Feb 22, 2017
The Rise of Roxane Gay
In the world of writers—and specifically the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference in DC—Roxane Gay is a rock star. People stop in their tracks and stare, people shout out exhortations of her greatness, drinks appear unbidden for her at the crowded hotel bar, bras are offered for signing. Two weeks before, on January 25, Gay pulled her forthcoming book, How to Be Heard, from Simon & Schuster after learning they had offered famous-internet-bigot Milo Yiannopoulos a book deal. The news still rippled through the convention center in early February. “White man just walked by me, threw his fist in the air, and shouted Roxane, keep hope alive. Keep it up,” Gay tweeted over the weekend. “I don’t know him.”
Gay attracts a specific kind of devotion few writers receive: not only the dispassionate admiration that comes from her mastery of craft and story, but also the intimate adoration that people also often feel for a crush or the band they listen to during a break up. The prevalent sense among her fans of you understand me perfectly but you don’t know it is on the one hand is true—Gay’s writing can and does offer that understanding to readers—but on the other isn’t—Gay the person doesn’t, and can’t, know the vast majority of her readers from Adam. Cheryl Strayed receives this same generous, impossible attention: so do John Darnielle, J.K. Rowling. It’s a love that is both gift and mandate.
What is its source? With a novel (Untamed State), two short story collections (Ayiti and Difficult Women), a blockbuster book of essays (Bad Feminist), a comic book (Marvel’s World of Wakanda), a professorship (at Purdue University), and several more projects in the works (another adult novel, a YA novel, two works of nonfiction—Hunger and the aforementioned How to Be Heard—as well as a screenplay), in addition to her active and delightful social media accounts—Gay’s output, from the outside, can look like a force of nature. “Roxane Gay has the range,” Saeed Jones, BuzzFeed’s executive editor of culture, tells me over the phone. “You can quote me on that.”
Yet Gay sells hundreds of thousands of books, fills up dozens of auditoriums, attracts attention off and online not just because she’s that good—though she is—but because her goodness cuts to the quick of human experience. Her work returns again and again to issues of power, the body, desire, trauma, survival, truth. Much of her best writing is also her most intense: the essay “What We Hunger For,” in which Gay first describes being raped in the woods at age twelve by a group of boys; An Untamed State, her debut novel, about kidnapping, assault, and its aftermath; the story “Break All the Way Down” in her most recent book, Difficult Women, about a woman who seeks out violent sex after her child’s death. “Sex is full of narrative potential,” Gay tells me over the phone. “It’s full of desires and emotion and needs.” Of her stories frequent co-mingling of sex with trauma, she explains, “sexual violence appears in my work because sexual violence appears in the world we live in.” For her the question is “how to write it ethically, how to write about it in ways that aren’t gratuitous.”
I remember when I first read “What We Hunger For” in 2010, which connects The Hunger Games’s woodsy heroine, Katniss Everdeen, to Roxane’s own life. (“Editorially speaking, it was fucking brilliant,” Rumpus editor Julie Greicius, who worked with Gay on the essay, says of the pairing.) It fell like a punch. “I learned a long time ago that life often introduces young people to situations they are in no way prepared for,” she writes, “even good girls, lucky girls who want for nothing. Sometimes, when you least expect it, you become the girl in the woods.” A coworker walked in on me crying in my cubicle in the middle of the day. “You think you are alone until you find books about girls like you.”
That essay was anthologized in Bad Feminist, the New York Times-bestselling book that launched Gay to the national stage. The coverage accompanying its publication cast Gay as sudden literary sensation, a tornado that had touched down from out of nowhere. But the reality is more complicated and, like the slow build of a hurricane, more powerful. “It feels like I watched her career take off,” BuzzFeed books editor Isaac Fitzgerald adds. He’s reflecting on his tenure at The Rumpus, where he was managing editor from 2009 to 2013, where Gay published many of the pieces—including “What We Hunger For”—that would go on to be collected in Bad Feminist, and where Gay served as essays editor from 2012 to 2014. “But really, if it was a football field, I’ve just been around the last few yards of the final down.”
The way she tells it, Gay started writing at four, drawing villages on napkins full of priests and cemeteries and telling stories about them. Her parents—Haitian immigrants who moved to the United States when they were nineteen—anchored the family in Omaha, Nebraska, where Gay was born in 1974. But her father’s work as a civil engineer took the family across the country, and books were a portable constant: the characters from the “Little House” or “Sweet Valley High” series traveling with Gay where ever she might move. She went to boarding school, a way to stay in one place, at Phillips Exeter in New Hampshire, and then to Yale, where she spent her free time building sets and working tech in the university’s theater community. A blooming online relationship with a 44-year-old man prompted Gay, in her junior year, to get on a plane to San Francisco and leave school and her family behind without a word. It took a year for Gay’s parents to track down their daughter, who by then had moved to Arizona, and bring her back to Nebraska, where she completed her undergrad. All the time Gay wrote.
