“I think of myself as primarily a fiction writer,” Roxane Gay said at the beginning of the lecture she gave last Wednesday in Chapin Hall. Though she began the event by reading an excerpt from her collection of short stories, Dangerous Women, she was aware that fiction, despite her love for it, is not the medium most people tend to associate with her.
Gay is most well-known not as a crafter of stories, but as a “Bad Feminist,” which is also the title of the collection of essays that was published in 2014 and quickly became a New York Times bestseller. The success of the book – which she intended to title What We Hunger For, until her publisher told her that was “too many words” – cemented her status as the “Bad Feminist,” a label she does not always enjoy. “Sometimes when they say that,” she said last week, “I look around like, ‘Where is she?’”
A Nebraska native who currently teaches creative writing at Purdue in Indiana, Gay could have chosen a number of things to talk about last week. What she chose, not unambitiously, was “the state of the world,” by which she meant the state of American politics.
“I didn’t want to wake up … in the world where everything had become so precarious,” she said of how she felt in the aftermath of the election of President Donald Trump last November. She repeatedly received requests for interviews, questions from radio hosts about what it meant and what Americans ought to do next. She knew what she wanted to say, an answer she repeated to us: “I have no fuckin’ clue.” But Gay did not say that: “you can’t curse on the radio,” she said.
Gay said that what is happening in the United States is a disgrace – and that, she said, is putting it politely. Her remarks addressed the way in which, in recent months, liberals have tended to use words and phrases that “make us feel good” but are ultimately little more than empty signifiers. She cited “Love trumps hate” as one example and pushed against the idea that former First Lady Michelle Obama’s statement – “When they go low, we go high” – ought to be understood as universally applicable. Sometimes, she said, we need to go low, when we are faced with what is lowest. Pantsuits may be cute, she said, but they are “not going to get us to the Promised Land.”
As someone who has spent a great deal of her life in the so-called “flyover states,” Gay said she struggled with the common idea after the election that liberals simply need to understand the white voters in rural areas who voted for Trump. She conceded in the question and answer section following the lecture that, “There are a lot of people in Indiana who voted against their own interests.”
However, she went on to say that, in considering the motivations of rural voters, we also have to consider who they voted for: a man who has openly expressed and promulgated hate targeted at a few specific populations.
Gay challenged the audience to push their thinking beyond simple platitudes calling for greater “diversity” or “allyship.” Since the election, she said, she has found herself disillusioned with the kind of “distance” that the claim of one’s “allyship” allows. She is often asked to speak at colleges about diversity, she said, or in her words, she is often “invited to teach white people things that really aren’t that hard to figure out.”
Gay has decided not to simply go along with the platitudes. She wants to do more with her words. “What we seek is sanctuary,” she said, referring to communities threatened by Trump’s presidency. “I am a black bisexual woman,” she said. “I am a very lapsed Catholic woman … This is how I use my freedom to speak.”
Gay said that she did not just want to speak at us; she wanted to converse, and it was a promise she kept. After the lecture, she took questions for nearly an hour, discussing everything from her Twitter presence (“I am the cockroach of Twitter. Until nuclear winter comes, I will be on Twitter”) to her opinion on using trigger warnings in the college classroom, something she actually disagrees with, although she said she always ensures that her students are adequately “prepared” for difficult discussions.
In responding to a question about the tactics used by students at the University of California at Berkeley in response to a planned event with Milo Yiannopoulos, a senior editor at Breitbart News, which in effect asked Gay to clarify her position on the tactics that ought to be used against bigotry, Gay had her answer on the tip of her tongue. “People misinterpret what peaceful protest means,” she said. This answer sparked a burst of applause that was repeated several times throughout her talk.
“Martin Luther King believed in nonviolence, but he wasn’t a pushover.” Gay professed herself to be absolutely against any violence against people, but she admitted that she was not so worried about property; the truth, she said, is that property is not really that important, although it is certainly true that, these days, a lot of people seem to “care about property more than people.”
Gay’s lecture expressed her conviction of the injustice that is being perpetrated and her sense of sadness and uncertainty about what comes next. “I know we need to fight,” she said. “But I don’t know what that fight looks like.”
“I need to be able to breathe,” she said. “I need to believe that there is grace beyond disgrace.”