A Brief Interview with Roxane Gay

Weston Cutter
December 14, 2011
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Given that you’re reading this on a literary journal’s blog, there’s a good chance your ear’s close enough to the ground re small presses and magazines that you need little introduction to Roxane Gay, author of the fantastic recent release Ayiti, blogger, HTMLGIANT contributor, co-editor of Pank, fiction editor at Bluestem, publisher of Tiny Hardcore Press, etc. A moment on Ayiti: out from Artistically Declined Press, this slim volume (Gay bats away questions of genre and categorization) is a pretty astonishing read: ranging from short-shorts to long traditional stories to stuff that ultimately works similarly to how poetry does, the stories pulse with vividity and go deep and hard into human characters—one closes the thing feeling very much as if one’s come into phenomenal contact with very clear and real people. It’s one of the best debuts I can think of, made more powerful for it’s brevity, a brevity ultimately seemingly in service to a precision of vision. I sent Roxane a few questions over email and her responses follow, though for real: get Ayiti.

 

At present I’m reading Monoculture, and I carry in my head Hyde’s The Gift, and so I end up thinking about art and transaction often. This came up big in Ayiti for me: the nature of transaction in the lives of the characters, certain fundamental issues of costs, of paying for lives in certain ways (from overt [a woman being kidnapped and her ransom being paid] to harder, more subtle ways [a story in which is a list of things sold and when and for how much and why]). I’m wondering if you can talk about this—if it’s something you see as dominant of the Haitian/immigrant experience, or is this just a particular interest/fixation of yours.

 

I’d suggest that life in the modern world is, for better or worse, often transactional. It is certainly not something unique to Haitian culture but in some of the stories in Ayiti, I was working through how steep some of the costs are for basic human dignity. This is definitely a fixation of mine, how so often we pay steep, intangible costs for the decisions we make, for the things that happen to us.

 

You’ve got this great online presence—through your blog, your essays, all of it. In email, you said your blog is your happy place. I’m curious—and I know this is kind of a dull/tired question, but I’m more curious with you than I am with most others—how much of a distinction you draw between yr actual world self and the one online. Does that sort of distinction even matter? I’m ultimately curious about this because I’m curious about agendas for you–there’s little writing of yours online which doesn’t ultimately seem to be trying to *do* something, forward an argument, frame or reframe aspects of a debate.

 

I don’t really make a distinction between my real world self and my online self in terms of what I say and how I say it. One of the finest compliments someone ever paid me was that I was the same in person as i was in my online interactions. Certainly, even though I blog, there are parts of my life I don’t discuss online because I don’t see a need for it but I don’t find that the distinction matters very much. I can’t afford to be one way in my real life and another way online so I’m the same way in both places though certainly, I am much shyer in real life. As for agendas, I don’t really have them. I simply try to talk about things that interest me or matter to me or infuriate me or thrill me, and I try to do so in ways that are engaging and thoughtful.

 

The midwest! Omaha! I just found out online that that’s where you’re from. I’m always interested in asking midwest writers about how they view midwest writing, or if that’s a real thing or whatever. I’m super curious–wax however you’d like to on this (or don’t if you find it uncompelling).

Long live the Midwest! Midwest writing is not so much a thing yet but it could be. All too often, people only consider writing regional if it hails from the east, south, or west. In these so-called flyover states, regionalism is often ignored in the literary world but I also think that’s changing, slowly. Magazines like Midwestern Gothic and anthologies like New Stories From the Midwest are really doing a lot of great work in helping Midwest writing establish an identity and gain visibility.

 

I’m curious about your writing of erotica and literary stuff, and if you see hard/fast distinctions between the two, and if there *should* be distinctions, and if maybe literary stuff should get sexier. I ended up thinking of this stuff because of your q+a with GSherl on HTMLGIANT, and the fact that he writes about steamy stuff.

I don’t really see distinctions between erotica and literary stuff. When I write a story, I’m just writing the story I’m feeling in that moment. The labels come from editors. I’m trying to avoid prescriptions for what literary stuff should try to do. Writers are always being given so much advice for what they should write and how they should change their writing so instead of doing that, I’ll say literary stuff should be what it wants to be in any given moment. A little more sexiness, though, certainly couldn’t hurt. I love writing about sex and I like doing so explicitly. So often, we read stories where the door closes just before we see what happens. I don’t think you always need to see Tab A inserted into Slot B, and sometimes, sex in literature feels unnecessarily gratuitous, but I’m not afraid to go there. I enjoy the rawness and intimacy that comes from a story that is open about the characters’ sexuality.

 

You either by choice or necessity write from within these various identity badges—or at least your writing is talked about as such (Haitian/diaspora lit, feminist lit, whatever). This might be impossible and stupid, but do you loathe all that identifying stuff? Do you feel some responsibility to it? This is likely impossible, but I would love to hear you address it—mostly because I think your writing ultimately gracefully shoulders certain aspects of identity stuff without feeling bogged or messed by same.

I wouldn’t really say I write within identity badges though yes, a great many of my stories reflect feminist leanings, though it is probably not feminism in the traditional sense. A fraction of my writing is about Haiti and/or race, but because I’m black, or Haitian, that seems to be the identity people want to assign to my work. I don’t shy away from that but that perception often feels inaccurate or incomplete. When you look at my body of work, such as it is, my primary themes are sex, violence, and the loss of motherhood, because that’s what I’m really interested in right now. Do I feel a responsibility to a certain identity? I feel a responsibility to tell stories, no matter what those stories might be about, as true and strong as I can.

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