Strength. Failure. Resilience. Reality TV. In a wide-ranging discussion recorded live at On Air Fest, author Roxane Gay discusses life on and off the page. 

Wheat Field

Design Matters Live: Roxane Gay

WRITER

2019

WRITING / DIFFICULT WOMEN / BAD FEMINIST / HUNGER / ON AIR FEST / SATISFACTION / STRENGTH / SURVIVAL / FAILURE / RESILIENCE / LONELINESS / SELF-ESTEEM / READING / TWITTER / MEDIUM / HUNGER GAMES / FORGED IN FIRE

Many people want neatly packaged things. But Roxane Gay burns bright with brilliant contradictions.

Her profound literary side coexists with her love of the Fast and the Furious franchise, and her prose is often composed as episodes of “Law and Order: SVU” play in the background. As Gay detailed on the TED stage, yes, she is a feminist—but she dubs herself a bad one for things like her love of catchy rap that’s derogatory to females, or her belief that a woman can take a man’s surname if she wants to.

“I feel a lot of pressure,” she said. “We have this tendency to put visible feminists on a pedestal. We expect them to pose perfectly. When they disappoint us, we gleefully knock them from the very pedestal we put them on. … Consider me knocked off that pedestal before you ever try to put me up there.”

One can find great inspiration in Gay’s prose. But one can also find great inspiration in Gay herself. When Lifehacker asked her for the best advice she has ever received, she said, simply, it was when she was preparing for a job interview in academia and her friend Matt Seigel advised her to be herself. “Otherwise, if I got hired as the person I was pretending to be, I would have to keep up that pretense for the rest of my career.”

Contradictions and all, Roxane Gay is herself. And in a world of mirages online and off, that is an immensely powerful and revolutionary thing.

To celebrate this live episode of Design Matters, here are 27 Roxane Gay quotes that reveal, bit by bit, her bold and vital voice on the literary and cultural landscapes today.

Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief


“If having a personality and having opinions makes me difficult, then yes, I am very difficult.”

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“To write a good book worthy of publication—that was the dream. I never dared imagine or dream anything beyond that. I did not know there was anything beyond that to dream.”

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“A lot of people say you can’t make money from writing. And I understand where that comes from. But it’s not necessarily true.”

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“As a black, bisexual woman I am writing into and against a culture that tries to make me and people like me invisible and silent. Writing is wholly a political act. It is also a pleasurable act. And as Isaac Bashevis Singer counsels, I seek to both inform and entertain.”

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“I’m pretty shy and quiet, but writing is a place where I don’t have to be shy or quiet. And that’s exhilarating.”

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"In general I write for marginalized people. I start with black women because I think black women are the least respected and least heard voices in the world. So I always put that first before anything else, because when I’m walking down the street people see my blackness first—and my size.”

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“I was thinking about what my next nonfiction project was going to be and I thought, The thing I want to write about the least is fatness. In that moment I knew the thing I needed to write about the most was fatness. Because it was something I was dreading.”

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“I told myself that no one was going to read it. Yeah, that’s how I get through all of the writing that I do that’s personal in nature. If I think too much about it, I absolutely will chicken out because it’s terrifying to think of people reading these personal revelations. I just tell myself, Oh girl, no one’s going to read it, and that makes it a lot easier. That’s the only way I get through it.”

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“I think writing always gives us control over the things that we can’t actually control in our lives, so taking control of the narrative of my body as a public space was absolutely helpful in terms of thinking about my relationship to my body.”

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“When we read nonfiction about weight, it’s someone who has lost all of the weight and has figured it out. They’re standing on the cover of their book in half of their formerly fat pants, like, ‘I’ve done it.’ And yeah, I would love to write that book. When I was doing research for Hunger I looked up a bunch of writers who had written that book, and they’d all gained the weight back. … I wanted to write a counter-narrative that you can have an active, fulfilling life and you can struggle with weight and be interested in weight loss, but not have figured it all out, but also not be full of self-loathing. And just to write a complex story of a body.”

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The Biggest Loser is an unholy union of capitalism and the weight loss industrial complex.”

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“My father believes hunger is in the mind. I know differently. I know hunger is in the mind and the body and the heart and the soul.”

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“This is what most girls are taught—that we should be slender and small. We should not take up space. We should be seen and not heard, and if we are seen, we should be pleasing to men, acceptable to society. And most women know this, that we are supposed to disappear, but it’s something that needs to be said, loudly, over and over again, so that we can resist surrendering to what is expected of us.”

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“My nonfiction helps me to value truth in my fiction and my fiction helps me to value a strong narrative shape in my nonfiction.”

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“Men write dark stories all the time, and rarely is that darkness obsessed over. But when women write dark, all of a sudden it’s a thing. It’s like: Why so dark? I mean, have you seen the world? It’s an appropriate response.”

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“If people cannot be flawed in fiction there’s no place left for us to be human.”

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“Short fiction is an ideal medium for bringing to bear the horrifying reality of our present moment. It allows the comfort of distance provided by fiction but also allows an unbearable intimacy of painful truths. It engenders empathy by getting readers to care about circumstances other than their own.”

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“We struggle with the definition of feminism because at the heart of feminism is, in fact, a very simple idea—that women should be able to move through the world as unfettered as men. I think we struggle with accepting that it really can be that simple while recognizing how elusive this simple idea remains.”

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“I worried about the tone people used when suggesting I might be a feminist. The feminist label was an accusation, it was an ‘F’ word, and not a nice one. I was labeled a woman who doesn't play by the rules, who expects too much, who thinks far too highly of myself, by daring to believe I’m equal—[coughs]—superior to a man. You don’t want to be that rebel woman, until you realize that you very much are that woman, and cannot imagine being anyone else.”

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“It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you’re going to float the fuck away.”

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“The last line of my book Bad Feminist says, ‘I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.’ This is true for so many reasons, but first and foremost, I say this because once upon a time, my voice was stolen from me, and feminism helped me to get my voice back.”

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“I think the most important thing a woman can ever do for herself is have financial independence. Even if you’re saving five dollars a paycheck. I totally understand the realities of the world, but save five dollars a paycheck. It really, really helps.”

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“When something terrible happens, people expect me to have an immediate response. It’s singing for your supper.”

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“My favorite line is, ‘I'm not an opinion vending machine.’ Because I’m not. … It’s actually not the trolls that are going to drive me off social media—it’s more the people who expect me to be everything to everyone at all times, to always have the perfect politics, to always say the perfect thing.”

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“Social networks … provide us with something of a flawed but necessary conscience, a constant reminder that commitment, compassion and advocacy neither can nor ever should be finite.”

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“I think that writers have obsessions. Often we write the same story over and over, in slightly different ways. It means you have found your voice.”

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“Books are often far more than just books.”


 

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman