There is a story in Roxane Gay’s second collection of short fiction, Difficult Women, in which a big, strong man who works in a quarry goes for a walk on the beach and, seeing an extra glint in the sand, discovers a woman made of glass. He falls in love, marries her, they have a glass child. At meals, he marvels, watching the food travel through their bodies. When he holds her he does so gently, and not just because he must. A quirk of nature — that lightning striking sand can make glass — becomes an inspired vehicle for preoccupations that recur throughout Gay’s work: that love means not being seen through, but seen, and heard for yourself; that bodies are both breakable and a possible source of redemption.
Gay’s stories often take the form of fable although, on her first visit to London, she is quick to reject that as any appeal to universality. “In fact, it’s the opposite,” she says. “As a black woman, as a black queer woman, specificity is incredibly important, because diverse experiences are rarely seen in literature.” She agrees that fairytale “informs all of my fiction work” — there is the woman married to an identical twin whose brother takes turns coming to her bed in the belief she doesn’t notice, or the woman who is also a knife, or the miner so despairing of his life underground that he projects himself into the sun and puts it out — “because in the original fairytales there’s oftentimes a lot of suffering before you get to any kind of resolution or solace”. But details ground the stories, in the rural midwest, for example, or a gated community in Florida, or a strip club in Baltimore. “What we tend to forget is that we all deal with a lot of the same things,” she says. “We all deal with complicated relationships, with children, with the loss of children, with love and suffering. We have a lot in common, and I do think literature allows us to have some sort of shared empathy.”
Since Gay arrived in London she has appeared at the Royal Festival Hall in front of an audience of 1,800 and tweeted her first impressions of the city to her 539,000 Twitter followers. “Still buzzing from seeing Roxane Gay speak last night at @southbankcentre,” one fan tweeted. “She has a unique capacity to be inspirational yet completely relatable. I am thankful for her.” They are drawn by her voice — direct, often funny, sometimes angry, always thoughtful — and her radical candidness about her own life and struggles, on display in her breakthrough collection of essays, Bad Feminist, as well as her memoir, Hunger, and her fiction. And they come out to bat for her when she feels impugned, especially by the press — so much so that they feel like invisible, judging witnesses to our conversation, conducted at the flashy riverfront offices of Gay’s UK publisher.
Meeting her is thus already overdetermined, and made more complicated by a presence that seems, on this cold bright morning, not much like the writing voice: Gay makes little eye contact. She waits for the tape to be turned on and answers questions dutifully. At the same time I know, from Twitter, that jetlag and newness have caused two days of insomnia. And I should have been prepared, from her writing, for the frequent split between a disembodied freedom on the page and an unease in the world; the way in which her fame and imposing 1.9 metres (6-foot 3-inch) frame are undercut, as she put it in a recent essay about her decision to have weight-loss surgery, by the fact that “the moment I step outside the safety of my home, I hate how visible I am, how people treat me, how they stare and comment both loudly and under their breath ... I do not know how to carry myself with confidence when I go out into the world. Any sense of self I have is often shattered within minutes, and then I am all insecurities and fears, wishing myself into a more socially acceptable form.”
Gay is the oldest of three children born to Haitian parents who arrived in the US when they were still in their teens. “Everything good and strong about me starts with my parents,” as Gay puts it in Hunger, her 2017 Memoir of (My) Body. Her father was a successful and eventually very well off civil engineer, and her mother a home-maker. They moved a lot for his work, but spent summers in Haiti, and the stories in Gay’s first collection, Ayiti (2011), are drenched both in a physical sense of that country, and of the small humiliations of recent immigrants. Gay had written stories since she was tiny, drawing villages on napkins and describing the inhabitants; she read and read — Little House on the Prairie, Nancy Drew and Sweet Valley High stories. She was “respectful, studious, hardworking”. They went to church, she excelled at school. She was a good Haitian daughter.
Gay is fascinating on the “goodness” of girls — as a societal requirement, as an often impossible standard; on how often being good is a matter of being “one who knows how to play by the rules and cares to be seen to be playing by the rules”; who knows how to be liked. (Philip Roth novels ? Lauded, yet full of unlikable men, she has written. Woe betide the female novelist who tries the same thing.)
Above all, on goodness as vulnerability, not least because she knows, in the most visceral way possible, what that can mean. One day, when she was 12, a handsome classmate took her on a bike ride to an abandoned shack in the woods where a pack of other boys, fuelled by drink, were waiting. “There is a before and an after,” she writes, in Hunger. “In the after I was broken, shattered, and silent.”
She returned home, where she performed “good”, but could not shut the experience away. In high school, she says now, “I wrote a series of truly insane stories. Always about young girls being violated in terrible ways. It was a cry for help.” Thankfully, she was heard by a teacher who both encouraged her to keep writing and walked her over to a counsellor. The experience still comes out in her stories, her essays, in her bestselling 2014 novel, An Untamed State; vulnerabilities and terrible violations played through different scenarios, with different endings: husbands gentle, loving, preternaturally understanding; perpetrators found and jailed (which did not happen for her).
