Roxane Gay: ‘If I was waiting for confidence to write, I’d still be waiting‘
15 Jan 2019
illustration by Nadia Akingbule
Roxane Gay is in demand – so her first visit to the UK has not necessarily been a relaxing one. A New York Times bestselling feminist commentator, whose bibliography hones in on bodies, race, and sexual violence, Roxane has become a staple in the 21st-century feminist canon. Her 2014 essay collection Bad Feminist was devoured by academics and the general public alike, so much so that the year following its release Reductress satirised in an article that if you hadn’t read Bad Feminist yet, you were a bad feminist. This week, everyone on this side of the Atlantic either wants to speak to her or hear her speak.
But I’m speaking to Roxane the day after she talked about hating journalism as an industry, at a Q&A with Liv Little, gal-dem’s founder and editor-in-chief at the Southbank Centre. A mega-fan, walking through the door of her hotel room in London Bridge with a backpack full of her books, I’m hyper-aware of this fact. Keen to give a good interview, I have a fastidious etiquette list drawn up from pointers I’ve come across in her writing.
When I broach the subject of dislike for journalists, she rebuts: “I don’t hate journalists,” her tone serious. “I just hate how some journalists talk about fatness.” If she did hate them, that would also be understandable – the general public’s heightened awareness of Roxane and her work means, in some ways, fame has made her all the more subject to the complex misogyny she writes about. Her treatment at the hands of the media has at times also been anything but sensitive – often journalists’ questions are intrusive, dehumanising, or exemplify the very notions of racism and fatphobia (often through the lens of gender) that she has spoken out against. Preparing to go on air on Woman’s Hour, she tweeted that a producer had interrogated her about what question they needed to ask to get her to disclose her current weight.
“I was surprised and disgusted, because it was Woman’s Hour, so I guess I expected better. But I guess that was my mistake,” she says. “I could instantly tell it was just asked by someone who actually had not read the book – or who had maybe read highlights or skimmed it.”
“I was really surprised by how many people focused on my highest weight – it was included in headlines. I’m not ashamed of it, but it was just a bit like…really? Is this what we’re going to do?”
An expert by experience in micro-aggressions, this is a fairly run-of-the-mill occurrence for Roxane. “At one point in the book I wrote about my highest weight, and I was really surprised by how many people focused on that number – it was included in headlines. I’m not ashamed of it, but it was just a bit like…really? Is this what we’re going to do? It just misses the point of the book.”
Like all industries, journalism is harmed by the commercial and capitalist structures it exists within, which is something most writers have to negotiate for themselves at some point or another. “I get where it comes from,” she says. “This sort of market-driven capitalist culture, where we have to get clicks to sustain the publication and so the best way to do that is to come up with the most salacious headlines and tidbits about a person’s life. But that’s just a malicious thing to do, and it’s incredibly frustrating.”
“I just wish that the industry was more robust so that journalists did not have to write toward the bottom line, and the lowest common denominator. That’s the problem.”
As a result, she says she’s now less interested in expending emotional labour for people who don’t want to engage, or understand. “I care what people think – but there’s also a segment of the population who we exhaust ourselves with. We can spend so much time asking ‘how do we reach the other side?’, and ‘how do we get conservatives to care about liberal issues and liberal agendas?’ And the answer is we don’t.”
“You’re not a bottomless font. We spend so much time trying to reach the unreachable and teach the unteachable. I have better things to do with my time.”
“I wish that the industry was more robust so that journalists did not have to write toward the bottom line, and the lowest common denominator. That’s the problem.”
Her time is indeed precious – I’m not her first interview of the day; she’s already done her appearance on Woman’s Hour, and as I perch on the end of her sofa, Elle is prepping for a shoot by her bed. “To have to talk about yourself at length, multiple times a week, is a lot,” she says. “But at the same time, as a writer, whenever you get this kind of attention for your work, it’s a small miracle. So I don’t take it for granted.”
Having written about racism and imposter syndrome, struggling with coming out, and her sexual assault in childhood, she says that above all, fatness is the hardest thing she has ever had to write about. This might seem surprising given her conviction, which shines in Hunger, her memoir about her body, her treatment as a fat, black woman, and how sexual violence led her to use fatness as a way of coping with trauma. Roxane explains how often people are deeply afraid of talking about fatness for what it is, not even wanting to say the word.
“I think people are afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing, so then they overcorrect and act in really weird, evasive ways,” she tells me. “Most of the terminology around fatness is really loaded and weaponised – but we need to stop seeing ‘fat’ as an insulting term, it’s a descriptor.”
“Oftentimes thin people bend over backwards to say things like ‘oh my god, you’re not fat, you have a pretty face’. But guess what, I am fat, and I have a pretty face. These things aren’t contradictory.”
