Roxane Gay: Where There’s Wit, and Also Darkness

From her gut-wrenching short stories to her incisive humor pieces to her no-bullshit cultural criticism, Roxane Gay is a writer who writes in many forms, all brilliantly. I was lucky to get to sit down with her when she came to Bloomington for IR‘s 2nd Annual Blue Light Reading. You can hear our long-form interview on The Bluecast (forthcoming!), or read it below.

Roxane Gay: I’m going to take a picture. I take pictures of everything, so don’t be alarmed.

My name is Roxane Gay. I’m a writer, and an assistant professor at Eastern Illinois University.

Rachel Lyon: Can you describe your work a little bit?

RG: I’m a Libra, so I like a little bit of everything, so I write a little bit of everything. So I’m always just trying to write things that will move people in some form or fashion, whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction.

RL:You deal a lot with pop culture.

RG: Yes.

RL: Can you talk about how pop culture figures into your work?

RG: Sure. I love pop culture. I think it’s tacky and trashy and hilarious, and I’m always interested in just sort of how low our culture will go—or how high, depending on how you look at it. I think all too often people deride pop culture as, you know, beneath us, but I don’t think it’s beneath us. I think it’s awesome, and I think it’s worth celebrating, and also—more importantly—I think it’s worth critiquing, because I think pop culture really reflects the best and worst of who people are. And that interests me: How much will people debase themselves for a little bit of fame? Watching that process is very intriguing to me. It is.

RL: It seems like there’s a way in which there is no culture but pop culture.

RG: In some ways, absolutely. In some ways. I find the distinction to be odd. Why are we making this distinction between culture and pop culture? I don’t know that the line is as distinct as people want it to be. I think we try and tell ourselves that it’s distinct so we can feel a little better, but I think that it’s just culture, and some of it is more popular than the rest.

RL: Do you see, in the future, academic programs moving beyond that distinction?

RG: Of course. And then they’ll come back to it. Because that’s the way scholarly work seems to work: cyclically. I think that we are definitely going to get to a place of post-pop culture—which is going to be adorable—and I’ll still be rigidly in the pop culture camp, just like I’m still holding it down for modernism while the post-modernists work it out.

RL: You have a really interesting voice in your fiction, which to me seems almost… post-sincerity, or something?

RG: [Laughs.] That’s an interesting way of talking about it, yeah. Sincerity really interests me. A lot of people say my work is sincere—which I think is a great compliment. And I think sincerity is important.

It’s definitely something I’ve learned since I turned thirty. Because my twenties were kind of a wreck, and not very sincere at all. And so I’ve been trying to make up for that by trying to reach more towards sincerity. I’m a little tired of cynicism. It’s just so easy to be cynical—and there are plenty of reasons to be cynical, and I have my very cynical mmoments—but in terms of my writing and the stuff that I put out into the world, I just think, you know, let’s be honest. Let’s just be real. It’s okay to go there. So I try.

RL: Cynicism is a luxury? Cynicism is a privilege.

RG: Yes. And I do think it’s a privilege. You have the option of deciding how you feel about something. You have the luxury of disdain. There are people all around the world who don’t have that luxury, because they’re trying to eat, or not get killed by some sort of marauding force—or, you know, American forces—so I do think that cynicism is a luxury, and I’m very mindful of that.

You know, they say that everyone has privilege, and even though I like to write about gender issues, and I like to write about race and sexuality and the ways in which we struggle, I also am very mindful of the fact that I have a lot of privilege, and I try to use it wisely. Like the Force.

RL: So who are you reaching, or who are you trying to reach with your work?

RG: I really am trying to reach anyone who is willing to be moved or changed in some way. Sometimes I think I write for an audience, but sometimes I think I don’t. More often than not, I’m really not writing for an audience. I’m writing for myself. I’m very indulgent as a writer. I write what makes me happy. And then, hopefully, someone else will find something interesting there. The people who read in the places I publish may not share similar politics, but they tend to be open to ideas. Once in a while someone will say, “You’re preaching to the choir.” Well, who else would you be preaching to? They’re in church. I do think I speak, oftentimes, to likeminded individuals, but I know that I also change people’s opinions about things. So I’m always just looking for people who want to be reached. Because the people who don’t want to be reached, you can never reach them. So I’m not going to waste my time trying to.

RL: So what are the messages, then, that you’re trying to send to the people who are willing to hear them?

