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Roxane Gay: 'Bad Feminist,' Real Person

Roxane Gay's new novel is <em>An Untamed State</em>. Her essay collection <em>Bad Feminist</em> will be released later this year.
Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay's new novel is An Untamed State. Her essay collection Bad Feminist will be released later this year.

Roxane Gay's new collection of essays, Bad Feminist, is littered with defiant, regal I's. "I do not care for epigraphs." "I was not impressed."

Gay — novelist, essayist and relentless documenter of her own life — proclaims her I-ness everywhere she goes: On her blog, she describes what she ate for dinner, what made her mad on an airplane, what she's afraid of, what she's ashamed of, what makes her lonely.

Everything is about her — and that's how it should be. Gay never obscures her authorial self, never pretends that her writings were birthed immaculately, handed down whole from the mount whence cultural judgments are dispensed. In every sentence, she's there: exposed, doubtful, present.

And Roxane Gay makes me nervous. There's something about the bareness, the unabashed need that oozes out of her words (because that's how we treat need: as if it's seeping and possibly infectious) that makes me feel exposed just reading them, like she's giving up our secrets, us humans with our sadness and weird toes and fear of being alone.

So when I sit down with her in a D.C. diner, I don't know what to say. She has written with exacting honesty about nearly everything I could ask her about. Do I poke the wounds even more, try to draw more blood, extract even more raw personal truths? Do I ask her limp questions about her writing schedule (which I know about anyway, since she has explained it on her blog)?

She — all in black, tattooed, kind — gets it. "I'm a hard person to interview."

Gay has just published her first novel, An Untamed State. It's a brutal account of a woman, Miri, who is kidnapped — then held and raped for two weeks when her father refuses to pay a ransom. The book is harrowing: Truly, it harrows. With iron teeth it pulls up things that do not want to be pulled up.

"I think it should be unreadable or unwatchable when you talk about sexual violence," Gay says. "So I tried to write to that point of unreadability, where you have to look away. It's not that I wanted to traumatize the reader, but I wanted to be true to the story as I felt it needed to be told. And so I stared the violence down instead of writing around it. I made myself cry a couple of times, but then I would step back and remind myself that it was a novel."

An Untamed State is remarkable for a trauma book, in that it shows that the recovery is almost as difficult as the trauma itself. In Miri's life, there is only "the before" and "the after," and the after doesn't offer easy redemption, but nightmares, cold sweats and alienation from the people who love her. "We have a really stylized understanding of trauma in popular culture," Gay says, "where something bad happens and the person has a period of mourning or coping and then they get better."

In the novel, Miri's story gets turned into a TV movie, which she watches over and over again, comforted to see her trauma being "neatly endured and resolved."

I ask Gay if recovery is only a fiction. "No, I don't think it's a fiction, but I think we have a fictionalized understanding of what recovery means," she says. "Especially for Miri, in the novel, recovery is just getting to a place where she wants to be alive, and feels alive, and can be present in her life. But I think we like to believe that recovery means we can get over everything and that we can forgive those who have trespassed against us. And I just refuse to do that. And I believe in forgiveness but find it very difficult to offer up forgiveness, and I don't particularly feel like forgiveness frees you from your burden of trauma [she says this last phrase with contempt]. I think we just tell ourselves these palliative things to just become more comfortable. And to believe we can overcome anything."

Gay was gang-raped when she was in seventh grade. She describes it with terrible understatement in an essay in Bad Feminist: "They kept me there for hours. It was as bad as you might expect. The repercussions linger." Before the rape, she writes, "I knew things but I knew nothing about what a group of boys could do to kill a girl."

She told no one until she was 19 or 20. Her family still doesn't know it happened, she says. Asked why she finally made the choice to write about it in her essays, she says, "I don't know, honestly. I just think about stories that need to be told. I also think I was silent for a very long time, and all it did was damage me. And I'm trying to undo that damage at this point in my life, and part of undoing that damage is just being open and saying yes, these things happened. I don't want to carry this secret anymore. And I don't need to."

