Roxane Gay: On Messiness, Not Belonging, and What Being Queer Taught Her About Being a (Bad) Feminist
Author: Theodore Kerr
September 17, 2014
From covering pop culture, to writing beautifully crafted short stories Roxane Gay has long been a prolific online presence. Her work appears everywhere, including The Guardian, Twelve Stories, XO Jane, Salon, and The Rumpus (where she is also the essays editor). This year saw the release of her first novel, An Untamed State (Grove Atlantic, 2014) which garnered strong reviews. Holly Bass of The New York Times wrote, “In this fable, the princess and a wicked witch relate to each other as real women do, and ultimately rescue each other.”
This summer Gay’s book of essays, Bad Feminist (Harper Perennial, 2014)—culled largely from her prodigious online archive—was released, becoming a touchstone text for those who understand that life is (to borrow a word from the interview below) messy. In the book we get to know Roxane Gay, a bisexual Haitian American woman who having survived academia to achieve her PhD is now an Associate Professor of English at Purdue University. Along the way the reader is invited to revel in Gay’s love of Scrabble, consider the power of the Hunger Games, and gleam tips on how to be a good girlfriend.
During a summer that saw Laverne Cox hit the big time, Ferguson revolt, Beyonce perform “Flawless,” and the continuing debate over women’s bodies, Bad Feminist seems to have arrived right on time—not to deliver answers, but to entice readers to join Gay in chipping away at what is expected and what is respected, and to embrace the mess and the perspective of being an outsider.
Would you think it was funny if I said I wanted to write a book called Bad Queer?
I have gotten a few emails from bad queers. It has been awesome that people are thinking about identity in that way—and not just feminism.
There are a lot of connections between what is happening in feminism and queerness. Both are really messy.
I think “messiness” is what inspired a lot of Bad Feminist … trying to figure out where I fit in when I don’t fit into the traditional definitions of feminism—or queerness for that matter. Bad Feminist was written in the spirit of trying to find a place where I belong, and being okay in not belonging.
What does not belonging mean to you?
I have always felt like an outsider because I was very shy growing up. I was Haitian American in Nebraska and a lot of people didn’t know what to do with that. As I got older I continued to feel like I was on the outside looking in. I was always thinking, “I am never going to belong.” The older I get the more I realize that if you don’t find a place where you belong it is okay to create a place of your own.
When you were growing up were there any queer people you could look to for inspiration or guidance?
No. Not at all. I was sheltered, and queerness was not part of my life. It is not something accepted in Haitian culture—well that is what they say, but that is not [always] true—so I did not have queer people to look up to. It was not until the first couple of years of college that I thought, “Oh, I think I might also be attracted to women.” I started reading Lesléa Newman, Leslie Feinberg, and Pat Califia. It was queer writers that helped me have queer people to look up to.
Do you think that reading those authors impacted your feminism?
Queerness helped me understand feminism better, and the importance of feminism. When you look at the history of feminism, queer women have been left out. It was the concerns of heterosexual white women that feminism was [interested in]. I was reading these writers who were outsiders for various reasons—not only from society as a whole, but also queerness—and they helped me begin to be okay with being on the outside looking in, and with life being messy. Sometimes it is just better on the outside.
In Bad Feminist, rather than defining what feminism is you fully embrace the “fallibility” of it…the “messiness” of it. I think this serves the book well. Do you see messiness at work in your fiction as well?
My fiction and non-fiction work on a spectrum. This idea being that life is messy and complicated and it is rare that we have neat endings and tight conclusions to anything. Good people do bad things and bad people do good things.
Does messiness help you know your characters better?
Yeah, it does. It not only helps me see them better, but also empathize with them better. I think about my novel, An Untamed State. There is a character named Commander and he is a horrible person, a sociopath and a rapist. And yet I was still able to see how he became who he became. It is important to me in my writing to understand my characters, whether I like them or loath them. We are all made one way or another by this world.
Of Junot Diaz’s book, This is How You Lose Her you write, “If people cannot be flawed in fiction there’s no place left for us to be human.” Is this also true in non-fiction?
Yes, absolutely. In non-fiction we as writers position ourselves by all the things that have wronged us and we rarely look at all the ways we have wronged. We worry that in non-fiction we have to put our best foot forward, like we are always awesome, and that is just not how we are. I think that if we cannot be flawed in non-fiction then we have very little to hope for.
The structure of your book is like an invitation to a wonderful one-sided friendship. In the beginning, I see you around. I learn things about you, from you. Some trust is built, things are shared, and then, towards the end of the book—once that trust is secured—the tone goes back and forth between intense and irreverent. In that process I get to know you—flaws, brilliance, and all.
When I was assembling the book I was thinking of it like a conversation, a conversation that starts with, “Here I am.” The middle of the book has some of the darker parts of me and how I see the world.
Your first essay is powerful because you stack it full of ideas, and approaches. There are so many voices on the page.
