Author and feminist Roxane Gay visits campus

by Mark Gartsbeyn / Beacon Staff • March 25, 2015

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Author Roxane Gay recounted her evolution as a feminist at the writing, literature, and publishing Reading Series last Thursday afternoon.

“I certainly struggled with accepting the feminist identity in my teens and in my 20s, because I thought, ‘oh, a feminist is angry and man-hating and humorless’, and that’s not me,” said Gay, 40. “But the older I get, the more I realize that anger is a perfectly appropriate response to misogyny.”

On March 19, Gay participated in a Q&A session moderated by Kimberly McLarin, assistant professor in the writing, literature, and publishing department. The Q&A was followed by a reading from Gay’s 2014 Bad Feminist, her New York Times-bestselling collection of nearly 40 essays about feminism, race, politics, and her personal life. She talked about her identity as a woman, as a writer, and as a sometimes-controversial figure on social media. The Cabaret in the Little Building was packed over capacity with more than 120 people attending each event. 

In 2011, Gay published her debut collection Ayiti, which combines fictional stories, nonfiction essays, and poetry to narrate the experience of Haitian immigrants. Along with Bad Feminist, Gay also published An Untamed State last year. It’s a vivid and harrowing novel about the traumatic experience of a kidnapped woman, deemed by Library Journal as one of the 10 best books of 2014. Beyond her books, Gay has contributed to an array of anthologies and periodicals, both online and in print, including Best American Short Stories, The Guardian, Time, Salon, and McSweeney’s—and, as of last week, she officially became a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. Gay is also an associate English professor at Purdue University.

At both the Q&A and the reading, Gay was simultaneously hilarious and honest, brusque and brutal with a sardonic sense of humor. Despite her often-serious subject matter, she was comedic and irreverent, frequently eliciting bouts of laughter from the audience with well-timed profanity and tangents on pop culture. 

“I know that there’s one lady that has dragons, and she’s white, and she leads a bunch of black people,” said Gay, referring to the character Khaleesi on Game of Thrones. “Some fiction for you!”

Erin Cook, a sophomore visual and media arts major, said that while she hadn’t heard of Gay before the event, she thoroughly enjoyed herself.

“I thought she was incredibly smart and well spoken, and really funny, and I will probably read Bad Feminist soon,” said Cook. “I just really enjoyed how relatable she was.”

At the reading, Gay shared “Typical First Year Professor,” an essay about her experience as a new teacher; “How to Be Friends with Another Woman,” a guide to female friendship; and “What We Hunger For,” a  piece that connects Gay’s obsession with The Hunger Games to her adolescent rape, perpetrated by a group of boys in an abandoned hunting cabin deep in the woods.

“I learned a long time ago that life often introduces young people to situations they are in no way prepared for, even good girls, lucky girls who want for nothing. Sometimes, when you least expect it, you become the girl in the woods,” she writes. “You lose your name because another one is forced on you. You think you are alone until you find books about girls like you. Salvation is certainly among the reasons I read. Reading and writing have always pulled me out of the darkest experiences in my life.”

Much of Gay’s work deals with violence and trauma, which is taken to an extreme in An Untamed State. At the Q&A session, she said that her goal was to portray violence explicitly, avoiding stylization and any potential entertainment factor. Gay doesn’t want readers to just read through the shocking kidnapping and rape scenes.

“A lot of people said, ‘I had to look away [from the book], I had to stop several times’—and yes, that’s what I was going for,” said Gay. “I think you have to look away, that’s what I wrote towards, that place where I repulsed myself.”

Gay elaborated on what exactly entranced her about The Hunger Games, stating that she was drawn to how Katniss, the female protagonist of the series, is forced to deal with trauma.

“It’s not like she’s in the Hunger Games and she wins and she goes home and everything is great, which is often what you see in hero narratives, that the hero is not so scarred,” said Gay, “the repercussions linger, and that really fascinated me.”

Because the author and professor is an advocate for honest and unhindered portrayals of unsettling scenes, she avoids warning readers and students about sensitive topics in her work. She said it’s not a writer’s responsibility to protect their readers, and she said it was the same for students.

“I don’t think you can wrap us in bubble wrap and protect us from the world... it’s like putting a fence around learning and challenging boundaries, and I don’t think it’s healthy for students,” said Gay. “I think we have to know when to protect ourselves.”

Gay emphasized the importance of education, calling it a passport and a necessary tool. She said that she personally values her role in academia because there aren’t many people that “look like [her]” getting doctoral degrees.

“Demographically, in terms of the students, there has been a lot of change, but on the faculty level there hasn’t, and that is a concern,” said Gay.

In terms of her writing, Gay doesn’t treat fiction and nonfiction the same way. She called fiction her “happy place”—not necessarily where she writes happy things, but where she can enter an energized, focused state.

“Nonfiction is generally more deadline-based, and so I cram at it and will generally write it at two in the morning,” said Gay. “With nonfiction I’m generally trying to think through something. I have a question that I’m trying to answer, and I try my best to see multiple points of view while also being crystal clear on where I stand and why. In terms of fiction, there’s also a question, but I use stories to answer that question, rather than persuasion.” 

An avid Twitter user, Gay tweets dozens of times a day. She frequently ends up getting in online arguments—the day before the event, she was involved in a long, drawn-out argument about birth control activist Margaret Sanger. Despite people regularly being cruel to her online, Gay said she still loves social media as a tool.

“I find [Twitter] to be a great sandbox for thinking through ideas and arguments,” said Gay. “I live in the middle of nowhere so it’s a nice place to engage with other human beings.”

Gay said that she has moments of doubt every day about her writing.

“Who am I, how dare I have the nerve to have such strong opinions, how dare I try to put my voice out there?” said Gay. “But at the end of the day, I try to remind myself that my voice is as important as anyone else’s voice, and I want to be able to make it easier for other girls to start to believe that.”