Roxane Gay: “I’m not an opinion vending machine”

Yomi Adegoke talks to Roxane Gay about the importance of boundaries, the complexities of “body positivity” and what it’s like working with Channing Tatum.

There is no medium through which Roxane Gay cannot tell a great story. “Non-fiction I write because it turns out I have a knack for it,” she says, with a shrug.

Over the past few years, Gay’s “knack” for non-fiction has seen her firmly posited as one of the most important writers of our generation. She has countless bestselling books, a legion of adoring millennial fans (me among them) and endless critical acclaim. But, as we sit in her UK publisher’s offices, her publicist stifling laughter in a corner as Gay regails us with the tale of how she wound up collaborating with Hollywood heart-throb Channing Tatum, it becomes apparent her deftness for storytelling isn’t limited to the page.

“My agent called me, like, ‘Sit down before you read the rest of this email.’ I was, like, ‘Oh, my God, something really bad is about to happen.’ And she said, ‘Channing Tatum wants to collaborate with you.’ So then I orgasmed.” Her publicist and I snort in unison. Gay continues.

“It was around my birthday, so I was, like, ‘My friends are playing a really good prank on me. This is elaborate, but I’m flattered that they would like go this far.’ So, my driver took us up in the hills and I was, like, ‘Wow, they rented a house in the hills because they know how much I love the hills?’ And I was feeling so much love for my friends as this driver was taking me to this destination and then we pull into a driveway and [Channing Tatum] is standing on the balcony at the front of the house. I was like, ‘Oh, my God! My friends are amazing… They got a Channing Tatum lookalike!’” She adds that, while she can’t divulge anything about their project, she can add that he insisted they were paid equally – and that he smells like a pine forest.

In her critically acclaimed book, Bad Feminist, Gay wrote that she is “full of contradictions”, and fans will be used to her ability to weave seamlessly between the dark and light, the yin to her own yang. She is self-deprecating and self-assured, girlish and gritty, her name as synonymous with political commentary as it is pop culture. I, like several others, first became besotted by her writing on the internet and, over the past few years, have watched her dizzying ascent from my laptop.

I tell her that Bad Feminist was her very own Bodak Yellow – Cardi B’s breakout song that saw her transcend from an “internet person” to an IRL star. The pair (both Libras, which Gay informs me she already knows) have both had incredible, career-defining years. “That’s the greatest compliment anyone has ever given me!” she says, with a laugh. But, despite being established for years now, Gay, born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1974 to middle-class Haitian immigrants, still seems wholly perplexed by her fame.

“To write a good book worthy of publication – that was the dream. I never dared imagine or dream anything beyond that. I did not know there was anything beyond that to dream.

“That said, I’m also getting more comfortable with it because I recognise that it’s probably not going away this year or next, maybe the year after,” she says, with a laugh. “And, you know, like, while I’m still agog, it’s also important that I get some things done while I’m here, for however long it lasts.”

And she means it. Her debut novel, An Untamed State (which is being adapted into a film) was released the same year as her career-making book, Bad Feminist. She then made history, with poet Yona Harvey, as Marvel’s first black female writers for the comic series Black Panther: World of Wakanda, in 2016, and then her collection of short stories, Difficult Women, was published in 2017. Her memoir, Hunger, was written shortly after and her anthology, Not That Bad, came out in 2018. But her proliferation isn’t simply down to pressure – she tells me she is doing “pretty much everything” she’s ever wanted to do as a writer. “I do not take it for granted,” she adds.

To write a good book worthy of publication – that was the dream. I never dared imagine or dream anything beyond that

Gay’s positioning as one of the most prominent members of the commentariat means that she is free from the scourge that many writers in the current digital landscape suffer from – one that plagues specifically female writers, and even more specifically black female writers: the requirement to churn out reactionary hot-takes in response to anything and everything. “My favourite line is ‘I’m not an opinion vending machine’,” she says. “Because I’m not.”

Still, she is not completely free from expectation. The internet is a hub of immediate reaction, and as a fat, black, bisexual woman, many of her fans want responses and even solutions to whatever racist, sexist or fatphobic incident takes place. Gay’s first iteration of fame was the internet kind: accruing a large following on micro-blogging site Tumblr over several years. She soon began to write for women’s sites such as xoJane, The Hairpin and The Toast, editing its sister site, The Butter. The internet is no doubt what made Gay – and, at times, what attempts to break her. “I don’t know that the smooth outweighs the rough any more, which is a shame,” she says, with a sigh. “It’s actually not the trolls that are going to drive me off social media – it’s more the people who expect me to be everything to everyone at all times, to always have the perfect politics, to always say the perfect thing.

“There’s just no space for being a flawed individual and so it’s like these sort of selfishly well-meaning people – but they’re not really well-meaning, they’re performing their well-meaning.”

Social media is an increasingly polarising space; Gay appears comfortable with being perceived as contradictory. She has been criticised, for instance, for relaxing her hair, which some of her fans believe to be at odds with her pro-blackness.

“First of all, it’s not even about whiteness in any way shape or form,” she explains. “I have really thick hair and I need to comb it every day. So, I’m gonna do what I need to do to pull a comb through it. And [people on the internet] are, like, ‘Ohhh ,if you just put some herbs and berries in it…’ Girl. I am happy you found your true natural path – my natural path comes with a nice no-lye relaxer. I’m black as fuck – I was born black, I’m going to die black – don’t worry about my hair!”

