Roxane Gay on Using Her Voice for Good and in Service of Others
Roxane Gay describes her wild trajectory as a multihyphenate writer-editor-publisher-professor-social commentator as “fairly bewildering.” And she’s not wrong: Over the past decade—and with long odds stacked up against her as a queer Black woman of size—Gay has had a meteoric rise in the media and publishing stratosphere, achieving rare heights. She has written a best-selling memoir, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (2017); a book of essays, Bad Feminist (2014); a novel, An Untamed State (2014); and two collections of short stories, Ayiti (2011) and Difficult Women (2017). She has edited a book on the work of the radical feminist and civil rights activist Audre Lorde, as well as the anthology Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture (2018). She created Black Panther: World of Wakanda, a six-issue comic book spin-off series from Marvel. In 2018, she received a Guggenheim Fellowship. Gay is also a contributing Opinion writer for The New York Times, where she also writes the “Work Friend” advice column. She publishes a weekly newsletter called The Audacity and hosts The Roxane Gay Agenda podcast. This spring, she launched the Roxane Gay Books imprint with the publisher Grove Atlantic, and this fall, she begins her rarified position as the Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture, and Feminist Studies at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. Her next book, the astutely titled How to Be Heard, comes out in the spring.
Across all of her work, Gay addresses topics related to feminism, women’s rights, rape culture, sexual violence, weight and body image, trauma, race, and friendship. Her recent Times columns have explored everything from the ongoing gross political inaction to mass shootings in America, to why she decided to take her podcast off of Spotify (ahem, Joe Rogan), to the ways in which social media can bring out the worst in people. She is not only a prolific writer, but also a voracious reader and, when not taking breaks here and there from the platform, tweeter. Gay, it is safe to say, is one of the most essential writers of our time, someone hyperattuned to the moment we’re in and who fights like hell for the issues and causes she deeply believes in. Now in a well-earned position of power, she uses the influence she has to elevate the voices of other writers she feels are being or have been overlooked.
On this episode of Time Sensitive, Gay talks with Spencer about her nomadic childhood across America as the daughter of Roman Catholic Haitian immigrant parents, her fluid and flexible approach to time, and her open-armed joy of cooking.
Gay talks about her ongoing long-term obsession with the TV drama Law & Order: SVU and the comfort she finds in watching it, even despite some of the show’s more problematic elements. She also shares a bit about her Scrabble skills.
Gay recalls her peripatetic upbringing across America as the daughter of Roman Catholic Haitian immigrant parents and mentions how she now thinks—or actually, doesn’t think—about her childhood bullies.
Gay tells how, at age 13, she pursued an education at one of the most prestigious boarding schools in America, Phillips Exeter Academy, and later went on to study at—and after receiving her Ph.D., teach at—schools across the country, including Yale University, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Purdue University.
Gay describes why she views her success as “fairly bewildering,” but also well-deserved and the result of years of work—plus some luck. “I worked my ass off to be in a position to take advantage of luck,” she says.
Gay speaks to her passion for cooking, as well the sensual enjoyment of food. She also highlights her tattoos and what her time behind the needle has been like.
SPENCER BAILEY: Hi, Roxane. Welcome to Time Sensitive.
ROXANE GAY: Hi. Thank you for having me.
SB: I wanted to begin this interview with a subject near and dear to your heart: Law and Order: SVU.
RG: Ah, yes!
SB: And your time spent watching it. I bring this up because it seems to function as this strangely comforting, long-term companion in your life.
SB: As is the case for so many of us, myself included. When Debbie Millman, your partner, was here in the studio on this podcast, she said of your work routines together, “We both seem to like to work with a soundtrack of Law and Order: SVU reruns in the background.”
SB: [Laughs] And in the acknowledgements of your books Bad Feminist and Hunger: [A Memoir of (My) Body], you thank Law & Order: SVU. You note in Bad Feminist that “a great deal of this book was written to the sound track of Law & Order: SVU. I’m not sure what that says about me, but I must give credit where credit is due.” [Laughs]
RG: Yes, that is true.
SB: And in Hunger, you write “Thank you to Law & Order: SVU for always being on television so I can have something familiar in the background as I write.” I wanted to just first ask, what has all that time spent with Law & Order: SVU got you thinking about? Why do you find comfort in it? What role, aside from background noise, has it played for you in your life?
RG: Well, the great thing about procedurals—any procedural—is that, in general, there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. What I mean by that is that whatever the mystery is, it’s resolved by the end of the hour. You don’t really see that in prestige dramas that tend to drag a mystery out over the course of a season, if not more than one season. And so, when you have this finitude of the procedural, and you’re doing a project for which there is seemingly no end, it is a source of comfort to know that things can be resolved, and they can be resolved in satisfying or reasonably satisfying ways.
It’s also interesting to think about the show in terms of what it offers about justice and how elusive it can be. On many of the shows, you know who committed the crime, but they may not be arrested. If they are arrested, they may not be tried. If they’re tried, they may not be convicted. I think that’s realistic, and I think that it’s important to see how the justice system does and does not serve people who survive horrific crimes.
