When the ‘Bad Feminist’ Comes to Town | Six Qs for author Roxane Gay

by Heather Braun, special to The Devil Strip

Roxane Gay
Free public reading & book signing
Thursday, November 19 at 7 pm
UA Student Union Theater

It’s been more than a year since Time Magazine crowned 2014 as “…the year of Roxane Gay,” following the publication of her novel “An Untamed State” and her essay collection “Bad Feminist,” but the Nebraska-born writer hasn’t slowed her roll much. She’s still traveling the country and some places around the world, sharing her work, which brings her to Akron on November 19-20 for the NEOMFA Visiting Writers series. A prolific short story writer and essayist, her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, bitch, Tin House, the Oxford American and Barrelhouse, and has been included in multiple “Best American” anthologies. She’s also co-editor of the literary magazine PANK. To learn more about her appearance in Akron, and about the NEOMFA program, visit neomfa.org. For more about Roxane, visit her website at roxanegay.com.

Heather: “Bad Feminist” has been translated into multiple languages, including Japanese and (soon) Finnish. In your recent travels to promote your work internationally, what has surprised you most about how your work is received in other countries?

Roxane: The Japanese rights just sold, and so did the Finnish rights. The only country I’ve yet been to promote my books is Australia. I was surprised and thrilled by how warmly both of my books were received and how vibrant and necessary conversations about feminism are both there and here in the U.S.

Roxane Gay speaks at TEDWomen2015 - Momentum, Session 2, May 28, 2015, Monterey Conference Center, Monterey, California, USA. Photo: Marla Aufmuth/TED
Roxane Gay speaks at TEDWomen2015 – Momentum, Session 2, May 28, 2015, Monterey Conference Center, Monterey, California, USA. Photo: Marla Aufmuth/TED

HB: In your TED talk “Confessions of a ‘Bad Feminist’,” you explain the last line of your book: “I would rather be a ‘Bad Feminist’ than no feminist at all.” What do you believe is even more harmful than the reluctance to claim feminism or the need to hold women to impossible standards?

RG: That list is long—institutional misogyny, the violences women face in their everyday lives, popular culture that is more interested in demeaning women than considering them as human, the retraction of a woman’s right to make reproductive choices without legislative intervention, and on the list goes.

HB: When “Bad Feminist” was first published, you were described as “a welcome threat to mainstream feminist sensibilities” and “our next feminist icon.” What’s been the hardest part about balancing your work as a mainstream writer with your career as an academic?

RG: The balance hasn’t been difficult because I teach in a creative writing program. My work at the university is quite different from my nonfiction writing. The real challenge is finding the time to be fully present as both a teacher and a writer. I have a lot going on and I cannot always keep up.

HB: We have all faced rejection and struggled to learn from our failures. Is there a moment you can recall when you did not handle rejection as well as you would have liked? Did this experience influence how you deal with criticism or rejection now?

RG: I don’t know that I ever handle rejection well, but I don’t throw tantrums about it. I have a quiet sulk as long as I need, and then I move on. When my novel was on submission, I struggled with rejection the most because I believed in the story I had written so much and it hurt that editors didn’t want to take a chance on the book. Fortunately, I have someone in my life who believes in me and my work when I falter and that helped me get through until my novel sold. In terms of criticism, I do my best, once I get past my hurt feelings, to hear what is being said. If that criticism will help me become a better writer or thinker or person, I try to take it to heart.

roxane gay tweetHB: On Twitter, you shared that you were recently asked to sign someone’s Kindle. What is the weirdest request you’ve received from a fan? Also, I really want to know: where does your love of baby elephants come from?

RG: I wouldn’t call it weird, but the most interesting things I’ve been asked to sign are body parts—a woman’s breast, and another woman’s inner thigh. I love baby elephants because they are cute and tiny and perfect.

HB: Could you tell us about a past collaborative project that you felt worked particularly well? And if you could work with anyone on a future project, what would be your dream collaboration?

RG: PANK, the literary magazine I co-edit, has been an amazing collaborative project, for the past eight years. My co-editor, M. Bartley Seigel is a great collaborator because we balance each other really well. Our quirks just aligned from the beginning and it has been so fun to work with him on a magazine that is a true labor of love, and that has consistently put out amazing, challenging, interesting writing.

I would love to work with Shonda Rhimes on a TV show.