Roxane Gay, “There Are Distances between Us”

Reader: Courtney Gibbons

The short essay “There Are Distances between Us” interrogates the meaning of distance in its various forms. Most interestingly, it considers whether representations of physical distances—such as maps and atlases—are substantive enough to describe emotional distances.

Gay manipulates the form of the essay in order to hold emotional presence, gathering all her words into a single paragraph. She makes decisive and well-measured choices about sentence length and form. Her longer sentences exemplify a sense of dragging and heavy-weighted emotions. Contrarily, the short sentences create a jarring contrast; juxtaposed with the longer ones, they emphasize the jutting emotions of each movement in the essay.

Gay uses poetic texture to engage readers in moments that repeat like a villanelle. The white canopy bed of her childhood bedroom and other images give the piece a tangible feeling and make it feel less transient. The gauzy canopy, “long, hot, terrible” summer, leather-bound atlas, and hot leather seats offer opportunities for readers to place themselves in the various scenes.

Gay sticks to literal descriptions for most of the essay. Metaphor is present explicitly only in the overall narrative about points on a map and the sexual assault (“boys who broke [her] right down the middle”). Gay’s work depends on realism in places that other writers might have used abstraction or symbolism to describe complicated emotions. She bravely confronts the scenery of these emotions, grieving over events that could have been described in a more elusive way, conveying a sense of mourning the past. Emotions like these can feel unintelligible because the loss is not of something or someone that can be touched or felt, yet Gay manages to make them concrete.

The texture of the essay works to ground it as it glides over ineffable emotions. The reader feels Gay’s own displacement as she drifts from one topic to another, all grounded in the theme of distance and space. The work is disconcerting, conveying a complex emotional landscape without letting the reader get lost.

The writing is not chronological, and this begs questions about the relevancy of quantitative measurements like distance and time in one’s personal history. I was particularly inspired by the underlying message, that quantifying things like physical distance is not enough to bring two people together—to make things tangible, or to close spatial or temporal or emotional distance. No surveyor can draw a plan for feelings of love.

I’m quite interested in the essay’s lyricism as well, its ability to evoke emotions in a transient way. This form, in my opinion, is absolutely necessary. The lyricism of the essay makes it apparent that conventions of society like time and space are more constructional than factual—because, of course, the laws of time in the West and most of the world were constructed in the Western consciousness, rather than being scientific fact.

Gay seems to be conscious of this construction and seems to challenge what society says matters. The essay ends with a brief but poignant depiction of her relationship with an unnamed character. This ending suggests that, yes, Gay has held maps and atlases, counted miles, yards, and inches, but that somehow these straightforward measurements of value are not enough. It may even suggest that our priorities in measurement are often misplaced.

This lyric essay, in its departure from methodical and linear narrative structure, makes powerful statements. Gay questions whether knowing “the science” of things is enough. She explores the relationship with her father, a civil engineer who believed that any distance could be traversed. Gay ruefully appreciates that mentality and the knowledge her father gave her. This perspective is quite empowering, as it neither lends itself to veneration of science nor invalidates the importance of being able to measure things, even on rest stop maps. Her father had faith that he could cross all distances plotted on a map, but can a woman who has been broken down the middle cross the canyon that divides her?

 Discussion Questions

  1.  How is the concept of gravity explored in language and structure?
  2. How does the title of the essay contribute to its development?
  3. How does the length of the essay impact the emotional “weight” of the writing?

On the Reader

Courtney Gibbons is a recent graduate from Michigan State University. She is a poet and Black Feminist. She’s a daughter in a long line of radical feminist women, whose feminism, though unnamed, existed in their fights for freedom, family, and faith. Ms. Gibbons is also unapologetically a Michigan Girl.