At the same time, I’m also kind of ambivalent about the show because it is extreme “copaganda,” and it is very much designed to make you think that the cops are okay. Anyone who’s Black, or brown, or any other sort of variation of non-white can tell you that, in general, the cops are not okay. They do not have our best interests at heart, and they are not ever going to try and seek justice for those of us who they see as criminals rather than victims of crimes. So, there’s also that tension.
SB: Yeah. What about the show do you think makes it endure so much, aside from also, as you just mentioned, this resolution factor? I mean, it is the longest-running prime time drama on American television, and Olivia Benson, Mariska Hargitay’s character, is TV’s longest-running primetime drama character.
RG: Well, I think it has compelling characters. They’re very good at casting, and Olivia Benson, who’s been with the show since the very first episode, is a great character. I think people have enjoyed watching her grow up, so to speak, and become a mother and a captain and always fight the good fight. I think that people just are rooting for her because she’s an interesting character. Then of course there are the secondary characters. Ice-T, who has been on the show for almost as long as Olivia Benson—Mariska Hargitay, rather. You know, Ice-T, it’s just hilarious—you can tell he’s like, “I’m not giving up this paycheck, period.” And I really respect that for him.
SB: In Bad Feminist, you wrote an essay that was previously published on The Rumpus called “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence.” In it, you bring up the time when Rosie O’Donnell said she didn’t understand why such a show was needed, suggesting that “perhaps a show dealing so explicitly with sexual assault was unnecessary, was too much.” I was hoping you might elaborate a little bit on that and how that show connects to how we talk about rape, how we talk about sexual assault and sexual violence.
RG: Well, it’s so funny that I actually remember that interview with Rosie O’Donnell. She was on, I think, Jay Leno or one of the others, and I think it was in promotion of her talk show. [Editor’s note: O’Donnell said the comment in October 1999, on her own show, when the actor Jesse L. Martin, a Law & Order regular, came on as a guest.] She was wondering aloud. And I think it’s still a fair question. Do we need to see this? Do we need to see Criminal Minds, which shows brutal murders and attacks and assaults and all sorts of depravity? There is no easy answer to that question, but clearly audiences want that. I think audiences want that because it’s easier to see these things and imagine them to be fictional than to realize that they are drawing in many ways from the real world. It’s not as fictional as you might want to believe. But I don’t know if shows like that should be… I think anything should be on the air. I think the audiences decide whether or not it should be on the air or not. There’s just something about this show and the way it deals with sexual assault.
The reality is that for most people in middle America this is the most sophisticated conversation they’re going to be a part of with regards to sexual assault—and the most progressive conversation that they are going to be a part of. I think it’s important for those of us who may engage in more of the discourse than the average viewer should recognize that. Of course, a lot of us can be like, “Ehhh, here are these things we’re going to nitpick.” But for a lot of people, these are really harrowing episodes that really do enlighten them on the realities of sexual violence, and I think it’s important not to forget that.
SB: And the realities of race.
RG: Yes, absolutely.
RG: Yes, it did.
SB: I found it particularly interesting to think that for those who might not read The New York Times or go on Twitter or pay attention to what that whole incident was about, they experience it through this show.
RG: Yeah, they do. It’s a shame that that’s what it might take for certain people, but I think we can’t overlook that. Not everyone is on Twitter. In fact, very few people, relatively speaking, are on Twitter and having those kinds of granular conversations about these issues. And so we have to keep in mind that we all come to information in different ways. Of course, I think we all would hope that there are better ways for people to receive information about violence, and sexual violence in particular, racism, homophobia, transphobia. But pop culture really is the vehicle for a great many Americans and also, I would say, people in other parts of the world. So yeah, I’m realistic.
SB: I also wanted to bring up another obsession of yours: Scrabble.
SB: There’s another great essay in Bad Feminist, titled “To Scratch, Claw, or Grope Clumsily or Frantically.” This gets into some of your Scrabble history, but I was hoping you might speak here to more of it. How you think about your time playing Scrabble over the years and what it’s taught you about words and yourself.
RG: Well, Scrabble is a great reminder that I’m competitive, though I will say I’m not as competitive as my wife [laughter], who I play Scrabble with the most. It just reminds me that I love words, and I love competition, and I love language, and I love playfulness around language. Scrabble really is this vehicle that brings all of those things together in a very satisfying way. The great thing about Scrabble is that it really never gets old because every game is different, and every letter combination that you get is different, and there is skill required, and you can get better by studying word lists and things like that. You can learn a lot about what different words mean. Now I’m not all that focused on definitions, but sometimes I do end up looking up a word thinking that can’t possibly be a word. And it is, and I learn some new word. It’s just fun.