RG: I don’t know that I’ve neatly encapsulated what my message is, but I’m really concerned with making sure that people understand that everyone deserves the same opportunity to succeed, and what they do with that opportunity is up to them. I think a lot of the barriers that exist need to be torn down, and so I’m very committed to, in whatever small way I can, offering ideas about how we can start to tear those barriers down.

And also, most importantly, acknowledging that those barriers are there. People hate that. They don’t like to be told that there’s a glass ceiling, or that there are disparities in terms of how successful women in publishing can be. They’ll say, “Oh, look at, you know, this writer.” As long as you can point to someone, the problem exists. As long as you can count, and say, “Oh, here are three examples,” there need to be three thousand examples before I think that we’ve gotten where we need to get. And so I’m really interested in just pointing out that these barriers exist. I think it’s still important to do that. People will say, “Oh, this again?” Well, obviously, yes! This. Again.

RL: Can you give me an example of a time when it became clear to you that you’d reached someone?

RG: I wrote this essay about Chris Brown, that interesting young man. During the Grammy Awards, a bunch of young women Tweeted that they would willingly let Chris Brown beat them. Just to be near him, you know, and his incandescent glow. And I got a lot of emails from young women who said, “Oh, I didn’t really think of that.”

RL: What had you said in the essay?

RG: Oh, in the essay I had said I think our society has failed young women when we have allowed them to devalue themselves to this point, and that they deserve better, and that if they want to be beaten, they should do so in a consensual environment. And if Chris Brown was beating them, it would not be consensually, and he would not care about them, even if he gave them a little bit of attention. And I think it’s important for young women to know that.

And a lot of people said, “Oh, those girls were kidding, ha ha.” And I’m certain some of those young women were just joking around. I’ve said stupid things. I say stupid things every day. But I do believe there was some sincerity in what those young women were saying. I know there was sincerity in what those young women were saying. I know that there’s this sense that you are not complete unless you are attached to a man, and that it’s okay to subject yourself to any indignity, just so that you are deemed a real woman, attractive to a man. That you[’ll] surrender anything.

I think that’s a real problem, and so I was really trying to talk about that in the essay, and just say, “We failed you if you think this is what you deserve. If you think that a fist to the face is a price that’s worth paying. For a mediocrity of a person. That’s a problem.” And I got quite a few emails from young women who did say, “I do feel like I have to take whatever bullshit a man throws my way.”

You know, who knows, you know? It’s hard to measure. But I know I reached people with that one.

RL: It’s interesting to me that you brought into the conversation this question of consensual violence.

RG: Yes.

RL: Which I imagine is something that many of those young women probably hadn’t even considered as an option.

RG: Yes. You know, there are a lot of subcultures that young women don’t necessarily know about—that people in general don’t know about—but if that’s your kink, there’s a community for you, and there’s a way to do it, and it’s great. But you have to know what the rules are. And know that there are rules. That you can do risky things, and you can do things that raise your adrenaline, and that make you feel good—or bad, depending on what you want—but that there are rules. That you can set up rules where you can stop it when you want it to stop, and you can go further when you want to go further, and you don’t have to just take abuse that’s doled out without consent, that’s doled out without measure, that is doled out without rules. Maybe if more people knew that, they could indulge in some of their darker urges without having it go completely awry.

RL: You are now the nonfiction editor for The Rumpus.

RG: I am. I love The Rumpus, and they have been very good to my work. I’ve really enjoyed this opportunity to take on a more significant role at The Rumpus, because I really respect what they do.

RL: Can you talk a little bit about your arc, or your growth, as a writer, from youth through now?

RG: Sometimes I don’t know that I’ve grown as a writer at all [laughs].

No, when I was younger, I write a lot of really psychotic little stories that I sometimes go back and look at, and I just think, “Wow, Roxane. There was not an adjective that you were not in love with. It was very just, sort of emotionally indulgent, excessive writing, and I think that’s just what writing when you’re nineteen and twenty looks like.

My writing from when I was four or five was very cute and very bucolic. I would draw little pictures of villages and populate them and then write stories about the people in those villages. It was very sweet. And then life happened. And then my stories were these dark, rageful, “Oh, life is pain!” So I think my stories still have a lot of that, but I think in a more controlled manner. I think my writing is maturing. I think I’m learning to make better choices, and to pull back at times, and to also start to explore other themes in my writing—or to explore the same theme in a different way. So I think I’m growing.

RL: Is part of that maturation allowing an element of hope, and almost idealism into these dark, cruel situations?

