Roxane Gay is a force. In the past six years, she has had five major works come out—a novel (An Untamed State), two short story collections (Ayiti and Difficult Women), an essay collection (Bad Feminist), and the first installment of a new comic book series (Black Panther: World of Wakanda). Together, these feature a New York Times bestseller, a semifinalist in the 2015 Morning News Tournament of Books, a nomination for the NAACP Image Award for an Outstanding Literary Work in Fiction, and a forthcoming film by Gina Prince-Bythewood. The publication of World of Wakanda makes her the first black woman to pen a Marvel comic book. Her short stories and essays have been published in well over sixty-five publications, and her writing has appeared in many ‘Best of’ collections. 2017 promises at least one more book—Hunger, a memoir, is due out in June.
Gay’s work is how I first learned about The Rumpus. Years later, I have read nearly every book she has ever written (with exception of the comic book—I haven’t yet gotten to that). I have devoured her blog posts—at one point in my life, I read post after post until I got to the end of her blog during nights when I couldn’t fall asleep. I looked to her for guidance, for insight, for comfort. Gay’s work taught me what it can mean to be unapologetically vulnerable, to bear both your scars and unhealed wounds, and to be transparent about your desire to be better. Her work encouraged me to think about my life and writing and people in a softer way.
In this newest collection, Difficult Women, there is a story about water following a woman wherever she goes. There are stories about women who are broken, but surviving. There are stories about the sad, hard to explain things that are a function of being a woman. There are stories about women who are trying to fill their empty places. The thread that runs through it all is that these are stories about women, in all of the difficult, glorious, inexplicable forms that we take.
Gay and I corresponded by email, talking of rest, the bond of sisters, literary fame, and more.
The Rumpus: I read “Break All the Way Down” at Joyland before it was in this collection and I think it’s such a stunning story. I’m interested in the idea of breaking down. It felt to me like a theme in some of your stories, but particularly in this one, where the characters have been broken by various forces and they feel the need to be even more broken than they already are. I sensed some hope in this story, though, where, for the protagonist, being broken all the way down is what is needed for her to start to rebuild or even to conceptualize what rebuilding could look like. Do you feel that’s too optimistic of a reading?
Roxane Gay: The narrator is inconsolable in her grief. With the loss of her son, pain is what makes sense to her and so she keeps seeking pain out until she can handle feeling other things, until she can face what she has lost and the life she wants to get back to.
Rumpus: I noticed while reading Difficult Women that while there were many ‘defined’ characters, there were also many characters whose race wasn’t easily discernible. When it comes to diversity in literature, do you think it’s enough to have more people of color writing or do you think there’s also an obligation for people of color to write about people of color?
Gay: Diversity in literature is, in part, about representation—who is telling the stories and who stories are told about. People of color are not under any kind of obligation beyond working hard, doing their best, and learning from their mistakes. It is deeply unfair to task writers of color with unique responsibilities that we don’t assign to all writers. As for the race of my characters, why do you assume their race isn’t easily discernible? Probably because you assume, like most people, that whiteness is the default. Let me be clear—whiteness is not the default in my fiction.
Rumpus: I agree that whiteness is commonly viewed as the default for many people, though it is not my default. Although it is unfair, I think writers of color are often in the position of advocating for our collective humanity through our work. The Hunger Games comes to mind—although written by a white author, I remember readers of the book and viewers of the movie saying that Rue’s death didn’t hold as much of an emotional weight because she was black. What do you think it will take for whiteness not to be seen as the default? Does that mean not questioning the race of characters or assuming a different race until whiteness is proved?
Gay: It will take a long time and active effort from readers, writers, and publishers. We assume whiteness is the default because whiteness, historically, has been the default. This is one of the many reasons diverse representation matters so much. We need to change the default. Readers need to stop assuming characters are white if race isn’t explicitly defined.
Rumpus: In an essay about black ambition for VQR, you wrote, “Many people of color living in this country can likely relate to the onset of outsized ambition at too young an age, an ambition fueled by the sense, often confirmed by ignorance, of being a second-class citizen and needing to claw your way toward equal consideration and some semblance of respect. Many people of color, like me, remember the moment that first began to shape their ambition and what that moment felt like.”
This is something I can identify with. Thinking about this ambition and the constant desire to be more and do better, do you ever rest?
Gay: No, I don’t ever rest. It’s a problem and hopefully something I will get a better handle on in the coming years. If I cannot rest and relax, all the work I do is for naught.
Rumpus: Do you feel that you were ever taught to rest?
Gay: My dad is a workaholic so I take after him in this respect. I don’t know that anyone in the United States is taught to rest. We have this cultural obsession with work and productivity as if we’re better people if we don’t stop and take some time for ourselves. I’ll learn how to rest, though. I can still learn new tricks.
Rumpus: In that same essay for VQR, which came out a couple of months after Bad Feminist, you wrote, “My novel is in its third printing. My essay collection is in its fourth fifth printing [sic]. I am having a moment, and the burden of my ambition still has me wondering if I am worthy.” Even though it has only been a couple of years since you stepped down as Essays Editor here at The Rumpus and stopped contributing regularly to HTMLGIANT, it feels to me like it could have been a lifetime ago. At this point, you have been published in an astonishing amount of places, in addition to your books and forthcoming projects. Do you feel worthy now? Is a sense of worthiness related to your work, or to something else? How do you cultivate the feeling of worthiness?
Gay: It really depends on the day. Intellectually, I know I am worthy, however arbitrary a thing worthiness is, and have always been worthy. Emotionally, my ambition is not yet sated. Emotionally, I still feel like a kid at the adult’s table, yearning for recognition. I’m not sure where this all comes from but it is how I feel.