SB: To get a bit into your work life, you wear so many hats. You’re the Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture, and Feminist Studies at Rutgers [University]. You’re an editor, a social and cultural commentator, an advice columnist, a New York Times op-ed writer. You have your own imprint, Roxane Gay Books at Grove Atlantic. You write the Audacity Newsletter. You host the Roxane Gay Agenda podcast. Last year, you created a MasterClass on writing for social change. Earlier this summer, you interviewed Megan Rapinoe for the cover of Newsweek. The other week, you co-hosted the Pivot podcast with Kara Swisher. I mean, you do a lot, and so I wanted to ask, what’s your approach to time management? How do you literally or philosophically think about time in your own life? How do you balance it all? I mean, you even still manage to have time for SVU, so.
RG: I do. I multitask, and I’m not really good at time management, and I’m trying to figure time management out because I do too many things. I have said yes to too many things, but it’s really hard as a writer to say no to some of these opportunities that are really great. I’m working on it in therapy twice a week: “Help me say no.”
I think of time as fluid and flexible, and unfortunately, anyone who wants to work with me has to see it the same way. Now, I respect other people’s time. I do. I try not to be late. So it’s not like time is fluid in that way, but time is fluid when it comes to deadlines. You should lie to me about whatever your deadline is because it’s simply not going to happen. I don’t like that. I would like it to change, and I think it will change as I start to declutter my work life and start saying no more, but I’m not there yet.
SB: What is it about saying yes? I’m curious about why that tends to be your answer, or has tended to be your answer, at least up till now, and sort of to this present-time moment.
RG: I think there are a lot of reasons. When you’re a writer, you always think that the opportunities are going to disappear. That every opportunity is the last great opportunity. And so you just have to say yes to everything because you never know when the well is going to dry. I think that I’m ambitious, certainly, and I like a good challenge. And so a lot of these opportunities are to write in new genres or to try things that I never considered doing, but that will stretch me intellectually. I am not opposed to that kind of stretching. And so, it’s just all of the above, but mostly it comes from a place of profound anxiety and, like, the worry that this could be the last time I’m ever asked to do anything.
SB: Let’s get into your upbringing. You were the oldest child and grew up with two younger brothers?
RG: I did.
SB: Your mother was a homemaker, and your father worked as a civil engineer and owned a concrete company. He was constructing tunnels, and his job took your family across the country, to Colorado, where he worked on the Eisenhower Tunnel; to Illinois; to Virginia; to New Jersey. He was, as you point out in Hunger, “quite literally, changing the world.” Could you speak to your parents and some of your memories of them, your relationship with them now? What was your childhood like, generally speaking?
RG: Generally speaking, my childhood was… good. It was very good, if you don’t count, like, the rest of the world. My parents loved us very much, and they still do. I talk to my parents almost every day. I see them all the time, and we even travel with them. They stay with us for up to a month at a time, and we get along with them very well. Growing up, we were oftentimes the only Black family in a neighborhood, so we really only had each other. My parents raised us with a lot of love. It was a very strict household. We had to follow rules and go to church.
SB: Roman Catholic.
RG: Very Catholic. Get great grades and things like that. But it wasn’t … I’m not traumatized by it. I can see how some of it rubbed off on me, but it definitely wasn’t from a place of cruelty. I think my parents understood what it means to be Black in America, and they were trying to prepare us as best as they knew how. The most hilarious thing about my parents is that they have not one single regret. They were interviewed by Entertainment Tonight, which was doing a special on families with multiple successful children. The interviewer was like, “Would you do it differently?” My parents were like, simultaneously, “No, absolutely not. It worked.” [Laughs] I was like, “Oh my God, of course.” That’s who they are. Now we’re pretty close. I think it’s partly culture. Haitian families tend to be very close, and also I like them as people, and they seem to like me.
SB: You spent your summers as a kid going back to Haiti.
SB: What impact did your time there have on you and just thinking about returning to the homeland, thinking about your ancestors, thinking about what it means to be Haitian, the relationship between being in America and going back to Haiti?
RG: Well, we always understood that my parents were from a different country, and they were very proud, and they raised us to be proud. And so when we would go to Haiti, it was exciting to see where they’re really from. They, in many ways, were different people in Haiti because they were more relaxed. They seemed to be more fully themselves, and it was great to be able to see them like that. It was also great to learn about what it means to live in another culture and, quite frankly, to appreciate the culture that we were raised in.
Haiti is a gorgeous country, and I think anyone should go visit. But it’s also a complicated country. It was how I learned about, like, what absolute poverty is. There’s certainly poverty in the United States, but it’s relative. In Haiti, you see absolute poverty, where there are just no resources, no one is coming to save you, and there‘s no safety net, and it‘s pretty horrible. Certainly Haiti is not the only country that experiences that level of poverty. Many countries in the world do. And so it was very eye opening. It was a lot of fun to have to learn French and be able to communicate with other people instead of just, like, pointing at things.
RG: Also, it’s just great food, great music, great beaches. We were very lucky and very privileged, and so we enjoyed the best that Haiti had to offer, and I never took it for granted and I still don’t.
