One of the most commanding, entertaining critics of contemporary culture, Roxane Gay is never one to shy away from tough topics. The 41-year-old writer and Purdue University associate professor tackled rape in her 2014 novel An Untamed State, race and gender in the essay collection Bad Feminist that same year, and since being named a contributing op-ed writer for the New York Times in March has weighed in on everything from Sandra Bland’s death at the hands of police to the bizarre reality-TV mating ritual of The Bachelorette. In anticipation of her Chicago Humanities Festival talk on Friday with “one of my favorite writers,” fellow Chicagoan Lindsay Hunter, Gay talked over the phone about becoming a feminist voice, her forthcoming book on obesity, and the fiction projects she’s juggling.
I loved Bad Feminist and the concepts you explore in it. What sort of reactions have you gotten from writing about things like competition between genders and representations of women in pop culture?
A lot of people have said that it’s helped them understand and find their place in feminism. Some people have said I loved your book but I disagree with everything you said, and people have said they’ve just downright hated it. It’s all been wonderful—well, not all. The people who really hate the book have no problem letting me know that. But everyone else has been wonderful, and I’ve had really great conversations that have helped me improve my thinking on the topic.
I feel feminism is still a misunderstood concept. Do you feel, through your writing and tweeting, that you can change the conversation?
I don’t know if I can change the conversation; I’m just one woman, but I can definitely be a part of that conversation. I definitely use my voice and say we need to be thinking about women’s rights and our right to bodily autonomy, and we need to be doing more to preserve those rights. We need to care about what’s going on.
I know you’re constantly writing essays about these issues and others, but do you have another book in the works?
Yeah, my next book will be out on June 7, 2016, and it’s called Hunger. It’s a memoir about my body, so it’s about trauma and obesity and what it’s like to live in this world with morbid obesity.
Why did that topic call to you?
Because I think we oftentimes see books about weight and they’re weight-loss memoirs with women on the cover standing in half of her jeans or her “fat pants.” And this is not that book. This is a book about what happens when you don’t have that triumphant story yet.
That’s such an important story to tell in a world full of magazine covers touting unrealistic weight-loss victories.
“I lost 100 pounds!” “I lost this eating that!” I mean, it’s great–I’m always happy, it’s always wonderful when someone is able to do that for themselves, but it’s also very difficult.
You wrote a bit about body image in Bad Feminist. How do the two books relate?
[Hunger] is just the next progression of my writing. Bad Feminist was definitely speaking about what it means to be a woman in this culture. That was a broader look, and this is a more specific look at the body and this culture’s effects on the body.
With Bad Feminist all the essays were previously published, it was just a question of collecting and reediting them. For [Hunger] it’s all original. It was inspired by a post that I wrote on my Tumblr about cooking and learning how to cook rather late in life. It’s sort of building something from nothing.
Do you plan to write more fiction?
Absolutely, fiction is my first love. I actually have three fiction books coming out in the next couple years: a short story collection, a young adult novel, and an adult novel.
My young-adult novel is called The Year I Learned Everything, and it’s about a young woman who lives in a small town in Illinois and has a secret. The summer before her senior year of high school she meets a boy who is the lifeguard in her town, and he’s unlike anyone she’s every dated, sort of ugly and nerdy. It’s their love story and how she learns how to be loved and imagine a life for herself beyond her small town. It’s based on a short story I wrote that people kept calling YA even though I didn’t think of it as YA—it’s just about a teenager. But I don’t mind that people call it YA, and I’m excited to write for a new audience.
The adult novel is called Nice Man, and it’s about a young woman who comes home as a kid and finds her parents dead in a murder-suicide, and she ends up going to college at 16 and meets a venture capitalist who says, “Marry me and all your problems will go away.” Even though she doesn’t love him she agrees. Early in their marriage he asks her to have a child for his sister via surrogacy and she agrees. So the novel really looks at the bond between her and her child and how she tries to get her child back.
What are you reading now?
I just finished A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, and I loved it, I thought it was amazing. Right now I’m reading Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles. It’s a totally different book, but it’s really interesting and she’s an amazing, fierce writer, and you just never know what’s going to happen. v
Roxane Gay, Fri 11/6, 8-9 PM, Francis W. Parker School, Diane and David B. Heller Auditorium, 2233 N. Clark, chicagohumanities.org, $12, $9 CHF members, $5 students and teachers.