Novelist, theorist, and cultural critic Roxane Gay has established herself over the last half dozen years as a powerful presence in contemporary feminism and as a public intellectual, celebrated in the blogosphere and the halls of academe alike. Born to parents of Haitian descent, Gay also writes eloquently about race, politics, and social justice.
Her debut novel, 2014’s An Untamed State, reconfigured the traditional fairy tale to deliver a searing portrait of violence against women. That same year, she released a best-selling essay collection, Bad Feminist, that put her firmly on the cultural map.
Gay, whose anticipated memoir Hunger is due this year, will be in town Friday to talk about her new short story collection, Difficult Women. The event will be at 7:30 p.m. at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Central Library. The event is sold out, but you can watch it free via livestream at livestream.com/flp/Rgay.
Gay, 42, an associate professor of English at Purdue University, took time this weekend to respond to a series of questions by email.
What is a “difficult woman”? Can you explain to a hopelessly inept white man?
I don’t have a special explanation just for white men. ... A difficult woman is, much like bad feminist, kind of tongue-in-cheek. Oftentimes, when women express unpopular opinions or behave in ways that make people uncomfortable, they are labeled “difficult.” The women in these stories are difficult for any number of reasons, but most of those reasons are grounded in how they are perceived.
In the same vein, what is a bad feminist?
A bad feminist is twofold. Like I said before, it was tongue-in-cheek, in that I often felt alienated from mainstream feminism because I believe in equity and equality for women, but I’m also human, flawed, and as such didn’t feel that there was a place within feminism for me. I wanted to claim feminism while also acknowledging my flaws, so I called myself a bad feminist. Historically, mainstream feminism has catered to the needs of middle-class, straight, white women, so also, if that’s good feminism, I’m a very bad feminist who recognizes that all women deserve recognition and advocacy.
You have been tagged by critics and bozos like me as a cultural phenomenon. What is it about “Roxane Gay” that appeals to readers and to journalists?
I’m not famous, so I think it’s more that I’m saying things that resonate with people and allow them to feel seen and acknowledged. I also use humor in my work, and people gravitate to that, as well.
You are cited by young women and girls as an inspiration. Do artists have a responsibility to youngsters? How do you feel about celebrities who deny they are role models?
Women of all ages have told me that I inspire them, and it’s a very overwhelming, flattering thing and something I also consider a responsibility, in that I want to do my best to continue to earn that respect. That said, I also hope it’s clear, and I discuss this in Bad Feminist, that I shouldn’t be put on a pedestal, because I’m just human and imperfect, and I don’t want to be knocked off any pedestal for being flawed.
How important has it been for you to share personal experiences as part of your work on feminism? It’s a salient question since you are about to release a memoir.
I share personal experiences when the work demands it, when I need to establish a certain kind of authority on a given topic. As a private person, I am very careful about what I share and how. People think they know me, but in truth, they know what I allow them to know, and that’s a small part of who I am.
Do you believe this sharing of one’s life is an integral part of feminist theory?
Absolutely not. There are all kinds of approaches to writing feminist theory.
You have produced a remarkable range of works, from an academic treatise to essays about pop culture, novels, and short stories. Which do you find most challenging?
Nonfiction is the most challenging because I am relatively new to writing nonfiction. I’m always trying to get better and to write essays that are timely and timeless and rigorous. That’s definitely a challenge, but, fortunately, it is invigorating.
Roxane Gay speaks at TED
Gay discusses what it means to be a “bad feminist” at the TEDWomen 2015 conference.
Roxane Gay, Difficult Women. 7:30 p.m. Friday, Free Library of Philadelphia’s Central Library, 1901 Vine St. Tickets: Auditorium seats are sold out. Tickets available for a live simulcast held in another room. Information: 215-567-4341, freelibrary.org/authorevents