The Rumpus Book Club chats with Roxane Gay about her new novel An Untamed State, fairy tales, and the reality of violence that women face every day, everywhere in the world.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: How long did it take you to write this book?
Roxane: I wrote it in the summer of 2011.
Brian S: Just in one summer? That’s amazing.
Rachel: I remembered Mireille from Ayiti, and had to go back and reread her story. I was also wondering how long you’ve been walking around with her…
Rebecca: How long was the revision process? It seems spot on, psychologically speaking, and I’m wondering if all of that was there in the beginning.
Roxane: After I wrote “Things I Know About Fairy Tales,” Mireille just wouldn’t let me alone. She is persistent. I realized more of her story needed to be told and so I gave in and wrote the novel.
I revised twice—both times, a couple of weeks at a time.
The psychological energy has been the same since the beginning. What has changed is the novel’s structure, fleshing out some of the secondary characters, and adding the third person sections.
Rebecca: Ahhh. That makes sense. I could see the psychological stuff being a “you either have it, or you don’t” thing. And after reading some of your essays, I already knew you had it.
Brian S: Those third person sections were necessary, just to give me breathing space as a reader.
Roxane: That’s why they are there. They weren’t there originally but my editor, Amy Hundley, said this is claustrophobic and I said, “That’s what I was going for!” Then I thought about it and realized, yes, the story needs room to breathe, so I added those chapters and love how it turned out.
Brian S: It’s still claustrophobic, but if I hadn’t had those brief moments, I might not have made it through.
Roxane: Totally understandable.
Rebecca: Can I just say that the first part was so intense that I actually didn’t cry and instead I cried during the second part, for so many pages (and days) in a row. The story ended up being so claustrophobic that I got a better catharsis than a Greek tragedy.
Roxane: I definitely pull the reader very close to Miri and what she experiences.
April: Yes, my heart rate needed the break. 🙂 It is intense.
Brian S: I’ve never been through anything close to what Mireille went through, but I do have triggers based on my own experience with sexual abuse, and I know that feeling of the leash tightening, even now, more than 40 years distant from the experience.
Roxane: It is intense. Or at least, it felt intense writing it. Yes, the leash is something that lingers.
April: I loved the book. I am re-reading it a second time. Thank you so much for letting us read it.
Roxane: Thank you, April. It truly means a lot to hear that. I am very nervous about how the book will be received because I know it is a tough read but I am also proud of the story I told and how I told it and have learned a lot that I can take forward for the next book.
Rachel: The Miri parts did feel that way at times! And even though I read this in two days, sections of the first part felt so deliberate, so relentless, that I could feel her time dragging. It’s like you were narrating at the speed of suffering.
Roxane: That’s a really lovely way of putting it Rachel, and I did want to try and get at that, that thirteen days is a really long time when everything is out of your control
Rebecca: “Narrating at the speed of suffering.” What a description! And so true.
Brian S: Were there ever times in the writing that you were tempted to let Mireille kill the Commander at the end?
Roxane: Brian, that never crossed my mind.
Rachel: I really couldn’t put it down…even though it nearly felt unfair to read those thirteen days in a few hours.
Rebecca: I remember when Alissa Nutting’s novel Tampa came out, you applauded her so much for committing to the novel and being explicit. And I felt like you did that so much here. And I’m so glad—even if it was hard to read.
(Hard to read for the graphic parts. And the violence.)
Roxane: Thank you, Rebecca. I did try to commit. I wanted to write about this kind of violence in a way that was not pretty. I didn’t want to write around the violence so I tried to stare it down. It was not an easy choice but I do think it was the right choice.
April: I wondered if you had done any research in trauma theory. Like Brian mentioned, my own experiences and that of my partner’s extensive abuse made me wonder.
Brian S: Just as well—the story wouldn’t have been as good if you’d done that.
Side note: someone in the group said they had a hard time buying that the Commander would be willing to be a busboy in Miami, and I was like, no, that’s completely believable.
Roxane: April, I did not. I basically drew from my own experiences and my imagination.
April: Thank you, Roxanne.
Roxane: Brian that’s interesting but I know doctors who come from other countries and work as waiters here in the States. I absolutely knew the Commander could end up a busboy.