SB: As a child, you found solace in books. You were a voracious reader, an avid writer. You were a big fan of Little House on the Prairie and Sweet Valley High books. In Hunger, you write, “I often say that reading and writing saved my life. I mean that quite literally.” Could you tell me a bit about this? What did reading and writing open up to you, and in what ways did reading and writing shape or reshape your relationship with time?
RG: I don’t know that it reshaped my relationship with time, except that it made me want to slow time down so I could read more. I loved reading. I still do. It’s something I can lose myself in. I love what writers do with language and what they do with ideas. I love just distraction, and reading provides that in a really satisfying way.
It also opened up the door to thinking I want to do that, too. I want to make people feel the way I feel when I read. And so as a child, I wrote a lot as well. It was just fun. I didn’t have a lot of friends. I was very nerdy, I was very shy, I was very awkward, and I was very sheltered, which is a deadly combination. It’s because children are pretty terrible. And so I, at least, always had books, and I had writing, and I had these ways of distracting myself from the realities of my day-to-day life, which were fine at home, but not so good when I left my house. I was grateful to have that safe place to land.
SB: Tell me a bit, I guess, about the time outside of the house. How did you manage that time versus your reading and writing time, I suppose—your family time?
RG: Well, I don’t know that I managed it. I just endured it. Because school was fine. I enjoyed school, but you never want to be the kid that enjoys school and doesn’t know how to hide it. I was definitely the butt of a lot of jokes and a lot of teasing. Some of it was normal and some of it was disproportionate and cruel, and so it was hard. It was just something to get through. I only have to deal with this for X number of hours and then I get to go home. And at least at home I can read again; or just forget about, like, whatever; or I can write and forget about whatever. So it was just a place I had to go and endure until I could get back to my imaginary life, which was way better.
SB: Do you feel like now, in a way, your success, your ability to have the platform you have now, is some form of revenge or retribution to those schoolhood bullies?
RG: No. They don’t factor at all. I think on my pettier days, I certainly can say, “Wow, look at me now.” But, kids are just evil sometimes [laughs], and I would find it hard to hold people accountable now for things that they did at 8 and 9, for just like garden variety schoolyard bullying. Am I still bitter about some of it? Absolutely. I mean, I’ll hold onto that shit forever, but they just don’t even factor in my success at all. It’s like I can’t even give them that kind of attention or energy at this point in my life. But when one of them reaches out to me, is it satisfying? Oh yes, it is.
SB: What are the things they say? How does one reach out to you?
RG: I get a lot of emails and Facebook messages from people. Like, “Hey, I think we went to our elementary school together.” One young woman—I guess she’s not young anymore because I’m not young anymore—but one woman wrote to me and wrote about this incident where I was being teased pretty badly, and I think they were throwing my book around, and she said, “I should have intervened and stopped it and it has plagued me every day of my life since then.” And I was like, “Oh, my God.” Like I frankly didn’t even … Of all the incidents I remembered, I didn’t even remember that one. Must have just blocked it out. I just told her, “You have to let this go. You can’t hold yourself accountable now for that. I mean, I appreciate the sentiment.” I wrote back a nice letter, but I was just like, “Please free yourself from this guilt because I don’t even remember this happening.” At least it was nice to have it acknowledged, that it wasn’t in my head, that it really did happen. It really was as bad as I thought it was at the time. But at the same time, it’s also just funny that people now want to reach out and pretend like we were friends back then when we weren’t.
SB: Like, “I remember…” [Laughter]
RG: Come on. Let’s not kid ourselves.
SB: So, at age 12, your life was “split in two,” as you’ve put it, and there was a before and an after—that’s how you divided Hunger. You’ve written and spoken at length about this moment in your life and what those boys did to you, so I don’t feel we need to get into it here, but I did want to speak with you about this dichotomy of “the before” and “the after.” And now that the after has been thirty-five years, how are you thinking about these two periods of time in your life?
RG: Well, the older I get, the more the before period becomes like this part of my life that was relatively short. I didn’t have much of a life in the before, which is sad. It’s sad that I’ve spent more of my life dealing with trauma than not. But time is what it is, and so I recognize that it’s just, by nature, what is inevitably going to happen.
SB: I was struck in Hunger when you write, “I am grateful that there are so many pictures of me from my childhood because there is so much I have forgotten in one way or another.” And you later add that these pictures are “artifacts of a time when I was happy and whole.” Are there particular pictures in your mind that stand out, moments in time that were captured? What does it mean to you now to be able to look at these pictures from the before?
RG: Well, it’s great to be able to look at these pictures and to know like, that’s how you… I mean, I felt loved, but you also see we were loved, and we had a really sort of sweet and charming little life when we were at home. The pictures are just fun, of me and my brothers: Halloween and Christmas, birthdays, first days of school. It was all there. This was well, well before cell phones. My parents really put effort into this documentation. You had to take the film and go to a place to get the film developed and wait. You had to really want a picture back then. It wasn’t like the old times, in the 1800s, but still, it required some effort.
