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Roxane Gay on strong women (and other brilliant things she says)

Roxane Gay speaks at TEDWomen2015 - Momentum, May 27-29, 2015, Monterey Conference Center, Monterey, California, USA.
Flickr Photo/TED-Marla Aufmuth/TED (CC BY-NC 2.0)/
Roxane Gay speaks at TEDWomen2015 - Momentum, May 27-29, 2015, Monterey Conference Center, Monterey, California, USA.

“What did you have for breakfast this morning?”

It was a question to set microphone levels, the first question put to Roxane Gay, feminist-writer rock start, at her Seattle hotel room last week. 

“I didn’t have breakfast this morning,” Gay said.

“Did you have coffee or anything to drink?”

“No,” she said. “I had water.”

Gay is serious and she is deadpan, but she is also very funny. She seems to write more than some people talk — spinning out fiction and nonfiction and an interview with Madonna for Harper’s Bazaar and essays that weave nostalgia with old school pop culture, like this one about the perfect Wakefield twins from Sweet Valley High, which she wrote for Bookslut:

I started reading the Sweet Valley High books when I was eight or nine years old. I wore thick bifocals. I was cross-eyed. Other than my younger brother, I was the only black kid in school so I was going to be noticed even though I wanted very much to go unnoticed. I was shy and awkward and didn’t know how to fix myself. My hair was wild, stood on end, earning me the inexplicable nicknames Hair, Beard, and Moustache even though I had neither a beard nor a moustache. My classmates also called me Don King. I looked nothing like Don King. He’s a man, for one. I was told my parents “talked funny,” which I later realized was a reference to their thick Haitian accents, accents I did not hear until they were pointed out to me, and then, those accents were all I heard. I read books while I walked to school. I had the strangest laugh and a bit of a buck tooth situation. I regularly wore overalls by choice and didn’t really know any curse words so that should give you a sense of where I was on the social ladder. I was reaching for the bottom rung.

Twins and siblings loom large in Gay’s latest work, “Difficult Women.”

“I'm always interested in the bonds that people share and indelible bonds in particular,” she said. “You can love or hate your siblings but you are always going to be related. And so in several of the stories, I was looking at that relationship and the intensity of having that sort of intellectual emotional and biological connection to someone.

“That's certainly something that you see coming up again and again in a lot of my fiction — the ways in which women lived together in this world either as friends, siblings, lovers.”

These are strong women, Gay said, but also vulnerable. Gay wrote in a 2010 essay that people use that word — strong — to describe her, although she doesn’t see herself that way.

“The reason I often shy away from the label of strong is because I'm also weak in certain places, in certain ways, and I think it's important to acknowledge that there's nothing wrong with being vulnerable and human,” she said.

“All too often, especially as black women, we're expected to be just incredibly strong and all-knowing and willing to tolerate all manner of things.”

Which isn’t Gay. She did not, for example, tolerate her publisher buying Milo Yiannopoulos’s book, so she pulled hers. (Simon & Schuster has since dropped Yiannopoulos, the former Breitbart writer who championed white nationalism and likened feminism to “bowel cancer.”)

Gay said she was surprised by the outpouring of support for her decision to pull her book from Simon & Schuster.

“I was very surprised, because you know, who am I? Why would anyone care?” she said. “I did not expect that it was going to be significant, and I didn't do it for attention. I did it for myself and for my conscience and to make a stand and say, I believe in the freedom of speech and I fight for everyone's freedom of speech. But this is not the freedom of speech. This is enabling and normalizing hate, or at least hateful rhetoric.”

The internet has become a more toxic space of late, Gay said. “Sometimes I just don't go online. And I mean, that's of course normal. But I find that it's happening more and more.”

But she’s been surprised, too, by how people responded to Donald Trump's presidency. Gay had supported Hillary Clinton. 

“I was really, really moved by the number of people who protested in so many places in the wake of the Muslim ban,” she said. “I was just so just impressed with people because I just didn't anticipate that. And I was pleasantly surprised. I think that we're not willing to sit quietly in the face of injustice and that is encouraging.” 

Produced for the web by Isolde Raftery.