“I published a few essays when I was in my twenties but they were not really good,” she tells me over the phone. “I started writing short fiction and sending it out and it would get rejected. I decided I was too rebellious or whatever for the literary establishment.” She turned to other genres. “I actually have a whole career and body of work as an erotica writer,” she says, all under different names. She worked and went to school, eventually earning an MA in creative writing from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln and a PhD in rhetoric and technical communication from Michigan Technological University. It was during her doctorate that she met M. Bartley Seigel, a professor of creative writing at MTU, and started working on his recently launched literary magazine, PANK. She came on board as a graduate student, he says, “in 2008 or 2009.” (Gay was awarded her degree 2010.) They ran the magazine together for nearly seven years, finally selling it in December 2015.
“She wasn’t a household name then,” Seigel tells me via email, “but she was very much the same Roxane as she is now, dogged, unstoppable, ambitious, and just wicked smart.” He credits Gay for the push to redesign the magazine’s print issue, to launch a functional and attractive website (still a rarity for lit mags), and to prioritize “the kind of intersectionality that we became known for,” he says. They had a great eye for new talent: their archives reveal early work by Matt Bell (Scrapper), Matthew Salesses (The Hundred-Year Flood), Rion Amilcar Scott (Insurrections), Melissa Broder (Last Sext), Ocean Vuong (Night Sky With Exit Wounds), Lincoln Michel (Upright Beasts), Kima Jones, Ashley Ford—among many others.
Meanwhile she blogged on PANK’s website. When she hired Gene Morgan, a cofounder of HTMLGiant, to do the 2009 PANK website redesign, he tells me via email, “I got very familiar with her work as I was designing around it.” He and fellow cofounder Blake Butler invited Gay to contribute to HTMLGiant a few weeks later.
For Gay, HTMLGiant, a hub for a literary subculture known (more unfortunately than ever) as alt lit, appeared “like a boys club, but that excited me—to have this opportunity as a black woman to contribute to a publication for the alternative and indie lit crowd.”
“Here I am to bring the estrogen (not really),” she writes in her inaugural post, “which is much like bringing the pain, only better smelling.”
HTMLGiant’s history is a complicated one: Morgan himself describes the old comment section flame wars as “a hellscape.” (“Looking back,” he says, “I’m not sure how [Gay] handled so many shitty people.”) The alt lit community at large was marked by a disturbing number of rape allegations; and the detached, early internet-inflected style of alt lit writers like Tao Lin or Steve Roggenbuck crawled out of the same primordial ooze—irony-drenched young men being dicks online—that sprung the alt right. HTMLGiant was no stranger to accusations of misogyny (sometimes posted on their own website), and Morgan eventually closed the blog in 2014, during the height of the alt lit rape controversies. But HTMLGiant also made consistent space, and gave a bigger platform, to Gay. After her first post in 2009, she began weighing in on the literary matters of the day, whether reviewing the first issue of Electric Literature or expounding on the overwhelming “rich white people”-ness of Best American Short Stories 2010. It was at HTMLGiant that I first found, and fell in love with, Gay’s voice.
“HTMLGiant stumbled a few times in regards to that fight for inclusion,” Morgan reflects, “but Roxane was the one consistent voice that, maybe to her own detriment, woke a lot of us dumbass white writers up.” Butler likewise praises Gay’s ability, whether at HTMLGiant or before bigger audiences, to identify, contextualize, and move on “whenever anything weird or gross happens.”
Gay’s last real post for HTMLGiant was in 2012. While teaching and editing PANK and writing on the internet and publishing short fiction, Gay founded the micro Tiny Hardcore Press, which has published at least seven books and remains active to this day. She also started writing for The Rumpus, first in 2009 and 2010 with a couple of humor pieces and then in earnest after a stinging essay, “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence,” went viral in 2011. The Rumpus, founded in 2009 by Stephen Elliott—a writer with his own troubling history of misogyny—was powered by then managing editor Isaac Fitzgerald and the talent of rising stars like Cheryl Strayed, whose “Dear Sugar” column had already attracted an intense following. Strayed and Gay overlapped for a year—a thrilling time to be reading The Rumpus—and in 2012, the year Strayed left, Gay signed on as essays editor. That same year she also began writing for Salon, where she stayed until moving to The Guardian in 2014. There, the New York Times invited her to become a contributing opinion writer in 2015. Each step has taken her into a bigger room, and she hasn’t skipped one.