SB: Grocery stores.
SB: You drop it at the grocery.
RG: It was amazing. Kids don’t even know. [Laughter] It’s always great to look at those pictures and see like, not bad.
RG: Definitely affirmation. And to also just remember it’s not all bad.
SB: Then you’re age 13, and you decide you want to leave home for boarding school.
SB: You wrote that this decision was surprisingly easy for you. Why was it so? And what was your parents’ response when you told them you wanted to leave home?
RG: My parents were okay with it because my cousin Claudine [Gay] had gone to [Phillips] Exeter [Academy] already. And so it wasn’t this anomaly. It wasn’t that strange that someone would go to boarding school. We moved around a lot, and my argument to them was I didn’t want to go to four high schools in four years. I had just gone to two junior highs in two years. And so they understood.
Looking back now, I’m like, oh, my God, the level of privilege to be like, “I’d like to go to the most expensive high school in the country.” [Laughter] Ahh, man. Kids. But they understood. They, I think, were hesitant in that they cared about me very much. They loved me. I think it’s an overwhelming thing to send your child away and trust that they’ll be okay, but I just knew that it was going to be impossible to pretend that everything was okay if I stayed home. And so I wanted to just get away, and that was the only way I could think of, of getting away.
SB: So you go to New Hampshire. You’re at Exeter. While there, you’ve noted that “every day was a crushing disappointment or gauntlet of humiliation.”
RG: Yeah, Exeter was rough.
SB: But you also met this incredible man, Rex McGuinn, who I wanted to bring up. Who saw promise in your writing, he encouraged you, and he also suggested you go to the counseling center to seek help. Could you share a bit about your time at Exeter and about Rex?
RG: Yeah, Exeter is a complicated place. It’s a boarding school. It’s a very good school academically. I know that I had an unparalleled education. I learned so much there, and I benefit from it almost every single day and I know that. I see the benefit. But socially, it was really challenging for me because I didn’t quite fit in anywhere. I was from the Midwest. I was a Black student who wasn’t from the inner city, and the white students in particular didn’t really know what to do with that. I was shy. I was awkward. I wore ridiculous clothing. Oh man, I just had no fashion sense. It was just literally a gauntlet of humiliation every single day. That’s the only way to describe it. I was also dealing with a profound trauma, and it was unchecked.
But I wrote a lot, and I took English classes, and I loved them. Mr. McGuinn was my English teacher for one of those classes, and he was a creative writer. He taught creative writing, and he saw something in my work. I was, at the time, just writing all of these horrifying stories about young girls being raped. He recognized, like, something is not right here, but he did truly the right thing. I don’t think enough teachers get credit for doing the right thing. Instead of trying to fix me or encourage me to talk to him—which would not necessarily have been inappropriate, but kind of, probably, would’ve because he’s a teacher and not a psychologist—he took me and walked me to the counseling center and made sure that I got help. He didn’t just drop me. He made sure I got help and then followed up with me like, “How’s it going?” Focused with me, once that was in progress—it’s not that it was an overnight cure, but—he then continued to take an interest in my work and work with me as a writer. And so I got very lucky that there was someone at a school like that who saw something in me and who took the time.
Unfortunately, he died before I even published my first book, which was sad because he was very young, and he shouldn’t have. He died while running. It’s a shame, but I am always happy to spread the good word. I’ve been in touch with his widow [Margaret], who was also a teacher at Exeter. And so at least she knows that he has not been forgotten.
SB: Yeah, incredible how a teacher could have such impact on one person—
SB: —and where that could lead.
SB: After Exeter, you started at Yale [University] where you explored pre-med and then architecture and eventually English, but you dropped out your junior year to pursue a relationship in Arizona. There you worked the graveyard shift at a phone sex company.
RG: I did.
SB: I’m skipping over a little bit here, but I want to cover a lot of terrain. You’ve called this period “the lost year.” Could you elaborate on that time? How did you recover from what was, in some ways, that lost year? That lost time?
RG: Well, that lost year was not great, but it was also great because I left school. I had asked my parents if I could take a year off, and they said no. I was like, “Well, okay.” And then I took a year off anyway in a less traditional manner. It was the beginnings of the internet. I had met these really interesting people online, and this one guy in particular who was 44. Now I look back, and I’m like, “Hmm, what was going on there?” [Laughter] Because I was 19. But I have to say, that man, whatever his faults may be, he never hurt me, which is a very low bar, but also not. He was very good to me. He was a good sort of boyfriend. I mean, yes, he should have not have been engaging in anything with a 19-year-old, but it could have been worse.
He never lied to me. He never made me think like that he was going to marry me or anything like that. It was always clear what it was and what it wasn’t. Even now, knowing what I know about power imbalances in relationships and the challenges of such a significant age gap, I’m grateful that he did not take more advantage of the situation because he could have. And I was very young and impressionable and God only knows what would’ve happened. But to just have that time away from my family, where I wasn’t in touch and they didn’t know where I was, it just freed me in a way to just be myself and be fucked up and know, whatever happens, it’s fine, whatever. It was a whole year of just, say yes to every crazy nonsense thing I want to do. And I did, and it was great.
