Literary powerhouse Roxane Gay gets deep and meaningful with 2019’s most exciting debut novelist, Candice Carty-Williams.
Roxane Gay isn’t just a writer, she’s a cultural cornerstone. I came to her in 2014 via Bad Feminist, her New York Times bestselling work of non-fiction. A collection that explores why and how we should be able to pick apart the idea of traditional feminism, reading it gave me a validity in my love of the colour pink, among other internal conflicts. At a time when we felt we all had to be perfect women, Bad Feminist was the antidote to that.
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A visiting professor at Yale University, Gay has enjoyed a fulsome teaching career alongside her own authorship. Her fiction writing includes the novel An Untamed State and the sublimely relatable short story collections Ayiti and Difficult Women, all works that have ensured her tenure as a writer who brings women’s stories to the forefront. Along the way, she’s amassed hundreds of thousands of online followers and real-life fans who storm her lovingly at events.
But it’s not just her own writing Gay is concerned with; she is deliberate and bold when it comes to giving other writers a platform. In 2018, Gay edited Not That Bad, an essay anthology on rape culture, and this year she launched Gay Magazine, an online compendium of diverse perspectives.
As a London-born writer whose first novel, Queenie, came out this year, it’s near impossible for me to imagine a literary or cultural landscape without Gay in it. It’s on Twitter where she especially shines; her cultural commentary is second to none. A brief look through her timeline will give you an insight into how her mind works: she’s quick, pithy, on the pulse and is never afraid to call out wrongdoings, political, institutional or otherwise.
When we speak, there’s very little that we don’t cover, from boundaries to politics by way of this year’s Booker Prize. If the 2014 version of me had known I’d be discussing the tricky navigation of being a woman in 2019 with the very writer who gave the understanding of womanhood nuance, she truly wouldn’t have believed it.
I want to ask you about identity. The actual history of African-Americans is short because that identity was taken away, but you have a stronger identity in knowing your parents are Haitian. Where does it sit with you? That American/African-American/ Haitian identity?
My parents definitely raised my brothers and I to be Haitian. And we just happened to be in Nebraska. So I always grew up knowing my ancestors were free. And I can’t tell you what that does, not having the psychic wound of slavery the way that African-Americans have it. Not that you’re not affected by slavery in the history of it, but it’s different.
Where is home to you? My family is mainly from Jamaica, and I romanticise it a lot. Living in Britain as a minority is hard, so I have this idea of Jamaica as home in my head. But then when I go there, it’s a pretty big culture shock.
I deal with the exact same thing. I haven’t been to Haiti in at least 15 years. And it’s challenging because I love Haiti. I’m proud to be Haitian.
The reality is that it’s a very complicated country. It’s easy to romanticise the place until you have to actually go and live there. I get to go and be there in a very privileged way. I think of people who are living in absolute poverty and who have no visas to leave and no means of escape, and it seems so hopeless and overwhelming. In the past few years, I’ve finally been able to travel the world in a way I never could before because I couldn’t afford it. And the more you travel the world, the more you come to understand that as challenging as the United States is to be a black American, it’s not better anywhere else. America is home for better and worse, yet Haiti is also home – for better and worse.
Do you have a grasp on your identity? I don’t. With Queenie coming out this year, I’ve had to sort of split my identity into different parts.
I have one identity, but I have boundaries around which parts of my identity I share with different people. There are boundaries around my personal life when I’m dealing with the media. And there are absolutely boundaries around my life when I do live events, which I do with alarming frequency.
I’m interacting with fans who think that they know me because they read my memoir, because I write about bodies and fatness and sexuality and sexual violence. And these are deeply emotional issues. People do feel a kinship with me, and I’m so grateful for the fanbase that I have. But oftentimes people say things to me like, “I feel like you’re my best friend.” I recognise that you feel that, but it’s not actually reality. And it’s painful to disappoint people, but it’s a one-way street because I don’t know anything about them. It’s challenging.
I get lots of people who cry on me and I always hug them. I don’t really know what else to do in that situation.
