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Interview: Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay is the author of Ayiti, a collection of short stories published by Artistically Declined Press in October 2011 and named one of the National Book Critic Circle’s “Small Press Highlights of 2011.” A list of her published stories and essays would go on pretty close to forever. She is co-editor of PANK, fiction editor of Bluestem, essay editor of The Rumpus, and a regular contributor to HTMLGiant. She is also an assistant professor of English at Eastern Illinois University (that’s right, she does all that and still has a day job). She is easily one of the most versatile writers in existence—the questions asked of her in this interview could have been thrown out and replaced with completely different lines of inquiry and she would have had something interesting and thought-provoking to say regardless. Personally, I believe Roxane Gay defines what it means to be a writer today: someone who is deeply engaged in both the world of words and the world itself. 

My first question concerns a subject I suspect (well, I certainly hope) no interviewer has asked about first: Edith Wharton! I know you love her work (as do I), so I wanted to know what you think a fiction writer today can learn from reading her novels in terms of craft. 

What can’t a writer learn from Edith Wharton? Her attention to detail is impeccable. She does description in a way that makes me want to crawl inside her books. The way she writes quiet suffering and social suffocation is exquisite. She offers such an intimate understanding of the world(s) her characters come from, so her books also offer one hell of a primer on creating a sense of authenticity. Edith Wharton is absolutely everything.

The author Tayari Jones recently commented on the way people tend to ask writers of color to comment only on other writers of color, or women writers to comment only on other women writers. I note that your short story collection Ayiti was described as an examination of “what it means to be Haitian,” yet it’s so much more than that. (You also write on the widest range of subjects of anyone I know—everything from Twilight to the demise of the Encyclopedia Britannica.) How does a writer deal with being “pigeonholed” by race or sex or other restrictive categorization?

You accept that other people are going to try to force you into certain restrictive definitions and you fight those restrictions when you need to fight them and surrender when you need to surrender. Figuring out when to do what is tricky, but mostly—your instincts will guide you correctly.

I’ve twice heard you give a reading of “Girls With Eating Disorders,” and there’s a point where the male character says to his bulimic girlfriend, “You’re taking up a lot of room.” At both readings I heard the audience gasp at this. Your stories often depict cruelty even while they are also often very funny (I think the audience laughed as much as they gasped). Have you ever written something that made you wonder if you were crossing a line that shouldn’t be crossed? If so, could you tell me about it? If not, is there a “line” that you would hesitate to cross? Either way, what right now is the next line to cross in your writing—what would you dare yourself to do next?

I try to go there in my writing. I make myself uncomfortable. When I feel nauseous, or disgusted with myself I think, “Now I am getting somewhere.” I don’t know if there’s a line I wouldn’t cross, though I tend to think, “What would my parents think?” and use that as a sort of general guide for not bringing shame and humiliation to those around me. Life is pretty cruel so I like writing about both the petty and more significant cruelties we have to face. Is it uncomfortable? Yes. But so is life. It is important for writing to take chances and push boundaries, not all the time, but when it serves the story best. That’s all I am ever trying to do.

The next line I want to cross in my writing is drawing more from my personal experiences in my nonfiction. There’s a troubling period in my life I want to write about. The thought of doing so terrifies me but I still want to do it. We shall see.

I was originally going to ask what pisses you off about writers, but I considered how much snarky criticism is going around in which one writer rags on others for what they’re doing wrong (that, implicitly, he/she is doing right). Instead I’m going to ask what you see as the most positive trends emerging in writing today.

Writing today is absolutely thrilling. There are great conversations taking place about literature. I am really energized by some of the emerging forces in literary criticism, particularly online.

You’ve been published in Best American Erotica, and I know you’re reading the best-selling 50 Shades trilogy, so let’s talk sex. (Well, sex writing, anyway.) 50 Shades has been described as “mommy porn,” which I guess is meant to describe the way these novels are hugely popular with mainstream readers even while they graphically depict an S&M relationship. The trilogy’s detractors point to lackluster writing, which could suggest that while erotica may finally become “acceptable” reading, it doesn’t go so far as to suggest it will become a “respected” type of writing. I’d like to get your thoughts on where you think literary erotica is going / could go / should go.