SB: Yale offered you a spot back in, but you didn’t go.
RG: They did. I did not return to Yale. Yale was… [breathes deeply] It’s a fine school. Whatever. But it was very similar to my high school. A lot of people from my high school went to Yale. It didn’t really feel like much had changed, and it was really expensive. I was like, “My parents have thrown enough money down this hole. Let me do something else.” And so I decided to finish my degree in one of the very first online programs [Norwich University]. It was a brief residency program where you go to campus for three weeks every year, and the rest of the time they gave you a laptop.
SB: What year was this?
RG: This was… probably 1996.
SB: That is remarkable.
RG: Yeah, it’s super remarkable. It was a pilot program that was funded by the federal government at a school that is no longer really in existence, but it’s complicated. They ended up going for-profit many years later, and now it doesn’t even really exist. But that program was one of the very first, and I loved it, to be able to interact with my teachers online and submit my work that way and live my little life. Then I went on to graduate school and got my master’s degree [at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln] and then I got a job and then went on to get my Ph.D. [at Michigan Technological University]. I think not going to Yale allowed me, though it took the long way, to start on the path that I’m on now.
SB: Tell me a bit about this early internet life. I mean, you were able to communicate with—it’s like post–ham radio. [Laughs] You were able to communicate to people all over the world in a way that you wouldn’t have otherwise been. You had this tool, an early Macintosh, to be able to do it.
RG: I did. The early internet was just the wild west, and it’s so different from what the internet has become. It’s a shame because the internet was really great back then. It was great because it was a little—not a little, it was a lot wilder. There was a lot more like filth, but it was like good filth, I have to say. It wasn’t like, I mean I’m sure white supremacists forums existed back then, but they were not what they are today. Same with, like, all sorts of other deviance. Back then it was just like, “Oh, I like to do this weird thing. Do you?” And people would get together on IRC or other ways of communicating—IMs on AOL and so on. It was just great.
SB: AOL chat rooms. [Laughter]
RG: Yes! The chat rooms. Looking back, I know that it was 99 percent men pretending to be women [laughs], just having weird homosexual encounters with each other. I love it.
RG: But it was a lot of fun.
SB: You go and get all these degrees, and you’re spending a lot of time in academia and in rural America [studying at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and then at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Michigan, and then teaching at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois, from 2010 to 2014, then at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana]. I was wondering what that time in those settings did for you. Did you view the academy, or the school, as a place of safety? Were these rural towns for you comforting or was it—
RG: Oh God, no. Academia is not comforting or safe for people of color, and nor are rural towns. It was just a job. In academia, especially when you’re an English teacher, you go where the job is, and the job is often in a place that is not ideal. You’re supposed to be grateful, which is, I think, a very cruel twist. But I enjoy teaching, so I was grateful to have the job. I was grateful to have a tenure-track job from graduation forward, and I knew I should be grateful. Looking at the number of contingent faculty in this country who are working for unreasonable wages and a disproportionate amount of work, I know how grateful I should be.
And I am, but those first years were rough. I lived in some really terrible places. Academia is not great for people of color, and for Black women in particular. You do a lot of service work, and you’re also expected to keep up with your research agenda. And you deal with all kinds of biases in the classroom. And you’re supposed to smile while doing it—and thrive while doing it. And that’s very challenging.
SB: How do you think about your time as a student, let’s say, when you’re getting your master’s and your Ph.D. to your years teaching at Eastern Illinois or Purdue?
RG: Graduate school was fun. I liked graduate school very much. My master’s degree was at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and I largely had a very good experience there. I‘m from Nebraska, so in many ways I was home. My parents lived an hour away. They were very supportive and helped me out with housing, which I was very grateful for and I remain grateful to this day. I still worked full-time, but it was just great to have that safety net that so many people don’t. And so I was able to focus on reading and thinking and studying post-colonial theory, and all sorts of things. When I got my Ph.D., it was a funded program, and so I was able to teach and study and learn things. It was an entirely new field for me. It was also fun. I enjoyed it. I did not necessarily enjoy some of my peers. Actually, there was only one peer I didn’t like. She knows who she is.
RG: But it was good. I would not have stayed there for any amount of money in the world. It was just the end of the world.
RG: You don’t know until you go there. It’s just the end of the world. Beautiful, though.
SB: How are you thinking about your time spent teaching over the past twelve years? I know you alluded to some of the frustrations, but what have been some of the joys, some of the experiences with students that maybe have surprised you?