The older I get, the more I realize that it is very rare that you are going to be unequivocally right about anything. I have strong opinions—which I think is clear throughout the book—but I am also trying to at least acknowledge that there are other points of view in these conversations that deserve to be respected and thought-out.
Is writing a process for you?
Writing for me, 99% of the time, is making sense of the world in one way or another. I write to understand myself, to understand what is going on and the motivation of others, to mourn, to celebrate. Most of the time writing comes from an emotional place for me. But there is also intellect involved.
There are days when I have to write on deadline for a very specific reason, and then it becomes more of a project on the page.
What is the ratio of writing that never sees the light of day versus writing that gets seen by others?
I would say almost all of my writing lands somewhere one way or another.
That is amazing. How come?
I like what I write. I feel like sharing it.
Hearing this makes me think of how some people—in a counterintuitive way—use social media to create privacy. By giving away parts of themselves online, they actually are also carving out space for themselves offline.
There are things that I write that are private for me and my private people, but in terms of general output I publish everything. And yet, while it may seem I am sharing everything, I am deliberate about what I share online. I do have a personal life—especially now—and I am keeping that personal life private because not everyone needs to know everything.
It is rumored that Dolly Parton has tattoos covering most of her body but she covers them up with clothing and makeup, keeping her inked flesh for herself and whoever she chooses to show.
I did not know that. I hope it is true. I guess for me there is a lot I keep covered up, too, because it is mine.
A theme that comes up often in your work is you chipping away at respectability.
When you are not part of the mainstream, when you are a person of color, when you are queer, you are held to an unreasonable standard. You not only have to be the best, but you have to be the best of the best. I think I am trying to deconstruct [this idea of] respectability in my writing.
That comes out in your work. I mean, we are seeing lot of websites where it seems like the writers are preoccupied on proving how smart they are rather than really communicating. I like how easily you move from Judith Butler to Grey’s Anatomy.
A lot of people have misinterpreted a line from Bad Feminist where I say I am not that well read in feminist history. What I meant is, I am not a women’s studies scholar. A couple of academics have taken [that statement] and—because they do not know who I am—have made some very sad assumptions about [me]. It makes me laugh. I know my shit. I have a PhD. I am Dr. Roxane Gay—not that that matters, but I know who I am.
Reading your book I thought about Vivian Gornick’s book, Approaching Eye Level. Both your book and Gornick’s book are essay collections where we see smart and fierce women with academic responsibilities making their way in the world. Both books also have a welcome aggression. In Approaching Eye Level we find Gornick walking down the street bumping into people just to feel them. Are you interested in being able to walk down the street anonymously, making contact without having to engage?
That is why I write. I don’t like contact with other humans. That is what I love about Twitter, about being a writer, about being a writer online. I love this ability to reach people and not feel so alone and—in the best of both worlds—being able to help other people feel less alone without compromising my own boundaries.
Do you see your writing as activism?
I don’t. People sometimes call it activism on my behalf but I think there are actually activist out there, on the ground, doing the work. I have activist tendencies. I think there are some things I am an activist about, but I would call [my writing] advocacy.
I can see that with your books for sure. But with your tumblr, or with Twitter—I’m thinking of your live tweets about your experience reading Vogue—I actually think you are venturing into the realm of activism. In those tweets, you express pleasure, putting yourself on the line, while exposing and broadcasting systemic inequalities.
I think you can take pleasure in something and critique it at the same time. A lot of my writing is doing that. It is taking a critical examination of this thing we are all talking about and all enjoying while asking, but at what price?
What are the prices?
One of the things I write a lot about is music. I love music. And I enjoy hip-hop and Top 40, but the messages that women are being sent in that music—and men for that matter—are troubling. We are seeing an increase in domestic violence in young adults, and more street harassment. The mentality seems to be, “it’s on the radio, so it must be okay,” and this is the price we are paying for that great hook, or that great beat. We continue to consume it, so it continues to be made, and I fully acknowledge that I am right there in the club throwing my hands up in the air, but we are paying a price for it.
Is writing how you negotiate your responsibility with culture that is problematic?
I am thinking of Beyonce, not only because I think she is a complex figure who is seen as both a liberating and a damaging figure. But I am also thinking of her because someone took a screenshot of Beyonce’s MTV performance—when Beyonce stood in front of the word Feminist—and photo-shopped the word “Bad” in front of “Feminist” in honor of your book.
Yes, my friend Casey made me that.
What can writing do to help in the cultural conversation around things that are complex?
Writing allows us to fully examine an issue. It gives us the time and space to think through things. You read something, you go and do whatever you need to do in your day, and you still have these ideas in you and then I think this is what Beyonce is doing by calling herself a feminist— a door has been opened that allows you to walk through.
Are there writers and blogs you go to when you are looking for those doors?