Brian S: I had students down there whose parents had been lawyers in Haiti who were driving cabs in Fort Lauderdale. I wasn’t surprised by that a bit.
Rebecca: I wasn’t surprised by it, either. (The commander as busboy, that is.)
Roxane: The American dream has a price
Rebecca: I think one of the best parts of this novel is that part where Miri is talking about the five years she’s spent in therapy and how she doesn’t like most of the therapists except the one who says it will never be the same. I needed to see that in print, to know what I already knew but on the page.
Rachel: Rebecca, I love that part too
Roxane: Rebecca, yes. I wrote that part, in large part for myself, to kind of free myself (and Miri), from the narrative that there is a tidy path toward healing.
Brian S: It was a nice antidote to the self-help filled world we live in, where everything can be fixed with the power of positive thinking bullshit.
Rebecca: I figured. I had the same moment reading it as I had when Cheryl Strayed said in Wild, “What if I’m not sorry?” I think that sort of refusal to be tidy is what the best writing does.
Roxane: Yes. I don’t think there is any one story. For some people that is true, that all can be well in the end. For others it isn’t. For others, the truth is more complicated and I wanted to get at that.
Brian S: I think that even for the people who can be well in the end, the path there isn’t tidy.
April: I haven’t met those people (the ones where all is well in the end); at least it doesn’t feel authentic.
Roxane: Same, April. That said, I would never presume to deny that truth for someone.
Brian S: Not at all.
April: So, I think, pulling off the veneer, showing how messy it is is what speaks so clearly to people, I’m still catching my breath just discussing it here. It’s very powerful.
Rebecca: I’ve met a lot of those people. I always wonder if it’s an act, but I know that I don’t know what’s their truth.
Roxane: April, yes. I very much wanted to explore the mess of trauma recovery.
April: True, of course. It very well is probably my own hot mess. 🙂
Brian S: So where did Lorraine come from as a character? (I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t read Ayiti.)
Roxane: Oh Brian there is no shame in that. Interracial relationships are challenging and in my experience, a lot of that challenge comes from the mother.
Rebecca: That’s interesting. I’d never thought about mothers being one of the biggest challenges in interracial relationships.
Roxane: So I created Lorraine as a person who has some prejudices but is also a good person. And I wanted to see how her relationship with Miri could evolve. To see where they went together was the biggest surprise of writing the novel.
Brian S: It was easily the most compelling relationship in the book.
April: I like how you first present her in the conversation with Michael as wholly accepting and loving, then we get the background, which was shocking to me.
Rachel: Watching their relationship unfold was such a lovely unexpected turn towards the novel’s end.
Roxane: I am glad to hear that, Brian. I definitely struggled with secondary characters so I’m glad at least one of them came to life.
Rebecca: The Miri-Lorraine relationship was what made me cry. It was really surprising—but it felt so right, after watching Miri care for Lorraine.
Ana: I found the Lorraine + Miri relationship one of the most compelling in the book.
April: They all are; even Mona, her sister is quite vivid.
Roxane: Oh this is so lovely to hear!
Rebecca: Beyond the usual jitters before the release of your book, do you have any specific ones?
Roxane: I hope the book will sell. I hope that people will see what I was trying to do. I hope that people won’t find the violence gratuitous.
Brian S: Well, it’s gotten lots of attention from more than just us, though we were excited to be the first to get it.
Ana: The violence most definitely does not read as gratuitous
I’m interested in how you came to write the short story the book is based off. What brought you to this story, or this story to Haiti?
Roxane: Ana, my parents are Haitian so I was raised with my Haitian identity foregrounded. The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized how complex a place Haiti is.
Rebecca: I wonder if the book will be more or less accepted in this culture of violence towards women. So far as I’ve seen among friends and goodreads, people are reading it right. But you can never tell in this culture.
Roxane: Kidnapping is a problem in Haiti and elsewhere in the world, so I was really interested in writing about that—what would drive someone to steal another person from their life for financial reward?
Brian S: I had a student from Haiti who wrote a poem about being followed home by a black SUV. It was chilling.
You’re doing a book club with Tumblr as well, right?
Rebecca: You’re doing a tumblr book club, too? That’s amazing.
