On Mar. 31, critically-acclaimed New York Times bestselling author Roxane Gay spoke at Scripps College about how intersectional feminist issues have shaped her identity and influenced her writing. When writer Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, who engaged Gay in conversation on the stage of Garrison Theater, asked Gay how to remove the stigma from the term “feminism” in her writing, she responded, “it’s not my job to make people comfortable…if you want me to make you comfortable with the idea men and women are equal, I can’t help you.”
As an essayist, novelist, and New York Times contributor, Gay’s work grapples with complex issues of feminism and race, drawing inspiration from her own experiences with gender, race, and sexuality. Her memoir, Hunger, is expected to be released in summer 2016.
The conversation with Gay was part of the inaugural season of the Scripps Presents speaker series. Scripps Presents programs are curated by the Office of Public Events in collaboration with the Public Events Advisory Committee, which is composed of representatives from the Scripps faculty, staff, and students. This curation process takes place four to six months before the speaker comes to campus.
Scripps Director of Public Events and Community Programs Corrina Lesser wrote in an email to TSL that the speaker series aims to showcase those “whose work is dynamic and relevant to the kinds of conversations that are happening at Scripps and in our communities at large. We want people who are passionate about their work and are skilled at sharing their perspective in a public setting.”
Lesser wrote that Gay epitomizes the mission of Scripps Presents.
“Roxane Gay is one of the most thoughtful and lively writers today. Her ability to parse incredibly difficult topics—like race and gender—and to do so with such candor and generosity is unusual,” Lesser wrote. “Her book Bad Feminist has been influential to so many readers and to have someone of her intelligence and creativity at the Consortium makes so much sense.”
Pomona Women’s Union staff member Olivia Wood PO ‘19 wrote in an email to TSL that she first heard of Gay through talk of her collection of essays, Bad Feminist, but she continues to be inspired by Gay’s work from numerous publications.
“What I really like about Roxane Gay is how real she is—I deeply admire her ability to be herself in a way that comes across so powerfully in her writing,” Wood wrote. “I definitely think of her as someone to look up to.”
During the program, Ghansah asked how Gay made a space for herself in feminism, given the “white feminist” culture she grew up in that didn’t acknowledge the role of race in feminist issues. Growing up in Nebraska as a person of Haitian descent, Gay talked about the unique challenges she experienced in navigating her identity. She said she often felt “isolated” because there was no one else who looked like her family in her neighborhood.
These identity questions linked to her race were compounded by her gender. Gay talked about how her male coworkers in academia frequently talked down to her.
“I thought, well, I can walk around wearing tweed too!” Gay joked.
The sexist attitudes Gay confronted daily pushed her to work harder for her doctorate in rhetorical and technical communication from Michigan Technological University. She credited her mother for instilling in her a desire to constantly pursue excellence, which she said is exhausting at times.
“I resent how hard I work for the fraction of recognition a white person receives.”
Ghansah talked at length with Gay about the honesty in her writing voice.
“I believe no one reads my work,” Gay explained. “This allows me to embrace the disparate markers of identity…no one can see the world the way I can.”
Some readers have criticized Gay’s work for containing scenes of extremely explicit violence. Gay defended her writing, saying “I have a right to write about violence in communities of color. I want the rape scenes to be unreadable, to write rape as it could be.”
Gay said that as she gains more recognition, it becomes more difficult for her to find her voice because the comments on her writing attack Gay personally in hurtful ways.
“I believe in myself, but the comments are hard to take,” Gay said. “But they make me angry, so I’m never going to shut up. If you have to resort to calling me fat, my work is done.”
Gay also spoke to issues that have been the subject of recent discussions within the Claremont Community, namely, the concept of “safe spaces.” Gay believes a “safe space” should be a place of respect, not necessarily comfort.
“It’s okay to experience discomfort because it provides for exciting moments of engagement,” Gay said. “In a safe space, you won’t be degraded, but you won’t be guaranteed to hear things that won’t make you uncomfortable.”
During the conversation, Gay described herself as “a mix of improbable combinations.” Wood had the opportunity to ask Gay a question during the Q&A portion of the program.
“I asked her if she ever feels the need—as I often do—to justify herself and her experiences, whether in her work or just in her interactions with people,” Wood wrote. “Roxane said that she understands that feeling, but she knows that there’s really no need to explain herself in order to be respected and understood. She advised us to practice justifying ourselves a little less in every piece of work we create, which I will definitely carry with me going forward.”
Lesser wrote that the feedback she has received from the event has been extremely positive. “I think most attendees felt that Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, the writer who moderated the conversation, was very funny and engaging and the fact that she and Roxane were contemporaries opened up interesting avenues of reflection that Roxane simply speaking on her own may not have revealed.”
Wood echoed this sentiment: “I know that in the past people have been disappointed with the interviewing style at Scripps Conversations events (the Angela Davis conversation comes to mind). Happily, I don’t think this event had that problem at all.”
Lesser further expressed the desire that Scripps Presents programs become a hub for cultural engagement in the Claremont Consortium.
“I think it's important, especially at a place like Scripps with so many intellectually engaged and thoughtful individuals, that we have the chance to encounter, consider, and discuss provocative ideas with our peers, colleagues, and fellow Californians,” Lesser wrote.