Like her or loathe her, most people know the name Roxane Gay.
The writer, professor and alumnus of five different universities has thousands of Twitter followers, eight bestselling books, hosts the hugely popular U.S. podcast Hear to Slay, and is regularly invited to speak on live panels and television. But let’s get one thing straight: Gay isn’t interested in being a celebrity. Getting ideas out into the world is what matters to her.
I don’t think of myself as a famous feminist,” Gay tells us
“The worst thing is that sometimes people put me on a pedestal even though I explicitly say to not put me, or any feminist, on a pedestal. But the best thing [about it] is that I can talk about the issues that matter most to me, and contribute to change.”
That said, contributing to change in the ‘fourth wave’ era of feminism is no easy task. It’s more than a century since (most) women won the right to work and vote, but today’s movement demands more. For one, we need to close the gender pay gap. For another, genuine race, disability and LGBTIQ inclusion is just beginning.
So why do some people think we’ve acheived gender equality? Is it because they’re more sheltered? (Read: privileged) Are they brainwashed? Blinded by religion?
“I have no idea. This sort of magical thinking is bizarre,” says Gay, eloquently refusing to take aim at anyone. “Gains have been made, absolutely, and it is important to acknowledge that. But to suggest that we have achieved gender equality lets me know that the person saying that is working from a place of profound ignorance…and I guess they don’t watch the news.”
Being a Haitian-American, queer woman with a body that doesn’t fit the western standards of beauty, Gay has always had to defend her right to move through the world. Today that’s something she makes a career out of, but it made her childhood and adolescent years dark. Gay’s 2017 memoir Hunger recounts some of those harrowing experiences.
One of the few positives in Gay’s early life was growing up with a supportive, close-knit family.
“As a child, I looked up to my parents because they were so smart and strong, and I knew I wanted to be just like them. I learned the most from my mother, who is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met,” she recalls.
But despite that, she hid a shocking incident from her family for many years. The incident—a sexual assault she endured at just age 12—is one topic of Hunger, and the traumatic effects it left on her life. The internalised shame and horror fuelled what would become a powerful food addiction— an insatiable hunger, both physical and mental.
“I wish more children knew that they can tell someone the terrible secrets they sometimes carry when they have been harmed,” she says.
Many people have been through experiences that traumatise and alter their lives, but what sets Gay apart is her ability to write about it in such a raw, yet thoughtful way.
“It was terrifying to publish Hunger and expose so much of myself. It wasn’t difficult to send the book to my publisher because I trust my editor and publishing team but it was nearly impossible to contemplate the book in the hands of readers,” she admits.
“The best part of publishing Hunger was hopefully expanding the conversation about different kinds of bodies and how they experience the world.”
All people, especially women, benefit from the public conversation about body positivity—but those who contribute to it, such as Gay, have to contend with a backlash for it. While she’s been able to speak out for the greater good, Gay adds she’s also had to face “the judgments of people who have all kinds of opinions about fatness.”
Indeed, in a Wall Street Journal interview soon after its release, Gay commented that Hunger was the book she “least wanted to, but most needed to write.”
Similarly, Gay’s latest book is one the world needs. This time not written, but compiled and edited by her, Not That Bad, showcases other writers who, like herself, had something to share about rape culture.
Being a topic that was largely unspoken of before the #MeToo floodgates opened, the book yielded unexpected results for Gay.
“I wanted to assemble a collection of essays about rape culture…but I was stunned by how much testimony writers offered,” she writes in the book’s introduction. “There were hundreds and hundreds of stories from people all along the gender spectrum, giving voice to how they have suffered, in one way or another, from sexual violence, or how they have been affected by intimate relationships with people who have experienced sexual violence.”
“I realised that my original intentions for this anthology had to give way to what the book so clearly needed to be—a place for people to give voice to their experiences, a place for people to share how bad this all is, a place for people to identify ways they have been marked by rape culture.”
If the idea of reading such a book fills you with dread, you’re not alone. “Many people expressed that they were nervous before reading the book…and I understand where that comes from,” says Gay.
But by the same token, feedback from those who took the plunge and read the book was—well, not that bad. “I am also glad that once they read it, people realised care and consideration were put into the writing and editing,” she says.
“I was looking for writers who could write about rape culture or trauma in interesting, productive ways. This was never going to be an anthology of graphic testimony because that would do a disservice both to the writer and any readers,” she explains.
So where to now? Despite her long list of achievements—including a recent honorary degree from City University of New York—Gay’s aspirations for the future are humble.
“I want to do good work and write smart, excellent things. I want to be sure I create opportunities for other writers who look like me, and share the ladders I climb as I move forward in my career,” she says.