We Expect Everything: An Interview with Roxane Gay

by Marie-Hélène Westgate
February 13, 2013

Roxane Gay writes about pop culture and sexuality, and generally tends to have her finger on the pulse of what’s going on. Whether it’s portrayals of fat women in media or the critical reception of Girls, Gay offers the welcome perspective of a queer woman looking in on mainstream culture, the indie literary scene, and politics. She stands out as one of the rare voices addressing the complex intersections of privilege and hetero-normativity on the literary and cultural fronts. It helps that she peppers her analysis with humor and levity.
 
Gay is the Essays Editor for The Rumpus, and co-editor of PANK. She is also the author of Ayiti, released in 2011 by Artistically Declined Press. Her writing appears in Black Warrior Review, Mid-American Review, Cherry Bomb Books, Annalemma, McSweeney’s (online), Best American Short Stories and others. She is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Illinois University, and can be found at www.roxanegay.com, where her page reads, i have become accustomed to rejection.
 
Marie-Hélène Westgate: Your essays are always so timely, and the perspective is one that’s so necessary. How do you choose what to write about?
 
Roxane Gay: I write about what makes me feel so intensely that the only way for me to make sense of those feelings is through writing.
 
MW: What do you read, to get your ideas? Or is this like disclosing the family recipe?
 
RG: I read The New Yorker, The Rumpus, HTMLGIANT, Salon, Slate, and links people share on Twitter. I also read a lot of books and watch TV for inspiration.
 
MW: In your essay “Girls, Girls, Girls”, you write, “the incredible problem the show Girls faces is that all we want is everything from each movie or television show or book that promises to offer a new voice, a relatable voice, an important voice.”
 
How do you think these expectations compare to those we place on shows that aren’t expected to break the mold?
 
RG: The expectations for shows like Girls dwarf our expectations for a show like Two and a Half Men. When we know something will be mediocre we simply don’t care about the show’s ambitions. When we can see even the faintest glimmer of intelligence, insight, or originality, we get our hopes up because so much of television is a bleak wasteland.
 
MW: Do these incredible expectations set up shows like Girls for failure, by submitting them to impossible expectations while run-of-the-mill television continues to do just fine, reigning free sans expectations?
 
RG: These expectations don’t necessarily set up shows with a lot of potential for failure. Girls, for example, is really popular despite the varied and complex critical response. I also think it is better to set up a show with potential for failure by having high expectations than it is to console ourselves with complacency and mediocrity. Just because run-of-the-mill television does well doesn’t mean we should be okay with that.
 
MW: You mention the movie Bridesmaids as being brought to bear against a similar set of expectations as Girls. Its success was met with strange praise, like when The New York Times called it “unexpectedly funny.”
 
If the highest praise a comedy written by women can expect – while being expected to fulfill most everything – as you mentioned in relation to Girls – is an underhanded compliment, then are these brave endeavors we call movies and tv by women, essentially guaranteed failures in a critical sense?
 
RG: No, they’re not. Narrow-minded people are going to be narrow-minded. Women writers and directors cannot let that stand in their way. No matter what the critical climate is like, no matter how distressing it is that critics are still married to the narrative that women and humor are antithetical, we have to work from a place of realistic optimism where we know how the world is but believe we can make the art we want to make and eventually, create change.
 
MW: If we live in a culture that truly considers Bridesmaids to be revolutionary, how would we even handle, as your piece describes, “a fundamental change in the way of thinking?”
 
RG: We have always handled fundamental changes in our ways of thinking, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes unwillingly, and sometimes with a semblance of grace. Change takes time and re-orienting what is possible for women in our cultural productions will happen. That we’re even talking about this is a fairly strong sign that change is possible even if it doesn’t happen at a pace we prefer.
 
MW: What compelled you to write the Jezebel piece, “How to Be Friends With Another Woman?”
 