She says she maintains her sanity by maintaining boundaries (“One thing I’m really glad I’ve learned over the years is that I am allowed to have them and I’m allowed to stick to them”), spending days and sometimes weeks offline and relying on a “strong support system”.

It’s actually not the trolls that are going to drive me off social media – it’s more the people who expect me to be everything to everyone at all times

Boundaries are crucial, given the deeply difficult and personal content Gay often writes about. In Hunger, a “memoir of her body”, she writes candidly about her rape at the age of 12, an act inextricably linked to her want to turn her body into an impenetrable “fortress” through overeating. Writing about sexual violence is something Gay says she has always been able to do. “I think partly because after I was assaulted as a child, I could only write about it,” she explains. “That was the only coping mechanism I had available to me in terms of talking about it. And so I would write stories and they would all sort of be around horrific violence.”

She hoped to further expand the conversation with voices other than her own, through her anthology, Not That Bad, originally conceiving of the book as a critical essay collection – a book she still wants to write – but when she opened submissions, the majority of work she received were testimonials. “I realised that before we can even get to analysing rape culture and engaging with it critically, clearly we have to do this. It was a challenging experience. To see so much raw pain on the page and then have to determine is this good enough to go into an edited selection… it was challenging.”

Because of her work, survivors of abuse often share their own traumatic stories with her – something she says she “honours” but struggles with. After Hunger’s release, it has become the same with bodies, not just with fat individuals, but with sufferers of bulimia and anorexia explaining how her story resonates. “It really opened my eyes and is helping me get a chip off my shoulder, where you think only people with fat bodies have dealt with issues, when clearly just having a human body is very hard.”

Gay has been frank about her own relationship her body, wishing she could be smaller, while wishing that she didn’t wish for it. Her admissions have, at times, drawn criticism from so-called body-positive purists. This year, in a moving personal essay in her pop-up magazine Unruly Bodies, she revealed that she had undergone weight-loss surgery last January – a sleeve gastrectomy – and, after the procedure, relief was instead replaced with worries that she had betrayed fat positivity, fans of Hunger and herself. Has she reconciled these feelings? “I definitely reconciled those feelings because I live in my body and those people don’t,” she says. “If people feel like I’m betraying fat positivity and fat acceptance, maybe they’re not as down for the cause as they say, because it really should be about allowing people to be true to themselves and comfortable in their bodies and I was not comfortable in my body.”

“I think body positivity is incredibly important and an incredibly necessary corrective to cultural restrictions around bodies, especially women’s bodies,” she adds. “But it’s hard to be positive about your body; oftentimes, not because you hate yourself in any way, shape or form but because the world hates you. And when it’s not comfortable to leave your house, when you don’t know if any given space is going to be able to accommodate you, then what exactly are you positive about? Your couch? There needs to be space in body positivity and fat acceptance for loving ourselves and loving our bodies and hating how the world treats our bodies. Those things can coexist.”

It’s hard to be positive about your body; oftentimes, not because you hate yourself in any way, shape or form but because the world hates you

There continues to be fervent debate surrounding body positivity online – who it’s for and who it shuts out. Fat activists have called out the co-option of the movement by smaller, more palatable influencers and models, while plus-size actor Rebel Wilson came under fire for claiming she was the “first plus-size actress to star in a romantic comedy”, erasing black actors Mo’Nique and Queen Latifah. The conversation has now steered to how gender affects the treatment of bodies, a double standard Gay says frustrates her. “There is absolutely a gender bias in terms of how we culturally view and treat fatness, which is not to say that fat men have it easy,” she says.

“They deal with the exact same constraints that fat women do – airplane seats are still too small. They’re still pathologised by the medical establishment. That said, it’s a lot easier for a fat man to move through the world. He is often praised, ‘Hey, big guy’ – he may hate it, but he’s not going to receive the sort of cultural opprobrium that a fat woman is going to receive. He’s acknowledged as a man and a fat woman is either genderless and sexless or she is misconstrued as a man because people just don’t imagine that women come in that size, because we have very rigid expectations about the kinds of bodies that women should be in.”

“Look at popular culture,” she continues. “How many TV shows are predicated upon a fat guy and a really thin woman? You will never in life see a fat woman and the TV show with a thin husband and why not? The thing that comes closest is Mike & Molly and they’re both fat. There’s nothing wrong with that. But, like… do they think that we’re only dating fat people?”

Earlier, I had asked Gay about meeting Tatum and she told me she generally hates meeting her heroes, preferring to pretend “they are as great as she thinks they are”. I listen to her fangirling, as I fangirl. “One day, he came to my apartment and he got off on his motorcycle like he was getting off of a horse,” she says, eyes wide. “We walked into the front office and I was, like, ‘Yes, motherfuckers, yes. Channing Tatum is going up to my apartment for a few hours. I’ll bring him back down later.’”

Like Gay, I, too, am wary of meeting heroes. But in all her flawed, warm, oxymoronic, human glory, I can confirm Roxane Gay is as great as you think she is.

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