What Can We Steal From Roxane Gay’s “North Country”?

Title of Work and its Form: “North Country,” short story
Author: Roxane Gay (On Twitter: @rgay)
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story was first published in Issue 12 of Hobart, one of the best lit mags out there.  (Their web site is as awesome as their journal, too.)  Tom Perrotta subsequently selected the story for The Best American Stories 2012.

Bonuses:  Here are some bonus notes on the story that were posted by Hobart.  Cool: here’s a brief interview the Kenyon Review did with Ms. Gay.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Motif

Kate is an African-American woman teaching at a college in northern Michigan.  She feels as though she’s the only person of color around and feels lonely for this and a number of other reasons.  Then she meets Magnus, a logger who plays in a band.  Kate begins to open up, slowly but surely.  Not only to the world, but to Magnus.  We learn that Kate suffered from a stillbirth and found the man was cheating on her; how appropriate that Kate should write with such emotional reserve!  She’s working through big, sad issues.  The climax of the story occurs when Magnus overhears Kate tell her family that “he’s no one important.”  Magnus is extremely understanding; Kate is eventually able to open up, admitting she’s “not very nice.”  Magnus seems to disagree, and Kate finally shares her feelings about the stillbirth, indicating that she has reached some kind of emotional catharsis.

Sadly, Kate seems to be stuck in an emotional rut because of the several traumas she endured in her recent history.  How does Ms. Gay communicate Kate’s sense of sad passiveness and her confusion as to what is happening in her life?  By using a motif, of course.  Two of the story’s sections begin with the sentence, “In my lab things make sense.”  Kate is a scientist and clearly loves the black-and-white dichotomy that science presents.  Either something is true or it isn’t.  Unfortunately, human relationships are not that easy.  After Magnus has unwittingly helped Kate understand that she “feels nothing,” the ice has broken.  Ms. Gay begins a subsequent section thus:  “In my lab things make sense but they don’t.”  This is an acknowledgement that Kate is actually feeling something for Magnus, even though she doesn’t understand what is happening inside her.  The sections of the story that take place in the lab represent the fortress that Kate built around herself in the wake of her pain.  Science can be a lonely pursuit, but that’s what Kate wanted at that time in her life.

What does Ms. Gay gain by returning to the same sentence and the same image?  Doing so allows her to make her point about Kate’s psychology without being too explicit about it.  She is SHOWING you that Kate is sad, not telling you.  Motifs are one of the many kinds of patterns that rule our lives; there can be a lot of drama to mine when a person or a fictional character breaks out of that pattern, which is what Ms. Gay is doing.

Ms. Gay is also demonstrating advanced use of another literary device: imagery.  Look: I love science, but you have to admit that many laboratories are cold, sterile places.  (Many of them MUST be sterile, right?)  The chill and solitude of Kate’s lab reflects Kate at that point in her life.  She wants to be alone; she’s looking for some kind of order in her disordered life.  Ms. Gay subverts this image toward the end of the story.  Her hydrologist colleague “corners” Kate in her lab and makes an advance that makes her feel uncomfortable.  She calls Magnus.  Even though he’s “still angry” at her, he puts his feelings aside for the moment, accompanying her to the lab to get her things.  That’s right; the empty lab that Kate has been using to get away from men and everyone else is no longer empty.  Magnus has been allowed into her private space and indeed into her heart.

What Should We Steal?

  • Plant subtext through the use of motifs.  Simple repetition of a phrase can call attention to your intentions without forcing you to call TOO MUCH attention to them.
  • Subvert the imagery in your story to accomplish character development.  We’re attracted to things that are different.  Once you’ve established the way an element of your story operates or looks, you can play with the meaning of the image.