October 2011

Roxane Gay

features

We Must All Be So Strong

Most of the stories we admire most are, in some way, about strength -- the strength to persevere, the strength to surrender, the strength to make difficult choices, the strength to stay, the strength to leave, the strength to change, the strength to stay the same. We are, as a culture, enamored with this idea of strength and how strength is embodied.

I recently read two wildly different books -- Shann Ray’s American Masculine and Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke, both which deal, either explicitly or implicitly, with strength within the context of gender. The former is a short story collection about the American West and the latter a dystopian novel about a near future where the rights of women -- the rights of all mankind, for that matter -- have been severely restricted and criminals are punished through chroming, a procedure where they are injected with a virus that changes their skin color. However different these books may be, they do have an interesting similarity -- both are deeply gendered and concerned, respectively, with the burdens of men and women.

American Masculine may well have the butchest title of any book released this year. Every time I look at the cover, emblazoned with stars and stripes and two buffalo locking horns, I want to gnaw on some beef jerky or spit into some dust while wearing a cowboy hat and spurs. The message may not be subtle but it is certainly received -- "if you mess with bulls, you’re going to get the horns."

I am fascinated by men -- their minds, their bodies, the thickness of their knuckles, the strange places where they grow hair and in such quantities, the coarseness of their voices, the softness of their voices, the strength of their hearts, the weakness of their hearts. I am particularly fascinated by how men are portrayed in fiction because it is so easy for writers to caricature men, turning masculinity into hypermasculinity or satisfying every stereotype about men and how they move in the world. I am always looking to writing for more nuanced approaches to manhood so I was eager to see how masculinity would be treated in a book where, at least based upon the title, masculinity was a significant theme.

The men in American Masculine are big and brawny and deeply flawed but at their core, most of the men Ray writes are strong. Strength and masculinity are often considered synonymous. We expect men to be strong and when they reveal their weaknesses, they are lesser for it. The relationship between strength and masculinity is not new. In Modern Men: Mapping Masculinity in English and German Literature, 1880-1939, Michael Kane writes, “As men increasingly worked in situations where the physical strength of their bodies was no longer required, while the dominant model of masculinity continued to be based on an image of physical strength and force, it was perhaps inevitable that men would view the war as an opportunity to demonstrate their virility in traditional terms…” I thought about what Kane’s book and what he had to say about men turning to war to validate their virility as I read each of the stories in American Masculine, because the men in these stories are fighting their own personal albeit quiet wars with themselves, with their families, with the women they loved, trying to prove their strength, to reaffirm their masculinity. In “The Great Divide” a boy realizes what he faces in the wake of his father’s death. “Already inside the boy a will is growing, he feels it, abstruse, sullen, a chimera of two persons, the man of violence at odds with the angel of peace. Find the good, the boy thinks.” This battle between violence and peace, between strength and weakness, is a dominant theme in many of Ray’s stories.

I did not love American Masculine. Though the writing was often gorgeous and exceptionally crafted, the stories did not resonate as much as I expected. They did not reach beyond themselves although, certainly, I was impressed with Ray’s willingness to experiment with language and form. At times, the stories tried too hard to evoke a sense of quietude and masculine strength and I found those attempts exhausting. Many of the stories featured similar landscapes, the same tense, tightly drawn emotional quality, similar pacing, similar themes. There was more focus on form than function and the stories blurred into one rather stark portrait of the American West as a place where men are stoic (strong) and pensive (strong) and conflicted (strong) and fighting battles with themselves, with their pasts, and with their presents (strong). These men are at war in American Masculine but the war is winning.

It is not surprising that the Western landscape figured heavily in many of the stories with sweeping descriptions of place, such as in “Three From Montana,” where, “A thick layer of cloud surrounds the peak up high to their right, rounded, massive shoulder, forested at the base beneath the cloud cover, treeless and rocky at the top where it breaks free crowned in dawn’s light,” and “Out from there the sweet of the valley, the four directions, the compass rose, and far to the south a landmass like the broad back of a giant sleeper.” In Ray’s stories, even the land is as strong and imposing as the men, holding these strong men characters to the ground, holding them close.

I got the sense that Ray was trying to work through this idea of masculinity and strength in the ten stories in this collection. The men in American Masculine are deeply aware of how they must be strong, of how short they fall in the pursuit of strength. In “Rodin’s The Hand of God” a somewhat estranged father is trying to do right by his adult daughter who has lost her children in a terrible accident. He recalls the funeral. “Closed caskets. A mistake. He had been unable to compose himself. If he’d seen their faces he would’ve been strong, for her and everyone. He would have held her hand, and stood tall, looked straight ahead. Instead he found himself bent over, his hand cupped to her shoulder, his forehead on her neck, his weakness a thing he did not foresee, and another shame to him. He had wanted to be stoic…” Despite the father’s intimate awareness of his weakness, or what he perceives as weakness, he perseveres for his daughter. He is a good (strong) man and through that strength he is redeemed for the sins he committed as a father.

