Interview: Roxane Gay

A Conversation with Roxane Gay

by Kameelah Janan Rasheed
Originally published at Specter Magazine

Roxane Gay is in the midst of receiving well-deserved, and long overdue, love for her literary talents: her debut novel, An Untamed State, is already taking its place as one of the best novels of 2014, to say nothing of the building anticipation for her essay collection, Bad Feminist, coming this August.

In our interview with Roxane, she shares her thoughts on the publishing process, how and what it means to explore trauma through literature, her prolificacy, and the boundaries required to straddle the line between the personal and universal in her work.

A personal note, or an explanation as to why I’m writing this introduction: I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Roxane twice in person, and we’ve followed each other on Twitter—where I first met her—for four years now. As co-editor of PANK, she gave me the chance to contribute regularly to the magazine’s blog. (Full disclosure—this is also true for our fiction editor, Rion Scott.)

I’ve never asked Roxane to be a mentor to me, despite wanting to do so, but she has, in small ways, become one. Privately, she has offered kind words, stern words, encouraging words to me. She made it safe for me to believe in my work, in my voice. And while I don’t dare overstate my own importance in Roxane’s professional life, I do admit to understating her importance to my literary life this whole time. She helped me believe I can write, that my words matter, that it’s a worthwhile endeavor to publish and encourage the work of others.

Mensah Demary
Editor in chief
Specter Magazine

 

Kameelah Janan Rasheed, Senior Editor

At what point did you begin identifying as a writer? What is the first time you remember writing and what was it that you wrote?

Roxane Gay

I have identified as a writer as long as I can remember. I wrote my first stories when I was four years old or so, and would draw little villages on napkins and then write stories about the people in those villages.

Rasheed

And with that could you talk about your arc and growth as a writer — how is 2014 Roxane Gay the writer different than Roxane Gay the writer of 2000?

Gay

As a writer, the substance of what I write has remained consistent but I’m far less melodramatic with my stories and essays now. I’m far more willing to expose my own flaws and failings. I’m a better editor of myself. I’m more humble, I hope, and I certainly understand my small place in the world, and how to write from that place, far more effectively.

Rasheed

You write fiction and non-fiction. What’s your first love?

Gay

Fiction is my first love. I will always be, and willingly so, beholden to the power of a story.

Rasheed

The breadth of your writing is intimidating. When I was doing research for this interview, I toggled between reading your tumblr posts and the over 100 stories and essays. How do you manage to produce so much material?

Gay

I live in the middle of nowhere, I suffer from insomnia, I am ferociously ambitious, I don’t have children yet, I have a lot on my mind, I write fast.

Rasheed

What does your writing process look like? What anxieties do you have as a writer? Do you seek to resolve these anxieties or do they become part of your process?

Gay

I don’t have a process that would be recognizable as a process. I spend a lot of time thinking and working through a story or essay in my head. I do a lot of my drafting through thought. By the time I sit down to work on a given piece, the words are generally there as I need them to be. I am constantly plagued by the anxiety that I am not good enough. It’s really… hard to get past at times. I’m sure part of why I write so much is to overcompensate for feelings of inadequacy.

Rasheed

How has being an editor at several publications simultaneously, as well as being a professor, influenced your writing craft?

Gay

Teaching and editing always expose me to new ways of writing and thinking. As a teacher, I have to keep my game on point so I’m of good service to my students and frankly, they teach me quite a lot as well. I find them very inspiring and that only helps fuel my creative work.

Rasheed

As a professor, what has been your most enjoyable text to teach and why?

Gay

I love teaching Matt Bell’s “An Index of How Our Family Was Killed.” I use it in my beginning fiction workshop to introduce students to the possibilities of narrative and form. Whether students appreciate the text or not, they always have something to say about it.

Rasheed

How much of your own writing do you feel is explicitly pedagogical?

Gay

I don’t know if my work is explicitly pedagogical, I’m too close to it, but I do know my writing is taught a lot and that’s both flattering and intimidating.

Rasheed

As a professor of writing, do you feel the formal training in the craft is necessary? Or maybe a better question: in what ways have you seen writers nurture their craft outside traditional classroom?

Gay

I don’t. There are so many ways to become a writer and there is ample evidence of writers who have flourished without a formal writing education. I firmly believe in the value of education, not because you receive some kind of anointment with a degree but because of, in the best of circumstances, the diversity of perspectives and aesthetics you are exposed to.

Being able to disclose your truth on your own terms is an important space of agency. I am curious about how a writer takes that right back after it’s been taken from them.

The first step is to believe you have the right to dictate your own terms and that is, admittedly, the most difficult step.

Rasheed

You mentioned in other interviews that grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, visited Haiti, the home of your parents, and moved around a lot. You now live in rural Illinois. How does moving affect how you make sense of home and belonging?

In Peter Turchi’s Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer, he writes about how writers, like cartographers, lead readers through terrains and means to mapping blank space and the blank page.

In what way do you see yourself as a cartographer and what are you mapping? If you see yourself as a cartographer of sorts, where are you leading the reader or even what space are you creating for your readers to explore?

