Roxane Gay caused a stir when she pulled her latest book, How to Be Heard, from Simon & Schuster, saying she could not in good conscience share a publisher with white nationalist provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. “I can afford to take this stand. Not everyone can. Remember that,” she tweeted.
Gay can afford it because she has a steady job teaching creative writing at Purdue University’s College of Liberal Arts in Indiana, in the United States, and is constantly in demand as a speaker. A short story collection, Difficult Women, came out earlier this year. A memoir, Hunger, is due in August.
The American novelist, critic and social media superstar rose to mainstream prominence in 2014 with her breakthrough collection of essays, Bad Feminist, which offered a fresh and provocative take on issues of gender and race, refracted through the lens of pop culture. Her debut novel, An Untamed State, was released the same summer, leading Time magazine to declare: “Let this be the year of Roxane Gay.”
Writers can be wary of revealing their current projects, but when I posed the question Gay, in an email, told me she was working on six books at once: “I’m writing a [young adult] novel entitled The Year I Learned Everything, an adult novel, Nice Man, a couple of non-fiction book projects, an anthology about rape culture entitled Not that Bad, and a secret project I cannot tell you about.”
Her range is extraordinary, her energy apparently limitless. Somehow, she also finds time to feed and maintain relationships with her legions of Twitter followers – 131,000 posts and counting – and play competitive Scrabble every day. Tricky balance
At the Sydney Writers’ Festival this month, Gay is scheduled to make three appearances: in conversation with writer Durga Chew-Bose; discussing humour in fiction with Paul Beatty, author of The Sellout; and on a panel of “Black Nerds” including Cleverman creator Ryan Griffen, author Nayuka Gorrie, actor Miranda Tapsell and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead.
Finding the right balance between being a writer and a public intellectual is proving tricky, she says: “There is much more of a demand for non-fiction than fiction, which is quite a shame. But that demand has not changed the kind of stories I want to write. I will always consider myself a fiction writer first.”
Most of the stories in Difficult Women were written as a postgraduate student at Michigan Technological University, across Lake Superior from Canada, where “winter is more a state of being than a season”.
The title story details some of the ways women are (unfairly) labelled loose, crazy, frigid and difficult. Throughout the book, sex and violence are intertwined. A woman calling herself “a knife” performs a Caesarean section with her bare hands. An appalling shared experience of abuse forms an inseparable bond between sisters. A grieving mother seeks out physical pain to dull the emotional agony of losing a child; she asks her husband to hit her, and when he refuses, finds a man who will.
Gay was a straight-A student, a child of driven, overachieving Haitian immigrant parents. When she was 12, she went for a bike ride into the woods with a boy she thought she loved, and found a gang of his friends waiting in a cabin. What happened next was “as bad as you might expect”, she writes in “What We Hunger For”, an essay in Bad Feminist.
“I will never get that body back, and I hate that, because it was a good body. But they took it; they ruined it,” she continues. Unable to tell her family or friends about the horrific experience, she ate and ate, for comfort, to escape the male gaze and as a form of self-protection. “When I ate, I got to make my body into what I wanted it to be, which is a fortress.” Weighty issue
Gay is a fan of shows like The Biggest Loser, in which contestants compete to shed the kilos. She has written about her experiences in fat camp, and about what women writing about weight loss get wrong. Her 2014novel, An Untamed State, describes a woman being gang-raped while on holiday in Haiti, but devoting a whole book to her obesity, born in trauma, proved harder than she expected.
“Hunger was so difficult to write because it is the most personal thing I’ve ever written. I was forced to confront myself about this body I live in and make myself vulnerable in ways I did not anticipate,” she says. “I hope the book will simply expand the cultural conversation about weight, and women’s bodies, and trauma.”
A year ago, Gay was approached by influential African-American critic and cultural theorist Ta-Nehisi Coates and offered the “thrilling opportunity” to write a comic book for Marvel. World of Wakanda is a prequel to the new Black Panther series: the love story of Aneka and Ayo, two of the Black Panther’s all-female bodyguards, the Dora Milaje.
The comic came out in the United States on November 9, the day after Donald Trump was elected president on a nakedly white nationalist platform. Although the timing could be considered auspicious for a book about black lesbians fighting for justice, Gay wasn’t in the mood to sign copies at her local bookshop, but she honoured the commitment and was moved to be greeted by a supportive crowd at Von’s in West Lafayette.
Gay has written that she feels out of place in the small, conservative, predominantly white city but stays there to fulfil a promise she made to her students. “I do feel a sense of responsibility, as a black woman, to remain in the academy because visibility matters and there are so few black professors not only at Purdue, where I teach, but nearly everywhere,” she says.
How to Be Heard will find a home – Gay says she’s had several offers. Yiannopoulos was dropped by Simon & Schuster for making comments condoning paedophilia, but it seems his memoir will be picked up, too, by conservative imprint Regnery Publishing.
“I received a range of feedback from enthusiastic support to people who felt I was limiting free speech. I was not,” Gay says.
At a time when crude racist and sexist provocation can make someone like Yiannopoulos a rock star, Gay feels a responsibility to join battle. “I write about fairly challenging issues so it’s rarely pleasant though I love writing, regardless of the genre I am working in,” she says.
Whether writing fiction or non-fiction, comics or novels, she is one of the essential dissenting voices of the Trump era.