To the out­side world, fem­i­nist writer and ac­tivist Rox­ane Gay is as tough as they come. But be­neath it all, Gay in­sists that, when it comes to pub­lic scru­tiny, there is no ar­mour thick enough

ELLE (Australia) - - Perspective -

ROX­ANE GAY DOESN’T SPEAK LIKE MOST PEO­PLE. She doesn’t ram­ble, pur­sue tan­gents, con­fess to be think­ing out loud, trail off or rush to fill an awk­ward si­lence. Rox­ane Gay speaks as though she is read­ing aloud the care­fully crafted prose that has brought her to prominence as a writer, cul­tural critic and pub­lic in­tel­lec­tual. It is strik­ing, oc­ca­sion­ally even un­set­tling.

But it’s easy to imag­ine why the 44-year-old would be so pre­cise in ev­ery­thing she says, de­liv­er­ing her opin­ions fully formed without qual­i­fiers. Be­cause, be­sides be­ing one of the most vis­i­ble, in­flu­en­tial fig­ures in fem­i­nism, Gay is “fat, black and a woman and peo­ple think that is some­thing to cri­tique and to mock and to pay un­due at­ten­tion to”.

Un­due at­ten­tion doesn’t even be­gin to de­scribe the pub­lic frenzy that sur­rounds the pub­li­ca­tion of an­other one of her best­selling books, six so far; most re­cently Not That Bad, a co-au­thored in­ves­ti­ga­tion of rape cul­ture, Hunger: A

Mem­oir Of (My) Body, which de­tails her ex­pe­ri­ence with weight, and Bad Fem­i­nist, a col­lec­tion of es­says ex­plor­ing her com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship with gen­der pol­i­tics.

Crit­ics have de­scribed her work as smart, sear­ing, pun­ish­ingly can­did and pro­foundly un­com­fort­able.

Hunger, in par­tic­u­lar, with its de­scrip­tion of as­sault, eat­ing dis­or­ders and body image is­sues, di­vided read­ers and crit­ics. A sin­gle re­view in The Times called Hunger sad, strange, un­set­tling and ba­nal. But read­ers and fans, of whom she has amassed 500,000 on Twit­ter, an­other 100,000 on In­sta­gram, re­vere her skill, wor­ship her for her hon­esty and call her work life-chang­ing and em­pow­er­ing. “If I could give this book a hun­dred stars, I would,” reads the top re­view, cur­rently on Goodreads. Then of course, there’s the noise of those who feel en­ti­tled to com­ment (which is to say, at­tack her) on the way she dresses, her height, weight, tat­toos, the fact that she is openly bi­sex­ual and her sur­name is – ha!– Gay.

“I don’t know that I’ll [ever] get used to it,” she says of the neg­a­tive scru­tiny she at­tracts, more so, she be­lieves, than other writ­ers who are just as hon­est or as vo­cal on com­plex is­sues such as gen­der equal­ity, race and sex­u­al­ity. “But I try to deal with it as best I can. Some­times there is no ar­mour thick enough.”

Cul­tur­ally, Gay be­lieves, we don’t know how to deal with or talk about the is­sue of weight. It’s why she wrote a whole book on the mat­ter. Per­son­ally, for Gay, who has a PHD in rhetoric and com­mu­ni­ca­tion, it means be­ing con­fronted con­stantly “by the fact that no mat­ter what I achieve, I will al­ways be fat first”, as she wrote in an es­say ex­plor­ing her choice to un­dergo gas­tric sleeve surgery ear­lier this year. Un­sur­pris­ingly, she was si­mul­ta­ne­ously ap­plauded for that de­ci­sion and for writ­ing so mov­ingly about it, and crit­i­cised for be­ing a traitor to the

fat-pos­i­tive move­ment. “It’s just the same as it’s al­ways been,” she says.

It’s not un­rea­son­able to won­der what com­pels her to write the way she does and, if her skin is no thicker than any­one else’s, why she would put so much of her life story into the world? From her col­lected works, we know that Gay was born into a mid­dle-class Haitian-amer­i­can fam­ily, that apart from mov­ing around a lot, her child­hood wasn’t any­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary. She was a con­stant reader and writer of sto­ries. But then, at the age of 12, she was sav­agely gang-raped, an event she has said “de­railed me and re­shaped who I am”. Too scared to tell any­one, Gay’s only cop­ing mech­a­nism was to eat, and she in­ten­tion­ally be­gan putting on weight as a form of self-pro­tec­tion.