Gay

Moving so much has always made me long to truly find home and I certainly hope that happens for me someday. For now, as cheesy as it may be, I feel a sense of home when I am with my family and/or closest friends and in that regard, I am lucky to have a home not bound strictly to place.

I tend to believe all writers are cartographers and we are mapping human experiences. I tend to focus on mapping women’s experiences as well as mapping trauma and its effects. In doing so, I hope I am leading the reader, and myself, into places of greater empathy.

Rasheed

Knowing that you want to lead the reader to greater empathy, what do you consider as you are crafting the style and content of your writing?

Gay

I try to think about multiple points of view. I try to imagine how those with whom I disagree see the issues I write about. I try to respect those opposing viewpoints and consider how I might persuade them.

Rasheed

I am drawn to one story in Ayiti, “In the Manner of Water or Light” where you write,

“Everything I know about my family’s history, I know in fragments. We are the keepers of secrets. We are secrets ourselves. We try to protect ourselves from the geography of so much sorrow” and “The ugly details are trapped between the fragments of our family history. We are secrets ourselves.”

What role do fragments, family histories and official histories figure into your work?

Gay

Not as much as you might think.

When I’m writing fiction, I am certainly drawing from experience and observation, but I am telling fictional stories. My parents are actually not terribly talkative about their family histories. It is only in the past few years that they’ve started divulging more about their lives in Haiti. They are private people and I respect that.

Rasheed

Speaking of privacy, on your Tumblr, you wrote about how you are slowly letting your family into your writing world. What was your original hesitancy about your family reading your work? What prompted you to let your family in, even if cautiously?

Gay

My family is private. I am private. So often, my writing is just… a non-issue. They have other things they prefer to talk about, like my nephew and nieces, family gossip, etc. My writing is also where I am most vulnerable so some of it is, certainly, self-protection.

Rasheed

After reading The Danger of DisclosureI am hoping you can share about how you deal with your reader’s sense of entitlement to know more about you as well as why you continue to disclose despite the danger you perceive?

Gay

I am getting much better about having and upholding my boundaries when it comes to intrusive strangers. I just don’t engage with unwelcome intrusions into my personal life. I continue to disclose because I get to do so on my terms and because I have things to say.

Rasheed

In your essay What We Hunger For, you wrote,

“Stories have given me a place in which to lose myself. They have allowed me to remember. They have allowed me to forget. They have allowed me to imagine different endings and better possible worlds.”

What power is there in remembering, and is there any power in forgetting?

Gay

In remembering, I allow myself acknowledgment that these things happened. They shaped parts of me. All too often, we don’t allow ourselves these kinds of acknowledgments and I find it so freeing to do so. In forgetting, though, I do think there is also a freedom to move on. I sometimes wish I could forget but I wouldn’t want to pay such a price.

Rasheed

As a kid, what stories in particular allowed you to lose yourself?

Gay

I loved stories about people who were nothing like me. I read lots of adventure stories, particularly set on the wagon trail. I was fairly obsessed with Little House on the Prairie, Sweet Valley High, the books of Judy Blume.

Rasheed

2014 is a big year for youyour debut novel, An Untamed State, is out now by Grove/Atlantic; your essay collection, Bad Feminist, will be published by Harper Perennial later this year. Can you talk a bit about the premise for both texts?

Gay

An Untamed State is a novel about privilege, family, betrayal, and class. Mireille Duval is visiting her parents in Port au Prince with her husband and young son when a man, who goes by “The Commander,” kidnaps her. She is held hostage for thirteen days because her father, a construction magnate, is unwilling to pay the ransom, on principle.

As you might imagine, bad things happen during the time she is held and when she is released, she has to make sense of the Haiti she thought she knew and the father she thought she knew. She has to be a wife and a mother even though she is a completely different person and doesn’t know if she will find her way back to herself.

Bad Feminist is an essay collection, pulling together a lot of my writing on race, popular culture, gender, politics, and feminism. I have opinions and, I have learned, I am not afraid to share them.

Rasheed

In your “Year in Reading” article for The Millions, you wrote in reference to Alissa Nutting’s Tampa, “The writing was so deliberate and satisfying, and I love when a writer fully commits to a premise.” To what extent do you feel your two upcoming books fully commit to your premise?

Gay

In both books, I commit passionately to the premise. In Bad Feminist, I have convictions and I try to articulate them with nuance. I hope sometimes I succeed in that. With An Untamed State, I really commit to exploring violence, trauma, and place. The writing is dark and explicit and at times, I made myself sick with the writing but I also knew that this was how Mireille’s story needed to be written. I could not be more committed.

Rasheed

When writing into a dark place like you did with elements of An Untamed State, how do you write effectively while also not reliving that trauma? Or must you relive a flicker of a trauma to write?

Gay

I did have to relive some of that trauma and imagine what it would be like in Mireille’s situation. It was hard, but it was the only way for me to write this novel the way it needed to be written.

