A Q&A with Roxane Gay, a not-so-bad feminist

Roxane Gay's book of essays follows the publication of her novel "An Untamed State." Photo courtesy of Harper Perennial.
Roxane Gay’s book of essays follows the publication of her novel “An Untamed State.” Photo courtesy of Harper Perennial.

Roxane Gay can’t keep still. First one book tour for the much-heralded “An Untamed State,” in which her narrator is kidnapped and gang-raped, then another for “Bad Feminist,” a book of essays chronicling her life of, well, “bad feminism.” And, as always, she’s on the Internet, where she doesn’t shy away from an uncomfortable discussion about racial profiling or her love of “Barefoot Countessa.”

Gay teaches writing at Purdue University, and she includes plenty of anecdotes about the classroom and her teaching experiences within “Bad Feminist.” Gay’s myriad fans cheer her unflinching commitment to waxing philosophic about all things social justice, from examining the value of Lena Dunham’s “Girls” to explaining white privilege to college students.

For our conversation, we met on the Internet to chat about “Bad Feminist,” Ty Dolla $ign’s “Paranoid” and her dream book club (to which Barack and Michelle Obama are cordially invited).

Q: So when do you next have a break in the tour? Are you looking forward to that time or are you enjoying being on the move?

RG: I enjoy being on the move because I don’t love where I live but I also enjoy the downtime. I am home until Thursday when I go to L.A.

Author Roxane Gay is touring on her second round of book appearances this far into 2014. Photo by Jay Grabiec.
Author Roxane Gay is touring on her second round of book appearances this far into 2014. Photo by Jay Grabiec.

Q: I’ve been reading your book (Gasp! Shocker! I know!)

RG: Ha!

Q: And I wanted to ask about something in particular, that you mention in the opening pages and then pick up again in “Blurred Lines, Indeed”: that so much of the pop culture we enjoy is “terrible for women” — but we are drawn to it anyway, finding it irresistible. So firstly, I wanted to know if there was a particular song or artist on your mind when you were writing about this. I know you mention Kanye, Jay-Z and Robin Thicke all at different times throughout. but I’m curious if one name or song stuck out to you as you were writing.

RG: Frankly, it’s most of the music we hear. It could be nearly any song on any given day. When I wrote the introduction, I was still thinking about “Blurred Lines.” These days, I’ve been thinking a lot about the song “Paranoid,” which is catchy but so frustrating that I don’t even enjoy it anymore.

Q: Oh, man. Have you seen the video, too?

RG: No, I refuse.

Q: Is that something you’ve noticed your whole life, I wonder? And when did you become conscious of it? I remember this moment when I was like 16, being in the car with my family, and realizing “Oh my God, everything on my iPod is just about how me and my sisters and all my female friends are nothing but bitches.” Except for, like, one Fiona Apple song.

RG: This is definitely something I’ve only really paid attention to over the past 15 years or so and something that has really troubled me during my thirties because, I think, I know what the consequences of these lyrics are. I recognize how they are a symptom of a much bigger and harmful cultural problem.

Q: As opposed to when you were in your 20s and it felt like more of a backburner issue?

RG: Yes. In my 20s, I heard the lyrics but I didn’t recognize how there might be a relationship between those lyrics and broader issues of misogyny.

Q: Like “OK, whatever, this is just something they play in the club.”

RG: Yes. It’s fun! It’s dance music! NO BIG DEAL.

Q: And then no one talks about it until Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke are dancing at the VMAs. Semi-related culture question: your essay on “Girls” — there’s a part where you write about how we put so much responsibility on shows like “Girls” and movies like “Bridesmaids” that they seriously can’t afford to fail. I wonder if you feel any pressure like that in your writing life? You title a book “Bad Feminist” and now is there this part where you feel pressure to *represent* bad feminism, in a way? You wrote about it recently on your Tumblr, how you meet people at book signings, like young girls who tell you they look up to you.

RG: There is always pressure when you put yourself and your opinions into the public sphere. I worry that people will get overly focused on the title of “bad feminism” and overlook what I’m actually saying about the importance of feminism. And I worry that people will think I’m trying to speak for all feminists when I’m only speaking for myself.

Q: I’m so curious about your involvement with Backlash Book Club, too! How did that come about?

RG: I was invited by MSNBC’s Irin Carmon. I had not previously read “Backlash” so it was exciting to be able to revisit the book, particularly with Rebecca Traister and Donna Shalala.

Q: How has this compared to previous book club experiences you’ve had?

RG: It was interesting, different because we were only talking about one chapter, and it was so germane to the work all three of us do. Normally, in a book club, there is a real cross section of people.

Q: Right, and always the one person who hasn’t read the book.

RG: Heh yes, indeed.

Q: Fun twist on the “dream dinner party” question: who would you invite if you could assemble a dream book club? And what book would you read?

RG: I would love to have a book club with xTx, Edith Wharton, Tayari Jones, Zadie Smith, Barack and MIchelle Obama, Channing Tatum, Oprah and Gayle, Lena Dunham, and Ashley Ford. We would tackle “American Psycho.”

Q: Why “American Psycho”?

RG: Because that book is so disturbing yet intelligent and I would love to hear what those folks would have to say about it.

Q: When did you first read it?

RG: Oh man, in my 20s.

Q: Were you in a class? I’m pretty sure I read it in a class.

RG: No, I read it for fun.

Q: I’m also curious about your social media habits. I run The Washington Post Tumblr and am so fascinated by that entire community. When did you first start Tumbling? And what drew you to it?

RG: I started using Tumblr some years ago. I didn’t really get it at first so I just set up the account. Then a couple years ago, I met Rachel Fershleiser who does literary community outreach for Tumblr and she convinced me to give the platform a go. After a great tutorial, I started using Tumblr more often and it has now supplanted my old WordPress blog.
The community is fascinating. I kind of work against type over there writing these long rambling posts in a place where people reblog pictures and phrases but I enjoy it.

Q: What kind of response do you get to your posts there? Like when you write about those young girls who approach you at your book signings, or with what happened at Best Buy?

RG: Mostly, I get really heartfelt responses. Because I write about some of the things I struggle with there is, I think, a sense of relatability.

Q: What responses stuck out to you the most? Either with the Best Buy incident or after sharing another personal story.

RG: With the Best Buy incident, I was struck by how many people wanted me to prove my story as if this was an isolated incident. In my more personal stories, I am always struck by how much we have in common, as people, as we struggle with love and bodies and what we look like and how we feel. So when a young woman writes me, for example, thanking me for writing about being overweight, I feel like maybe I am doing something worthwhile.

Q: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me! I greatly appreciate it, and I suppose it won’t be too long before we talk again when you’re on tour for Hunger, yeah?

RG: Absolutely!

Q: Fabulous! enjoy your day and your time on the move. Keep me posted if you ever assemble the Obamas + Oprah and Gayle for a book club (which you should TOTALLY do, btw).

RG: I will let you know. It will be LEGEN-DARY.

Julia Carpenter is a digital audience producer at The Washington Post.
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