RG: Well, teaching is a joy. I enjoy it very much. My students are the best part of the job. On any campus, they are so curious and bright and irreverent, and it’s just hilarious, the things that they say and come up with. It’s just like, “Okay, all righty.” It’s just fun. I really enjoy it. A lot of times people are like, “Oh, how do you talk to conservative students, et cetera,” because I have taught in predominantly conservative places. It’s fine. First of all, they’re 18. Let’s all just take a breath. They don’t even know, like, who they are yet. Whatever they believe is because their parents believe it. It’s the process of watching them figure out what they believe. It’s never my job to tell them what to believe. It’s to tell them how to think and how to determine what they believe. I think that’s a very exciting thing to be a part of as a teacher. I love watching my students strengthen their voices and strengthen their opinions, whatever they are, and find ways of expressing them that are good and involve great writing.
SB: Connected to this, part of what you’re doing as a teacher, obviously, is elevating voices. You’ve done that in your publishing, whether it’s with your newsletter or your new imprint, and I was hoping you might speak to that, too, this importance of elevating voices that might not otherwise be heard or shining a light on talent that’s maybe being overlooked.
RG: Yes, certainly in my editorial work over the years—and to an extent in the classroom, but more out of the classroom than in the classroom—I’ve had many opportunities to elevate other great voices. That’s just incredibly important to me, to be able to bring attention to great writers. There is no shortage of great writing in the world. There’s no shortage of talent. But there are not as many ways to share that talent with the world, in that there are countless magazines and publishers, but it’s really hard to get noticed and to get critical attention. And so, if I can do anything to help other writers do that, then that’s very satisfying. It makes me happy to be able to use some of the power I’ve accumulated, for lack of a better word, for good and in service of others.
SB: Yeah. Over the past decade-plus, you’ve written these two remarkable books we’ve talked about, Bad Feminist and Hunger, as well as the short story collection Ayiti, the novel An Untamed State, [and] the short story collection Difficult Women. Your profile’s grown enormously, and contrary to certain reports, you were not an overnight success. [Laughs]
RG: Yeah. I am not.
SB: This has been a long, slow process, and I wanted to hear a bit about how you view your evolution and rise as a writer, and if there’s any particular moments that stand out to you as to when you realized, “Oh wow, people are really paying attention and reading now.”
RG: I think my evolution is fairly bewildering, because you are working and working at it, and submitting your work, and getting rejected, and trying to become a better writer. And then you’re so in it that you don’t start to realize, Oh, it’s getting easier and I’m publishing more. Until suddenly, you’re sitting across from Trevor Noah talking about your book. And it’s like, “How the hell did I get here? When did this happen?” [Laughter] It’s really like being a frog in boiling water. You don’t realize the water’s boiling until someone tells you you’re sitting in boiling water. So it’s been bewildering, but at the same time, I know that I’ve worked for this. I’ve put in the work over and over again for years and years. As surprising as it is, I also know that it has been well-earned. I think that it’s important for people to acknowledge that it’s not magical. It didn’t happen overnight. Did I get lucky? Yes. But I worked my ass off to be in a position to take advantage of luck.
RG: Yeah, I mean my travel schedule pre-Covid was simply ridiculous. I was willing to do that. Before people would fly me, I would drive to various places and bring a little box of books with me. It was not accidental or overnight, and it required a great deal of effort. Yeah, it just required a lot of effort.
SB: I’d like to close on two different subjects: food, particularly the sensual pleasure of eating. And tattoos.
SB: You’ve said that “when you’re traumatized, you’re looking for comfort, and comfort came for me quickly by way of food. I thought, If I was bigger, I wouldn’t get hurt again.” And food was a tool for making you feel safer. I know throughout your childhood your mother prepared, what you’ve described as “a bewildering combination of foods.” You love to cook. In preparing for this, I enjoyed watching the T Magazine videos you did, the “Cooking Class”: the milk and cookies cake, the tomato soup, the chicken Milanese. I mean, it makes so damn clear why and what you love about food.
I was wondering if you could speak to your time cooking, eating, and just thinking about food, and the joy, the central pleasure, just the things you’ve gotten out of it in your life.
RG: Yeah. I love cooking, but I didn’t always allow myself to love cooking because I just thought, Oh, you’re fat. You have to lose weight. You can’t enjoy food. You can’t enjoy cooking. But then when I turned 40, it was like, Come on. Who am I doing all that for? I actually started to learn to cook a little bit before that when I got my first job at Eastern Illinois University because I was a vegetarian at the time. It was Charleston, Illinois, and there simply were not a lot of vegetarian options at all. I just realized I’m probably going to have to learn how to cook, or it’s just going to be iceberg lettuce and french fries from here on out. And so I started then, and I didn’t have that much time, but when I could, I would cook and experiment, and it was pretty disastrous at first. But if you do something often enough, you start to get better.
Certainly once Covid happened, and we basically spent a year and a half in the house, well, I had a lot of time to cook and bake. And so I just leaned into it. I was just like, “Oh well. I’m here. Let’s do it.” I have someone [her wife, Debbie Millman] who is obligated to enjoy my food. [Laughs] And so I’m going to do that. It’s just fun to start with a set of ingredients, and put them together, and maybe experiment a little, and hopefully end up with something delicious. I just think that whole process is very satisfying, and a lot of fun. And it’s just so low stakes. It’s the one creative thing in my life that is incredibly low stakes. It doesn’t matter if it’s a failure.
