It was this year’s AWP Conference in Seattle when I first came in contact with the tour de force that is Roxane Gay. After an evening of readings, publishing-house parties and general carousing, a crew of us found ourselves in the lobby of one of the main hotels hosting the conference, where the likes of Tobias Wolff or Richard Bausch could be spotted waiting for an elevator. As we made our way toward the hotel bar, my friend Adrienne stopped and gasped, “Oh my god, that’s Roxane Gay! I love her.” There she was in unassuming jeans and t-shirt, the ubiquitous culture critic who Flavorwire declared one of 25 Women Poised to Lead the Culture in 2014, Roxane Gay. I knew about her, but was not yet intimate with her work. Adrienne on the other hand was a confirmed admirer and devoted follower. As soon as an opportunity arose, she jumped at the chance to discuss with Gay the very important matter of Juan Pablo Galavis, the then-new Bachelor, and his romantic interests, Ferrell and Crawley. Though not a fan of the show myself, I was thoroughly entertained by the conversation and thoroughly impressed by Gay, who was clearly an intellectual, informed and sophisticated, yet still able to speak vox populi—a combination I dig in people, especially in writers. I needed more of a fix, which was all too easy to satisfy; she and her work are everywhere.
Roxane Gay is a regular contributor to Salon and HTMLGIANT and has had her writing appear in “Best American Short Stories 2012” and The New York Times Book Review, among other notable publications. She is the founder of Tiny Hardcore Press, essays editor emeritus for The Rumpus, co-editor of PANK and author of “Ayiti” (2011), a collection of short stories. She is also currently an associate professor at Purdue University.
This May, Black Cat released Gay’s first novel, “An Untamed State,” which has received much acclaim. The story centers around a young Haitian-American attorney—Mireille Duval Jameson—who has it all: a career, a loving husband, a darling baby boy, friends, family, privilege. When she visits her parents’ estate in Port-au-Prince, a gang of rebels abduct her and, while holding her ransom, do unthinkable things to her. It is through these abuses that the reader learns about social inequities and nuanced class resentment in Haiti, gets a glimpse of the grotesque underbelly of the American Dream, and witnesses ways in which the female body can get caught in the crossfire of socio-political schisms. While Gay holds a lens to grim aspects of these complex fissures, she also provides windows into relationships of cohesion and compassion, restoring a degree of faith in humanity. The book is an intense page turner and offers as much unique insight into intersectionality as Marguerite Duras’ classic “The Sea Wall” did for its time. It’s a powerful novel, one I would not be surprised to see adapted into a screenplay.
In addition to her imaginative command as a fiction writer, Gay has a formidable arsenal as a culture critic. Last month, Harper Perennial made available Gay’s collection of essays, “Bad Feminist.” Over the span of 320 pages, Gay tackles matters of gender, sexuality, race and politics as they relate to popular culture (i.e. Lena Dunham’s television show “Girls,” E.L. James’ book “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Quentin Tarantino’s film “Django Unchained,” Robin Thicke’s song “Blurred Lines,” etc.) and current events (i.e. Wendy Davis’ fight for reproductive rights, the tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s death, Bill Cosby’s respectability politics, and so on). As Gay addresses these social issues with that fabulous mix of the plainspoken and the scholarly, she summons feminist heavies like Hélène Cixous, Judith Butler and Audre Lorde, re-enlisting their ideas to fit the present moment, making them at once relevant again and at the same time, accessible.
The recurrent messages woven throughout the collection are that “Feminism (n.): Plural” is flawed because the individuals who represent the movement are flawed; people in general are flawed. At the very onset of the book, Gay says “I am a bad feminist because I never want to be placed on a Feminist Pedestal. People who are placed on pedestals are expected to pose, perfectly. Then they get knocked off when they fuck it up. I regularly fuck it up. Consider me already knocked off.”
In a recent interview with Nolan Feeney, Gay says of her collection, “I’m very much trying to show how feminism influences my life for better or worse. It just shows what it’s like to move through the world as a woman. It’s not even about feminism per se, it’s about humanity and empathy.” Although the essays are framed with a feminist bent, they ultimately confirm Gay as, above all else, a compelling humanist.
Gay’s combination of brilliance, honesty and humility are exactly what engage her readership, and though she may not wish to be placed on a pedestal, it was plain to see at a recent book release event for “Bad Feminist” at Women & Children First that her readership does so to a large degree. Her following is real and deep. They clearly adore her, look to her for perspectives and answers, view her as a role model. It will be interesting to see how she, like any superstar, navigates her new celebrity. In the meantime, I am simply grateful to have such a bright, strong, provocative and mindful new voice join the literary world.
Gay will be featured in a conversation with Lindsay Hunter at the Chicago Humanities Festival on Sunday, November 2 at the Poetry Foundation, 61 West Superior. Sadly, it is a sold-out event. So if you already have a ticket, count yourself fortunate. If you don’t, you will no doubt have other opportunities to get a dose. Gay is all over the web and being the relentless writer that she is, she has another novel, “Hunger” due out with HarperCollins in 2016.