“A lot of people think it’s been overnight,” Gay says of her success. “In many ways my life hasn’t changed. My friends are still my friends. I still live in a small town that I hate.” But some things have started to shift. “It’s easier to pay my bills, certainly,” she says. “There’s a lot more scrutiny and attention.” There’s also a new apartment in Los Angeles, where she lives when she’s not in Indiana teaching at Purdue. (“It’s a workable compromise.”) There’s new creative projects in new genres: comic books, screenplays, occasional radio. Gay is the first black woman to write for Marvel, and her series, World of Wakanda, spins off from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Black Panther, tackling romantic love between queer black women in a way that is both literally groundbreaking and utterly natural. Still, Gay sees herself first as a writer of short fiction. “I’m relatively new to nonfiction,” she says. (I have to respectfully disagree with the bestselling essayist, a phrase so rare it’s practically an oxymoron, on this point.) With only one novel, she adds, “I’m a beginning novelist.” But Gay also sees growth, accomplishment: “My writing is more confident,” she says. “I’ve always taken myself seriously as a writer. Now other people take me seriously.”
The internet has a lot to do with that change. For years Gay has been my go-to example of how the internet has helped flatten (though certainly not erase) the influence of geography on literary culture, of how relationships can be built and work shared across vast distances. Gay, after all, first began working on PANK while living in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Since then she’s taught at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston and at Purdue in West Lafayette, Indiana: university towns, to be sure, but not hubs for IRL writers. “It’s where I’m from,” Gay says of the Midwest. “It’s definitely taught me about isolation and loneliness, and that informs a lot of who I am.” Many of the stories in Difficult Women are set there, and her characters cannot “be categorized by a simple term like flyover country.” Plus, Gay points out, “there aren’t a lot of people writing about blackness in the Midwest.”
“Roxane really can’t be narrowed down into a sound bite,” Gay’s longtime friend (and pseudonymous writer) xTx tells me. “Roxane is many things to many people and depending on who you are, you will get certain facets of her.” The Roxane Gay most people know best is the online Gay, the written-down Gay. She’s prolific on Twitter, where she’ll share florid descriptions of beautiful men one moment and scathing replies to trolls another, and meditative on Tumblr, where she laces together cooking stories with her thoughts about the world. But the internet, for all of its industry-changing accessibility, can also be a profoundly crappy place.
“A normal day on Twitter for Roxane would send most of us running for the hills,” Saeed Jones observes. “She deals with that all day long and then sits down and writes a short story.”
As her fame has grown, I’ve watched the slow uptick on her Twitter feed of caustic responses to people who think too little of her or ask too much. “I clap back,” her bio warns. “For now I stay on Twitter because I enjoy it,” Gay tells me. “I live in the middle of nowhere and it’s a nice way to stay connected to other people.” But, she adds, “It’s getting worse and worse. I always say I’m not going to leave Twitter. I don’t know anymore.” Her recent connection with Milo doesn’t help matters either.
“congratulations on your victory,” @MikeJerrell, a man with 24 followers, tweeted at her on February 21—a reference to Simon & Schuster’s belated decision to drop Milo’s book the day before. “I’m glad you have succeeded in stopping free speech.”
“Get fucked, Mike,” Roxane fired back, quoting his tweet for the benefit of her nearly 186 thousand followers. “And read the constitution. Milo remains free to say whatever he wants.”
“She is very transparent about her refusal to take the constant harassment and nastiness and lazy vitriol on Twitter,” Jones says. But he starts to choke up when he remembers occasions where “I’ve seen her deal with that in person—these invisible gatekeepers, pulling the strings, not respecting her.” Even, or especially, as she does the work that helps remake the literary world into something better, he says, “she still has to deal with the misogyny and racism that the rest of us do on a daily basis.”
In fact: after she withdrew How to Be Heard from S. & S., but before the publisher cancelled Milo’s contract, Gay recalls in a February 20 Tumblr post, “they changed the release date of [his book] from March to June 13, the day my next book, Hunger, comes out” from Harper, another publisher. “I said nothing because I was neither threatened nor concerned,” she explains, “but it did reinforce for me that this was not a company I wanted to do business with.”
When we talk on the phone in late January, Gay says she didn’t think her decision to pull How to Be Heard was a story. “I just happened to mention it offhand” in a Twitter reply to Saeed Jones—not even a proper announcement. “I didn’t think anyone would know or care,” she adds. No news outlet reported on it until two days later. “I don’t expect anyone else to cancel their book project,” she says. “Honestly. This is the one thing I can do.”