Dealing with my own trauma and then having to carry their trauma in addition to my own is too much. And so on days when I’m not able to do it, I do say at events: “I’m not a therapist, and I can’t carry your trauma. But I acknowledge and honour it. And I really hope you find the help you need and that you know the world is kind enough to give you the resources to get that help and to find balance.” Because when someone’s standing and crying in front of you, it’s not like you can be like, “Get the fuck out of my face.”I would never think that, but it can be really hard to know what to do and how much of it to do.
With writing, we’re putting emotion out, so people are receiving that and finding themselves in our work. For readers, we become their truth-speakers. Basically, I need to learn boundaries. You are teaching me a lot.
You know, oftentimes women – black women in particular – are expected to be emotional caretakers. We’re supposed to be…
When you started out, did you have any writing aspirations? Have you smashed them, or have they grown as you’ve grown? Or are you always moving your own goalposts?
I’m always moving the goalposts. In some ways, I’m comfortable with just being OK with what I’ve achieved. But on the other hand, I find that I am not doing enough to enjoy my life as it is, to enjoy what I’m achieving. I wish I could take more time to step back and be like, ‘Damn girl, you’ve really done something here.’ It’s just really hard for me to do that, for so many reasons, not the least of which is that I have crushingly low self- esteem. I’m very ambitious; I’ve published books, but I would love to win a Pulitzer, I would love to win a National Book Award, I would love to win the Booker… and not have to fucking share it.
As soon as the [Booker] chair said, “We’ve got two winners”, I was like, ‘Right, so Bernardine and who else?’ You just knew they wouldn’t let a black woman have it for herself.
I actually am a fan of Margaret Atwood. I think she’s a wonderful writer. I don’t know her personally, but she seems to be a wonderful literary citizen. She’s always been very kind online to me. But even she admitted it. Same shit, different day. You know, we never get our laurels. We always have to fucking share them.
You launched Gay Magazine this year. You strike me as someone who builds and upholds the writing community because you almost feel a responsibility to do so.
It may not formally be my responsibility, but if we don’t take responsibility as black writers for ourselves in our community, then what the fuck are we doing? I feel the same way about queer writers and women writers and disabled writers; just anyone who’s not a heterosexual, white man.
A few years ago, I was working in publishing and quickly realised there was nothing going on in the UK for us. So I started a short story prize for writers of colour exclusively. I think that as black women, there’s something in us that’s like, ‘OK, come on then. It’s got to be done, so I’ll get on with it.’
Absolutely. But it’s hard. The thing is, you did it, which is so amazing. You recognise an issue, and you address it. And oftentimes I think we get overwhelmed like, ‘What can I possibly do?’ But you don’t have to change the entire world.
When you were editing Not That Bad, I wondered how it felt being in charge of a narrative, but in a different way: taking the role of a narrator but through the voices of other people?
When I pitched the project, I pitched it as an academic project. Well not academic, per se, but I was thinking more cultural criticism than memoir. And I solicited submissions from several writers and I also opened up submissions and I think I got 330. Wow. And of those, I would say probably 300 to 315 were memoirs. And I realised we’re not even close to being in a place where we can intellectualise sexual assault because so many women and men and non-binary people still have testimony they need to give.
Obviously Bad Feminist is a work about how we have these existing social frameworks, but that there’s space to move within them. And that’s effectively what you describe in the case of editing Not That Bad. It’s hard to intellectualise those experiences because we haven’t had the space to even begin to process them. How do we take a step back when we’re still living in the trauma? When I read An Untamed State, I understood that you, as the writer, had gone through trauma. I think as past sufferers, we recognise legitimate trauma. Then when your memoir Hunger came out, that was your trauma on the page. How did those experiences of writing trauma in different ways feel to you? Sorry, that’s a really heavy question…
Oh no, it’s totally fine. An Untamed State was a novel, so I had the distance of fiction. There were definitely days where it was more challenging than others. It seems like it’s a memoir, but it’s not. With Hunger, it was my story. I was writing about my body which I live in. And I had to make myself so vulnerable. Hunger was by far the hardest writing project I’ve ever had. I don’t regret it, because the book reached people.
