Why you should care
Because Roxane Gay’s writing is straight-up delicious. And it’s good for you, too.
Roxane Gay is everywhere these days. The first-generation Haitian-American writer and Purdue University associate professor is days away from her second book release of 2014 — Bad Feminist will hit shelves on August 5 — and her name and words can be found on tongues, book lists and high-profile pages on every corner of the Internet. Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine labeled Bad Feminist a Must Read. Chicago Magazine just selected An Untamed State, released in May, as Best Debut Novel. The Washington Post called her a “strikingly fresh cultural critic.” Her new book has just been added to the NY Times Editor’s Choice book list and has received glowing reviews from The Chicago Tribune, TIME, Cosmopolitan and Publisher’s Weekly. Flattering superlatives often precede her name and words.
In other words, girl is having a moment.
This spring and summer, she finished one book tour only to immediately begin another and still finds time to experiment in the kitchen as a disciple of the grandiose culinary stylings of Barefoot Contessa’s Ina Garten. Gay’s seamless emotionally raw melding of the mundane and the horrific has endeared her to readers and critics alike and earned her key editing posts at a host of diverse outlets. As the former essays editor for the hipster lit-mag The Rumpus and co-editor of PANK magazine, she’s beaten her drum on behalf of often-overlooked writers of color.
Over email, Gay gave OZY a look into her writing habits and what really gets her juices going as a reader.
If you had to attribute your success as a writer to particular habits or behaviors, which would they be?
I am naked about my ambition, I am relentless, I work my ass off, and I am always open to learning more and becoming better.
The professional life of many writers “ain’t been no crystal stair.” Can you recall any earlier resistance, rejections or obstacles that helped you get tough skin? What was your takeaway?
Excerpt: Bad feminism seems the only way I can both embrace myself as a feminist and be myself, so I write.
Most of the process of getting your writing published ain’t no crystal stair. Every rejection just made me want to work harder and be better. I allowed myself the hurt of rejection, and then I put those rejections in the proper context. Perspective has always helped me thicken my skin and keep on keeping on.
Do you have any writing rituals? How do you get in the mood?
I am not much for rituals when it comes to writing. I write when I want or, increasingly, when I have a deadline.
What is something you wish more young and aspiring writers knew?
I would advise new writers to know where they are sending their work. So much of getting your work published is about fit. You are better poised for success when you send your work to magazines that will get what you’re about. It’s also important to give a damn about what you’re writing. Read your work a few times before submitting. This should not need to be said but it needs to be said. Stand behind your work. Don’t demean yourself. All too often in cover letters, writers will say, “This probably isn’t any good but I am submitting it anyway.” That is a real editorial turn off. When your work comes out, don’t be afraid to share the good word about what you’ve done, and do so, as with all things, in moderation.
Almost two years ago, responding to the idea that there “simply aren’t many writers of color,” you compiled an impressive list of writers of color for the Rumpus. How do you view diversity in the literary world today? What type of changes have you seen since you began speaking on diversity?
I view diversity in largely the same way. We’re still having literary conversations about a token handful of writers of color while the breadth and depth of our community is overlooked by gatekeepers. That said, I see so many amazing writers of colors doing the damn thing and making noise about other writers of color. We are lifting up our community our damn selves and that is gratifying.
Look at, for example, Daniel Jose Older. I really admire what he does and how he does it. The man has style.
What makes you love a given piece of writing?
I love writing where it feels like the writer has peeled back their skin and is allowing readers to see the bloody mess pulsing beneath. That is so courageous and raw and it always moves me.
It’s incredibly intimidating for many emerging writers of color to try to pitch their work to a room — or a masthead — of entirely white people. Got some advice about that?
The world is dominated by white people. You simply cannot view the masthead as white white white and consider that an obstacle or you’re only going to go so far. Rising writers of color and women writers can make headway by tamping down those feelings of demotivation and anxiety (which I absolutely know is easier said than done).
Then, as I’ve said before, you have to be relentless. You have to be willing to have your work edited. You have to know when to compromise and when to stand your ground. It’s also useful to get to know what these editors are actually looking for. All too often, people are simply submitting without truly understanding the markets to which they are submitting. There are always going to be editors and mastheads that aren’t interested in different voices. Brush that dirt of your shoulder and keep hustling. I would also strongly encourage more writers of color and women writers to join the editorial ranks. We’ve got to infiltrate.