Roxane: Brian, I am doing a Tumblr book club and umm The Toast book club.
Brian S: The Toast? Nice! We need to see if we can get Coates to interview you for his blog on the Atlantic next.
Roxane: Heh, that would be excellent. TNC is amazing.
April: I hope it sells like hot cakes. That would be fantastic. I talked it up at my two little bookstores here outside of New Haven, but it’s such a wee corner of the world.
Roxane: I went to school in New Haven! It’s not that wee.
April: I’m in Guilford.
Roxane: Oh cool
Brian S: I can see the worry about the way some will read the violence, but I think anyone who reads it as gratuitous 1) doesn’t actually understand the levels of violence that women regularly face and 2) is looking for excuses to misread it.
Marissa: I’m not going to lie, in the beginning, I felt some of the sexuality was gratuitous… BUT as I read more, I think it was to develop the difference between a consensual experience vs a forced one.
Roxane: We shall see. I am intellectually prepared for all responses to the book. Lord knows I have opinions about every damn thing.
Emotionally it is challenging.
April: I agree with Brian. The violence is not a device you’ve used when you’ve run out of conflict. It’s precisely what Brian writes—and frankly what you’d expect in a kidnapping.
Roxane: Marissa, I can totally see that but I did set up Miri and Michael’s chemistry to contrast the violations she endures.
Brian S: We talked a lot about that line near the end where you say something like “women are never safe in a world with men. They have to learn to be strong.” Do you think we blind ourselves as a society to the levels of violence women face, even in the US?
Roxane: Brian, at times we do. One of the things I’ve noticed is that people seem to think this is unique to Haiti. Violence is a global condition and both women and men suffer from it. It is convenient to imagine that this sort of thing happens out of sight, beyond our reach, but it happens every single day here in the US.
Marissa: I was particularly interested in her constant logic (in the before) about how safe Haiti was, but later you find out she was close to several people that were taken.
Brian S: Yeah, and the only times we seem to hear about it in the news is when 1) it’s a slow news cycle and 2) the victim is white and blonde.
April: Cognitive dissonance?
Roxane: Marissa, yes. The family kind of deluded themselves about their safety.
Rebecca: And of course, it’s only not the woman’s fault if she was dressed like an Amish person.
Guest: I have a Haitian friend whose wealthy mother was kidnapped in Haiti. I remember my friend telling me it was years later her mother admitted she had been raped in captivity; I was surprised at my friend’s naivete in assuming she hadn’t. I bring that up because 1. I think it is important to include graphic parts to open people’s eyes and 2. It worried me in the book club discussion that some people didn’t read the Commander as an unreliable character, that he actually WOULDN’t have raped or abused Miri, if she had not “provoked” the violence.
Roxane: I firmly believe that a woman in Miri’s situation could not possibly provoke the violence to which she was subjected.
Ana: Of course not.
Roxane: The Commander is certainly a rapist who tries to justify his crimes with his anger.
Rebecca: Yes, there were some comments about how Miri provoked the violence, and I was really shocked. To believe that the commander and his men would’ve left her alone no matter what she did is at best naive and at worst victim blaming.
April: I think by the time a person has reached a moral space where they traffic and trade in humans, rape is on their menu of options.
Roxane: April, absolutely.
Brian S: And yet there are pundits out there who will make stupid-ass remarks suggesting that she deserves some of the blame—or think she should have goaded them into killing her before they raped her.
Rebecca: Rape is on the menu of options for even men who are “regular” guys.
Roxane: Rebecca, that shocks me too. Was she supposed to… be polite and demure after being kidnapped? Sorry, but hell no.
Marissa: I was worried that at some point Miri’s character was going to give in to the logic of the captors. Similar to one of the characters in American Woman by Susan Choi.
Rachel: I loved that Miri refused to let go of her fight, even as she let go of the rest of her identity.
April: I like that you made her a fighter. And this is where I think the inversion of your fairy tale comes in her character?
Brian S: Especially the way she fucked TiPierre’s face up. Do you suppose Victor ever went back later and finished the job Michael wouldn’t?
Roxane: Brian, no Victor is a good guy. As he says in the book, “we’re not killers.”
Brian S: See, I read that remark as his way of letting Michael off the hook.
