Published April 14, 2017
Greeted by raucous cheers, acclaimed author Roxane Gay took to the stage at the Center for the Arts Thursday for an entertaining and provocative mix of readings, formal lecture and humorous — sometimes biting — asides.
Following her formal presentation as part of the Distinguished Speakers Series, Gay was joined by UB’s own award-winning sci-fi author, Nnedi Okorafor, who fielded audience questions while posing some of her own.
Gay, whose writings embrace fiction, essays, memoirs and political commentary, opened by reading from three of her recent works. They included a funny and poignant essay on the experience of being a newly minted PhD and first-year college professor teaching in Indiana, “where many of my students never had a black teacher before”; a sardonic short story with a feminist twist about a man’s desire for an open marriage; and reflections on her own stunned, then resolute, reaction following the 2016 presidential election.
“I did not want to wake up in a world where suddenly everything became precarious for far too many people,” she said of her dismay the morning of Nov. 9. Gradually, though, she came to “accept that the world was not coming to an end, even if it felt incomprehensible.” Expressing regret that she did not write on the 2016 campaign while it was occurring, she is now determined to use her voice toward political and social ends. “I’m interested in figuring out where we go from here. I’m interested in figuring out how we survive what I call ‘this age of disgrace.’”
Indeed, Gay called for more cohesion in resistance movements, as well as more thoughtfulness when deploying phrases that might make the speaker feel better, but instead give false comfort while proving a distraction from the critical issues at hand. For example, “They go low and we go high” made sense when used by Michelle Obama in her role as First Lady, but now it’s bandied about with little understanding of what the words can entail.
“She was right in her belief that sometimes there is absolutely no need to sink lower than your opponent,” Gay said. Now, though, “there is no high road with a man who appointed a white supremacist as his chief strategist in the White House. When they go low, we have to be willing to go subterranean if we have any chance of resisting their great evil.”
Another seemingly benign slogan, “Love trumps hate,” is “equally loathsome.” This is because “language matters and sometimes it becomes an empty container for whatever bullshit people want to fill it with. … We need to get uncomfortable and that means moving beyond tidy words” that mask troublesome realities, she said.
Further, the term “identity politics” is also problematic in Gay’s view. It’s being used “to dismiss the concerns and the experiences of marginalized people … It’s used to derail conversations about how identity can affect the way people move throughout the world. It’s an accusation that we can somehow separate ourselves from the very things that contribute to who we are. It implies that we can’t both acknowledge and embrace our identities” and be in harmony with the larger community, she said. Gay described her own complex identity as the daughter of Haitian immigrant parents who grew up in Nebraska, and is black, bisexual and by her own statement, “fat.”
Gay’s warmth and gentleness amid the barbs were especially evident during a lively question-and-answer session. She gave tips to a Buffalo high school student and budding writer, and described how she began to write at age 4 by drawing pictures of villages on napkins, then writing stories about the people she imagined living there.
Other topics ranged from how to eschew misogyny while enjoying rap music, the structure and state of the feminist movement, the “inescapable” nature of racism, the experience of teaching college students at Purdue while pursuing her high-profile literary career, and the need to teach children in an age-appropriate manner about rape culture and their right to say no.
She cheerfully acknowledged her enjoyment of watching “trash TV” as a favorite downtime activity, and spoke of her desire to develop her speculative or imaginative faculties in her work. “I love to unleash my imagination … for women of color, it allows us a dimensionality that we don’t necessarily have in contemporary fiction or in contemporary life.”
Asked whether she might explore new genres such as sci-fi, Gay asserted her right to go forward artistically in whatever manner she chooses. “If a man with no political experience can be like, ‘I can be president of the United States,’ and it works out for him? Then I think I can take a few chances with my life,” she said to yelps, whistles and a standing ovation.