RG: I used to be one of those women who said, proudly (and for the wrong reasons), that most of my friends are men but over the past seven years or so I have developed some amazing friendships with women. When I wrote that essay, I was thinking about how I’ve changed and what I value in my friendships.
 
MW: What sort of reception did that piece receive?
 
RG: The reception has been great. An Australian magazine will be printing an excerpt from it. I’ve gotten all kinds of messages across various social media platforms from women who felt the piece really resonated. It’s also been funny to see how many people take issue with the notion that it is reasonable to split a check evenly with your friends. I keep thinking, “That’s what you have a problem with?”
 
MW: What on earth do we expect of women writing television, and films, and books? What on earth do we expect from them?
 
RG: We expect everything.
 
MW: You said that your mother’s favorite saying is “qui se ressemble, s’assemble.” I’m French Canadian and I’ve heard it a million times. It was lovely to be reminded of because I hadn’t heard it in years. Can I ask where you grew up?
 
RG: I grew up in Nebraska. My parents are Haitian so I was raised in a bilingual household.
 
MW: Okay now for some fun questions. What did you want to be when you grew up?
 
RG: I wanted to be a doctor.
 
MW: How does sexuality figure in your writing?
 
RG: I love writing about sexuality because it’s such a great intersection of the kinds of things I like to write about—women and men, bodies, violence, love, connection, loneliness, fear, joy.
 
MW: What did you pursue when you went off to college?
 
RG: I was pre-med, then architecture, then English.
 
MW: What’s the writing community like in Charleston, Illinois?
 
RG: Fairly non-existent, though I am part of a really wonderful writing group comprised of friends from work.
 
MW: How do these literary communities affect you when you’re in the midst of actually writing – alone in a room, hopefully in total silence?
 
RG: My writing group is a great place to take the work I create so it’s a comfort, when I’m alone writing, to know I will have a sounding board when I’m ready to share my work. They always help me make my work better and I love reading their ongoing projects.
 
MW: What, if anything, did you expect would change when your first book Ayiti was published?
 
RG: Ayiti came out from a micropress. I did not expect anything to change.
 
MW: How did those expectations measure up to reality?
 
RG: Those expectations were exceeded. By expecting nothing, the great critical reception and kindness people have shown my book have been a real pleasure.
 
MW: Can you tell me about your writing routine? Do you have any rituals?
 
RG: My routine is to procrastinate as much as possible by playing word games online, checking my e-mail a hundred times, listening to music on Spotify, watching television, checking my email again, rinse and repeat until there’s literally nothing left for me to do online. Then I write.
 
MW: What would you tell emerging writers?
 
RG: Work hard. Read hard. Write hard.
 
MW: What are you reading right now?
 
RG: Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis, May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes, The Passage by Justin Cronin, and Let Me Clear My Throat by Elena Passarello.
 
MW: Who, if anyone, has been a great influence (dead or alive) and/or mentor to you?
 
RG: Edith Wharton, Laura Ingalls Wilder, the first teacher who recognized my writing potential, Rex McGuinn, my parents, Tayari Jones and my PANK co-editor, M. Bartley Seigel.
 
MW: What’s your single most bizarre experience as a writer?
 
RG: Isn’t it all kind of bizarre?
 
MW: If you could achieve anything in the next ten years, what would it be?
 
RG: I would love to see my novel published. I want to be a better person. I want to figure out why my windshield always seems so filthy. I want to teach more creative writing. I want Fage yogurt to commission me to write a series of love letters to their delicious product. I have modest dreams.

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Marie-Hélène Westgate is a writer and editor of nonfiction, fiction, and romance. She started out as Freerange Nonfiction’s senior editor, then discovered her passion for asking nosy questions, and became the interviews editor. She is at work on a novel, as well as a collection of essays, and writes a secret column for The Huffington Post. Besides Freerange, Marie-Hélène’s work has appeared in Tin House, The Rumpus, Lumina, and One Cool Word. There’s more to come in Guernica, and Shameless Magazine.

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