Roxane Gay: ‘We need to be more accepting of the choices we make as women’
The feminist writer on US leadership, JK Rowling and overcoming adversity
Roxane Gay. Photograph: Reginald Cunningham
Roxane Gay is on a zoom call from Iceland on her last day of quarantine. The US feminist author, a hero to many millennial women and to plenty of us in an older demographic, says she is grateful to be on a hiatus from her home country, where there is, as she puts it, “a startling lack of leadership” when it comes to the pandemic. “It’s a nice break from the stress.”
Gay is in Iceland on a “top secret” work project which she can’t talk about But that’s fine because Gay, a woman known for radical honesty and original thinking in her writing around queerness and race and feminism, has plenty of other things to discuss.
Her video function is not turned on, so I can’t see her deep brown eyes or six-foot-three frame. Her voice is measured, thoughtful and serious. Known for being shy and somewhat reserved in person, the 45-year-old English professor has, in the past 10 years, amassed a powerful body of work including a novel (An Untamed State) and two short story collections (Ayiti and Difficult Women). Bad Feminist, her 2014 collection of essays, was a New York Times bestseller.
Gay’s small but mighty memoir, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, is a ferociously truthful exploration of sexual assault, PTSD, compulsive eating, weight, dieting and moving through the world as a woman in a larger body. Time magazine called her “the gift that keeps on giving” and another critic praised her ability to “see around corners … Gay has the voice of the friend you call first for advice, calm and sane as well as funny, someone who has seen a lot and takes no prisoners”.
She’s in a sort of honeymoon period. In August she eloped with her partner Debbie Millman. They were supposed to be married in front of 400 people this month, but the pandemic put paid to those plans. There were four guests at the wedding while others tuned in online.
Her lockdown in California was, she is keen to point out, a privileged one.“We’re very lucky that we can afford to not leave the house … to be safe from Covid is a privilege. And it shouldn’t be, it should be a right to be safe from a pandemic,” she says.
“And it’s alarming to consider that the risk that many people are facing is avoidable. And the deaths, the more than 200,000 people who have died now in the United States, that’s preventable. It was a choice to not do anything about Covid. And it remains a choice that they’re still not even now, with everything they know.”
Gay grew up on the plains of Nebraska watching Little House on the Prairie and reading Sweet Valley High books, the eldest of three children of Haitian parents who immigrated there when they were still teenagers. A studious child, she was accepted by most of the Ivy League colleges she applied to.
When I ask her about the upcoming election, she says she is not optimistic but “for marginalised groups and for vulnerable populations, Trump has been devastating ... for my sanity I have to believe Biden has a shot.
“I’m not optimistic, but at the same time, I still believe that we need to fight as much as possible and do everything in our power to make sure that Biden and Harris are elected. So I am trying to remain positive while being realistic and prepared for Americans to be just as racist in 2020 as they were in 2016.”
She has said she writes first for other black, queer women – she is bisexual – and like many people she hoped that George Floyd’s death earlier this year would be a turning point in the Black Lives Matter movement and racism in America. Does she think that change will be lasting?
JK Rowling is a billionaire who has decided to pick on one of the most marginalised groups of people in the world
“I hope so. I don’t know. I think only time will tell. It’s too soon. People are already demonstrating fatigue for having to care about black people and people of colour more broadly. And so that’s very dispiriting. It shouldn’t be that way. But here we are.”
I ask about Bad Feminist, Gay’s book of essays predicated on the idea that there is no one perfect way to be a feminist. In it she wrote about how “at some point, I got it into my head that a feminist was a certain kind of woman. I bought into grossly inaccurate myths about who feminists are – militant, perfect in their politics and person, man-hating, humourless. I bought into these myths even though, intellectually, I know better.
“I’m not proud of this. I don’t want to buy into these myths any more. Bad feminism seems the only way I can both embrace myself as a feminist and be myself.”
Six years on, is she still a Bad Feminist? “I guess I would absolutely still consider myself a Bad Feminist. Perfection is never the goal. Instead, it’s always trying to evolve as a feminist and make sure that I make feminist choices in my professional and personal life. And, at the same time, I try to accept that I’m human, and flawed, and I’m going to make mistakes and get it wrong. And sometimes I’m going to have inconsistent ideologies.
