An Interview with Roxane Gay, by Heidi Sistare
June 30, 2014
Roxane Gay’s novel, An Untamed State, was recently published by Black Cat / Grove Press. The story follows Mireille, an American lawyer and young mother, as she is kidnapped and held captive when visiting her parents in Haiti. Roxane Gay writes both fiction and cultural criticism; all of her writing is incisive. Her book of essays, Bad Feminist, comes out in August. We talked about An Untamed State, how she supports other writers, and how she produces such an impressive amount of great writing.
Mireille, the narrator in An Untamed State, was originally a character in a short story you wrote. What about her stuck with you and inspired you to make her the center of a novel?
Miri’s fierceness and stubbornness and her will to survive and find her way back to herself are things that will never leave me. After the story was written and published, I kept thinking about the moment where the short story ends, with Mireille in an airplane bathroom, staring at her reflection and not recognizing the woman she sees there. I wanted to honor her by writing what happened next.
Haiti is central to your story and to your characters’ lives. Did writing An Untamed State teach you anything new about Haiti or your connection to the country?
Writing this novel reminded me that the world is a very complicated place, full of both beauty and ugliness and whether we live here in the States or elsewhere, we shouldn’t lose sight of both that beauty and ugliness.
You write a lot about gender, race, and privilege, in both your fiction and nonfiction work. Do you find it easier to explore these ideas in one genre or another? Do you think readers respond more openly to these topics in fiction or nonfiction?
I suspect readers respond more openly to gender, race, and privilege in fiction because there is the comfortable remove provided by fiction. There is, perhaps, less of a sense of being implicated or held responsible than when these issues are broached in nonfiction. I love dealing with these topics in both fiction and nonfiction. It’s not about which genre is easier for approaching these topics but which genre is best for what I hope to accomplish in a given piece of writing.
In an interview with Rachel Lyon you said that you’re “trying to reach anyone who is willing to be moved or changed in some way.” In what ways do you hope people reading An Untamed State will be moved or changed?
I hope people who read An Untamed State gain a greater appreciation for the complexity and time it takes to overcome certain traumas. It’s a messy, raw process and one that is so hard to understand.
You’re insanely prolific. The “Writing” page on your website scrolls on and on. Can you talk about how you produce such a huge volume of incredible work?
I am an insomniac. I live in the middle of nowhere. I write fast. I use writing as self-medication. I don’t know.
Your piece for BuzzFeed, “Two Damn Books: How I Got Here and Where I Want To Go,” looked at your experience publishing An Untamed State and Bad Feminist. In it, you talk about continuing to publish and being committed to making sure more women and writers of color get these opportunities. Can you talk about what’s next for you in publishing and in supporting other writers?
I am working on a book that will be out in 2016 called Hunger, a memoir of sorts about unruly bodies and trauma and learning to take care of myself. I’m also working on a couple novel projects. In terms of supporting other writers, I have editorial roles that remain very important to me. I mentor writers. I will continue my advocacy work and continue trying to create opportunities like the Feminist of Color series I created at Salon with the support of Dave Daley and Anna North.
Can you name a few current writers who inspire you?
I am endlessly inspired by xTx’s writing because it is intense and intimate and strange and always powerful. Tayari Jones is a beautiful chronicler of life and womanhood and an invaluable mentor. I’m also very inspired by Cathy Chung, Alexander Chee, Susanna Daniel, Kate Spencer, Laila Lalami, Amy Jo Burns, Saeed Jones, Ashley Ford–it’s a long list because we are alive in a magnificent time for writing right now.
Photo credit: Jay Grabiec
Roxane Gay lives and writes in the Midwest. She is the author of Ayiti, An Untamed State, and Bad Feminist.
Heidi Sistare writes from her home in Portland, Maine, where she attended the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. You can view her published work on her website: www.heidisistare.com