"Roxane Gay can do anything," Women and Children First co-owner Sarah Hollenbeck said when introducing the celebrated author to the avid audience that filled Senn High School's Auditorium on March 15.
It was the bookstore's third time hosting Gay, who's known widely for her fiction, essays, journalism and even her work with Marvel comics. No matter the medium, Hollenbeck said, "she never fails to set the page on fire."
The event found Gay conversing with culture critic Britt Julious and reading from and signing copies of her new short story collection, Difficult Women. The book was the first she ever tried to sell, Gay said, but she shelved it after getting feedback calling the material "so dark it makes me want to die." She said she had been curious about exploring the ways the label "difficult woman" could be applied.
"I love to write women," she said. "Too many writers feel depth only applies to men."
One of the short pieces Gay read was "Open Marriage," which she admitted was inspired by an Activia yogurt commercial. "I wanted to be as happy as Jamie Lee Curtis," she quipped before launching into the piece, which features a woman eating a whole container of expired yogurt as her husband discusses non-monogamy, and has resulted Gay said, in listeners throwing up after she finishes reading.
Julious asked Gay about her work's recurring focus on trauma and sexual assault. "I clearly do have obsessions, as a writer," Gay agreed. She said one of Difficult Women's stories was inspired by a rotting ceiling tile in her apartment: it was only later that she noticed the subtext of trauma. Her fiction often springs from what she observes: for instance, in Los Angeles, she saw a guy walking down the street in a green-and-yellow polyester suit with a flower pot on his head. Gay called her experience writing for Marvel Comics both "exciting" and "unexpected," and she intends to do more screenwriting in the future. Poetry is the one genre Gay doesn't expect to crack. "I do not have the skill for poetry," she said, citing her early 20s breakup poem "Tears" as hilarious proof of her claim.
On the subject of race, Gay discussed the challenges of being both a Black woman in the Midwest and a Black woman in the public eye. "People are always surprised that you're there," she said, about growing up in Nebraska and currently living in Indiana. She described her life as a public figure as both weird and challenging. "I already knew people treated Black women like shit," Gay said, and said she sometimes felt like she was the first Black woman to have certain writing opportunities, but didn't want to be the last.
When Julious asked how she balanced teaching and writing and touring time, Gay admitted she struggled. "I've been on the road since May 2014," she explained. "Travel is exhausting." The constant travel contributed to a year's delay of her memoir Hunger, which addresses Gay's obesity. But it wasn't just her schedule. Gay said she felt unexpectedly vulnerable while writing the book, to the point where she considered giving the advance back. She pinpointed the dread of composing Hunger to not wanting to deal with press coverage such as headlines like "Roxane Gay examines weighty matters."
"Memoir reviews will feel like an attack," Gay said about anticipating Hunger's reception. "I'm looking forward to talking to people on the road."
With that, it was time for audience questions. "There are way more people than I thought!" Gay exclaimed as she peered out into the auditorium. Many of the questioners wanted to ask Gay about how she interacts with the world: why she's still on Twitter when so many writers have left the platform, why she lives in rural America, and of course, her confrontation with publisher Simon and Schuster over their decision to publish provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, and her subsequent decision to take her work elsewhere. Gay called the company's decision to change his now-abandoned book's release date to coincide with Hunger's release, "petty", and said she had not one single regret about the incident.
Several questioners touched on body image, one asking about Gay's appearance on This American Life's episode about fatness. Gay said that host Ira Glass "just didn't get" her points, and she feels compelled to think very carefully about how she writes about her size.
"People really hate fat people," she said, explaining that she felt like she had to do the work of 10 people to get where one skinny woman might go. To another questioner, Gay said she felt that being a fat woman of color required working against stereotypes, and "a constant renegotiation of my humanity." She told the audience that occasionally event hosts don't realize who she is until she introduces herself. "They're as shocked as shit it's me," she said.
Other audience members seemed more curious about self-improvement. To a question about empathy in writing, Gay responded that it was "being willing to give people the benefit of the doubt." When someone asked about how academia could contribute to greater acceptance of people's differences, Gay replied with something akin to scorn.
"I don't think any of that can be taught in academia," she said, and opined that academics can be better gatekeepers by breaking down the gates. For Gay, the key to heightened acceptance was raising better children. "There should be a manual for how to be human you get when you take the babies home," Gay declared.
About halfway through the Q&A, a young woman asked Gay for some tips on how to be more intersectional. Gay acknowledged that the world is full of different people with different concerns, but pointed out that knowing one's own identity is the starting point for intersectionality.
"Be honest," Gay admonished. "When I'm honest, I'm offering up something that no one else can. Your truth is all that is needed."