living up north that it just became hilarious. So I wanted to make reference to that.

Sometimes you want to leave little Easter eggs for people who have shared similar experiences, so I didn't feel the need to explain that. People of color who live in specific places know what I mean. 

Press the blue play button above to hear more about Roxane Gay's inspiration for her new book, "Difficult Women."