Rumpus: There are a lot of characters in this collection who have a twin, or a very close sister. Why is this a particular point of interest for you?
Gay: I am interested in intense, unbreakable emotional connections and oftentimes, such connections can be found between siblings. What is it like to be connected to someone you can never get away from, for better or worse? I love trying to answer that question.
Rumpus: A lot of the women in your stories wrestle with the difference between men who are good and men who are not. Now obviously, good is a relative term and even among ‘good men,’ there are gradations of good. Do you have any thoughts on this?
Gay: No woman or man is any one thing and the men in my stories, well, some of them are good and some of them are terrible, and most of them make the lives of the women they love much harder than need be. Why? Because that’s the kind of storytelling I was drawn to when I wrote these stories, most of which are at least seven years or more old.
Rumpus: Is it still the kind of storytelling you are drawn to now?
Gay: In part, and I am sure that kind of storytelling will always be the center of gravity for my fiction, but my interests have also evolved. I probably write the same story a hundred different ways. I suppose right now I am looking for the 101st different way to write that same story. And the 102nd, and 103rd and 111th and 133rd.
Rumpus: I think a lot of your work seems to be propelled by the violence of masculinity, if that’s fair to say. It’s not that masculinity is the center, but that its violence is often a factor and a point of retreat for your female characters. In “La Negra Blanca,” there’s a scene where Sarah is raped and the man who rapes her doesn’t seem to think he’s doing anything wrong. In your essay, “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence,” you grapple with rape being used as a plot point and writing about sexual violence within your own work. Here, I think it’s more than a plot point—for me, reading that section of the story was painful. And yet, I wonder if you have any thoughts about the intersections of these things. Do you tend to write toward an ideal or toward reality?
Gay: I write toward both idealism and reality—how things are and how I wish they could be. Violence is a common part of far too many women’s lives. My fiction is a very accurate reflection of the world we live in. Certainly, in some stories, that reflection is amplified but this country elected a man who enjoys grabbing women by their pussies. Truth can hurt so very much.
Rumpus: I really love the section of the title story, “Difficult Women,” called “Why a Crazy Woman Is Misunderstood.” I’m thinking of experiences I’ve had where I’ve felt that I was feeding into the trope of the ‘crazy woman’ in relationships, but what I was worried would be seen as ‘crazy’ was me having any sort of emotional response to the situation. In this section of your story, ultimately what makes her ‘crazy’ is having to make considerations that many, or even every woman, is forced to. Do you have any thoughts on this?
Gay: In that section of the story “Difficult Women,” I was looking at the ways women are made to feel crazy for behaving in perfectly normal, acceptable, and understandable ways. Oftentimes, when a woman demands accountability, respect, or consideration, she is crazy or nagging or whatever. I felt like labeling that section “Why a Crazy Woman Is Misunderstood” really got at the impossible position women are often in.
Rumpus: Your blog used to be called “I have become accustomed to rejection.” At this point, you have over 160,000 followers on Twitter. You regularly write for the New York Times, you judge fiction contests, you’ve written a comic book with Ta-Nehisi Coates. You sometimes tweet about being recognized in the various places you go. Did you ever imagine that you would become something of a celebrity writer or a public intellectual? How do you navigate it?
Gay: I never imagined that I would be the kind of person who is recognized when I am out and about just living my life. I never imagined any of the success I am currently experiencing. My dream was to write a book and see it published. I didn’t dare imagine anything beyond that, so, I’m trying to keep my head on my shoulders. I am trying so very hard to stay in the moment despite the ferocity of my ambition. I am trying to keep growing and improving as a writer. I don’t want the success to go away. I don’t want it to seem unearned.
Rumpus: How do you feel about the category of “African-American literature”? How do you feel about your books being categorized that way?
Gay: The designation is useful and necessary and sometimes limiting but it is only limiting to people who think, for example, that African-American literature couldn’t possibly be something they could be interested in or relate to. They have limited imaginations, which is sad. I am fine with my books being categorized as African-American literature but I hope they are also considered Haitian-American literature and American literature. All of these things are part of who I am and what I write.
Rumpus: I’ve been so excited for Hunger ever since I first learned that it would exist. Is there anything you can say about it?
Gay: Hunger has been a really difficult book to write. It is the most personal thing I’ve ever written. I lay bare what it is like to live in a body like mine. As such, the book will come out about a year later than originally intended. But, hopefully, the book and I am better for that delay, and for the challenge the writing experience has been. It’s a memoir of my body, and I look at sexual violence, trauma, overeating, and obesity as a response to trauma, and living in a morbidly obese body while very much wanting to change that body in a world that condemns that body—all in a slender volume of prose!
Rumpus: In what ways do you push yourself toward growth in your writing?
Gay: I read constantly because there is so much to learn from the writing in the world. I look at my older writing to see where my weaknesses are and then I try to address those weaknesses and make new mistakes.
Rumpus: What good is fiction in a time like this?
Gay: Fiction offers escape but it also interrogates the world we live in, whether the past, present or future. Good fiction challenges us as much as it entertains and these days, we could do with both of these things.
Rumpus: Another thing that I’ve seen you say is, “I’m just a girl who writes.” Why do you write?
Gay: I write because I love doing it. The actual act of writing brings me such pleasure—to tell stories, to engage in cultural criticism, to reflect, to question, all of it is invigorating. And most of the time, writing is a lot of fun, and not a small amount of self-medication.
Rumpus: Who do you write for?
Gay: I write for myself, first and foremost and I also write for people, mostly women, who just want to be seen and heard and all too often aren’t.
Author photograph © Jay Grabiec.