Hannah Gadsby and Roxane Gay
talk comedy, assault and body shaming
In June, the Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby’s standup show Nanette was released on Netflix. This supposed swansong of a set had previously stunned audiences from Melbourne to Edinburgh, with its devastating twists on who and what jokes are for, and how suffering and trauma are turned into material. What begins as an apparently mainstream routine segues into a story about something troubling that happened to Gadsby as a young woman, told first one way – and then, brutally, another; it’s at once a deconstruction of the art form (her work has been billed as “anti-comedy”), and a critique of her audience – angry, smart, radical.
Nanette’s second life turned Gadsby from a working comic into a global star, lauded for her candour and insight by everyone from Ellen Page to Monica Lewinsky. Her father, she says, has always collected anything written about her, but his task is becoming more and more demanding. “With this whole Nanette business, he started going, ‘God, the articles are getting a bit long now. There was one in the New York Times – three pages. I’m not made of toner.’”
The writer and critic Roxane Gay, whose collection of essays Bad Feminist and memoir Hunger were critically praised bestsellers, covering everything from her past as a competitive Scrabble player to overeating, and her experiences of rape, tweeted Gadsby when her set first screened: “Nanette is simply remarkable. You moved me and have really made me think about humor, the self, self deprecation and the uses of anger. Thank you so much. It’s just brilliant.”
They met for the first time a few weeks ago, at a cultural event in Los Angeles, where Gadsby has been living. Gay has just moved to the city permanently, after a few years of shuttling back and forth between LA and Indiana, where she was, until recently, an associate professor of English at Purdue University. They sit down wn to talk at Gay’s new house, which is so box-fresh you can still smell the paint. In the background, a large arge TV is playing a crime drama on mute. Gadsby, a fan of Gay’s work, arrives brimming with sarcastic, astic, silly wisecracks. “Personally, I get so much h out of your writing,” she tells her, “because I need d your perspective. Otherwise, I’d be a racist prick.” k.”
And so the conversation begins.
Roxane Gay Where are you living?
Hannah Gadsby Silver Lake [in Los Angeles]. es]. I can’t believe that this is a city where they y tell all our stories, and they can ignore people living ing in tents everywhere.
RG Nobody ever talks about it. Nobody stops ops and tries to do anything. It’s weird, it’s upsetting, and it does not give me a lot of faith in humanity.
HG How many bedrooms do you have here? ? [Laughs.]
RG I know. I guess I do have some extra space. ce. I’m absolutely part of the problem. HG I’ve been homeless.
RG How long?
HG For a long time I said six months, and then I look back on it, and it was quite a number of years where I was not supported – couchsurfing, and then I lived in a tent outside Byron Bay. I would hitchhike into town.
RG Were you still doing comedy at that time?
HG Hadn’t even started. I started when I was 27. It took a long time. I was at the end of this dirt track, at the back of a farm, illegally camping. That was for about four months. And then they had this huge storm and it flattened my tent. It was grim as fuck.
RG Were you ever scared that it was always going to be your life?
HG I was so sad. I look back on that time and now I understand, I was just getting through it. Every day was a struggle. I was so isolated. And there’s so much shame around it. I’m a storyteller, and I’ve never told that story. I mean, I’m not sharing a secret, but you know what I mean?
RG How old were you? HG I was mid- to late-20s. It was a real rough patch, from 24 to 27.
RG There’s something about that age. I was not homeless, but my 20s were almost the roughest years. Almost as bad as my teens. Just trying to figure out, what do I do, where do I belong? And also, I was completely insane.
HG So you always knew you wanted to be a writer?
RG Always. From four years old, I knew. Which is good, but also bad, especially with immigrant parents, who are just like, what? No. You’re going to be a lawyer, doctor or engineer, which is the Haitian trifecta of careers. It was hard. They supported my writing, always, but they didn’t understand that it’s what I wanted to do fulltime. They were being realistic and I was being a dreamer, and so I actually understand where they were coming from. But I always just believed I could make a go of it.
HG Ignorance is really a boon for that. [Looks at the TV.] There’s a bloody woman in the trunk!
RG [Laughs] I’m always watching crime procedurals. →
HG I find them very comforting, for some reason.
RG Me, too. Law & Order: SVU.
HG Ooh, my fave. Shouldn’t be.
RG I feel a lot of guilt about it. What am I getting out of this display of trauma?
HG I actually think it’s acknowledgment of that kind of trauma.
RG And there is, once in a while, justice. It’s very satisfying.
HG And great face-acting.
RG Almost as good as in the Fast And The Furious franchise. They have great face-acting. Great drive-face. One day I just want to make a compilation of all their driving faces.
HG I’ve only seen 7. Just for clarification, not all seven. Just 7.
RG You have so many to catch up on.
HG I heckle films. I’m the worst person to see films with. I heckled A Star Is Born. One line in it keeps coming back to me. He said [husky voice]: “You’re a songwriter.” [Laughs.] And she goes: “No, I’m not. My nose is too big.” That’s bad writing! Obviously they’ve mixed it up. “I can’t be a star , my nose is too big.” The ugliest people in the world are songwriters!