Roxane: Ahh not in my head, but anything is possible.
Rebecca: Brian, I could see it going either way. I thought maybe Victor went back, but I couldn’t be sure.
Roxane: Marissa, Rachel, Miri is definitely a tough woman. She tried to erase herself but she could never erase her fight or buy into the kidnappers logic.
Rebecca: That’s who Miri is—a fighter. And she, like everyone, has the right to bodily autonomy, no matter how much she pisses off the person who kidnapped her. Not that she’d ever get it.
Roxane: Miri had to be her own salvation.
Ana: I guess this brings me to another question: how are you intending to deal with criticism or book talks when the conversation turns towards political matter, and slides into a debate on victim-blaming, or rape culture? These are absolutely important conversations but I would also hope the conversation stays centered on what you—or your novel—has to say, rather than just jumpstarting the debate.
Ana: Ah! There was a lot of talk of bodily autonomy in the the book discussion thread.
April: I missed the thread. Huh.
Rebecca: Yes, Ana. I 100% agreed with what you said, but by the time you said it, I’d all but checked out. I just cannot with victim blaming.
Roxane: Ana, I will deal with those criticisms as best I can but this novel, however political, is fiction and if people want to extrapolate other things from a novel about rape culture, I will have to stay the course.
Rebecca: Anyone who believes Miri’s mother’s ideas that the captors normally leave their victims alone is delusional.
Rachel: What about Sebastien? Did he really believe she’d go unharmed?
Roxane: Rebecca, I think Miri’s mother deludes herself so she can get up each day in a country where her safety is taken for granted
Marissa: I was surprised the brother didn’t at least have passing commentary during her kidnapping or return.
Rebecca: Yes, Roxane! Yes! I mean, obviously you know that—as the writer. But I agree.
Brian S: I don’t think that came into it for Sebastien. He was looking at the bigger picture.
Roxane: Rachel, Sebastien suffered from a different kind of delusion—he was so busy worrying about himself that he didn’t really stop to worry about his daughter. He is just a deeply flawed man.
Marissa: You know, I felt very conflicted about Sebastien.
Roxane: How so, Marissa?
April: You did a great job with his character.
Rebecca: I was glad to read more about Sebastien’s thinking. It didn’t excuse that he left his daughter to rot, but it was interesting to read his thoughts.
Roxane: Thank you, April.
Marissa: Because my logic didn’t think he was wrong… in the sense that he was anticipating that if he wasn’t strong then it would keep happening over and over.
April: From a reader perspective, he is very complex, so flawed, so very human.
Brian S: In another (lesser) writer’s hands, this would have been Sebastien’s story—the story of the patriarch who has to make impossible choices or lose everything. I’m glad he’s reduced in this story.
Marissa: I can’t imagine having to worry that each of my relatives might be picked off one at a time at any given time.
Roxane: Marissa, that totally makes sense. And I was definitely keeping that in mind as I wrote his character. I think we all have grand ideas about what we would do when the unthinkable happens.
Roxane: In this novel, I tried to write what happens when those grand ideas fail.
Ana: I love your response to dealing with extraneous criticism. I’m always wanting people to remember novels are fiction—and to examine and appreciate the writing and the stories as just that.
Marissa: At the end, I couldn’t hold a grudge against him, surprisingly.
Brian S: Marissa, he’s also stubborn in that he’s unwilling to leave Haiti for any reason, when that’s a very viable option.
Marissa: Well, you say that, but it’s so complicated.
Roxane: Thank you, Ana. I’ve already gotten interesting questions about fiction versus fact and I simply stress and restress that this novel is fiction. If I wanted to write a nonfiction book about this subject I would have done that.
Marissa: I’m from a Mexican family here in Texas… there are safer places than our border, but we still go back because we’ve always felt safe before.
Roxane: Marissa, indeed it is.
Brian S: No doubt. But he, unlike so many others, had the option.
Marissa: And we’ll keep going back
Marissa: It’s a weird thing when it’s your culture though. It’s your identity.
Roxane: There’s also a sense that you should be safe in the land of your forefathers.
Marissa: Everywhere else feels like you’re on a vacation/work/etc. comparatively.
Roxane: And certainly, my parents and brother are in Haiti, at least part time. I am strongly connected to Haiti. And nothing will change that.
