If there ever was a celebrity feminist writer – Roxane Gay is it.
She’s been featured on late night television with Trevor Noah, banters with celebrities like Chrissy Tiegen on social media and boasts over half a million followers on Twitter, a medium she uses regularly but has a love-hate relationship with (she maintains it is ‘aggravating, hurtful and a waste of time’.)
But even for Gay – the author of several books, including her 2014 essay collection Bad Feminist and haunting memoir Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body cataloguing the trauma of her sexual assault at 12 and her relationship with fat and her body - gaining the confidence to claim a right to be a part of the public conversation has been a work in progress.
“I think it’s a process it’s something that I’m always working on and I can’t say I’m fully there yet,” she tells SBS Life.
“I actively try to remind myself that I have a right to be who I am as much as anyone else and I don’t have to apologise for who I am.”
It’s a message that resonates powerfully with young people and those from racial and sexual minorities – to claim space in a world they have been traditionally devalued.
“It’s very easy to forget that (you can claim space), particularly when women and women of colour and black women are devalued and told they don’t have any worth.
I hope if I do anything with my work, I empower other women of colour – to do that same thing - to hold space wherever they are
“The power is in doing it and knowing no matter what happens, no matter what comes from standing up for yourself, you did it – you took that stand and you held space you have every right to hold.”
The double scrutiny that meets women of colour and forces them into an eggshell posture of ‘model minority’ is a straight-jacket Gay delightfully explodes.
She’s a feminist who admits to enjoying gangster rap and Channing Tatum, riffs about pop culture, is openly bisexual, irreverent and acerbic online and freely blasts critics.
This freedom to be ‘not nice’ offers to women from minority backgrounds - who often internalise the surveillance and policing they face - a collective sigh of relief. Gay offers a release from the self-censorship that is mirrored in how many women of colour engage with the mainstream, and even feminist politics.
For Gay, the power starts in claiming space as you are.
“At some point in your life, you have to decide that you are allowed to inhabit different and liminal spaces where you are nuanced in your thinking and in how you present yourself to the world and what you enjoy.”
“For a long time people of colour, black women in particular have had to comport themselves towards the centre, so I decided early in my career to be just be myself and if people were interested in what I had to say they would put in the effort,” Gay said.
“I hope if I do anything with my work, I empower other women of colour to do that same thing, to hold space wherever they are, without contorting themselves to please other people.”
I don’t know that we need to compromise any further than we have - white women need to come out of their comfort zone in order to really make sure progress is possible
It’s not an easy task. For Gay, maintaining the integrity of her work begins by separating the reception to her work, read by millions, to the work itself and moving through fear, to write without regard for the audience.
“I just tell myself that no one is going to read my work. It generally helps because I don’t ever get over the fear. I just recognise the fear is there, and just do the terrifying thing anyway.”
With intersectionality all the rage, Gay says she is not a separatist, but maintains that for feminism to work all women need to come together. But the terms of this engagement needs to change, to centre women from the margins of a complex intersectional experience that is still being defined and understood.
“Historically black women have done all the compromise. So I don’t know that we need to compromise any further than we have. White women need to come out of their comfort zone in order to really make sure progress is possible.”
Dealing with the fraught and sensitive politics of the female body, rape culture and the backlash it warrants is work that takes its toll - but for Gay, there is no struggle that is worthwhile without joy.
“If there is no joy - than what are doing all this work for? It’s incredibly important to me, to make space for joy, to experience joy, to celebrate joy.”
Roxane Gay will be speaking in ‘A conversation about feminism’ with Christina Hoff Sommers at Sydney Town Hall on March 29 and Melbourne on March 31.