Redemption as a marker of masculine strength is another theme in several stories. In “In the Half-Light,” a father tries to reconcile with his estranged son. The father lays himself bare, acknowledges his sins and how he did his boy and wife wrong. He is eventually rewarded with his son’s forgiveness. Both the father and son’s strength are validated by a cessation of hostilities. Benjamin Killsnight follows a similar path of redemption with his estranged wife in “How We Fall,” where both he and his wife have to overcome drinking problems to find their way back to each other. Killsnight had to face himself and how he had done wrong. “He thought of his eyes on alcohol, gray coals in a brick-like face, a vicious mouth that lifted flesh from bone like a man field-dressed a deer. He’d eyed her often with ugliness and misdirection, his lips pursed, his look piercing and cruel -- and now on the other side of the divide his only hope despite how he’d been back then was to be different.” It is only when he faced himself down that he was able to reconcile with his wife who faced herself down too, though we do not see as much of her redemption.

I admit I was very preoccupied with this collection’s title because it is a strong title. It is an evocative title that certainly sets a certain tone, a certain expectation. That expectation was, in some ways, satisfied. The stories in American Masculine are, indeed, very American and very masculine. At the same time, these stories did not challenge conceptions of masculinity or the relationship between strength and masculinity. In many ways, these stories were simply prettier caricatures of masculinity but caricatures nonetheless. We do not learn enough from the wars these men fight. We are left with the impression that too many wars are fought in vain.

When She Woke, is one of those books I did not want to put down. I read the book in one sitting because the story was so desperate and dark and engrossing. Modern retellings of classic literature are challenging because we revere the classics and imbue them with sanctity. For a writer to dare to offer her own interpretation of a canonical work requires a certain kind of courage, a certain kind of strength. While When She Woke is not a perfect book, Hillary Jordan does very well by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, keeping her story very true to Hawthorne’s notion that women must often bear the burden (strength) for the sins of men.

As the novel opens, Hannah Payne is adjusting to a new circumstance, her skin dyed red, as she held prisoner in a cell where she has no privacy, where her every action is broadcast to the prison guards and the public. She has been sentenced to thirty days in prison and then sixteen years of remaining a Red because in this retelling, the proverbial scarlet letter must be worn in the flesh. She is trying to endure her fate with dignity (strength). As the novel unfolds, we learn Hannah is, or was, a deeply religious woman from a good family, the kind of family where the man is the head of the household and the women defer to his will. Of her parents’ marriage, Hannah tells us, “Their parents had a traditional marriage, following the Epistles: a woman looked to her husband as the church looked to God. John Payne was the unquestioned authority of the family and their spiritual shepherd.” Hannah, of course, tries to be a good daughter but she is rebellious. “Hannah tried to be like her sister, but the more she suppressed her true nature, the stronger it burst forth when her resolve weakened, as it inevitably did.” As she grows up, Hannah wants to understand why the rules are different for girls, why strength, for women, must be carried invisibly, silently.

Everything changes when Hannah’s father is injured during a suicide bombing, and she meets Reverend Aidan Dale, then the pastor of the megachurch she attended with her family and, at the outset of the novel, the secretary of faith under the American president. Reverend Dale is married and both he and his wife Alyssa are described as epitomes of faith and grace. A great deal of Hannah’s torment is harboring lustful feelings for a married man, harboring lustful feelings for a man at all. Because When She Woke is a retelling, we know how this story ends. Aidan and Hannah give in to their feelings and though their love is tortured, it is also true. She gets pregnant and has an abortion which is illegal because there is a population crisis after an epidemic rendered many people sterile. Hannah is arrested and the courts demand she name the father of her unborn child so he can share the responsibility of her sin. When Hannah refuses (strength), she is shown no leniency. Aidan Dale does not step forward. After she is released from prison, she has to face a world where Chromes are the scourge of society, never safe, often hunted by a vigilante group, The Hand. The novel then becomes about how Hannah endures (strength) and overcomes her trials (strength) and eventually escapes (strength).

When She Woke is a compelling read for many reasons. The story is a well-paced literary thriller, very engaging. The main characters are well developed and the plot is tightly drawn and disturbing. The ending is surprising. There is a happily ever after, but not the one you might expect. Certainly When She Woke is not a perfect novel. The prose can be florid. The novel may suffers from too many plot twists. Toward the end, Hannah is on the run via what is, for all intents and purposes, an underground railroad for women who have been Chromed. She is with one of the leaders of the resistance, Simone, in a motel. They have a brief, mildly torrid assignation. While that was certainly fun to read, it felt a bit excessive, as if the writer thought, “Let me add one more juicy bit.” At the same time, I understood the narrative strategy Jordan employed, using the lesbian affair to demonstrate just how much Hannah had changed from the woman she once was.

