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
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.”
“I DON’T TAKE IT FOR GRANTED THAT PEOPLE SEE ME AS A ROLE MODEL”
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