RG: Yes, definitely. I do think there’s a need to shine a little light in these dark places… (ha, Lord of the Rings). I tend to write very dark stories, but I think that—and this is something, especially in the past, I’d say, five or six months, that I’ve started to embrace more—that you have to give the reader something to hold onto. To know that someone can, even if they don’t completely overcome something terrible, that they can at least get to a better place. They can reach higher ground and start to see, at least, hope. And so I’m trying to put my stories where the characters can at least see hope, and reach for it, even if they don’t necessarily hold it in their hands by the end of the story.

RL: Who are some of your favorite writers, personally?

RG: Oh, I have a lot of favorite writers. I read everything, and I read a lot. I’m very promiscuous in my reading habits. I love Laura Ingalls Wilder, which is weird, but I think she’s pretty amazing. My favorite writer is probably Edith Wharton. I think she’s just the original badass. I mean, she is such a writer of manners and elegance, but she tells very complex stories, and her descriptions are exquisite, and her rules for writing are exceptional. She’s very funny, she’s witty, she’s smart. I love Edith. I think Age of Innocence is such a stunning book. Every time I think about that I want to just like rub the pages on my face… mm, it’s so good.

I like Michael Chabon, very much. I love Mary Gaitskill. She’s wonderful. I’m a huge fan of Alicia Erian—Brutal Language of Love, Towelhead, and her forthcoming book, which is also really good. I like Paula Bomer, who is more of an indie writer, but she writes about motherhood in ways that will always just stun you, and ways that I think are very frank, and that pull away the sort of, “Oh, motherhood’s wonderful!” thing, and really just talk about more of the realities of motherhood and the difficulties of motherhood, and sort of the relentlessness of it, that you have this child and they’re with you forever. I love the way she writes about those things.

RL: If you could place yourself in a lineage of writers, who would your neighbors be on that timeline?

RG: Nowhere. [Laughs.] I like to see myself, I would hope, within a trajectory between Edith and Mary. Very much so. Someday. Where there’s wit, and there’s also darkness, and they find balance together in some way.

RL: Can you talk a little bit about your Haitian heritage, and what role history plays in your work, and family?

RG: My parents are Haitian. I was born here in the United States, but we were definitely raised with the understanding that we were Haitian, so to have that cultural background was really fun. It was different, and it was interesting, and we would go to Haiti in the summers sometimes, and I would get to see this whole different world that was definitely nothing like Nebraska or New Jersey or any of the other places that we lived.

But it was nice to go to this place and see people who looked like you and who talked like my parents—that sound was very familiar to my ears, and I enjoyed it—and so as a writer, I’m definitely sometimes trying to understand Haiti more clearly, because there are so many different narratives about Haiti. It’s hard to reconcile those different narratives, because they’re all so very different, and frankly I know very little about Haiti in the grand scheme of things. I know the things that I’ve seen when I’ve been there, but I’ve always been there within a world of privilege, so really, how much can one possibly know when you’re driving through the streets from a nice car?

My father and brother work in Port-au-Prince, and my mother goes, she goes less often these days because she doesn’t love it there sometimes. But I definitely hear their stories, and think about that a lot. I read the news, I talk to friends. And so a lot of times my writing is trying to sort of make sense of all these different things, and do so in a different way, I think. I hope.

RL: I’ve heard it said that the second generation is the generation that wants to go back to the homeland; your generation is the one that holds those stories.

RG: Yeah, I think that can be true. My dad went back—my parents went back—but they’ve kept a residence here, and then my dad went back and started a company, a concrete company, and now it’s a construction company. He always wanted to go back and do some good, and so he opened the first concrete plant in the country. Before he started his company they were making concrete by hand.

But I do think it is my generation that holds the stories, because our parents left, and they left for a reason, and frankly I don’t even know why my parents left. They don’t talk about it. But I know it wasn’t some sort of deep, dark trauma, or anything like that. They just wanted better, and so they left. It is the second generation, I think, that tends to want to go back. I am not part of that generation. I like it here. But there are times when I think, “I would love to live there. If, if, if. If things were different. If it were better.” And it’s such a privilege to be able to choose: “Where do I want to live?”My brother and my father, I think, have a nice situation. They go there for five to seven days, and then they come back here and have some respite. And then they go back, and then they come back. And I think it’s a nice balance of being able to have your foot in both worlds. I think it can get exhausting, but you still get to have the comforts of the United States—like drinking water from the tap, and driving with a little less traffic—Port-au-Prince has a lot of traffic—but then you also get to go to this place where you know you come from, and where you have very deep roots. I think in my writing I’m trying to do that, too: be here, and sort of imagine a better there, and also examine what’s going on there, too.