I am sure in the next few years, we’ll see a bit of mainstream attention because of all this 50 Shades business. The literary erotica community has been humming along and doing quite well for some time. I’m not even sure that the goal is to become more respected. As a culture, we struggle to respect expressions of sexuality. We see this at every level. Until our culture changes, there’s no place for literary erotica to reach for. Within the literary community, erotica will gain more respect when the writing gets better. I’ve read the 50 Shades trilogy and the story is pretty hilarious and at times hot, but the writing is abominable in every possible way. There’s a reason why people are pointing fingers. There is great erotica out there but most of it focuses on the erotics and less on the writing and that’s fine. While there are different opinions in the erotica community, are we really reading erotica for a complex intellectual experience? I just want to be turned on. I’m not looking for Pulitzer-worthy prose.

You were born and raised in the Midwest, and you’ve lived much of your life in small towns in this general region. How do you think this has shaped your writing? A zillion people have written about cities; what can stories about small-town middle America offer that readers get nowhere else?

Bright lights, big city, nightlife, crowding, blah blah blah. That’s all well and good but I’m more intrigued by the small town and all the complexity that can be found therein, about the lives people manage to create for themselves when they are so far removed from urban experiences, about how they survive, about how they thrive, or don’t. Can you imagine what’s going on with a man who has never left the county where he was born? My goodness. I have grown weary of this idea of the flyover state. People actually live in those states and when I can, I try to write there so that those places can become more than this vast monolith too narrowly encapsulated by a pithy phrase.

There are some creative writing teachers who want nothing to do with so-called “genre” fiction—sci-fi, fantasy, romance, etc. I know you’ve used The Hunger Games in an advanced fiction workshop and clearly don’t have this kind of prohibition, so I’d like to hear about how you incorporate “genre” into your classes. Is there a difference between how you would use The Hunger Games in a workshop versus, say, The Age of Innocence? What do you do about students who only want to read contemporary genre fiction and have no use for anything by old dead guys?

I introduce the idea of genre in my fiction classes at all levels and then I talk about tearing down the walls between genres and focus on craft techniques. I tend to believe stories are stories are stories. Certainly, there’s a lot to be learned from studying genre and the various rules of different genres, how to break those rules, and the like, but there's also a lot to be learned by seeing that there is probably more in common across genres than we tend to believe. The difference between how I use The Hunger Games versus a book like The Age of Innocence is in terms of what craft techniques I want my students to learn. I look at what a text does best (or not) rather than looking at the often arbitrary genre designation. In terms of students who want to read narrowly, I discuss the importance of reading broadly and the importance of understanding history and how the dead white guys built the foundation contemporary fiction stands on. Many contemporary vampire stories, for example, can find their roots in Victorian literature.

Hypothetical teaching scenario: You have a student in a workshop who wants to be a writer. It’s all they want to do in life. They dream of topping the bestseller list. And…their writing sucks. Completely. Now they’re in your office asking for advice. You say to them…?

50 Shades of Grey is a bestseller. So are Dan Brown’s books. Bad writing has never been a deterrent to commercial success. I’d offer the student an honest, constructive critique of their writing. I’d tell them about the realities of publishing and I would wish them luck. I never want to be the person who tells a student they can’t have their dreams. Pragmatism is important, but so is hope. Without hope, students cannot thrive. My job is to encourage ambition.

You are head of the Creative Writing Committee at Eastern Illinois University, and I understand that you would like to build an MFA program there. Why does the world need another MFA program? 

The world doesn’t need another MFA program. That said, this is central Illinois and we can create an affordable MFA option in this part of the Midwest that will give students access to several nearby literary communities and a passionate faculty community. It’s not about the degree. It’s about the experience, and I think we can create a really positive atmosphere for young writers.

AYITI by Roxane Gay from Artistically Declined PressWhat’s a question no one has ever asked you that you want to be asked…and would you pretend I asked it and then smile delightedly and answer it?

Team Gale or Team Peeta?

TEAM PEETA.

 

All rights reserved to Letitia L. Moffitt.

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