It’s not something I’ve ever spoken about publicly because most of my family don’t know, but I had a similar experience in my youth. And Hunger took away a lot of the shame that I carried for most of my life, and also made me understand the body I’m in and how I made myself safe in that body.
I feel sorry that you had to deal with that, because I know that pain and I wish that there was more space in the cultural conversation for survivors to talk about how sometimes there is a direct link between the body and the trauma.
I had a big anxious period when I was 23. I lost a lot of weight and I hated it. I felt so unsafe every time I walked down the street. And a lot of people dealing with sexual trauma have the same thing. It’s how we enshroud and protect ourselves. It’s a way of not wanting to be found attractive, at a base level. I actually prefer bigger women, but I know that in regard to self-protection it’s like, ‘If I’m not conventionally attractive, I’ll be left alone.’
I too enjoy women of all sizes. When I see a bigger woman I’m like [flirty voice] ‘Hey, girl’. But then it’s like [firm voice], ‘No, let me keep people away.’ It’s interesting there is that juxtaposition of attitudes towards a fat body.
The topics that you speak on and write about and give a platform to, be it politics or people – how do you decide? Or is it just obvious that certain things have to be spoken about?
Oh man, there’s not that much thought put into it. But bless your heart [laughs]. In addition to all my complaining tweets, I want to talk about what I believe in and bring attention to issues that deserve it. And right now, as we look towards the 2020 election here in the United States, it’s definitely imperative that we not rest on our laurels.
Who are your top three current American politicians?
Elizabeth Warren. I’m campaigning for her. I’m excited about her candidacy. I think that Stacey Abrams is incredible. She’s the smartest person in the room and I wish she would run. And Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: we don’t agree on everything, but I don’t need to actually agree with her on everything. She’s dynamic. People really didn’t think that she was going to be able to transition into Congress. Every single day she shows that she is prepared and intelligent and ready to take the establishment on.
She puts on those glasses and she’s like, ‘Right, let’s go.’
She becomes Clark Kent! Anytime you watch her in a congressional hearing and she puts on those lil’ glasses, I just laugh because I’m like, ‘He is about to get fucked up.’ With Mark Zuckerberg, I was like, ‘Alright, buddy.’
And how locked into British politics and culture are you? Do you understand that Brexit is a fucking mess?
I am very aware of what’s going on with Brexit. And I think it’s a fucking travesty. I think that there’s a significant racism issue that the UK is going to have to deal with, and sooner rather than later. I know that Boris Johnson is definitely your Trump. But slightly more intelligent – like, he can read. Johnson is a disgrace. But Theresa May wasn’t that much better. It was really frustrating to see her in this position of power and completely unable to politic in the way that the country needed.
And I think what’s going on with Meghan Markle is also a travesty. People can say, “Oh, she’s a princess, she’s fine”, but she’s also a person. And it’s one thing to be in the public eye, under a great deal of scrutiny, but the racism and misogyny that has been thrown at her by the British press… Well, I expected nothing from them, because I am old enough to have witnessed what they did to Diana.
Is there anything you would like to do better?
I’d like to take criticism better. I always take it eventually but I get really deep in my feelings when I first hear it. I wish I was less engaged in petty nonsense with people who are irrelevant. I don’t know why I can’t just let things go. But if someone insults me, I have to respond. I was really bullied as a child – I’m over it now, I’m in therapy, but at the same time some old wounds don’t heal. And I want to be more rigorous in my writing and make sure that I’m putting more research into my work. Just really grounding what I’m saying not only in opinion, but in fact.
How many nemeses do you have right now?
[Immediately, without hesitation] 10.
As someone who also had a really lonely childhood, I think it’s hard to get older and not to be critical, because you’re critical of yourself. I always struggle to believe that I deserve the friends that I have, and that I’m loved. I always revert back to being defensive. Like, ‘I’ve got 10 insults to throw at you before you can get me with one.’ That’s normal for us, because that’s how we survived.
And that sums me up better than I could. It’s just my personality. It’s hard to believe my life is what it is because, you know, the things that scar you are pretty bad.
Read more of Roxane’s work at gay.medium.com; Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams is out now
Photography: Ryan Pfulger
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