Difficult Women

Roxane Gay

Difficult Women is a collection of short stories by Roxane Gay that I recently read for the 2020 Reading Rush and I loved it.

Going into this book, I wasn’t sure what I was going to think of it because on the one hand I love Roxane Gay’s writing but on the other I haven’t read many short stories and was unsure how I would found it. This meant I was pleasantly surprised when I enjoyed it so much I finished it in a matter of days.

The brilliance of these short stories is completely down to Gay’s incredible ability to portray women from such varied backgrounds and experiences. Despite being only one person, Gay is somehow able to write about these different women in a beautiful and truly insightful way. These stories give us excerpts of women’s lives; how they live, how they are treated and how they feel. We are given stories of women who live lives of poverty and of privilege, in loving and loveless relationships, however Gay does place a focus on the abuse and violence women can face.

Not only does Gay write about varied examples of violence experienced by women but also how different women cope with violence, how they use it, and how it impacts their lives going foward even once when it is no longer an immediate threat to them. Some of the most interesting stories focus on women who choose to put themselves in harmful or violent situations because they cannot cope with the reality of their lives and believe that they deserve to be treated as though they are nothing.

Gay writes about the tragic experiences of women with both objectivity and compassion, creating women who may as well be living, breathing people that you cannot help but sympathise with. Reading this collection will only enhance your understanding of the complexity of what it means to be a women who faces abuse.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982

Cho Nam-Joo

I started and finished this book in a day, partly because I’m on lockdown with a lot of free time, but mostly because I couldn’t put it down. After being recommended this by my girlfriend, I was thrilled that I had the chance to read it.

The book follows the life of Kim Jiyoung from early childhood up until her early thirties, exploring what it is to be a woman in Korean society. The novel beautifully conveys how wearing daily life can be for women in South Korea through depicting the how relentlessly Jiyoung is put down and held back simply for being a woman. This relentless quality was, I believe, conveyed so effectively because the novel itself was only short. Where I felt the effect of this daily sexism and misogyny, I at no point felt bogged down by it, which I think could have happened had it been a longer book.

I loved the insight into how children were raised in South Korea during the 80’s and 90’s, how boys were, and to a large extent still are, favoured to the point of women aborting babies once they find out they were having a girl. This was also emphasised by the inclusion of various statistics regarding gender equality in South Korea.

I also particularly enjoyed the characterisation of Kim Jiyoung’s mother and how she walked the line of understanding what she had given up because she was a woman, and trying to avoid that happening to her daughters, and still playing favourites with her son. She frequently stands up for her daughters, ensuring they don’t have to give up the things she did and making sure they have more, but then still sacrifices for her son in small daily acts, such as giving up food for him, and never asks as much of him.

This brings me to one of the other aspects of the book which I loved, which was the role Jiyoung’s brother, the boy and youngest child of the family, plays, or rather lack of role he plays. The invisibility of him as a character really speaks to the aim of novel to highlight the lives of women in South Korean, where so often men are central to narratives. The son is barely mentioned by name, is only central to a scene once and is never the focal point of any aspect of story, instead being the background character who is normally considered first within the family but not to be considered in this book.

Finally, I have to mention the ending to this book, but will try to do so without giving too many spoilers. The final chapter of the book is from the perspective of the male medical professional treating Jiyoung and it perfectly sums up the issue men have when thinking about the difficulties women face. Even the men who take the time to understand how often women are held back in society, they almost always fall at the last hurdle, as is perfectly summed up in the final two sentences of the book.