Roxane Gay at the Ukrainian Federation Hall.
Roxane Gay at the Ukrainian Federation Hall.

News | Roxane Gay discusses race and violence

Critically acclaimed writer comes to Montreal

Speaking to an enthusiastic crowd at the Ukrainian Federation Hall in Montreal’s Mile End on the night of October 22, critically acclaimed writer Roxane Gay discussed her recent work and the challenges she has faced as a queer woman of colour who routinely speaks out about race, gender, and identity politics. The conversation was facilitated by activist and McGill Education PhD candidate Rachel Zellars, and formed part of a series of events organized by the bookstore Drawn & Quarterly.

Growing up in Nebraska as the child of Haitian immigrants, with “a foot in three different worlds,” Gay was forced to navigate complex questions of identity starting at a young age.

“I think that’s what contributes to a lot of my ability to consider issues with nuance,” she explained. “I was American, I was Haitian, I was Black American, and I had to straddle all these identities at once, and so that taught me to see multiple sides of an issue.”
“I think one of the biggest challenges we face in contemporary discourse is that no one’s interested in nuance. […] We don’t acknowledge that people who disagree with us might, once in a while, have some merit to their arguments. We have to listen to the other side, and we have to acknowledge the grey areas.”

Gay explores these “grey areas” in her collection of essays Bad Feminist: her conflicted feelings about enjoying misogynistic hip hop; her profound admiration of her mother, who chose to stay at home and raise her and her siblings rather than pursuing a career; and her continuing fondness for the problematic teen romances she enjoyed growing up.

“I think that’s what contributes to a lot of my ability to consider issues with nuance,” she explained. “I was American, I was Haitian, I was Black American, and I had to straddle all these identities at once, and so that taught me to see multiple sides of an issue.”

Gay’s habit of approaching controversial subjects with nuance has drawn both criticism and widespread acclaim from across the political spectrum, and she spoke at length about the challenges of having her writings subjected to increasing media scrutiny.

“It’s really hard to be able to receive criticism. And I think [as] women, we’re criticized about everything, all the time. We’re criticized about how we look, and how we walk, and how we talk, and what we wear, and so when you deal with a culture where you’re constantly being criticized and evaluated based on your appearance and then your intellect, it becomes really hard to hear criticism of any kind.”

Zellars asked Gay about how she feels about being called an angry Black woman when she exists in predominantly white spaces.

Gay said, “One thing I’ve learned to do is embrace anger, and say that given the difficulties and […] the injustices of this world, and the way Black women have been subjugated and continue to be subjugated, anger is a perfectly reasonable response.”

“You need to call people on that – ‘why do you read anger in me because of my Blackness?’ […] That’s their fear. When they say that, they’re trying to shut you down. They’re trying to say, ‘don’t make me uncomfortable,’ and that’s not your problem.”

Despite such criticisms, Gay continues to address issues of systemic inequality in her work. In the wake of the police shooting of Samuel DuBose, an unarmed Black man, at a Cincinnati traffic stop on July 19, Gay penned an article for the New York Times highlighting the vast discrepancy between the relatively subdued public reaction to his murder and the international outpouring of grief triggered by the killing of Cecil the lion. A second piece for the Times reflected on Sandra Bland’s death in police custody that same month.

The articles provoked a storm of negative comments, but Gay said she has learned to rise above them, and not to “read things that aren’t going to help me become a better writer or thinker.”

“A lot of people felt like – in my piece about Cecil and Samuel – I was saying we couldn’t care [about] both, and that means they didn’t read what I wrote,” she said. “But we had more cultural empathy for the lion than we did for the man. And I think that’s a problem.”

Gay confronts violence against women in many of her works. In Bad Feminist, she describes her own experience of sexual assault as a young teenager, and her ongoing struggle to deal with the resulting trauma.

Prompted by Zellars, Gay also commented on why she writes about the violence faced by marginalized communities.

“I was compelled to write about Sandra Bland because all too often, when we talk about police misconduct and police violence, we talk about Black men. And, that’s understandable, and that conversation needs to happen, but we also need to talk about how Black women are equally subjected to violence from police. […] And when these inexplicable things happen, I want answers – and there are no answers to be found. But writing offers at least a sense of solace – a sense of trying to make sense of that which cannot be made sense of.”

“When we see violence in entertainment, it’s stylized. It’s readable, or it’s watchable. And I wanted to make it unreadable. I wanted to make it such that you had to put the book down.”

Zellars also asked Gay about her decision to use graphic depictions of violence in her debut novel, An Untamed State, about a Haitian expatriate who is abducted on a visit to Port-au-Prince and held hostage for 13 days while her father hesitates to pay her ransom. The novel was described by the Guardian as “an unflinching portrayal of sexual and spiritual violence.”

“When we see violence in entertainment, it’s stylized,” said Gay, discussing the novel. “It’s readable, or it’s watchable. And I wanted to make it unreadable. I wanted to make it such that you had to put the book down.”

The conversation between Gay and Zellars was followed by a question period that covered a range of issues, from the media’s objectification of women, to Gay’s experience of reconciling her bisexuality with the homophobia she describes as prevalent in Haitian culture. When the discussion drew to a close, many of those present lined up to have books signed.

In an email to The Daily, a U3 Education student who had attended the event expressed enthusiasm: “I appreciate her work in acknowledging the grey area between what is ‘problematic’ and ‘unproblematic,’ as it’s most definitely something I go through every day.” They added enthusiastically, “The voice she gave for queer women of colour (who are writers! That’s amazing to me also as a writer who is [a person of colour]!) and her work in education. It was also a joy to lend an ear to her experience being a Black Haitian-American.”

On her experience with writing Bad Feminist, Gay commented that “writing these essays was a way of just acknowledging my existence, that you just don’t see written about. All too often, the Black experience is […] limited to one very specific type of story, and I think that we have to broaden our cultural understanding of what it means to be Black.”


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