SB: You can flop, no big deal.
RG: It’ll be fine. Not everything is a hit. Once in a while—rarely, I will say—rarely do things not work out, but even when it doesn’t work out, we’re just like, “Okay, let’s just order pizza.” It’s great to have something low stakes that’s fun to do, but isn’t part of my job. It’s just great.
SB: You’ve said about Ina Garten and her Barefoot Contessa cooking show, that it kind of taught you about fostering a sense of self and self-confidence. How do you think about that when it comes to food?
RG: Well, Ina Garten is just the best. She’s just the best. She’s so delightful, and she’s such a good cook, and she’s so unapologetic about being excellent at what she does and being fabulously wealthy. [Laughs] I mean, that’s neither here nor there. But she owns it and I appreciate that. Just using the best of everything and taking care of the people you love. I love that she, in many ways, gives us permission to do so as well. Some of us do need that permission, and so I always appreciate that she gives me the confidence to say, “I can do this. I’m allowed to enjoy preparing a meal for myself and my family. I’m allowed to enjoy this meal that we’re about to sit down and enjoy.” It’s just great to have someone who makes it seem like not everything has to be penance and fraught. She just seems like a delightful person.
SB: So let’s close on your tattoos. I love how eloquently you write about them in Hunger. Admittedly, I also ended an episode I did for Time Sensitive with [the poet, lawyer, and activist] Reginald Dwayne Betts about his tattoos, so I almost feel like I’m cheating here [laughs], but I couldn’t help but ask you about them. I know you started first with a woman with wings and then got a tribal design. Tell me more, whatever you can, about your tattoos—or want to share.
RG: Sure. I started getting tattoos at 19. It was a way, at the time, of doing something with my body that was my choice. It’s very hard to get just one, and so I continued getting tattoos. I got a lot of them that first year. Every once in a while, I just get the itch. It’s like, Hmm, I think I want someone to stab me with a small set of needles for five hours. Let me go and do that.
Yeah, now I have a bunch. My brother died last year, and so my most recent tattoo is his initials. It’s great to feel like I always have him with me. When I first got them, they had no significance whatsoever. I was just like, “Oh, that’s pretty.” But the older I get, now I can make more deliberate choices, and I’m not as ridiculous as I was in my early twenties and late teens. And so now there’s a little more gravity to them and that’s nice, too.
SB: There’s a thing here about submission, which you’ve written about, that I find interesting. To literally give your body over to someone for—
RG: Like you have no choice. The thing about a tattoo is, once it starts … There’s a point about halfway in where you’re like I can’t take this for one second longer. You look down, and you’re like, Fuck, if I stop now, I’m going to look fucked up. And so you really have to surrender. I think that’s so interesting. I wish that more people who got tattoos talked about that: You really have to surrender, and you have to let someone hurt you. It actually doesn’t hurt that much, but it’s sustained, annoying pain. I’m going to sit through this. For me, it’s not even the pain that really gets me, it’s the sound. After a while I’m just like [whispers], “Ugh, my God. Oh, my God.” In fact, my next time, I think I’m going to wear my AirPods because I’m like, “Mmm, nope, I’ve listened to that for fucking five hours. I just can’t.” But then at the end, you get this thing that looks really cool.
SB: In a way, it’s a form of writing.
RG: It is. It is.
SB: It’s this long, slow process. And it’s endurance, for sure.
RG: It requires a lot of endurance. I mean, these are all easy tattoos. I really admire the people who get, like, the full megillah. It’s just like, “Wow. How did you sit over multiple sessions? So you go, and you let it heal, and then you go back for more? Really?”
SB: I think about face tattoos.
RG: Ugh, no. I mean, God bless them, just that could not be me. I think, Do what you want. It’s your body. Enjoy yourself. But yikes. Ugh. There are places where I see people get tattooed, where I just think, Hmm, mmm, hmm… quite a choice.
SB: Okay, so last question for real. You’ve written that you end nearly every interview with the question: “What do you like most about your writing?” [Laughter] So I wanted to end there. I’d love to hear you answer that. And this was actually from an essay you wrote [in The New York Times] about Toni Morrison, whose writing I think everybody loves and should read. What do you like most about your writing?
RG: Hmm, I have no idea. What do I like most about my writing? I think what I like most about my writing, I think I can write a beautiful sentence that also has substance. It’s never just empty beauty. I like that about my work very much. There’s always going to be some meaning there, and it’s always going to be conveyed beautifully. And I like that about my work.
SB: Roxane, thank you for coming in today. It was so nice to have you here.
RG: Thank you for having me.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on September 8, 2022. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity by Jennifer Grant. The episode was produced by Emily Jiang, Ramon Broza, and Johnny Simon.