“But, you know, as I’ve grown as a feminist, I certainly do believe in accountability and holding myself accountable when I do things that are not as feminist as I think they can or should be.”
She has put forward the view that women shouldn’t judge other women for the way they do feminism. But when I mention this, she clarifies her exact position. “I think people have taken a very expansive view of what I wrote. It’s not that any choice a woman makes is great. It’s just that, in general, we need to be more accepting of the choices we make as women even if we would not make those choices ourselves.
“But that said, I think you also have to draw certain lines. Like for example, if you are pro-life, and you believe that every woman has to be pro-life, then that’s not feminist … you can call yourself a feminist but if you are taking bodily autonomy away from women, then that is profoundly anti-feminist.”
This seems as good a time as any to bring up JK Rowling, who has been vilified for her views on the transgender issue.
“She’s been rightly vilified,” Gay states. “She is painting herself as a victim, but she’s not. She’s a billionaire who has decided to pick on one of the most marginalised groups of people in the world. And she has done so by making her fears into some sort of grand statement about gender. It’s absurd. And it’s shocking, that she doesn’t get called out on it more by other writers.”
It takes so much work to believe that you have a nice body and that you deserve to live in the world and move freely in the world in a fat body
“There is a before and after,” Gay wrote in Hunger about being raped, when she was 12, in a cabin in the woods by a gang of boys. She had been brought there on a bike by a classmate who knew her attackers were lying in wait. “In the after, I was broken, shattered and silent.”
The effect of this horrific assault, which for years she did not tell her family or friends about, was immediate and lifelong. In Hunger she explored with searing self-awareness how the assault drove her to eat compulsively through her teens and twenties and beyond. How she used food to make a fortress of her body, a way to keep herself safe. At her largest, she wrote in Hunger, she weighed 262kg or 41 stone.
The book was published in 2017. In January 2018 Gay underwent Bariatric weight-loss surgery, a sleeve gastrectomy that removes 85 per cent of the stomach. In a 2018 essay she said she worried about the decision to have the surgery after decades of struggling with food, body image and societal and familial expectations. “I worried that people would think I betrayed fat positivity, something I do very much believe in even if I can’t always believe in it for myself.”
She says now: “It takes so much work to believe that you have a nice body and that you deserve to live in the world and move freely in the world in a fat body. And so when someone says that they want to lose weight, for whatever reason, it can seem like someone’s trying to tear down the very hard work you’ve put in to building yourself up … I get it, I have a lot of empathy for that challenge.
“At the same time, I think that people should be allowed to feel how they feel. And I think you can believe in that positivity and also be able to say, I would like to lose some weight.”
When I ask if she’s happy with the changes wrought by the weight-loss surgery, she answers in a quiet voice: “Um, you know, I think it’s a work in progress. But I’m certainly in a much better place now in terms of happiness, and comfort in my body and my relationship with my body. So yeah, I’m in a very different place than I was when I wrote Hunger … going back to therapy also helped.”
She says it was challenging as a private person to lay herself so bare in that memoir. I wonder if this need for privacy is why she has her video off for this interview? “No, I just look like shit today”. I think I can hear her smile.
Roxane Gay has a lot on. The top-secret project in Iceland, writing a graphic novel and a YA book, The Year I Learned Everything. Also in the pipeline are two other books – How to Be Heard, a writing manual; and TV Guide, a book about the influence of television in America.
Does she have any advice for feminists, particularly white feminists? “The best advice I can give people is to be generous with yourself and with others in terms of your relationship to feminism and how you apply your feminist practice. And to educate yourself. Like, a lot of questions I get are like: How can I be a better feminist? And what can I do as a white feminist blah, blah, blah?”
“Yeah, look, just get a Google account and do some research. It’s not really that hard. Read some books. Volunteer your time with organisations and causes that need your energy. And enjoy life. You know, it’s not meant to be a slog.”
Roxane Gay will be in conversation with Sinéad Gleeson at 8:30pm on Thursday, October 22nd as part of the International Literature Festival Dublin, which runs from October 22nd-28th. Tickets are on sale now from ilfdublin.com