Roxane Gay on Empty Words and Yogurt

Author Roxanne Gay. (Kevin Nance photo)

Roxane Gay wants you to know a lot of things, but she’ll start with this: she is Haitian-American, she is black, she is a teacher, she is a writer, she is bisexual, she is tired of talking about diversity, and, she, alas, is a Libra.

Gay spoke in Salomon Hall last night to an auditorium full of undergrads, grad students, professors, and Providence community members. The talk, sponsored by a slew of departments and organized by two American Studies PhD candidates, Ida Yalzadeh and Maggie Unverzagt Goddard, began with a reading, moved to a speech (“I was pretty cranky when I wrote this this morning,” said Gay, mid-sentence), and ended with a Q&A. The entire event, as introduced by Professor Matt Guterl, Chair of American Studies and Professor of Africana, American, and Ethnic Studies, took almost two years to plan.

So after two years of planning, hundreds of people gathered on Valentine’s Day and listened so intently to every word that came from the space between Roxane Gay’s lips that, should you turn around from a seat in the third row (where I sat), you would think there was a ghost on stage. Rather, there sat quite the opposite.

“The Libra thing is so real,” said Gay on stage. No ghost here—no ghost at all.

In fact, that’s one of the very things Gay is so adamant in expressing: the issue of structural attempts to create ghosts of marginalized people—to make them disappear. In her New York Times bestselling collection of essays, Bad Feminist, she writes about this phenomenon in terms of the way it works on TV (“It’s not that people of color are deliberately excluded but that they are not included because most communities, literary or otherwise, are largely insular,” she writes on page 58 of my extensively annotated copy), in politics, in books about gender… the list only goes on.

bad fem

When a young woman stood in front of the mic during the Q&A and told Gay that her niece was only rewarded for her beauty and not her smarts, and that she, herself, had recently lost a lot of weight and could not ignore the way people treated her differently, Gay offered, “When people congratulate you and remark and say, ‘You’re disappearing,’ you can say, ‘Why is that a good thing?’”

And though her talk was heavy, it strayed far from pessimistic. That’s perhaps the magic in Gay—that she takes on all that is shitty with the world, yet does so in a way that doesn’t leave us feeling hopeless. Instead, she has a way of making us all feel human and imperfect.

Gay’s talk was sold out—to say that she’s an icon and inspiration for a large chunk of Brown students would be an understatement. But, throughout the talk, there were subtle tensions, like little blips in the radar, between some of Gay’s opinions and what’s said and felt on Brown’s campus every day. “We don’t all have to believe in the same feminism,” she says and writes, though the idea of feminism as pluralistic doesn’t seem to be as openly supported here—it is, instead, a train you are either off or on. “What matters more is action,” she said. “And if you want to call yourself something else, I have to respect that.” No one in the crowd seemed surprised, but I wondered: would that really, really fly here? And if it wouldn’t, why not?

That being said, she still believes feminism must be feminism must be feminism must be feminism: “Just because you buy a feminist sticker and put it on your cell phone case doesn’t make you a feminist.” The crowd laughed.

Gay takes down buzzwords like a woman with a weed-whacker. “I am done with ‘allyship,’” she said in the speech she gave before the Q&A. “Allyship” is another term I see everywhere (read: on Facebook) as both a self-identifier for non-marginalized folks and a demand by my friends of color, but Roxane Gay is done with it. And it’s not that she doesn’t want support, but that “ally,” the word, doesn’t really matter.

She spoke of “diversity”—perhaps the University’s favorite buzzword––as a word “that becomes an empty container,” which I also think is a statement many would second. In response to Michelle Obama’s “When they go low, we go high,” Gay thinks we should, actually, go low as well, and not be afraid to do so. “There is no high road,” she explained. She is great with and keen on language.

“I’m invited to talk to and teach white people something easy to figure out… I’m [expected to have] some magical negro wisdom about how to make the world a better place. I do not,” she added.

Once the lecture had run fifteen minutes over, Gay signed copies of her books and smized for fan photos in that incredible way only Roxane Gay does—with her cheek on her palm and her eyebrows raised as if to say, Duh, honey. The line extended up a flight of stairs, around a corner, and into an emergency exit stairway. Queuing in line kind of reminded me of waiting to see a priest at a confessional, not that I’m Catholic nor have I ever been to confession. There was a six-foot space between the front of the line and the table where Gay sat; students approached one at a time, giving each other space—to say a few quiet words, a nod and a thank you. Then the student would leave, and the next would approach, and the cycle would start all over again. Honestly, it kind of felt like waiting to see God. Maybe it was more like waiting in line to see Santa Claus. But this, of course, was incomparable to sitting on the lap of an old white man.

The notion that Gay was (and is) some sort of authority (not that she isn’t) was apparent throughout the entire talk. At one point, when it became necessary, she addressed this directly: “I am not the application reader at the feminist center.” I have never seen a talk at Brown quite like this—where the vibe in the room was like group therapy meets idolization.

Audience members asked for her opinions like seals of approval. “What are your thoughts on Ivanka Trump?” “What are your thoughts on feminism as an empty term?” “What is your favorite thing about being bisexual?” “How do you tap into being a writer?” “Should artists and writers let themselves feel right now?”

When asked, “What do you think about the importance of the erotic right now?” she responded, “I think that people are having a lot more sex now. I think that’s so great.” And when someone else inquired, “How do I reach a person who is unreachable?” her response was quick. “You just answered your own question. Stop trying,” she said.

Roxane Gay thinks that it wasn’t great of Adele to tell Beyoncé that she wishes she were her mummy, and it was especially not great when Faith Hill, twenty years Beyoncé’s elder, seconded the notion. That’s the kind of narrow box we wrongly fit women of color into.

“Go high, trump hate, be nasty, wear a pantsuit,” she said, “But I don’t want your shame. I want your fight.”

But if you want to know what Roxane Gay really thinks, it is this: “If you’re not watching The Bachelor right now, fix your life.” Oh—and one more thing: “Never in your life do you want to eat Activia.”

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One response to “Roxane Gay on Empty Words and Yogurt

  1. Holy mustard seeds, Batman! This article was well-written! But in all seriousness, this was a really incredible piece. As someone who couldn’t be at Gay’s talk, since I’m abroad, you did such an incredible job setting the scene, drawing out the important ideas…I almost feel like I was there. Really fantastic work, Blog Fam!

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