Why It's OK To Be an Imperfect Feminist

Roxane Gay is an author who has also become known for her incisive cultural and literary criticism. Gay's new novel, An Untamed State , is told from the point of view of Mireille Duval Jameson – a Haitian-born woman, now married to an American and with a young child – who is kidnapped while visiting her privileged parents in Port-au-Prince. The story that follows is an incredible and unflinching look at sexual violence, the impact of trauma, and the political complexity of a country rife with both power and poverty.

Gay also has an essay collection, Bad Feminist, that will be published this year. She teaches writing at Eastern Illinois University. Gay is my favorite current writer, so I was so pleased to hear from her on how she got started writing, her thoughts about being a public figure online, and how to write about trauma while taking care of yourself. Oh, and that SNL sketch.

JESSICA VALENTI: I read An Untamed State in one sitting – I realize that it's absolutely cliche to say "I couldn't put it down", but from the other reviews I've seen of the book, I can see that I'm not alone in that sentiment. How do you feel about the response to the book?

ROXANE GAY: It is great to hear that the book had that quality. As a writer, you want your work to be compelling enough that people don't want to put it down. I feel wonderful about the response to the book in that it is being so well received and people are engaging with the work of the novel generously.

You captured trauma and the aftermath of trauma so well – but a lot of it was difficult to read. Did you find it difficult to write?

I knew that there were several parts that would be difficult to read and I wanted to provoke that reaction in that I did not want to write around the violence and brutality Mireille experiences. I did not want it to be artful or glossy. I wanted it to be ugly and real so that the reader would, as they should, have to look away. It was difficult to write those scenes and I was very much concerned about not making the violence gratuitous. When it got to be too much, I tried to take a breath, and then turn to something else until my head cleared and I could write forward.

Was there anything you were reading while writing the book?

Not really, but I did think quite a lot about Emma Donoghue's Room. That book was a revelation to me in how Donoghue mediated trauma.

She wrote on these pages just the other day. But you have another book coming out soon, Bad Feminist. You are intimidatingly prolific! Did you always write quite this much? 

I've been writing since I was like four years old. Back then I would draw pictures of little villages on napkins and then write stories about the people living in those villages. My parents noticed that I loved writing stories and bought me a typewriter and that was that. I have always written quite a lot. I don't think of myself as prolific though I see why people get that impression.

What's a "bad feminist"? (I think I may be one.)

A "bad feminist" started as a tongue-in-cheek thing but beneath the humor, the term acknowledges that it is hard to be an ideal feminist with perfect politics. I wholeheartedly embrace feminism and the equality of women throughout the world, but I also find myself dancing to misogynistic music and having opinions that at times feel so incompatible with feminist ideology. I'm human, full of contradictions, and a feminist.

It seems as if a big part of being a successful writer these days is the ability to promote yourself online – being present on social media, being accessible to your readers in a way I don't think writers were before the Internet. I've found that this can be wonderful in a lot of ways, but also overwhelming.

My online presence has definitely introduced me to writing communities and readers and created a lot of wonderful opportunities for me. It can get overwhelming, because the Internet offers unprecedented access, both good and bad. I try to find the right balance of openness and holding back a part of myself that most needs protection. As a woman with opinions who shares those opinions online, it can be particularly difficult to deal with some of the trolling that comes with the territory (not to be confused with disagreement). Sometimes that stuff really wears me down.

This week you published a response to Leslie Jones's sketch on SNL that has been at the center of a lot of controversy.

It has been interesting to see the varied reactions to Leslie Jones's monologue. I'm really glad that her work has opened up this conversation because clearly, given the vigor and breadth of responses, this is a conversation that needs having. When I saw Jones' monologue, I did indeed see the pain and rage in her face, in how she spoke and though yes, she absolutely made me uncomfortable, I think that's okay. I don't think we should always be comfortable.

What are you working on now?

I am working on too many things – a couple new novels in tender stages, my next nonfiction book, Hunger, about weight and bodies, and well, I am on book tour for An Untamed State, so that takes a little energy.


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