Popwire Speaks With… renowned writer, essayist and cultural critic Roxane Gay

As a celebrated author, professor, editor, and cultural commentator – Roxane Gay is one of the foremost figures in the literary world today. Lauded for her incisive analysis and deconstruction of complex feminist, racial and body issues – Gay is probably best known for her acclaimed debut novel An Untamed State, bestselling essay collection Bad Feminist, outstanding short story collections Ayiti and Difficult Women, and her bravely revealing memoir Hunger. Ahead of her upcoming appearances at Singapore Writers Festival 2019, we spoke with the prolific writer to learn more about her past and future projects, her new podcast, her foray in comic books!

We’ve really been enjoying your podcast Hear To Slay over the past few months. What made you decide to venture beyond writing into audio? How did the podcast take shape, and what were your goals with it?

I had received several offers to do a podcast but I wanted to do it well, and on my terms so I waited until I found the right partners. I wanted to create a black feminist space in the podcast world, where we could talk about pop culture, politics, feminism, life, love, everything really, but from the unique perspectives my co-host Tressie McMillan Cottom and I hold. Our goal is simply to put out the best possible show we can each week, and shine a bright light on the efforts of incredible writers and thinkers doing great things in the world. We also do our best to make it fun. 

Beyond your work as an essayist, editor and fiction writer – you have also ventured into comics in recent years. Most obviously, the collaborative aspect of it is a very different approach to storytelling. What were the challenges you faced when you first ventured into the medium?

The biggest challenge I faced in writing comics was thinking in terms of scene/panel, and what could be accomplished in a panel, and then several panels together, and then the page. Storytelling is storytelling regardless of the medium but it is challenging to learn the rules of a new genre. That said, I love writing comics and have had so much fun doing it.

Being huge fans of your Black Panther spin-off comic World of Wakanda, we were extremely disappointed to see it pulled without a proper explanation. What went through your mind when the book was cancelled? And could you enlighten us as to what led to its cancellation?

I don’t really know why World of Wakanda was cancelled. It was certainly disappointing because the book sold pretty well, but I also knew going in that it was a limited series. Marvel is trying a lot of different things in terms of bringing new creators to their universe and I am just glad I got the opportunity at all. 

You have a new comic series called The Banks coming out on TKO. Could you tell us a bit about what the story is about?

The Banks is a six-issue limited series about three generations of black women who also happen to be master thieves. Over the course of the series, they plan the heist that will finally set them up for life while also trying to right some wrongs and avenge the family patriarch.

Your memoir Hunger was an incredibly candid and insightful read. Given how intimate and painful some of the details in the memoir was – how difficult was it to put yourself out there like that in the writing and promotion process?

It was incredibly difficult to make myself as vulnerable as I did in Hunger, to tell such intimate things about myself and have no control over how those intimacies were received. But it was also a valuable experience and to see how the book is moving through the world, what readers are getting from my story, has made the challenges worthwhile.

This might be a little off-topic but as we were reading Hunger, we were also watching a television series called Shrill – which tackled fat-phobia and society’s insensitivity when dealing with obesity. Have you seen the show, and if so, what are your thoughts on it?

I’ve watched most of the first season of Shrill and intend to finish it. I really enjoy the show. It’s smart and warm and honest and fairly unlike anything else on television right now. No show is perfect but Shrill is damn good.

In your introduction for Not That Bad, you wrote that you initially envisioned it as a series of journalistic essays, before receiving a number of confessional submissions. Why did you think that these first-person stories would be a better vehicle to address the theme of rape culture?

It’s not that I thought first-person essays would be a better vehicle. It’s that the most and best submissions I received were in that vein and so I decided to go with it. Given how relatively new it is for women to share their stories of living with sexual violence, we are not yet in a place where we can write these stories with the distance of journalism. Hopefully, we will get there soon.

Somehow, the term “feminist” has become an insult in recent years. It has come to a point where the negative connotation has made it difficult to have a conversation about equality, women’s rights or even simple empathy for women’s issues. In your opinion, how has the term become so misused?

The term has been misused because we live in a world where women are all too often treated as second-class citizens. Any movement that prioritizes women and our needs is going to be maligned by the people who are invested in keeping women down. It is quite telling that some people see feminist as an insult. It shows what they value, and what they don’t.

What was the first piece of fiction you ever wrote?

My first stories were little stories I would write on napkins as a kid. I would draw bucolic villages and then write stories about the people I imagined living in those villages.

What are you working on right now?

I am working on several things right now – a YA novel called The Year I Learned Everything, a book of writing advice called How to Be Heard, some film and TV projects, my podcast Hear to Slay, and a couple other book projects. Yes, I have taken on way too much but it is a good problem to have.

Finally, give us some pop culture recommendations! What is your favourite book, movie or TV show of 2019?

My favorite show of 2019 is Succession because it is dark and wry and endlessly interesting. My favorite book thus far this year – there is more than one truth be told- is In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado. I don’t remember what movies I have seen so that should tell you something.

Photos by: Ian Maddox and TKO Studios