2016 may 1 at the pen world voices festival: roxane gay was invited to deliver the arthur miller freedom to write lecture, after which she was joined by saeed jones. i didn't take notes during her lecture (which was incredible), but i did during the conversation, which was obviously amazing.
saeed jones is a poet and the culture editor at buzzfeed, and he's currently working on a memoir.
saeed jones: i want to say thank you because your work is about freedom, and it does come at a cost. and i was wondering -- in moving from an untamed state to bad feminist and, now, to hunger, how have you worked to deal with negotiating the vulnerability [in the undertaking of this offering]?
roxane gay: every time i write something, i tell myself no one's going to read this. for a while, that delusion was perfect. i try to have boundaries about what i will or will not write about, and i allow myself to have responses to criticism about my work.
RG: when you put yourself out there, you'll be criticized both for your work and how you present yourself. [...] i'm constantly trying to work against the way the media tries to represent my work.
RG: i read a review of hunger ... that i haven't turned in.
RG: i try to make sure to remind people that i'm not in control of the narrative that's put on my work once it's out in the world.
RG: i don't mind being someone people can look up to. i very much respect that. it's uncomfortable and weird because i'm me. and i watch a lot of HGTV. i tweet about HGTV so much that someone from HGTV emailed me. it's like, oh, now i'm living the dream!
SJ: something i was thinking about [beyonce's] lemonade -- how she willingly puts herself in the context of generations. do you see yourself in a lineage of writers who have regarded their body as a text?
RG: oh, absolutely. especially toni morrison, the way she writes about the black woman's body.
RG: one of the challenges of when you're an underrepresented person is that certain people believe that there can only be one.
RG: money doesn't buy you freedom from pain and from ridicule and from being distorted, and money has never bought a black person freedom from being a target.
RG: i think it's important to recognize that, when you've achieved a certain amount of respect, that you [have to pay it forward].
RG: if your creative world is only you ... then you're not very creative.
RG: first of all, i'm reading because i'm like that's my competition. [laughs] but also, you have to be aware of the conversations because you can't be part of the conversation if you don't know what's going on.
SJ: [white men are] praised as though their offerings are the shoulders upon which civilization rests. the best praise women get is that, oh, she's following in his footsteps.
RG: [re: knaussgard and how his confessional writing is praised as literary genius when it would be looked down upon had he been a woman] i mean, it's fine -- if you want to read him, do you.
RG: we have to continue pointing out that the rules are different, and we have to do something about that. and we're in the problematic position [where women can only be experts on themselves].
[she gave an example of a woman who might be an expert on a scientific field, but, still, she would be told something like, "can you write about that scientific field and menstruation?"]
SJ: people are eager to say we're in this transformative moment. we certainly are in a moment of a lot of conversation about diversity ... do you think things have changed in a way that will matter in a way five years from now?
RG: not yet. [...] why do we keep talking about the problem when we know it's there? publishing needs to do something about it.
RG: what's also frustrating is that all the people i know in publishing are great. so i just don't know where the disconnect is.
SJ: even in hollywood, it seems like people are smart enough not to go up to actors and ask how to solve problems of race or gender. they at least go to directors and producers. if you were to design a better roundtable or panel, what would you do?
RG: i would not [do that]. [...] what i would like is for publishers, for the next year, to hire only people of color. and pay them a living wage. you can do targeted hires, and i think publishing needs to start doing targeted hires.
RG: i'm so done with the diversity question. i'm more interested now in problem-solving and making people feel bad.
SJ: [asked a question about roxane's willingness to be herself], which we're often told that we can't do if we want to be a successful writer.
RG: it's a little easier because i get to do more of what i do without having to justify it. in grad school, i remember reading derrida and lacan and just being like ... ughhhhhh. and they were brilliant, but no one's going to read them.
RG: culture exists on a spectrum. i think that, if we can change pop culture, we can trickle up because trickling down has never worked. but maybe, when we've changed the culture, people will look and see there's diversity on television [...] and it keeps moving upward.
RG: i love ina. she's so amazing. her hair's so shiny, and she has her perfect little bob, and she wears the same shirt everyday, but it's a different color, and she gets them custom-made but she won't say where.
RG: i love being open about what i love.
RG: the best advice i ever got -- i'd just gone on the job market, and my friend told me, "just be yourself because you don't want to have to pretend to be who you were in the interview for the next twenty years." because academia is forever. ish.
RG: these things that people call lowbrow but i call awesome.
SJ: i know you're still working on hunger --i'm working on a memoir now, too, and it's an incredibly transformative experience. have you learned anything?
RG: i think the book forced me to be honest with myself. [and to realize i needed to change.] and i don't know what that change is going to look like, but i know that i'm ready.
RG: it's the hardest thing i've ever had to write, but i think it's also the best thing i've written. [...] i think it's the only memoir i'm ever going to write.
RG: you can't control what other people think. you just have to do you. there is literally nothing you can do. you can [change all you want], but there are people who are going to think of you as stereotypical. so you're asking the wrong question; you need to ask how you can be more comfortable being you.
RG: we're not the problem. the problem is the people who want to do harm. there is nothing more that we can do to establish our humanity than by existing.
RG: [re: kim kardashian's posting of a nude photo -- is it body positivity or what?] i think it's a marketing ploy. kim kardashian is one of those people who got famous for doing nothing but being very enterprising. [...] of all the kardashians, kim is the most attached to kardashian-ism.
RG: the only thing you can do to help yourself is to write and to be relentless about putting your stuff out into the world. the only person you need is you and then you need a little luck.
RG: it's easier to be who you are than you you've pretended to be.
RG: [re: the small, boutique publishing houses that have popped up -- is that a solution to the diversity problem?] no. i think that lets big publishing off the hook.