Central to Roxane’s writing about bodies is that fatness is not the problem, the way society relates to fat bodies is. At her events, women often talk to Roxane about their experiences of structural exclusion, like workplaces not stocking company t-shirts in their sizes. “It just breaks my heart, because these women cry to me,” she says. “I totally know what they’re talking about, that they can’t feel like they’re part of the group. These sizes exist, it’s really easy to include these sizes in t-shirt orders, but people just don’t think, they think if you’re beyond that, you’re beyond hope, and you don’t get to participate.”
Then there are the physical architectural methods of exclusion. At the Southbank, she pointed out that the sizes of seats in the venue wouldn’t be able to fit some people, and she also tells me about stairs, distances it’s assumed that everyone can easily walk – a host of ways that physical structures can erase and discriminate. “A lot of this world is designed to either force fat people to never leave their homes, or to just live with the so-called ‘problem’,” she says. “In that way, there is a lot of overlap between fatness and disability in terms of accessibility and spaces, and societal expectations about different kinds of bodies. I think it would be wonderful for fat activists and disability activists to collaborate more, because there’s so much crossover.”
“We need to stop seeing ‘fat’ as an insulting term, it’s a descriptor”
On the flipside, sometimes thin readers also approach Roxane to tell her how much they relate to her work; I’d probably sort myself into this category – someone who is not fat, but feels somewhat of a connection with the way Roxane describes struggling with food. “That used to surprise me,” she says. “But what’s universal is we all live in a body. And through discipline, like disordered eating – people of all sizes often try to create order where there is none, and that is the commonality.”
Alongside fatness, bodies are often seen as “wrong” in all sorts of seemingly arbitrary, yet violent ways. In April this year, Roxane collaborated with Medium to create Unruly Bodies, a series about bodies pushing up against these boundaries; immigrant bodies, disabled bodies, transitioning bodies, ageing bodies, and bodies that are ill, dying, or dead. Then there’s “discipline” – a Foucauldian word that describes the way we shape, command, and control our bodies. “Makeup, clothing, exercise, heels tattoos,” Roxane lists as a few examples. “Bodies rarely follow rules. We all live in bodies that are complicated, and we should create space for that unruliness instead of always trying to discipline it.”
Roxane is no stranger to contradictions, seemingly always embracing them in her work; explaining how it is possible to be both unruly and disciplined, fat-positive and but hate your fat body, or a feminist who sometimes engages in “unfeminist” culture, without overwhelming cognitive dissonance. Bad Feminist, her smash-hit work on theory and practice, does this perhaps most clearly in an essay deconstructing the lyrics perpetuating misogyny and rape culture strung throughout Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines. Alongside the danger and violence inherent in the song, she acknowledges that she still finds it catchy, and confusingly, it still makes her “want to dance”.
In this way, she tends to keep ugly parts of pop culture on the table for inspection rather than dismissing them outright, in the way that fast-moving platforms like Twitter might encourage: “I think cancellation culture is kind of absurd.”
“When we say ‘x, y or z is cancelled, then that means we’re not really engaging with the actual problems that that person represents. Just because you cancel someone doesn’t mean that the underlying issue goes away.”
“Do we cancel Kevin Hart? I mean, I could care less because he’s not funny, but cancelling him doesn’t address the homophobia in his tweets,” she says. And through this, we miss out on a level of nuance: “I would rather have a conversation about the culture that enables him to be that confident in his ignorance, rather than just simply say ‘cancel him’.”
“When we say ‘x, y or z is cancelled, then that means we’re not really engaging with the problems that that person represents. Just because you cancel someone doesn’t mean that the underlying issue goes away”
Many of those conversations take the form of projects across seemingly disparate and eclectic mediums. “Right now I’m working on a YA novel, and I’m writing an essay collection called TV Guide about television,” she says. “Each chapter focuses on a TV network, and what that network says about American culture.”
Roxane has also just finished an adaptation of An Untamed State as a screenplay, and is working on a TV pilot, and a comic series called The Banks, which is about three generations of black women who are master thieves in Chicago: “They are gonna go after a big score, and also settle some old scores.” she laughs.
I ask her what she’d like to see in 2019, and her answer is simple enough: “I would love to see Donald Trump impeached.”
She’d also like to see her final project finished – a book of writing advice called How to Be Heard, which is about telling the stories you want to tell, and using your voice. I ask her sheepishly, silently wanting to know for myself, how as a young writer, you do find your voice.
“It’s not necessarily something you find,” she says. “It’s something that’s in you and you allow to emerge. Oftentimes people go looking here or looking there, instead of just recognising that they already have the voice, and they just need to use it.”
She adds that it’s not worth waiting for confidence before beginning – which seems all the more important for marginalised people, who often encounter mistreatment and greater criticism in the way their work is received. “I’ve never waited for the confidence to do anything, because if I was waiting for confidence, I would still be waiting.”
“It’s never going to come necessarily. But you have to write anyway.”