Take Space, Make Space With Roxane Gay
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because when no one else will do it, sometimes you have to do it yourself.
Her best-selling essay collection, Bad Feminist, offers her perspectives as a queer Black woman amid a whitewashed heterosexual narrative of feminism. But Roxane Gays work doesn’t stop there. The 45-year-old has written Marvel’s Black Panther universe into existence in the World of Wakanda, she has explored the ebb and flow of body image in Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, and she has left readers wishing her short story collections never had to end. We caught up with Gay — one of OZY’s 86 “Angelic Troublemakers” — to discuss her work and legacy. This interview has been condensed.
How did your upbringing in Omaha, Nebraska, form your views and identity?
Roxane Gay: Growing up in the Midwest as one of two Black families in our neighborhood made me notice a lot about race for me. It left its mark for sure. Also, being the child of Haitian immigrants and knowing that they had to overcome a lot for me to thrive affected me a lot. Because of that, I thought a lot about the fact that everybody is not born with the same advantages. Racism is everywhere and part of absolutely everything.
When did you start writing?
I started writing when I was 4 years old. I was very fortunate to have parents who supported my creative interests. That kind of support goes a long way when you’re a young writer. The older I got, the more seriously I took myself as a writer. It really started to take off maybe 10 or 15 years ago.
You talk a lot about intersectionality in your work. How do you think this is missing in today’s society?
We have to remember that nobody is just one thing. We don’t separate ourselves out when we go places. We have to understand what it means to be a collection of identities and the issues that people face from those different perspectives.
People tend to be very shortsighted and seem to only want to talk about race. People think, “That’s too much” or “too complicated.” But it’s not that complicated because people live their intersectional lives every single day. They need to stop being intimidated by what they think of as complex ideas.
How do you think about representation in your work?
Representation is always important because people deserve to see themselves in the media they consume. It’s getting better, but there’s a long way to go. It’s really important to remember that. I always want to make sure that I’m representing one version of Black womanhood, not the totality of it. That is unfortunately what white people and creators tend to do, as if writing from one subject’s position is meant to represent anyone else who shares that identity and would share the exact same experience. That’s not how it works; we contain multitudes.
When was the first time you saw yourself represented in any work?
I’ve seen parts of myself in work, but I’ve never seen my whole self there. That’s OK, though, because maybe I’ll create it myself. I think I started to see something of myself in the works of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker for sure.
How do you conceptualize your role as a writer in terms of human rights work?
People love to say that they are giving the “voiceless a voice.” No you’re not. There’s no such thing. Nobody is voiceless. People may not have the venue to use their voice, but everybody has a voice. So I always try to work from that position. Sometimes it’s best for me to lend my platform for them to use their own voice instead of presuming to speak for them. The reality is that there are some issues that I can speak to and some that I can’t. So it’s important that in order for people to get the right information, I should assist in amplifying the voices who know the work best.
I always want to make sure that I know when to speak and I know when to listen.
What are you most proud of in your career?
I think I’m most proud of the fact that I may have been the first to achieve something in different realms, but I’m not the last. I’m really dedicated to mentoring writers, and I always try to share opportunities with them as much as possible.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a book called How to Be Heard, which comes out next year. As I continue to write, I’m thinking about prison and police abolition and trying to educate myself about it. I’m also really interested in addressing the homeless population in Los Angeles. It’s ridiculous that this city with so much wealth has an unhomed population as significant as we do. I really hope that people pay attention to the unhomed populations in their cities and hold their civic leaders accountable for that. Give these people homes. It’s not that hard. When you see someone pleading in the street, you should do something about it. People need money and a roof over their head and that’s it. They don’t need religion, they don’t need counseling, they don’t need job training. They need money. So I’m trying to help with that.
What do people get wrong about activism and human rights work?
So many people are like, “Oh, it’s impossible,” and that doesn’t accomplish anything. Giving up on something before it’s even given a chance is wildly unproductive.
How do you think about your legacy?
I don’t think in terms of legacy, although I’m aware that I will have one at some point. I always want to make sure that I know when to speak and I know when to listen. And I’ll make sure to highlight other voices as much as if not more than I do mine, because I’m simply one voice in concert with many other voices who deserve just as much recognition for the work they are doing right now.