Once upon a time, almost a decade ago, a funny, fearless, and frank writer from Nebraska described herself as a bad feminist. “I am failing as a woman,” she wrote. “I am failing as a feminist. I am a mess of contradictions.” The resulting book of essays, Bad Feminist (2014), heralded a more intersectional era in the movement, calling for less essentialism in feminism and more pluralism. It showed what it was like “to move through the world as a woman”: specifically a Haitian-American in her late 30s, who loathed Django Unchained and loved Scrabble. Perhaps, more than anything it was a manifesto of human imperfection. Thus was Roxane Gay propelled into the literary stratosphere and – as such fairytales tend to go – destined to be forever after probed about the current state of feminism.
So, nine years on, does the writer, editor, professor, podcaster, cultural critic, and Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture and Feminist Studies at Rutgers University, New Jersey, still consider herself a bad feminist? “I think I’m a better feminist now than I was,” says Gay when we meet on Zoom. “But I’ll always be a bad feminist. I don’t think the term has changed. When I coined it, it was partly serious and partly tongue in cheek: if good feminism is the feminism that overlooks the intersections of identity that we all inhabit, then I’d rather be a bad feminist. Most of the issues I wrote about are sadly just as relevant today. And, in many areas, such as reproductive freedom, we have lost ground, which is a bitter pill to swallow.”
It is mid-morning in New York and Gay, 48, is drinking a takeaway cup of coffee in the eaves of the brownstone house she shares with her wife Debbie Millman. “I am in a wonderful marriage,” Gay tells me. “I’m so impressed by my wife all the time.”
As an interviewee, Gay keeps her distance. She comes across as considered and a little shy, which befits a writer whose hallmark is a kind of radical authenticity. Such qualities are too often interpreted as coldness or ferocity in women, but the abiding impression Gay gives is of someone who is not going to compromise herself. It’s on the page where she gives freely, and there she gives all. Her writing is defined by contradiction, ease, emotional integrity and a generosity of perspective that has won her a huge and diverse following. “I am nowhere near as brave as people believe me to be,” she wrote in Hunger, her acclaimed 2017 memoir about her body. “As a writer, armed with words, I can do anything, but when I have to take my body out into the world, courage fails me.”
Our conversation is wide-ranging, covering topics from trauma – “I want to do the least amount of harm when writing about harmful things” – to Harry and Meghan: “I’m rooting for those kids! I hope they make it!” Recently, after writing a New York Times op-ed supporting (to an extent) Harry and Meghan, she received “so much hate mail – the British didn’t take it very well at all. Piers Morgan lost his mind. I know I’m on the right track if he starts bloviating and getting red in the face.” She smiles. “My work here is done.”
Last year Gay argued that cancel culture “is the bogeyman that people have come up with to explain away bad behaviour” and she prefers to think in terms of consequence culture. “I’ve been thinking about how we can hold ourselves accountable for the choices we make,” she says. “Because as long as we continue to, for example, listen to misogynistic music it is going to continue to be made. At what point do we make different choices?”
In Bad Feminist, Gay admitted listening to “thuggish rap … even though the lyrics are degrading to women and offend me to my core”. Now, she is making different choices. In 2017, she pulled a forthcoming book from Simon & Schuster to protest over the publisher’s support of the controversial “alt-right” figurehead Milo Yiannopoulos. More recently she took her podcast – The Roxane Gay Agenda, in which she talks, mostly to Black women, about issues including race, feminism, pop culture and politics – off Spotify over its “unfettered access” to the “misinformation” spread by Joe Rogan.
She isn’t considering leaving Twitter, noting that since Elon Musk’s takeover the platform hasn’t “gotten measurably worse for me because it’s always been terrible. You make spaces for yourself that are tolerable but I do think for the average user the experience has become incredibly degrading and it’s increasingly becoming intolerable. I don’t know that Musk cares about the town-square qualities of Twitter and what that can offer in times of crisis. And a lot of people, myself included, get news from Twitter, and to see that being compromised is really disappointing.” In general, she has been trying to separate from social media “because at some point you have to just protect your sanity”.
What progress has been made, if any, since she wrote Bad Feminist? “Well, I think it’s always important to acknowledge progress,” she says, “otherwise it becomes too overwhelming to want to fight for it. We are having better conversations about feminism. It has become more inclusive, though there’s still a lot of work left to do. We’re having better conversations about transgender issues and understanding gender as a spectrum, but also seeing a lot of pushback.” The week after we speak Gay is one of nearly 1,000 New York Times contributors to sign an open letter condemning the newspaper’s coverage of trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people. She says the environment is “quite similar” to what’s going on in the UK. “To direct that kind of ire at one of the most marginalised groups in the world is so unnecessary,” she adds. “Until enough feminists stand up and say, ‘This is wrong, we cannot do this to our trans brethren’, it’s going to continue. It continues because not enough people say: ‘You are wrong, you are toxic, you are absurdly, embarrassingly fragile.’”