She got into nearly every Ivy League college she applied for (and cried, overhearing her acceptance at Yale instantly dismissed by a classmate as affirmative action). She was also eating, compulsively, defending herself by building her body into an impregnable fortress that at its largest, she says in Hunger, weighed 262 kg. After a year she dropped out of Yale, unable to cope. She had met an older man on the internet, and went to be with him. For a year, until her parents tracked her down, she supported herself, working with other “lost girls” on phone sex lines, finding a community that accepted and understood her, beginning to blog, in those very early days of the internet. She was beginning, too, the long discovery that would sustain her, that “through writing, I was, finally, able to get respect for the content of my character”.
It is hard to read the abuse Gay gets for her size. If there is anything useful in the experience it is, she has said, in the way it engenders empathy, for other lives, for difficult lives, for different lives. Reading, she says now, does the same — fiction mostly, but also non-fiction, “because you just think, ‘Oh my gosh, imagine if that were my life, imagine if that were my children, how would I feel?’ A lot of times when we see narrow-mindedness, when we see racism, when we see xenophobia, these are people who are not well read.” Perhaps we could prescribe fiction classes — “that would be great — give each and every racist in the world a syllabus. Beloved by Toni Morrison. Tony Judt on world war two.” As for herself, “I read everything. The No 1 thing I tell my students” — until this autumn, when she announced she was quitting, she taught at Purdue University, Indiana — “is read diversely. And I’m not talking about demographics, though that’s part of it. Aesthetic diversity, genre diversity. It matters because it just makes us better informed, and it protects us from our worst instincts.”
She reserves a particular ire for those who read only literary fiction. “Oh, but it exactly applies to them. Anybody who tells me, ‘I only read literary fiction,’ I’m just like, ‘Well, you’re an [expletive]. What are we going to talk about?’ Literary fiction — a lot of it’s not that good! I read good books. And they may not be the best written, but they tell a really good story. My favourite thing to read is spy thrillers, which I just love. I also read romance novels, because they are fun, and they are sweet, and they’ve got a happy ending, most of the time. The world is shit, so — I need that happy ending.”
When it comes to literary writers, Gay is drawn to those who have an acute social eye — Edith Wharton in The House of Mirth, Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy (“It’s not a perfect novel, but it’s a perfect political novel, and it just showed me what you can accomplish with fiction”), Zadie Smith’s NW . Gay writes the way she reads, she says, deliberately moving from genre to genre — short stories, a novel, essays, Marvel comics, movies and TV (she is adapting stories from Difficult Women for a TV anthology, and one has been optioned for a feature film). It is a concerted and self-aware bid not to be pigeonholed in any way.
Not that it stops people from trying. Having written difficult, revealing things about herself, Gay largely refuses to discuss them further in interviews. “We rarely see men, even when they write memoir, having to bare themselves even further to get attention,” she says. Nor are they assumed to be an authority only on the self. “When a lot of women try to write straight nonfiction, people say: ‘Where’s the personal? Why aren’t you putting yourself into it?’” She is wonderfully cutting in Ayiti about the ways in which western readers insist on reading only through race, or background, requiring of writers from elsewhere a representation (of entire countries, or classes of people) that would never be required of a white man — and at the same time refusing to see them as capable of anything beyond that. “Yeah. People tend to have a very singular narrative of who someone is, and so people of colour, women of colour, queer people, are only expected to write about identity-based things, and the struggles of that identity. And when you write a narrative that challenges people’s expectations of who you are and your subject’s position, then all of a sudden they get confused and think, ‘This isn’t realistic,’ because they don’t understand that we contain multitudes.”
She rejects the very phrase “identity politics”: “It’s used like a weapon. What it means is, ‘I don’t want to think about your concerns. I don’t want to have to extend my empathy’.” Instead, she argues, everyone, on all sides, has to try to understand and accept complication, fight against dichotomies, essentialism. “We have to think with nuance, and unfortunately public discourse rarely allows for nuance. And see where that has gotten us.”
If she rejects a responsibility to represent, she does take, very seriously, a responsibility to make opportunities for others like her. “Because oftentimes I’m the first or the only — so I cannot be the last.” So she invites younger, up-and-coming writers on stage with her, or writes “specific things into my contracts, like you have to hire a black publicist. To make sure that publishing houses start to diversify.”
She has written about how rarely writers of colour get to speak at all — finding, for instance, that in 2012, 90 per cent of the books reviewed in the New York Times were by white writers. This year, her book of writing advice called, simply, How to Be Heard, will be published. Who does she want to hear her? Who does she write for? “I write the kinds of things I want to see in the world, that I would love to read. So, yeah — I write for myself”
–Guardian News & Media Ltd