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Roxane Gay On 'An Untamed State,' Black Womanhood, And Body Positivity

Roxane Gay is also the author of <em>Bad Feminist</em> as well as <em>An Untamed State</em> and <em>Ayiti. </em>She recently wrote <em>World of Wakanda #1,</em> a <em>Black Panther</em> prequel.
Jay Grabiec
Grove Atlantic
Roxane Gay is also the author of "Bad Feminist" as well as "An Untamed State" and "Ayiti." She recently wrote "World of Wakanda #1," a "Black Panther" prequel.

“A lot of people would think that the worst thing for a woman to go through would be sexual violence, but I thought that the worst thing would be to know that the people who were best positioned to save you, didn't.”

Roxane Gay’s voice reverberates far beyond her fiction, non-fiction, and collections of essays. Two white boards hang in her home office; she’s always working, lurking for the next project, the next opportunity to paste a societal observation into white space.

Gay spends just as much time self-reflecting on her own work, its impact on society and the silver linings of the pandemic. She’s present. There isn’t a social or pop-cultural debate she can’t stamp her opinion on.

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The acclaimed Haitian-American author, cultural critic, and former professor, whose family has lived in South Florida for the past 21 years, has morphed into a sought-after thought leader on a range of hot-button topics, including Black womanhood, LGBTQ+ rights, fatphobia, racial inequality, and the #MeToo movement. She says her 2014 "Bad Feminist" book serves as a “prescient” reminder that issues surrounding the female body in spaces beyond the workplace continue today.

Her debut novel “An Untamed State,” published six years ago, is a clear window into sexual violence, trauma, and the lack of body autonomy. The novel follows Mireille Duval Jameson, the daughter of a wealthy construction businessman from Haiti. Mireille lives in Miami but is visiting family in Port-Au-Prince when she’s kidnapped for a million dollar ransom. Her stubborn, overly-principled father refused to budge.

The book explores ideas surrounding the “strong Black woman,” trope, complex immigrant family dynamics, romance and the unresolved complexities undergirding forgiveness and betrayal.

In a classic case of life imitating art, Gay's own aunt was kidnapped shortly after she wrote the novel.

“I wrote the novel about eight years ago and it's been about seven years since her kidnapping and she was held for two days," Gay told WLRN. “And relatively speaking, she was very lucky. But it still affects her.”

Gay said she was always fascinated by the kidnapping phenomenon after reading several articles on the topic. The problem of kidnappings in some parts of Haiti, unfortunately, remains as relevant today as it did when she wrote her novel, which was based on her short story, "Things I know About Fairy Tales."

“I just felt like the character had more to tell. And so I expanded it into a novel,” Gay said. “And I just wanted to look at the issue. But really, I was just trying to tell a good story. In some ways, it's a crime thriller.”

Her work continues an overlapping theme about body autonomy and the external forces that threaten it.

Here's an excerpt of that WLRN conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity:

WLRN: Every Haitian American writer and artist faces the burden of representing Haiti in its best light. But a story is essentially a memory in a specific space and time. A lot of Haitians understand the troubles of Haiti, but also yearn for its redeeming qualities to take center stage. Did you grapple with some of that pressure to show the great sides of Haiti to outsiders? And if so, how did you overcome it, especially since a lot of foreign policies had a negative impact on the socioeconomic condition of Haiti?

GAY: I really debated whether or not I should put this novel into the world because of the overwhelmingly negative perception that people have of Haiti. And I did not want to contribute to that negative perception in any way. The rules are different for us. And I'll admit that I was very frustrated by that as I thought about how the book would be perceived. And so at the end of the day, I just thought nobody tells Dennis Lehane not to write his crime novels about Boston and say, "Oh, how do you think this is going to reflect on Boston?" And we deserve that freedom creatively. We do.

You wrote, “My father’s parents both died when he was young, in ways that disgusted him, in ways he once told us, that showed him that the only way to survive this world is by being strong.” And that opens a window into his stubborn personality. But it also tackles the strong Black woman trope. Was that something you wanted to explore as well?

A lot of times, people places unreasonable expectations on Black women that we can endure all and that we don't experience pain and that we're willing to take care of everyone but ourselves. And that's just not reality. And so, Mireille, in the story is raised by a father. Well, by parents, especially her father, who's domineering and who expects perfection from his children and expects impervious strength. And so when something shattering happens to her and her father's unreasonable expectations simply can't be met, I definitely wanted to see what that might look like for her.

The pop singer Lizzo, who is known for celebrating big girls around the world, sparked a heated body positivity debate after posting a smoothie detox video. Some encouraged her, others saw hypocrisy. What’s the importance of the body positivity movement and perhaps some of its pitfalls?

Every movement has its extremes, and when you are a public figure and you are fat, people demanded that you lose weight until you lose weight and then they say you're betraying the movement for losing weight. And so you're damned if you do, damned if you don't. And it's truly untenable and unfair. And so what Lizzo has been dealing with for the past couple of days is people who felt like finally they had this public and amazing and sexy and talented icon who was now going back on her word.

We saw it with Adele, too. And I love Adele. People rode Adele's ass about her weight over and over and over again. And so she lost the weight. And now they're obsessed and they're fawning. And some people are like, "Oh, my God, she lost too much weight." Or "she looks amazing."

But she always looked amazing, like, she was hot from day one. And she will always be hot no matter what her body looks like and and not despite her body, but because I thought she was lovely at at her previous size and she's lovely now.

But, you know, she's people have really given her a hard time and they're now going to do that with Lizzo as whatever journey she chooses to be on. And the thing is, people really overreacted yesterday because Lizzo just did a detox. And, I'm sorry, but this is Los Angeles. Even I do detoxes. It's just it's part of the culture. And so it's really not shocking or out of the realm of logic that she did a detox. And so the way that people reacted, let's, you know, like just the ridiculous pressures fat women, public women, Black women deal with.

I had some of your fans on my Instagram [when I asked for questions] say, "Ask her about her and Ta-Nehisi Coates and what happened with Black Panther and why was it cancelled?"

I feel like Marvel definitely understands that they need to diversify their creators, but they don't know how to reach our audiences and they don't know how to educate our audiences, because when I first got the job at Marvel, I didn't know anything about how to buy comics.

They really do need to think about how they reach people beyond the prototypical comic book reader, like that sort of standard white guy. And until they do you that, you know, I don't think they're going to see a lot of sales but they also need to find ways to let that particular audience know that reading about diverse kinds of characters and heroes isn't taking your medicine, and it's not like you're doing your social justice homework. You're just reading awesome stories from people who don't look like you, which is what literally every person of color does always.

And so hopefully with their continuing to hire amazing writers of color and hopefully some of those writers will be given more than one shot.