What made me love this novel and what is equally troubling, is the believability of the novel’s premise -- the idea that women will be condemned for making choices about their bodies, that in a dystopian future, the separation between church and state will be completely eroded. For the past several years, it has felt like women are under attack as states challenge abortion laws and women’s reproductive rights, as Congress tries to redefine rape by introducing into our vernacular the term forcible rape, as a Georgia politician lobbies to investigate miscarriages, as members of the extreme right try to make their interpretation of God’s law, the law of the land.  Just as in When She Woke, women’s bodies remain within the purview of legislative inquiry. Time and again, we are reminded that women’s bodies require a different set of rules, that when you are a woman, your body is subject to all manner of interrogation; strength is rigidly constrained under such circumstances.

When She Woke also offers interesting perspectives on strength and femininity and masculinity. The men are not as strong as they believe themselves to be while women are not as weak as they believe themselves to be. At the end of the novel, Hannah and Aidan meet at his cabin, and while walking through her lover’s house she feels, “a sense of power, primitive and deeply satisfying,” while she looks upon her sleeping lover whose “fragility made him more so [beautiful], lending him the potent allure of the ephemeral…” When he wakes, Hannah divulges to Aidan the terrible things she has endured and he realizes she has changed and is not the same woman he fell in love with. There is sadness when he says, “You’re so strong, so certain,” and this only amplifies what we’ve seen all along -- his fundamental weakness and Hannah’s fundamental strength.  

After I read When She Woke, I considered the nature of Hannah’s strength. As a woman she had been violated, degraded, and punished for committing a very gendered “sin” and still she persevered. Still, she was strong. This is often how strength is coded for women in literature. For a woman, to be strong is to endure and oftentimes that strength is forged through violence, subjugation, or oppression as if a woman cannot be strong unless first she suffers. In an essay for New York Times Magazine, Carina Chocano wrote about her disdain for the “strong female character”:

Of course, I get the point of characters like these. They do serve as a kind of gateway drug to slightly more realistic -- or at least representational -- representations of women. On the other hand, they also reinforce the unspoken idea that in order for a female character to be worth identifying with, she should really try to rein in the gross girly stuff. This implies that unless a female character is “strong,” she is not interesting or worth identifying with. 

Chocano makes an excellent point. This cult of the strong female character pervades both literature and popular culture. Every woman has to be Rosie the Riveter, flexing her arm muscles defiantly, reminding the world, “We Can Do it!” We can be strong like men. We can be strong despite the fact that we are women. We certainly cannot be weak. When She Woke is so intriguing because the novel revels in this trope of the strong female character but also challenges the trope in that Hannah Payne’s behaviors and motivations are deeply gendered. The “gross girly stuff” and how Hannah overcomes the burden of “gross girly stuff” to be free are very much the point of the novel. Time and again, Hannah reveals her flaws, weakness and insecurities but instead of making her seem weak, this self-awareness only shows us how truly strong she is. Hannah Payne is a strong female character who does not have to act like a man to be a strong woman, and who does not need to embody those characteristics we traditionally associate with strength.

Throughout When She Woke, Hannah is forced to redefine her faith over and over as she is betrayed by her body, the man she loves, her family, her country. The boundaries of her world are ever changing as she tries to find her way to freedom. During one such shift in her world, Hannah is about to enter a halfway house for women like her, fallen and shamed, marked as criminals. She is with her father who has taken her and when she asks if he is going to escort her into the facility, he tells her, “I can’t. You have to enter alone, of your own free will, bringing nothing but yourself.” Even when she is being helped, Hannah learns that strength is a solitary pursuit, one hard fought. At the end of the novel, when she has abandoned everything from her former life, Hannah finally understands why, in her new life, she has always had to walk alone. “It felt right and necessary, this letting go, this total surrender. She had never in her life been this vulnerable, or felt this powerful.”

The men in American Masculine must also face uncertain futures alone, whether they are trying to find their way back to estranged wives or to reconcile with estranged fathers or daughters or to do right by an unborn child after a life of doing wrong. Their struggles are different though in that each of the men in American Masculine are trying to find the strength to make their way back to something they know or someone they love while Hannah Payne tries to find the strength to leave everything and everyone she loves behind. It is an interesting contrast, that in one book, strength is makes it possible for a man to stay connected while in the other, strength makes it possible for a woman to be completely unencumbered by attachment.

It is unfortunate that all too often we see men and women as fundamentally different and unknowable to one another. As I’ve thought about these two books, I have realized they are not as different as they seem much in the same way that men and women are, perhaps, not as different as we tend to believe. The men in American Masculine are strong. They are men who survive violence and battle personal demons in wars they fight with themselves, personal wars that reaffirm their masculinity. The women in When She Woke are strong. They are strong despite surviving violence, despite losing public wars against their bodies, but because they are women. Both books feature stories that grapple with the nature of strength in both men and women and that position gender and the burdens of gender at each story’s emotional core. It is primarily the nature of that strength that differs. The Bible (Corinthians) tells us strength is made perfect in weakness. In both American Masculine and When She Woke, men and women strive to understand the measure and perfection of their strength but in When She Woke one woman demonstrates how weakness and humanity can serve to increase that measure and perfection.