Shortly af­ter­wards, she went away to an elite board­ing school, got big­ger. She got into Ivy League Yale, got big­ger still, en­tered into a re­la­tion­ship with a much older man she met on­line, dropped out of Yale, moved away and went miss­ing from her fam­ily for a year. In the pub­lic do­main, she has talked about her sex­u­al­ity, ex­pe­ri­ences with BDSM, work­ing as a phone sex op­er­a­tor in her twen­ties, what be­ing fat feels like, how at her heav­i­est she weighed 260kg and the thou­sands of ev­ery­day trau­mas she’s ex­pe­ri­enced as a re­sult.

Strangely though, Gay doesn’t agree with the idea that her books are es­pe­cially per­sonal. “I don’t ac­tu­ally put that much in­for­ma­tion about my­self out there,” she says. She isn’t a di­arist, none of her books are straight bi­og­ra­phy. “I don’t use my writ­ing as a place to work through per­sonal things,” she says. “I’ve gen­er­ally al­ready worked through them be­fore I’ve put them in my writ­ing.” Although, she says, “When I’m tack­ling things like so­cial jus­tice is­sues, look­ing be­yond my­self, I do find that writ­ing helps me reach a con­clu­sion of some kind.”

Her thought-pro­vok­ing think pieces set in­ter­net com­ment boxes on fire. “I have a lot of opin­ions, and the writ­ing I get the most ha­rass­ment for is opin­ion-writ­ing, where I dare to ques­tion the pa­tri­archy and the sta­tus quo.” Lately, that’s meant an es­say for The New York Times, ques­tion­ing Louis C.K.’S breezy come­back to com­edy so quickly af­ter be­ing outed as a sex­ual preda­tor. Af­ter both the Bill Cosby trial, and the con­tro­ver­sial re­boot of Roseanne, Gay wrote about why it’s im­pos­si­ble to en­joy the art while ab­hor­ring the artist.

Any­one with a pub­lic voice is at risk of be­ing called a role model. It’s a sta­tus Gay es­chews while re­spect­ing that peo­ple are in­ter­ested in her ideas. “It’s com­pli­cated. I don’t take it for granted that peo­ple see me as a role model. I try to live up to it but I don’t let it con­trol me or try to change who I am.” As the nov­el­ist Sheila Heti has said about her, Gay feels “be­holden to no one, and to no com­monly held line of think­ing. [She] pro­tects this in­de­pen­dence… by feel­ing no obli­ga­tion to please”.

In the same way, writ­ers or rather, fe­male writ­ers who share their own in­ti­mate sto­ries are al­most cer­tain to be called brave. Googling “Rox­ane Gay brave” throws up over 200,000 re­sults. But the ad­jec­tive can be read one of two ways: You are coura­geous! Or, where is your shame? “I think peo­ple are given that la­bel any­time they do some­thing that who­ever of­fers the de­scrip­tion is un­able or un­will­ing to do,” says Gay. “I’m not par­tic­u­larly brave. I just don’t stop my­self from do­ing what I want to do and what I need to do.” As she once told

Rolling Stone mag­a­zine “I think the bar for brav­ery should be higher than ‘she wrote some things’.”

Take it as tes­ta­ment to her mass in­flu­ence that Rolling Stone would pro­file a fem­i­nist aca­demic but then, Gay writes pro­lif­i­cally on pop cul­ture her­self. Ar­guably, it’s in that realm that she reaches the height of her pow­ers. “I think high­brow and low­brow are not su­per ef­fec­tive dis­tinc­tions. It’s im­por­tant to en­gage with the en­tirety of the spec­trum.”

And she does, writ­ing about The Bach­e­lor, Or­ange Is The New Black, The Big­gest Loser, Sweet Val­ley High, Fifty Shades Of Grey, ei­ther evis­cer­at­ing them for traf­fick­ing in stereo­types, or in other cases ex­tolling their trashy splen­did­ness. Some­times both: “Blurred Lines” is a catchy song based on hate­ful ideas, she as­serts.

For the next year, Gay will travel the world pro­mot­ing her books, par­tic­i­pat­ing in pub­lic de­bates while work­ing on “four or five” book projects si­mul­ta­ne­ously. It takes courage, en­ergy and drive. When pressed, she couldn’t say where she finds it. For the only time in the con­ver­sa­tion, she seems eva­sive for a mo­ment: “It does take a lot of en­ergy, and some­times I def­i­nitely have to step away, but my sense of – it’s not a mis­sion but I just – I don’t know – I have a drive and that al­lows me to move for­ward. I just refuse to be cowed. I refuse to be si­lenced.”


Rox­ane Gay is tour­ing Aus­tralia and New Zealand in March along­side Christina Hoff Som­mers for their #FEM­I­NIST show. Tick­ets can be pur­chased from thi­sis42. com/fem­i­nist.html

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