This decision “is not going to change my life,” Gay continues. “It sucks to pay back the advance but whatever, I can afford it.” Of Milo, she says, “that’s the world, and he’s allowed to exist in it.” But so is she. After pulling her manuscript, Gay received 20 to 30 offers for it.
Less than a month after our conversation, S. & S. finally has canceled Milo’s book deal, and only after a video appeared of him arguing that sex with children should be legal. (Even the Conservative Political Action Conference withdrew their offer before S. & S. did.) It’s a bad look for nearly everyone involved, everyone except for Gay. It’s also a signal as bright as a burning cross that those who supported Milo’s access to mainstream platforms never cared about freedom of speech. Drawing the line at pedophilia made clear that everything on the other side of it—years worth of racist, misogynist, and transphobic harassment and hate speech—was not a byproduct, a crazy First Amendment experiment, but the point of Milo talking, the thing itself.
“Simon & Schuster should have never enabled Milo in the first place,” Gay writes on Tumblr. “I see what they are willing to tolerate and I stand against all of it.”
Gay issued written statements in response to both stories: her withdrawal of her book in January, S. & S. dropping Milo’s in February. But she tells me she hasn’t given any interviews about it. “I wish people would ask me less about diversity,” Gay explains. This isn’t surprising: I’ve been reading her on the subject since 2010. She wrote about her exhaustion with the topic for NPR in 2015: “As a writer and critic, I am not just bored with this conversation,” she says, “I am sick of it. I have written these sentences before. I will write them again. Discussing diversity in publishing is the worst kind of Groundhog Day.”
But Gay has been persistent and precise when so many others have not: she believes in a substantial variety of writers and writing that includes not only race and gender and sexuality but also class, ability, geography. She also takes as long and hard a look at herself as she does anyone else. When considering, in her 2010 HTMLGiant essay “A Profound Sense of Absence,” whether or not she read diversely, Gay concludes: “I don’t, nor do I know how to.” At The Rumpus in 2012, she applied the VIDA Count’s methodology to race and a single year’s worth of New York Times book reviews. (The results were not pretty.) A few months later, she published a list of writers of color as a straightforward public editorial resource, a precursor to Durga Chew-Bose, Jazmine Hughes, Vijith Assar, and Buster Bylander’s ongoing Writers of Color project. These are neat strategic moves—born from Gay’s Scrabble champion brain—that presuppose common arguments for inaction: misdirection, or we can’t be racist because we just published this one exception, is made hollow by data; misinformation, or we can’t be racist because we can’t find anyone to write for us, is gutted by names.
“What more could I say that I haven’t already said?” Gay asks in an conversation about publishing and diversity we had via email last year. Though the industry-wide dialogue has in many ways gotten stuck (as a lot of things that benefit white people do)—mired by a lack of willingness to do the work, commit the resources—Gay’s own efforts changed the terms of the discussion.
“She’s given us a wonderful model,” Saeed Jones says over the phone. “She could just be a great writer, that would be more than enough, but she’s gone beyond that,” he explains. “She’s showing us how to navigate difficult online spaces. She’s editing and championing people.”
He knows from experience. In 2012 Gay edited Jones’s essay “How Men Fight for Their Lives” for The Rumpus, which became the germ (and the title) for the memoir he’s now working on. “When people read that essay and feel surprised or moved by the candor or the vulnerability, it’s because Roxane made me feel safe,” Jones explains. She went on to invite him to contribute to a special issue of Guernica—a piece that became part of his award-winning debut collection of poetry, Prelude to Bruise. They’ve since shared the stage several times, most recently in front of a sold out audience at the 92nd Street Y this February. “Roxane is the kind of editor who says, ‘You are doing something important. Keep doing it.’ For writers particularly interested in examining gender, the body, power, race, identity—that is an essential and all too rare experience. There are not too many people out there you can trust. With Roxane,” he says, “people feel like themselves.”
“She’s a brilliant editor,” Isaac Fitzgerald agrees. “The time she takes, the focus she has, the care with which she treats other people’s work—it’s the gold standard for me. It’s what I try to do.”
“She’ll kill me if I say this,” he says, hesitating if only briefly. “I don’t know, what the hell.” He mentions a time Gay—who had worked with Fitzgerald for two years at The Rumpus—came to his defense on Twitter: “There is a lot that could be said but man, Isaac Fitzgerald is a great editor. He edited nearly half the essays in Bad Feminist.”
“I have that screenshot-ed and saved on my desktop so anytime I have a bad day or feel like I’m shit at what I do, I literally just open it up and look at it. That’s how much Roxane means to me.”