He just keeps popping up in her personal space. She’s sleeping at home in her bedroom, and she wakes up, and there he is. She’s like, what are you doing here? “Your dad let me in.” She’s having a nap. In her bedroom! ‘Can I touch your nose? No. Can I touch your nose? No. Oh, I’m touching it.’
RG Wow. [Laughs.] You’ve ruined the movie for me. Thank you.
HG A lot of it is just them in profile. Cos the nose is very important. He touches it. For me, it’s like that optical illusion: is it a vase, or two faces?
I used to be a cinema projectionist, when I was at uni. Or college, here. Land of the lingo. I said “trunk” earlier.
RG Instead of “boot”? Wow, you’re coming along, step by step. Are you going to be moving here permanently?
HG I’m betwixt and between. I did a month in London in February, then I was going to do five weeks in New York, and that blew out to nearly five months. There was a bit of a gas leak in the apartment. I kept going, “I’m so tired, I need to rest.” I was sending people a coffin emoji. I’d say, “I slept like I was in a coma!” I kept ringing my manager saying, “I’m really tired, it doesn’t feel right.” She said, “Course you are, this show’s a lot. It’s taking it out of you.” It was, and I knew that. I was up to 17 hours a day sleeping. I could have died.
RG That’s so dangerous. Did they fix it?
HG Yeah. And here I am. I had a rough time of it, to be honest. [Nanette] is hard enough, as an emotional thing. But in London I got bronchitis. In Edinburgh, I had a wisdom tooth impacted. The day after I had it out, I got a thing called dry socket, and that was four weeks of hell. But I feel better now. I’m a bit more chipper. Talking about trauma is exhausting. RG It is, and I think that’s one thing people don’t realise.
HG And other people tend to give their trauma back to you.
RG That’s the hard part. I hear so much, because I write about sexual violence, and fatness...
HG “I was raped, can we have a selfie?”
RG That is actually something that happens. It’s hard to balance the two. People are like, you’re so lucky, which, I am: really lucky. I love what I do. I wouldn’t trade this for anything. But there is an emotional cost. Especially after Hunger came out, and Not That Bad [an anthology about rape culture], it’s just a one-two punch. I toured both of them this year, and people have the most horrific stories.
HG Writing about trauma, I go deeper into the trauma. Because when you’re speaking it, it’s less – but I see it all. I think visually. So every night on stage, it would be…
RG …right there with you.
HG But it would be kind of edited. That story I tell about being beaten up at the bus stop, I worked out that I had two versions of that. When I first told the story, I had the version that I knew – how it happened – and then the version that I would tell people that I eventually told on stage. And it was easier for other people to hear, but it wasn’t easy for me to tell, because I knew I’d sold the story short.
Then I saw a guy do a set on TV so similar to my set, except his twist was, it’s hard being a man. He’s a nice guy, but come on. I remember being quite angry about that, because it was a phase where my career was plateauing a bit. I didn’t necessarily want his opportunities, but he was getting them, and I wasn’t even being offered them. I’m like, that’s my story. Not that he stole it, but I found it particularly galling because I thought, I can’t tell that story properly. And then I set myself the task. Can I tell that story, in full, and make it funny? I worked out very quickly that I could not. There’s just no way to make that funny.
RG A lot of the time people ask me, especially with Hunger, how could you write it out? Did you retraumatise yourself? But first of all, it’s been 30 years. Which is not to say I’m over it, but I’m as over it as I’m going to be. There’s a reason I didn’t write this book 20 years ago. Back then, it was too fresh. Now it’s just a very significant part of my history.
As I was writing it, I recognised that I was writing the only version I could write, which is not the whole truth, because I think the whole truth is just too horrifying to put into people’s heads. But it had been long enough that I had the necessary separation to be able to do it, and to have the necessary distance. Writing about rape wasn’t the hardest part about writing Hunger, at all. It was writing about fatness, and thinking about my body in this world, and the kind of issues that people throw in your way.
HG Because people don’t look at you going [puts on a sympathetic face], “You’ve been raped.” I mean, they do now, for me. [Laughs.]
R RG [Laughs.] Now they know.
H HG But I feel seen with hostility because of what I look like.
RG Not a day goes by where someone doesn’t stare at me. And now, I have to ask, what are they staring at? Are they staring at my height? Well, maybe. Are they staring at my weight? Absolutely. Or do they recognise me? Or all of the above? I feel so paranoid. The other day I was on a flight, and the guy next to me took a picture of me, to text to friends, to laugh at me.
HG Oh my God.
RG It was horrible. And I tweeted about it, and a bunch of people were like, you don’t know that h he’s doing that. Maybe he’s a fan. I know my fans. This guy was not a fan. He was a super-rich white guy and I was just like, trust my lived experience. They’re also so angry that you’re not following the rules of having a body, and of being a woman. Are y you a woman, or are you a man? →
Roxane Gay y Bestselling author and critic ic
The h Guardian d Weekend kd | 08 December b 2018 37 I’m nailing the funny. I’ve got to curb the earnestness a bit. But, light and shade
We’re twins. We look just alike We’re basically the same person