by Arisa White
A dynamic provocateur and cultural critic, Roxane Gay was the judge for the Kore Press Annual Short Fiction Award, 2015. She is the author of Ayiti, Bad Feminist, and An Untamed State. Her work has been nominated for the 46th Annual NAACP Image Awards in Outstanding Literary Work in nonfiction and fiction. Roxane is an associate professor at Purdue University, co-editor of PANK, a non-profit literary arts collective, and she is a frequent Salon contributor, and the editor of “The Butter Essay Series,” at http://the-toast.net/series/the-butter/
Curious about her writing practice, I asked Roxane if she has rituals to get started.
“I don’t have a practice or ritual,” she said. “I just sit down and write when I want to write, or as is the case all too often, when there is a deadline and I need to write.” As writers, listening and honoring your basic need to write is a discipline, in and of itself. In this interview, we get an intimate glimpse into Roxane’s thoughts regarding process, judgment, risk and disclosure, whether or not she lies or invents, and so much more.
Arisa White: How does “judgment” work to a writer’s benefit and to their detriment?
Roxane Gay: Judgment can be the measure of discipline we need to improve our craft. It helps to remind us that though, ideally, we write for ourselves, when we publish, we are also writing to be read and we should, at some point in our process, consider how the reader will experience our work. Judgment can be so detrimental, though, when it prevents a writer from trusting themselves and their craft. Judgment cannot be the singular measure of our work.
AW: How do you begin, how do you split something open?
RG: I spend a lot of time thinking before I ever commit words to the page. It’s not so much that I split something open. Instead, I have an idea—a word, an image, a moment, and I dive into the center of what I need to say.
AW: How do you capture an idea/moment in your writing without letting it be held captive?
RG: I’m always thinking about what is most essential so I try to focus on that. By avoiding the extraneous, I hope I am letting the key moments in my writing run free.
AW: In Bad Feminist you write about happy endings and the need to complicate happiness in the essay “ The Smooth Surfaces of Idyll.” Out of all the emotions, we seem to be so very much caught up on happiness, to be in pursuit of it, and it’s ability to be maintained is some marker of achievement. I wonder if that is the problem in of itself—to hold any one emotion in place dishonors the movement and shifty nature of eMOTIONs. A happy ending is impermanent. I wonder, who is served by the happy ending? And is the happy ending a release from something?
RG: I don’t know that a happy ending is impermanent. We are served by happy endings… of course a happy ending can mean so many things and in that essay I’m trying to broaden our understanding of happy endings. Instead of a perfect idyll, perhaps a happy ending can be more realistic and more accessible to life as we live it. Life is hard for most of us and so the idea of a happy ending, of contentment as a possibility, is something to hold onto. A happy ending is a release from suffering.
AW:What are your goals for when you write—what do you want to say or address in terms of a larger sociopolitical/cultural conversation? Why do you write and why should we care?
RG: When I write, I want to tell necessary stories, whether I am writing fiction or nonfiction. I want to make readers think and feel intensely. It’s not up to me as a writer to tell readers why they should care. We all come to reading in different ways for different reasons. I can only hope that more often than not, I am putting something meaningful on the page.
AW: After you’ve completed a writing project, what have you learned about yourself as a writer? What have you learned about what you need to write next?
RG: Each time I write something, I realize that I am capable of so much more than I imagine. In my writing is where I take the most risks and so I continue to learn how fearless I can be. As I look ahead to what I need to write next, I learn how to hold on to that fearlessness, even as I am overwhelmed by the new task before me.
AW: How do you write what is unspeakable for you?
RG: It comes back to necessity. There are so many unspeakable things I write about and it can be hard to pull those words for myself, but I think about who those words might reach, I take a deep breath, and I write.
AW: What could you get away with then, that you couldn’t get away with now?
RG: Back then, it was much easier to maintain the delusion that no one reads my writing. I still try to get away with that now but it is much more challenging.
AW: How do you break the pattern, how do you use it for improvisation?
RG: I acknowledge the pattern, which for me is that I am often writing the same story over and over. I allow myself this and then challenge myself to do something different with my same story.
AW: What permissions do you give yourself as a writer? Provide a list.
RG: I allow myself to be flawed and vulnerable. I allow myself to say the same thing in different, but I hope necessary ways. I allow myself to make mistakes and still recognize that my words can matter.
AW: If you are to believe yourself a vessel, whom are you a vessel for? And for what purposes? And do you feel burdened/pressured by your literary inheritance and/or the voices of your ancestors that now find you to be an opening to speak their truths?
RG: I am a vessel for women and men who have suffered from sexual violence and don’t yet have the words to give voice to their experiences. I am a vessel for writers of color with necessary voices demanding to be heard. It is not a burden or a pressure to be a vessel but it can be difficult feeling worthy of such responsibility.
AW: What are you attempting to express from your core? What are you looking for?
RG: I am trying to express that voices matter. I am looking for peace.
AW: Line or circle? Lie or invent? Justice or just? Innovate or reassemble? Scapegoat or idolize?
RG: Circle. Invent. Just. Innovate. Idolize.
AW: What is your power as a writer, and when did it get activated?
RG: I can write really fast, and generally I can do so well. It got activated in high school, probably. I had so many things to say and I was too scared to say them but I could write so I needed to write fast to get it all down.
For some reason, the chorus to Kenny Roger’s “The Gambler” is in my head:
You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the dealin’s done
AW: How would you relate these lyrics to craft and the ideas of disclosure, balance, and risk in a story?
RG: Those lyrics say it all! You have to listen to your gut. You have to trust yourself about what to reveal and how to make those revelations and which chances are worth taking.
Arisa White is a Cave Canem fellow and the author of You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened, Black Pearl, Post Pardon, Hurrah’s Nest, and A Penny Saved. With funding from the City of Oakland, Post Pardonwas adapted into an opera. As a 2013-14 recipient of an Investing in Artists grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation, Arisa self-published dear Gerald, a collection of epistolary poems addressed to her estranged father, and then traveled to Guyana to give him a copy of the book. Her debut collection, Hurrah’s Nest, won the 2012 San Francisco Book Festival Award for poetry and was nominated for a 44th NAACP Image Award, the 82nd California Book Awards, and the 2013 Wheatley Book Awards. Member of the PlayGround writers’ pool, her play Frigidare was staged for the 15th Annual Best of PlayGround Festival.
Roxane Gay’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Mystery Stories 2014, Best American Short Stories 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, A Public Space, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, West Branch, Virginia Quarterly Review, NOON, The New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, Time, The Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The Rumpus, Salon, and many others. She is the co-editor of PANK. She is also the author of the books Ayiti, An Untamed State, Bad Feminist, and Hunger. See more at roxanegay.com.