RL: What are some misconceptions about the work that you do? Have you run into any?

RG: I run into misconceptions all the time.I think with my nonfiction, a lot of times, people think that I’m stating the obvious. I think that’s the biggest misperception, this notion of stating the obvious. I think if it was obvious I wouldn’t feel compelled to talk about it. Because we would all see it. But we don’t all see it.

RL: How would somebody think that you were stating the obvious? I’m thinking of, for example, your comparison of water fountains and water features.

RG: Oh, that. I think it’s more with my nonfiction.

RL: That to me seemed like nonfiction!

RG: Oh, the water fountain thing? Well, but that was a humor piece! Yeah, the water features. That’s important stuff. [Laughs.] Yeah, that kind of writing I don’t think anyone has misconceptions about. I think it’s exactly what it is: that sometimes I like to write weird, funny things.I am deeply concerned about water fountains and water features.

RL: So what kinds of things, then, are people responding to when they say that?

RG: Like whenever I write about gender or race, I mean, like whenever you have the nerve to tell people with privilege that they need to check that privilege, they tend to resent that. People don’t want to hear that, you know, for lack of a better phrase, that shit is fucked up. They don’t want to know. It’s uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable to hear that even though your world is fairly perfect, that the worlds of other people may not be as perfect.You know, I think about an essay I wrote a couple of years ago about Best American Short Stories, and the absence of diversity within the pages, both in terms of the writers and the content. And a lot of people were like, “Oh, you’re just stating the obvious.” And you know, the thing is, I don’t want to diminish criticism, because I think criticism’s important, and I think it’s important to be challenged. So, yes, you can call me out on the things that I may not get right, or that I don’t delve into with enough complexity, but it’s still important to say that—it was called “A Profound Sense of Absence”—I think it’s important to acknowledge that there was, especially in that year’s issue, a profound sense of absence in terms of what was going on in the pages of that book.

RL: So then your response to them…

RG: Well this one guy actually wrote me this like 2,000-word email where he completely disagreed with me, and was pointing out what he considered to be diversity in the issue. And it’s a good book—I read it every year—and I openly acknowledge that, I mean, I’m critiquing it because I give a damn. I just wrote back and I tried to address all of his points, and there was just no reaching him. He just was so angry that I dared to suggest that there could have been more diversity. And I’m not even only talking about race. I just had to say, “Well, I can’t make you see what’s there if you don’t want to.” We just agreed to disagree, but he was extremely verbose [laughs] in his critique.

RL: What do you think today’s climate is like for writers of color and women writers?

RG: I think the climate’s what you make of it. I think that there are opportunities. I think that it’s a difficult climate, but I don’t think it’s the kind of climate where you can’t succeed, where you can’t place your work in the venues where you want to place your work, but I think the opportunities are limited.I think that, for example, the VIDA organization does a lot of great work to show just how limited the opportunities are. Their data sets are flawed, and that’s one of their biggest problems, and until they get their statistics correct they’re going to continue to run into people who criticize what they’re doing, but let’s not lose sight of how important their work is, and the information that they’re providing. They’re taking the time, and they’re doing these exhaustive counts, and showing us time and again that, look: These discrepancies are gaping.

So, are there opportunities for women and writers of color? Of course. But you have to be relentless. You have to be the best. You can never let up. Meanwhile, you know, I hate to make it an us-versus-them thing, but you don’t necessarily have to have that same relentlessness if you are a white man. Many do, of course, and are very ambitious, and they put in the work, but I think that the bar is just higher for women and writers of color. And not always, but more often than not.

I think that’s unfair, and I think that’s what a lot of the more vocal women writers in particular who are addressing this issue are really trying to bring up, that, look: The barriers are coming down, slowly, but we still have to claw, and it would be great to no longer have to claw, and to just be awesome. To work hard, and know that hard work will pay off. Now, we know that hard work might pay off. It would be great if things were easier.

RL: Is there anything else you want to say before we wrap things up?

RG: No. [Laughs.] Not that I can think of. Thanks for having me.

RL: Thanks for coming in!

RG: It was exciting! I love this microphone.

RL: Yeah, these things are pretty cool.

RG: Yeah they are.

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