The title of Roxane Gay’s best-selling collection of essays, Bad Feminist, can be taken a whole lotta ways.
Bad as in bad*ss, which would befit one of the most outspoken of contemporary American social critics.
Bad as in a feminist who confesses she’s not good enough at feminism.
Bad as in a feminist movement that this young African-American firebrand exhorts to do better by its poor and minority sisters.
The multifaceted author, speaker, New York Times op-ed regular and associate professor of creative writing at Purdue University will speak a week from Tuesday (Jan. 19th) at the Howard L. Schrott Center for the Arts. Gay’s appearance is part of Butler University’s Visiting Writers Series.
The author’s forthcoming book Hunger will be among her topics of discussion. It’s a decidedly unsentimental memoir about carrying a heavy body through a society that worships the thin and comely.
Ever agile in the crowd of contemporary communication, she’s serving up portions of that story ahead of publication over Twitter and Tumblr. Digital, likewise, was the medium for our recent interview, conducted by email to accommodate her travel schedule.
Sky Blue Window: As an engaged writer taking on the most vexing troubles of our times, including the deaths of young black males at the hands of the police, are you optimistic about the future of the country – and of your craft?
Roxane Gay: I have to be optimistic, or there's really no point in giving a damn about this world. Things are a mess, everywhere, but we are more and more having the difficult, necessary conversations that can contribute to change. I am absolutely optimistic about writing, though I do remain frustrated at the barriers marginalized groups face in being able to participate in the writing world.
SBW: Your writing has been wide-ranging – novels, short stories, commentaries on topical issues, essays on the culture and history underlying these contemporary traumas, and now, a most personal odyssey in Hunger. Do you find your various genres pollinate one another?
RG: My work definitely finds itself in conversation but there are also differences between my fiction and nonfiction – different urgencies, mostly, and different ways of exploring truth.
SBW: As a teacher of writing, do you encourage students both to honor their own experience and to venture outside it?
RG: I do encourage both. There is a lot to be learned when students draw from their own lives and experiences in their writing, but they should not limit their creative inquiry simply to what they know. It's also important to engage with the world beyond that which they know. It broadens their thinking, their writing, their sense of possibility.
SBW: You work in a privileged environment, a major university. It must be a challenge to connect students and faculty alike to a world in which struggle for survival and dignity are the norm.
RG: I do? I mean, I teach at a state school in a building that is rusted, dirty and regularly infested by roaches. The ivory tower is . . . not that ivory. True story. All kidding aside, it isn't challenging to connect to the world beyond the university, because of empathy. We cannot be divorced from the world around us because we are in a college classroom.
SBW: Is it daunting, trying to bridge the racial gap in American feminism?
RG: It can be daunting, yes. There are an alarming number of people who don't understand inter-sectionality, or the idea that as women, we embrace multiple identities that merit equal consideration when we are fighting for equality and progress.
SBW: Your novel An Untamed State interweaves the beauty and suffering of Haiti, your parents’ birthplace, with the lives of characters from within it and from elsewhere. Do I over-interpret by taking this as a metaphor for the centuries of mistreatment of this destitute neighbor by the U.S.?
RG: An Untamed State is in no way a metaphor. The novel is exactly what is: a story about a woman who is kidnapped, brutalized, and then must find a way back to herself.
SBW: After Hunger, what’s on your plate?
RG: I have a short-story collection coming out this fall, a young adult novel coming out next year or the year after, and a few other fun things in the pipeline!
For time and ticket information for this event and other guests of the Visiting Writer’s Series, contact Butler University’s website.