Gay is juggling an overwhelming number of projects: her podcast and publishing imprint, film and TV scriptwriting (she was the first Black woman to write for Marvel, penning the Black Panther: World of Wakanda comic series), a book of writing advice called How to Be Heard, a collection of TV criticism, a compilation of opinion pieces for the New York Times and the Guardian US, and “a few novels” – including a young adult novel and – yes, the rumours are true – a romance with Channing Tatum. Oh, and she’s writing a book about Beyoncé. “I don’t know what it’s going to be yet,” she says. “I just know it’s going to be about Beyoncé.”
She has, simultaneously, been dealing with writer’s block “for a few years”. Is it caused by the demands of success, because she’s overstretched, or because she gave so much in her 2017 memoir, Hunger (and experienced a lot of backlash, including fatphobia and accusations of fatphobia)? “All that might play a part, for sure,” she says. “I think it’s just burnout. I still enjoy writing even if writing doesn’t enjoy me. It’s not that I can’t write, it’s that the writing doesn’t feel the way I know it should feel.”
Grief has also played a part. Her mother has stage four cancer and last year Gay’s brother, Joel, died suddenly at the age of 43. “He was very young, and he was beloved,” she says. “He left behind two children and a wife. We were all very taken aback by it. We’re still grappling with it. Life goes on, but differently. It’s not just disorienting. It completely changes the universe. You’re supposed to learn from it, but I would rather not know what I’ve learned and have my brother here than know what I know and have him gone.”
Gay and her two younger brothers grew up in a loving, religious, strict household in Omaha, Nebraska. All she ever wanted was to be a writer and, by the age of four, was drawing villages on napkins and populating them with characters. “When I wanted to tell more of a story I would add a couple more houses, a church, and there was always a cemetery,” she laughs. Her parents, who came to the US from Haiti when they were teenagers, remain huge figures in her life and when it comes to her career, “you couldn’t ask for better cheerleaders”. She thinks her capacity to express herself and see things from all sides comes from them. “My parents took such an active interest in us,” she says. “They took us seriously and included us in their conversations at the dinner table, which definitely set me on the path to being comfortable with having opinions. In the earlier years things were very good.”
In Hunger, Gay wrote in spare and incantatory prose of what she had touched upon in Bad Feminist. How, at the age of 12, she was gang-raped in the woods near her home by a boy she thought was her boyfriend and his friends. That book, like her life, is divided in two. Before and after. After, Gay turned to food, and turned her body into a fortress. By the end of Hunger, which remains the hardest thing she’s ever done, Gay had made a tentative peace with her body. “I no longer need the body fortress I built,” she wrote. “I need to tear down some of the walls.”
In many ways she has fulfilled that promise. Millman – a New York writer, designer, and podcast host – picked up Hunger when it came out and fell hard first for its author’s words, then its author. Two years later, in the midst of the global pandemic, they cancelled the huge wedding they had planned – to be officiated by Gloria Steinem, naturally – and eloped.
Gay has said that writing and reading literally saved her life. It has also, in an equally literal sense, brought love into it. “It did,” she says with a smile. “I did not anticipate meeting her. I don’t think you ever do anticipate meeting the person who will be the great love of your life. But I did. And every day is an adventure. It’s great to have someone who understands the demands of my career. And of course I give that in return gladly. Nobody’s threatened. There’s no need to be jealous because we each have awesome things going on.”
In 2018, Gay underwent weight loss surgery. In a characteristically candid essay, What Fullness Is, she wrote that after more than 15 years of resistance, she finally capitulated and felt “in equal parts – hope, defeat, frustration, and disgust”. How is she feeling now? “Well, I don’t know that I’ll ever feel great in my body, but I think the surgery was the right decision for me. It’s an ongoing project, but it really helped me make a dent in having a stronger relationship with my body.”
“I still cringe sometimes when I think about [Hunger] being in the world, but that lets me know I was on the right track. The book has helped people. It’s being taught in medical schools all over the country. So I’m just proud of what I did there.” Since Hunger came out there has, however, been an increased demand for writing about trauma, particularly from people of colour. “That’s one of the key things I talk about whenever I talk about writing trauma,” Gay says. “The world expects your trauma. The world feels entitled to your trauma. The world wants you to serve it up to them. That’s why it’s important to recognise that you can write about trauma without cannibalising yourself. You are in control of your own story.”
Roxane Gay will appear at the Women of the World festival, Royal Festival Hall, London, on 12 March and is on tour in the UK at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh (9 March), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (11 March), the Forum Alumni Auditorium at the University of Exeter (14 March) and The Forum, Bath (15 March and will be livestreamed on Fane Online