I used to think I didn't have triggers because I told myself I was tough ... Then I realized I had all kinds of triggers. I simply had buried them deep until there was no more room inside me. When the dam burst, I had to learn how to stare those triggers down.

Gay speaks of her writing as a kind of exorcism. She writes, "I used to think I didn't have triggers because I told myself I was tough. I was steel. I was broken beneath the surface, but my skin was forged, impenetrable. Then I realized I had all kinds of triggers. I simply had buried them deep until there was no more room inside me. When the dam burst, I had to learn how to stare those triggers down. I had a lot of help, years and years of help. I have writing."

Gay is the kind of prolific that can only be accounted for by need. She's currently working simultaneously on three more novels as well as a nonfiction book, Hunger, about bodies and eating. Writing is her "self medication," she explains. "Also, I cloned myself. The other one's taking a nap."

Gay has been making up stories since she was a child, she says, drawing villages on napkins and populating them with imaginary people. She drew me one as we talked, a black ink sketch of a church on top of rolling hills. (I put it in my purse, where it slowly disintegrated, and now every few days small scraps of village are disgorged from the bag's unknowable depths.)

Her new book, Bad Feminist, is a lightly scrambled collection of her Internet writings on things ranging from competitive Scrabble to the complications of modern feminism. "I am failing as a woman," she writes in one essay. "I am failing as a feminist. To freely accept the feminist label would not be fair to good feminists. If I am, indeed, a feminist, I am a rather bad one. I am a mess of contradictions."

In a different essay, she says she is "trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself: a woman who loves pink and likes to get freaky and sometimes dances her ass off to music she knows, she knows, is terrible for women and who sometimes plays dumb with repairmen because it's just easier to let them feel macho than it is to stand on the moral high ground."

I do have personal boundaries and I'm actually a very private person, but there's no point in pretending I'm always cheerful. I'm not. That's just not me, and I don't feel the need to create a persona.

"But is feminism that monolithic?" I ask. "Are those necessarily contradictions?" She says, "I think the way feminism is talked about is monolithic. A lot of what I'm exploring in Bad Feminist is how I'm overcoming the preconceived notions I've had about feminism and what feminism actually is, and confusing feminists with feminism."

Gay's problem might be that she's not very good at faking. Most people have an idea of who they are or who they want to be (good feminist, happy person), and go about projecting some more or less consistent version of it. Gay doesn't, or if she does, she's terrible at it.

"I do have personal boundaries and I'm actually a very private person, but there's no point in pretending I'm always cheerful," she says. "I'm not. That's just not me, and I don't feel the need to create a persona. And I don't feel the need to play the games that sometimes people play, like projecting a perfect life or a happy life or very well crafted insecurities. No, I kind of have them all."

Before she leaves for her reading, she says she hates speaking in public. And then I watched her make a room full of people fall in love with her, wholly and rapturously. She was poised, funny, charismatic. Afterward, she posted a video of the reading, writing under it, "It is excruciating to see myself on video. What is with my eyes rolling around weirdly? Why do I have a lisp when I read? And my boobs."

Gay may be her own biggest critic, but she still won't read Internet comments. She explains, "I think if you're a person with an opinion on the Internet, you get shit. And if you're a woman, well then, Whoa now, little lady, where do you get off thinking? So it's not that I don't want to engage or that I'm closed off to disagreement. But I am closed off to comments that say, 'You're fat and ugly,' because only one of those things is true. And it's not engaging with what I've written. I already have low enough self-esteem. I don't have to go and wade in there and hate myself a little more."

If Roxane Gay is, in her own words, "a mess of contradictions," it's there in the open. She's poised and a wreck, successful and vulnerable, proud and full of self-loathing, highly guarded and longing to be known. In short — a person.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Annalisa Quinn
Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.