“Roxane is literally the reason this iteration of my life exists,” writer Ashley Ford adds. “I knew being an amazing black woman writer currently living in the Midwest was possible because she existed. I knew I could move to New York and work in media because she told me I could.”
“If there’s one thing Roxane always does, it’s tell you the truth,” she says, “not just what you want to hear.”
I hear admiration, gratitude, wonder in these phone calls and emails. At PANK, at The Rumpus, at Salon, at The Butter (a brief but bright spin-off of the now also defunct Toast), Gay said yes to so many writers who had never heard the word before, or never enough. Here’s where I come clean, or offer up my own testimony: I am also one of those writers. Gay was the first to publish a personal essay of mine, at The Rumpus, and the first to publish a short story, at PANK, both in 2012. This experience is one I share with hundreds of writers Gay has published since she first joined PANK nearly a decade ago. Gay’s writing is a powerful and substantial gift to the world, but this second legacy is equally influential, if harder to see. In the wake of her own brilliant light, Gay brings whole constellations of writers with her.
“I’m not a saint and I’m not a martyr,” Gay is careful to state during our conversation. (A few days later, Isaac Fitzgerald, with characteristic gusto, will describe her as a literary saint.) It’s easy, though still important, to be a cheerleader for a writer like Roxane Gay. Less easy, and perhaps more important, is to recognize her complexity. She cannot and should not be all things to all people, whether it’s protesters chastising her for not joining the Women’s March of January 21 or Bernie bros riled by her support of Hillary Clinton. It’s a task both impossible and unfair, and we need so badly what she already offers: her moral clarity and her Twitter feed full of tiny baby elephants, her anger and her joy.
“I could tell you about how she hands out $20 bills to homeless people,” xTx says of her friend, “or how she exudes grace and patience when fans stop to tell her their stories and how her writing has impacted their lives, even when it’s at the end of an especially trying day.”
“Seeing her career take-off has been one of the great joys of my life,” Gene Morgan reflects. “She’s that rare person that deserves every success she works towards. I feel like we’ve all won when she’s in the spotlight.”
“To so many women, to so many people, she’s such a huge inspiration and role model,” Julie Greicius adds. “A hero in the arena.”
“I think she would be pissed if I said I became a better person for knowing her, but you should put it in there because that’s how I feel,” Fitzgerald tells me. “She should have a car made of gold, and a house to match, and a swimming pool—solid gold, no water—that’s what she deserves.”
I remember the first time I met Roxane Gay, at a reading at the Center for Fiction in Manhattan in May 2012. At that particular moment in the universe, most of the people in that room had arrived to see Brian Evenson, head of the Brown MFA program. Not me. I had been reading Gay for two years, but I had never yet heard her voice or seen, besides a blurry and backlit Twitter profile picture, her face. I hadn’t yet submitted—or even thought to submit—the work she would publish of mine later that year. I was just 25 and starving for language, especially hers. Gay, when she stood up, was beautiful. Both pretty and striking, with killer cheekbones and dimples and a perfect smile, tall as all get out with tattoos that laced up her forearms. I loved just to look at her, and even more to listen. Her voice has a soft, slight lisp that can turn and cut without warning. In person she was bashful and sweet, funny and savage, celebratory and proud. Afterwards I bought a copy of Ayiti and waited in a line that was much shorter than Evenson’s but somehow took way longer for a signature. (The people who had come for Gay were already telling her their stories.) While waiting I made fast friends with another lingering fan—writer Rahawa Haile—who Gay later ended up publishing in The Butter in 2015. My friendship with Haile is yet another boon, even if inadvertent, Gay has given.
On the phone, Saeed Jones and I talk about Difficult Women, and the kind of female characters Gay writes about. “In almost every story,” he observes, “there’s a silent kind of gazing between women in different contexts.” Sisters, the wives of brothers, a man’s two partners, a fitness instructor and the new woman in class—the list is easy to populate—and “often men don’t know what’s even going on.” He distinguishes this gaze from the way men look at women—with the power of the sun—direct, intense, nonreciprocal. Gay’s women, Jones argues, look back at each other, at us. It’s an exchange. “They’re aware,” he says. “It changes the dynamic.”
I recognize that same quiet, collaborative, destabilizing gaze from the Center for Fiction reading in 2012; from Gay’s work as an editor; from the writing itself. In fiction and in real life, Gay creates spaces for us to look at each other, to create trust, to take risks. “To read Roxane Gay’s work is to be read by Roxane Gay,” Jones says. And what a gift it is.
Photos by Ian Maddox
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