Ta-Nehisi Coates, who I think is absolutely brilliant. I love Anna Holmes and almost anything she has to say. Ashley Ford, and Melissa Gira, who does amazing advocacy work for sex workers. I have learned a lot from [Melissa]. And Sarah Nichole Prickett.
You are part of an amazing moment right now. It is a fascinating time to be someone talking about feminism, and maybe even more so being a black woman. Thinking about Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, Kara Walker, Shonda Rhimes, Melissa Harris-Perry, Beyonce, you, Michelle Obama, what do you think of this moment we find ourselves in?
I do think something is going on. I am not sure what it is. It is a moment, and I hope we can capitalize on it, and do something useful with this moment, more than just saying, “Oh look at what is happening, now what do we do?” How do we get these visible women to help us move our interests forward?
It makes me wonder if we are in a womanist or black feminist moment. Black women do have a specific experience of the United States. I wonder if part of what is going on has to do with peoples’ openness to hearing the specific places where you, Janet, Shonda and others might be coming from.
I think womanism, and black feminism are amazing. I wish people would talk more about both.
And of course, as part of the same moment, there are the ongoing struggles happening in Ferguson. Here is an example of hard won success, with reminders that things are still not all right.
Things are never all right in this world. It is just life. But I think what we do with this hard-earned success is we don’t forget that a few of us are lucky and we can do something productive with the luck. It is imperative. Not everyone feels this way, but it was the way I was raised. I feel an obligation and a responsibility. And this is why I don’t call myself an activist. There are people on the ground in Ferguson who are staying and leading protests, and bringing protesters food and drink and doing really important things. But I can use my voice, and bring attention to these issues.
How do you describe your voice?
Messy and confident and clear—I am a Libra so I am going to straddle that fence all the time. My voice is growing. I am learning how to live in my voice more fully.
Accepting myself, how I see the world, not apologizing for myself, which is something I think women do with alarming frequency. We apologize for our existence, for having opinions. I am trying to do less of that, and to be gentler to myself and to other people.
I think that comes out in your work. I am thinking of your essay on Hanna Rosin’s book, The End of Men.
I try to be generous in my critique and anyone who suggests that I don’t critique is not reading well. I absolutely think that everything is up for critique. I think there can be a generosity in how it is done—unless of course you are up against something that is absolutely hateful like Rush Limbaugh. There is no generosity there. Hanna Rosin is an intelligent woman. She is a strong thinker, and writer. I just don’t agree with almost everything she says. It is okay to acknowledge both what she does successfully, and where I see her work falling short. And with The End of Men, I felt like it was one of the most shortsighted things I have ever read.
I like the model you are putting forward. We respect each other enough to disagree.
I think that is one of things that is challenging about contemporary culture. I think we don’t know how to cultivate a culture where we can disagree.
Even on the Internet?
Especially on the Internet. If you look at online discourse it is, “I am right!” There is no space for alternative points of view. People post “Must Read” and that is all they say. I am not judging that. I think that online discourse is important. I wish there was space for common ground, and meeting halfway.
And course I see myself in this as well. I am very opinionated. There are some issues I don’t want to hear any opposing viewpoints on, like abortion or the death penalty.
Any stories from the road? What is it like to meet people who now know you through your book?
It is strange and awesome. So far it has been wonderful. Everywhere I go has been huge crowds and people telling me beautiful stories. It is heartwarming to know that my work is reaching people.
Some people are intense. One woman came up to me at Women and Children First bookstore in Chicago (where there was 250 people) and said, “You are so fierce and sexy.”
“Ah,” I said, “don’t stop.”
And then she said, “I want to kiss you.“
And then I was like, “Oh? Oh.”
I don’t like being touched by strangers. She leaned in and kissed me. Now that I know it can happen, I am better prepared for it.
Also in Chicago, a young woman thanked me for a Tumblr post I had written about being overweight and having an eating disorder, because most of the time if you are overweight and have an eating disorder you are invisible.
Are you finding a lot of queer people coming to the readings?
Yes, which has been great because a lot of people didn’t know I’m queer, which is strange because I never hid it. But now that they are reading the book, and coming to my Tumblr more, they are realizing I am bisexual.
Which may be exciting to a lot of people because bisexuality is not always discussed enough.
We see such little representation, and when we do, it is just so disingenuous or just stupid. Like, Do you miss being with men when you are with women? Do you miss being with women when you are with men? Look here heterosexual person, when you are with your partner, you don’t think about anyone else?
We need more accurate representation, and less representation of bisexual people that are wishy-washy. I am entirely clear that I think both men and women are amazingly hot.
The more in plain sight you are about it, the harder it is for people to see.
Someone on Twitter once described herself as, “A woman who is openly bisexual without fanfare.”And that is who I am. I think that Channing Tatum is hot, and I have a crush on that woman sitting over there. That is just who I am. Openness is the only way to be. I have nothing to hide.
Last question: What is good about being bad?
You can do whatever you want. You get to be yourself. And there is less pressure. But it does not mean you [should do everything]. You have to have a code.