Roxane Gay: ‘If I was waiting for confidence to write, I’d still be waiting‘

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 … Continue reading Roxane Gay: ‘If I was waiting for confidence to write, I’d still be waiting‘