Roxane Gay: ‘Public discourse rarely allows for nuance. And see where that’s gotten us’


“The writer whose radical honesty has won fans across the globe talks about writing as a cry for help, using books to fight racism, and why she rejects ‘identity politics.’” Aida Edemariam speaks to Haitian-American author Roxane Gay (An Untamed State, Hunger, Bad Feminist, Ayiti, Difficult Women). Read full review in The Guardian. [Many thanks to M. S. Worrell for bringing this item to our attention.]

There is a story in Roxane Gay’s second collection of short fiction, Difficult Women, in which a big, strong man who works in a quarry goes for a walk on the beach and, seeing an extra glint in the sand, discovers a woman made of glass. He falls in love, marries her, they have a glass child. At meals, he marvels, watching the food travel through their bodies. When he holds her he does so gently, and not just because he must. A quirk of nature – that lightning striking sand can make glass – becomes an inspired vehicle for preoccupations that recur throughout Gay’s work: that love means not being seen through, but seen, and heard for yourself; that bodies are both breakable and a possible source of redemption.

Gay’s stories often take the form of fable although, on her first visit to London, she is quick to reject that as any appeal to universality. “In fact, it’s the opposite,” she says. “As a black woman, as a black queer woman, specificity is incredibly important, because diverse experiences are rarely seen in literature.” She agrees that fairytale “informs all of my fiction work” – there is the woman married to an identical twin whose brother takes turns coming to her bed in the belief she doesn’t notice, or the woman who is also a knife, or the miner so despairing of his life underground that he projects himself into the sun and puts it out – “because in the original fairytales there’s oftentimes a lot of suffering before you get to any kind of resolution or solace”. But details ground the stories, in the rural midwest, for example, or a gated community in Florida, or a strip club in Baltimore. “What we tend to forget is that we all deal with a lot of the same things,” she says. “We all deal with complicated relationships, with children, with the loss of children, with love and suffering. We have a lot in common, and I do think literature allows us to have some sort of shared empathy.”

Since Gay arrived in London she has appeared at the Royal Festival Hall in front of an audience of 1,800 and tweeted her first impressions of the city to her 539,000 Twitter followers. “Still buzzing from seeing Roxane Gay speak last night at @southbankcentre,” one fan tweeted. “She has a unique capacity to be inspirational yet completely relatable. I am thankful for her.” They are drawn by her voice – direct, often funny, sometimes angry, always thoughtful – and her radical candidness about her own life and struggles, on display in her breakthrough collection of essays, Bad Feminist, as well as her memoir, Hunger, and her fiction. And they come out to bat for her when she feels impugned, especially by the press – so much so that they feel like invisible, judging witnesses to our conversation, conducted at the flashy riverfront offices of Gay’s UK publisher.

Meeting her is thus already overdetermined, and made more complicated by a presence that seems, on this cold bright morning, not much like the writing voice: Gay makes little eye contact. She waits for the tape to be turned on and answers questions dutifully. At the same time, I know, from Twitter, that jetlag and newness have caused two days of insomnia. And I should have been prepared, from her writing, for the frequent split between a disembodied freedom on the page and an unease in the world; the way in which her fame and imposing 1.9 metres (6ft 3in) frame are undercut, as she put it in a recent essay about her decision to have weight-loss surgery, by the fact that “the moment I step outside the safety of my home, I hate how visible I am, how people treat me, how they stare and comment both loudly and under their breath … I do not know how to carry myself with confidence when I go out into the world. Any sense of self I have is often shattered within minutes, and then I am all insecurities and fears, wishing myself into a more socially acceptable form.”

Gay is the oldest of three children born to Haitian parents who arrived in the US when they were still in their teens. “Everything good and strong about me starts with my parents,” as Gay puts it in Hunger, her 2017 “Memoir of (My) Body”. Her father was a successful and eventually very well off civil engineer, and her mother a home-maker. They moved a lot for his work, but spent summers in Haiti, and the stories in Gay’s first collection, Ayiti (2011), are drenched both in a physical sense of that country, and of the small humiliations of recent immigrants. Gay had written stories since she was tiny, drawing villages on napkins and describing the inhabitants; she read and read – Little House on the PrairieNancy Drew and Sweet Valley High stories. She was “respectful, studious, hardworking”. They went to church, she excelled at school. She was a good Haitian daughter.

Gay is fascinating on the “goodness” of girls – as a societal requirement, as an often impossible standard; on how often being good is a matter of being “one who knows how to play by the rules and cares to be seen to be playing by the rules”; who knows how to be liked. (Philip Roth novels? Lauded, yet full of unlikable men, she has written. Woe betide the female novelist who tries the same thing.) Above all, on goodness as vulnerability, not least because she knows, in the most visceral way possible, what that can mean. One day, when she was 12, a handsome classmate took her on a bike ride to an abandoned shack in the woods where a pack of other boys, fuelled by drink, were waiting. “There is a before and an after,” she writes, in Hunger. “In the after I was broken, shattered, and silent.”

She returned home, where she performed “good”, but could not shut the experience away. In high school, she says now, “I wrote a series of truly insane stories. Always about young girls being violated in terrible ways. It was a cry for help.” Thankfully, she was heard by a teacher who both encouraged her to keep writing and walked her over to a counsellor. The experience still comes out in her stories, her essays, in her bestselling 2014 novel, An Untamed State; vulnerabilities and terrible violations played through different scenarios, with different endings: husbands gentle, loving, preternaturally understanding; perpetrators found and jailed (which did not happen for her).

She got into nearly every Ivy League college she applied for (and cried, overhearing her acceptance at Yale instantly dismissed by a classmate as affirmative action). She was also eating, compulsively, defending herself by building her body into an impregnable fortress that at its largest, she says in Hunger, weighed 577lbs (262kg). After a year, she dropped out of Yale, unable to cope. She had met an older man on the internet, and went to be with him. For a year, until her parents tracked her down, she supported herself, working with other “lost girls” on phone sex lines, finding a community that accepted and understood her, beginning to blog, in those very early days of the internet. She was beginning, too, the long discovery that would sustain her, that “through writing, I was, finally, able to get respect for the content of my character”. [. . .]

[Roxane Gay. Photograph: Jennifer Silverberg for The Guardian.]

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