Rasheed

And when the trauma is not fully yours — an inherited trauma of family or national history or trauma completely outside of you — how do you research to create nuance and empathy in your writing?

Gay

This is a great question. I try to read as much as I can about the circumstances that have given rise to inherited trauma. I listen to people’s stories. I respect their privacy and take only what I respectfully can to include in my own writing.

Rasheed

I asked Kiese Laymon a similar question: from your own experiences publishing these books, what have been the most challenging and most gratifying parts of the process? In what ways has the publishing industry worked to limit the scope of which voices are heard, and has the industry widened space for more voices?

Gay

Honestly, the editing process at both Grove and Harper has been outstanding. I heard all these horror stories about “big publishing,” and as of yet, they have been untrue. I don’t doubt those stories but I’ve been lucky. Both of my books have been really well-edited. Amy Hundley, who edited my novel, really worked with me to keep the story true to how I wanted to tell it. She has been so fierce but gentle with my words. At Harper, Maya Ziv has become, like Amy, a dear friend and confidant. She is always showing me how the essays can become better, more intellectually rigorous, and for that I am grateful. The challenging part of the process is how slow publishing moves. It’s kind of excruciating to someone who loves instant gratification, as I do.

Your second set of questions speaks to very big problems in publishing. Broadly speaking, publishing is a deeply capitalistic endeavor, not terribly willing to take chances. For whatever reason, the industry has decided that they won’t take chances on writers of color, save for an anointed few. They seem to believe that writers of color, queer writers, transgender writers, don’t have or can’t build audiences, and that’s a shame because this fear is keeping so many amazing writers from bringing their work to the audiences they deserve.

That said, some folks do get it. In addition to my publishers, who have been so supportive, Riverhead has a really fascinating and diverse roster of writers. Coffee House Press and Graywolf also do. These are smaller imprints at big presses who are independent publishers, so that means something too. Smaller organizations are more agile and can respond to change with far more dexterity than some of the behemoths. I also think that we have a lot of people now who are making it clear that a change needs to come. People are counting and pointing out the glaring, completely avoidable disparities. I am trying to remain optimistic.

Rasheed

Your optimism around the shifting landscape of publishing is a similar optimism around the possibilities of erotica. As I read your review of the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy, I wondered if there is a such thing as writing feminist erotica and if so what does it look like?

Gay

I don’t know if there’s such a thing as feminist erotica because ask three feminists and you’ll get three different definitions of what feminist erotica should look like. There is erotica that treats women as sentient beings capable of critical thinking, women who, whether dominant, submissive, or in between, are empowered in their choices as they seek to satisfy sexual desires. There’s also erotica that treats women as mindless objects who exist for male pleasure. For me, feminist erotica looks like the former.

Rasheed

You are unapologetic about your affinity for pop culture. Your Twitter is full of witty commentary and many of your pieces on Salon (as well as in other publications) draw our attention to the nuances of pop culture. Can you talk about how pop culture figures into your work as well as the distinction between culture and pop culture?

Gay

I don’t find the distinction between pop culture and culture particularly useful because it’s all about the kinds of texts we produce and consume, and some have more gravity than others, but they are cultural texts worth talking about in one way or another. Pop culture figures into my work because I live in the world and I don’t want to turn my back of any of that experience.

Rasheed

What was your favorite pop culture happening of 2013?

Gay

My favorite pop culture happening was seeing people lose their minds over “twerking.” It was absurd.

Rasheed

Let’s play a game of interview tag. Which writer should I interview next and what are two questions I should absolutely ask?

Gay

You should interview Samantha Irby. You could ask her anything and the answer would be interesting. I’d be curious to know how she keeps her head up with all the stuff she deals with and I’m very curious to know what she’s working on because I loved her first book, Meaty, so very much.

Rasheed

You’ve written a lot but I am curious about what we have not heard from you. In Kevin Young’s The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness, he provides a “brief taxonomy” of three types of shadow books — “a book that we don’t have, but know of that may haunt the very book we have in our hands.” He describes the unwritten book, the removed book and the lost book. What’s your shadow book?

Gay

My shadow book would be the unwritten book, one that chronicles my late teens and early twenties. So much of who I am now began during those troubled years.

Rasheed

Who are some of your favorite authors?

Gay

My favorite writers include Edith Wharton, Michael Chabon, Randa Jarrar, Catherine Chung, Saeed Jones, Ashley Ford, Carrie Murphy, and xTx.

Rasheed

One question I’ve noticed about your interviews is that you like to ask your interviewees, “What do you like about your writing?” so I want to ask you the same thing. What do you like about your writing?

Gay

I like when my writing makes people feel things, even when those feelings are uncomfortable.

Rasheed

You wrote that you want the reader to sit with uncomfortable feelings after reading your work. What is gained for both you and the reader in asking the reader to enter a place of discomfort?

Gay

Wanting to make the reader feel isn’t about me gaining anything, but it is about honoring the story I am trying to tell. In An Untamed State, in particular, I don’t think the story can or should be read dispassionately.

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