Roxane Gay starting writing at the age of 4, as a toddler growing up in Omaha, Nebraska.
Even at that early age, she showed signs of the creativity to come by drawing little villages on napkins and writing stories about the people living there.When her parents realized this was a hobby that would stick, they invested in a typewriter so she could finally put her words on a page.
The purchase paid off. Today, Gay is a best-selling author, teacher and all-around feminist badass. On an average week, she teaches three days-worth of classes at Purdue University. The other four days, she travels the country doing professional appearances and book signings.
“It’s exhausting and I need a break, but it's also kind of a dream,” Gay, 41 says. “Like, how is this my life?”
She credits her parents for helping her writing ability flourish by taking her to the library. Gay often picked up material way beyond her years, finding solace in the “Sweet Valley High” books and “The Age of Innocence” by Edith Wharton.
In her early 20s, Gay began pitching her own fiction stories. After receiving only silence from the New Yorker and Paris Review, Gay turned to erotica.
“I was writing stories that happened to have sex in them,” she explains. “It’s always fun to just tell a story the way you want to tell it, to make it erotic.”
When Gay went for her PhD in technical communication from Michigan Tech University in 2005, she graduated to nonfiction writing. She began cultivating opinions on gender identity and feminism, becoming an outspoken voice on the subjects. Then, she landed a book deal.
“Bad Feminist,” published in 2014, became a best seller. In today's political climate, everybody has an opinion on what the word feminism means. So much so, that it could make a woman feel, well, bad. Gay’s essays changed the way women — especially Millennial women — looked at feminism.
“When I was writing the book and putting the essays together I really wanted to offer people a new way of thinking about feminism that was more inclusive,” she says. “Not only in terms of identity, but just inclusive in terms of where people are at in terms of accepting feminism.”
In Gay’s eyes, every budding feminist must believe in a woman’s right to choose.
“We have to have our bodies un-legislated, particularly by men who don’t know anything about a woman’s body, quite frankly.”
Gay also wants people to understand fundamental gender equality issues, like the pay gap. Women make 78 percent of their male counterparts’ paycheck, but those numbers are lower for African American women (64 cents) and Latina women (56 cents).
“We need to understand these things and know them to be true before we can move forward,” she says.
In “Bad Feminist,” Gay writes about how little people of color are represented in both academia and the art world.
Inclusion is a prominent issue in film this year. When the 88th Academy Award nominations were announced in January, the Best Actor and Best Actress categories only included white stars.
Gay says she's incessantly asked her opinion about how to make the media and the entertainment industry more diverse.
“White people keep asking people of color, 'How do we combat this?' We don’t need to have the answers,” she explains. “White editors, white decision makers, white people need to have the answers about how to be more inclusive.”
When speaking about the literary community specifically, Gay reveals it can be elitist. She says she’s often the only person of color at a literary event.
“People can figure it out for themselves. But, also, they should start caring. It's about noticing, and then do something about it,” Gay says.
On her Twitter account, Gay often talks about her experiences. Over 100 thousand followers wait eagerly as she live tweets award shows, commentates on TV programs or just thinks out loud.
“I don’t know why I do it,” she says with a laugh. “Sometimes I’m just sharing my thoughts. Except the Oscars, I deliberately set out to live tweet. But, the TV is always on.”
Since the release of “Bad Feminist,” Gay's career has skyrocketed. She was even asked to give a coveted TED talk at the TEDWomen event in 2015, which highlighted speeches from women who have excelled in their chosen careers.
“Giving a TED talk is terrifying, at least for me, because I’m afraid of public speaking,” she explained of her 11-minute long speech. “They’re very well organized, work for months leading up, and I am not that type of person. I’m a write-it-the-night-before type of person.”
What takes up most of Gay's time these days is her upcoming book “Hunger,” set to be released in June. As I speak to Gay, she's still writing the book and says it's leaving her feeling very exposed.
As Gay describes it, “Hunger” is a memoir of her body, trauma and weight. She wants to document what it’s like to live in a world that tries to discipline unruly bodies.
“Normally, you read books about weight loss and triumph and a woman standing on the cover of the book in half her fat pants. This is not that book,” she says. “It feels challenging and exhausting, but also necessary.”
When I read Gay's writing, I'm always overwhelmed by how honest she is about what she believes in. For young women, in particular, it's difficult to put the tough words on the page for fear of being victim-blamed or cyberbullied.
Gay says she tries to write like no one is going to read it. When her pieces do come out, she surrounds herself with a core group of people she can confide in when the negative comments inevitably pour in.
“Writing as a woman, you’re faced with some really difficult choices. Often times the only thing women are allowed to be experts on is themselves,” she explains. “We're expected to write deeply personal essays, but then aren’t equally expected to write a political essay or something historical and deeply researched.”
Still, Gay encourages women to never give up on writing if it's their true passion. When people make negative comments about how journalism is dead or the lack of stability in a writing career, just let it roll off your shoulders.
“You have to be really, really relentless and ambitious. You shouldn’t hide it,” she says. “There’s no shame in being ambitious and wanting a fierce career.”
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