Brian S: Yeah, that’s something that I’ve never experienced, because we moved around so much when I was a kid that I never felt tied to a place. I know intellectually that it exists, but I’ve never felt it myself.
Roxane: Brian, we moved around a lot too and that’s why I have always been grateful for being Haitian, to have that anchor.
Rebecca: I’m pretty tied to Kentucky, though I keep trying to get away from it. Nothing else feels like home home, and yet I don’t survive well here. So I get it somewhat.
Brian S: The only anchor I had as a kid was the church, and I left that when I was 26, so now I drift.
Marilyn: I’m intrigued by Miri’s gesture of “forgiveness” of her father. She tells herself “I lied because that lie cost me less than the truth would have cost him”—so insightful of her. Do you think it was critical of Miri’s healing process to go back to Port-au-Prince and say “I forgive you”?
Roxane: Hi Marilyn, I do think that was part of her healing process. For her to be her best self, to really move forward with her husband and children, she had to stop focusing so intently on her father.
Marissa: I think it’s important to women of color as well because when we’re asked where we’re from, saying “Houston” isn’t what they mean. Our identity is often tied to this other nation of our ethnicity. So they keep prodding, “where are you really from?” Soon enough, “American” sounds hollow.
Brian S: There’s a great Funny or Die video which gets at how stupid that question, where are you from, really is. I’ll see if I can dig it up.
Rebecca: Marissa, I think I understand, as much as I can understand, not having been asked that question. (Which is pretty awful.)
Roxane: Marissa, absolutely. We are very much hounded by this “where are you really from” question, one that is so presumptive and arrogant, as if we, as people of color, could not possibly be from the same place as those who ask such questions.
April: I try to be sensitive to that. If I met you, Marissa, since I am from Tennessee, I would be zoning in on your accent. Since I’m always a stranger whenever I meet someone with one, I always ask. But lately, I find that I have to explain that.
April: I don’t ask people where they are really from, good god.
Marissa: Oh I don’t have an accent. I’m two generations American.
Brian S.: Here’s that video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=crAv5ttax2I.
What are you working on these days, writing wise?
Roxane: Well, a few things. I am working on a couple of novels, and I recently sold a nonfiction book, Hunger, that I need to write between now and March 2015.
Rachel: Did I read somewhere that you are annotating Age of Innocence? Is it true?
Rebecca: I was going to ask about Hunger!
Roxane: Rachel, that is true. In theory, I turn that manuscript in on May 15.
Rebecca: How much of Hunger was already written when you sold it?
Roxane: Rebecca, none. My agent sold Hunger on proposal.
Brian S: Who are you reading now?
Marissa: Yes, book recs!
Roxane: I am reading Amy Sohn’s The Actress, Dylan Landis’s Rainey Royal, Celeste Ng’s Debut novel. Everything I Never Told You, and Laila Lalami’s forthcoming book.
Rebecca: Impressive! (To have sold Hunger on proposal.)
Ana: To go back to the book—I’m interested in how you set up the narrative. What thinking went into structuring the story in a non-linear way?
Roxane: Ana, I was thinking quite a lot about fairy tales, so I wanted to intersperse elements of the fairy tale. I also think that if you are kidnapped, if you are held against your will, you start to reflect on your life. I wanted to advance the novel by going back and forth between the kidnapping and Miri’s life before the kidnapping. And in the second half, I wanted it to be straight aftermath.
Marissa: I liked that. In the second half, when she passes out in the doctor’s office. Err, did she have something inside her? Because I just remember the metal against metal line.
Roxane: Marissa, she was undergoing an examination and the invasion of tools was just her breaking point.
Marissa: Ok—I thought so, but I just wasn’t sure. I got literal at that point.
Brian S: Two minutes to go. Any last questions?
Marissa: Nope. Thanks, Roxane! This was my favorite book club pick so far!
Roxane: Wow, thank you Marissa!
Rachel: Mine too. fantastic novel.
Rebecca: I loved An Untamed State, too. So thanks for writing it and giving me such a good catharsis. I hadn’t cried that much in ever.
Roxane: Thank you all for such great questions and for reading my book so thoughtfully. It is the greatest gift for a writer.