Author and cultural critic Roxane Gay brought reactions ranging from roars of laughter to somber and thoughtful snaps of agreement this past Friday, March 25, when the Women’s and Gender Center (WGC) hosted her for a keynote conversation in Johnson Chapel. In her talk, Gay spoke about a wide range of topics, including writing about personal trauma, navigating majority-white spaces, and the benefits and drawbacks of social media and the Internet.
Gay is celebrated for her work on modern feminism, as exemplified by her collection of essays, “Bad Feminist.” She is also the author of the bestselling memoir “Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body,” and the first Black woman to write for Marvel Comics. Gay’s keynote address capped off the WGC’s Women’s History Month programming, which has included a number of events designed to engage the college community in thinking about gender marginalization and empowerment.
Always ready to crack a joke, Gay opened the talk by commenting on her gratefulness for the warm weather, before noting that “I saw an L.L. Bean today! I haven’t seen that since high school … Sure enough, I see that L.L. Bean has vomited all over this campus.”
The talk started with Gay reading three of her essays aloud, but quickly transitioned to a lengthy Q&A session with students, which Gay prefaced by saying that “I love conversation with students, rather than talking at you for an hour, which would be excruciating, mostly for me, but maybe also for you.”
The first essay Gay shared was a pages-long “food log” she and her wife had to keep for their puppy, Maximus Toretto Blueberry, who was struggling with eating problems. The final entries of the log detailed Max’s continued love of eating cat litter even after Gay and her wife tried deterring him by putting Sriracha sauce over the litter. When one student asked Gay why she chose to share that essay, she simply responded, “Because it’s funny.”
The next essay that Gay read aloud was “Dave Chappelle’s Brittle Ego,” a guest piece published in the New York Times in October 2021. The essay discusses the difficulty of challenging the messages conveyed in comedic pieces such as Chappelle’s “The Closer.” “All criticism is forestalled with this setup, in which when you object to anything a comedian says, you’re the problem,” Gay read.
Finally, Gay read “The Pleasure of Clapping Back,” which was published in Gay Mag in June 2019. In this essay, Gay shared her thoughts on “engaging with trolls and having nemeses,” whom, in a tone both humorous and somewhat earnest, Gay defines as “people who have slighted me in ways both real and imagined who are now mortal adversaries I must defeat.”
While “one nemesis is Rachel Maddow because my wife loves to watch The Rachel Maddow Show and I don’t believe in cable news and she thinks Maddow is cute,” Gay read, she believes that “a nemesis can give you purpose, can hone your ambition. What I am saying is that having a nemesis is motivational.” The essay also covers some of what it means for writers and thinkers to have an online presence, where, according to Gay, “the further you are from being a heterosexual white, middle-class able-bodied man, the higher the price you pay. You have to decide if you are willing to pay that price, if you are able to pay that price.”
The Q&A segment opened with a question from Director of the WGC Hayley Nicholas, who asked Gay about a book that grounds her. “My favorite book is a book that does that, and it is ‘The Age of Innocence’ by Edith Wharton,” Gay said. “What I love about that book is that it’s so funny, and it’s not ever billed as such. But it’s this really trenchant examination of privilege and wealth and the sacrifices that the wealthy make to hold onto their positions. Edith Wharton is really good at skewering the upper classes and their choices.”
A student in the audience asked Gay about about her thoughts on writing about and sharing trauma, a topic that she currently teaches about in a class called “Writing Trauma” at Occidental College. Gay shared that the class is “a way of asking, ‘What should guide us in writing trauma?’ Because a lot of the time people write about trauma as if trauma is inherently interesting, and that that’s the whole of a story. And that’s not the case, actually.”
“I think that too many writers exploit themselves in ways that are unnecessary and probably really traumatic,” Gay continued. “I wanted to give students a set of guidelines for how [to] write trauma without retraumatizing myself, without traumatizing the reader.”
Answering a later question on her philosophy of teaching, Gay said that “I believe that every young person that walks into my classroom is a great writer. Maybe they don’t know it yet, maybe they’ve been told otherwise, and it’s my job to unpack … their writing ability and help them reach it to the best of their ability.”
Another student asked about what keeps Gay’s love for long-form prose alive in an online era of 280-character limits and snappy captions. “I love long-form prose,” Gay responded. “That’s where you can really sit down and sink into your ideas and demonstrate the breadth of your knowledge, instead of those zingy soundbites.”
“With long-form prose, you can explain yourself more, and justify yourself more,” she said. She used the example of a tweet she had made earlier that day, which relayed that she had seen a “Blue Lives Matter” flag while driving into Amherst. Gay noted that the tweet garnered responses from Massachusetts residents attempting to defend the liberal credentials of their state.
“What people were engaging with was not the fact that ‘Oh, maybe people are going to see that flag and feel unsafe in this community,’” she said. “What they thought was ‘I’m not racist, what are you trying to say, I shop at the local co-op.’ That’s why it’s not going to be the place where productive conversations happen. In the long-form place, I could explain sort of what that means to see that kind of a flag flying, and think, ‘What do the Black people who live here think about that?’”
Later in the Q&A, a student asked for Gay’s thoughts on heterosexual marriage, to which she laughed and replied: “Shoutout to all the soldiers out there willing to take that on. I think that any woman who can tolerate marrying a man is a hero.”
Taking a more serious tone, Gay then reflected that she “wish[ed] that the power of balance in the heterosexual marriage was more equal … [that there were] more societal protection for women who choose to stay home to raise their children, so that if those marriages end, they will have protections and don’t have to start over again, oftentimes in poverty.”
The final question of the night was from another student in the audience, who asked about “how you deal with being in conversation or community with well-intentioned white folks who don’t always get it … especially when you’re the only Black woman in the space.”
“That’s a good question,” Gay said. “I try to always acknowledge and see the good intentions, but I don’t allow good intentions to serve as a free pass. Good intentions aren’t enough … if I ignore your good intentions, your feelings will be hurt, but if you ignore my reality, I could lose my life.”