Inhabited by the story: An interview with Roxane Gay

By Jamey Hatley

I am not entirely convinced that Roxane Gay is a single entity. I intend to find out at the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, where she will sit for panels and interviews on both Saturday and Sunday, March 22 and 23, at the Hotel Monteleone (214 Royal St.; see links for times).

Gay has a cascade of titles, a few of which are co-editor of PANK, essays editor of The Rumpus, and publisher of Tiny Hardcore Books. She curates a series of essays by feminists of color for Salon. She is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Illinois University. Her list of publications is dazzling. She has two books forthcoming in 2014: Her new novel, An Untamed State, will be published by Grove Atlantic; Harper Perennial will publish her essay collection, Bad Feminist. She is also the author of Ayiti (2011), a blend of fiction, nonfiction and poetry.

Gay is a master of forms, from the brevity of Twitter to the expansiveness of the novel. Print or online, short form or long, Gay manages to shape her formidable talent to the task at hand.

What follows is our conversation via email about fairy tales, inversions, the importance of place, the intimacy of violence, and closing the distance between writer and reader.

Once upon a time, in a far off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.” —An Untamed State

Room 220: The frame of An Untamed State is a fairy tale, but an inverted one. It begins with “Happily Ever After” and ends with “Once Upon a Time.” The novel is full of inversions. The protagonist, Mireille Duval Jameson, is of tiny stature, but immensely strong. Again and again, characters act against the stock fairy tale types. Were these types of stories important to you as a child? What drew you to these inversions?

Roxane Gay: I cannot say fairy tales were markedly important to me as a child but the older I’ve gotten, the more I have come to appreciate fables, folktales and fairy—how they are passed forward, what they represent.

Because fairy tales are such well-visited territory in literature, I wanted to try and do something different with them. Inverting their structure and the significant characters from these tales felt like one way to do that.

“This is the Haiti of my childhood—summer afternoons at the beach, swimming in the warm and salty blue of the ocean. We ate grilled meat and drank Coke from green glass bottles, biting the rim, enjoying the sound our teeth made against the glass.” —An Untamed State

Rm220: Many of your short stories take place in a kind of anyplace space that gives them a kind of fable-like quality. In other works, the place is so very defined that it becomes a character. In An Untamed State, Haiti was a whole cast of characters. How do you decide what the story requires?

RG: When I think of place, I do very much consider place as character, as something that shapes and drives the story and exists in its own right. In writing Haiti throughout the novel, I wanted to show the complexities of the island—the heat, the beauty, the troubles, the joy, the grief—so I started to think about which details of what I know and imagine of Haiti would best bring out that complexity and wrote forward from there.

Rm220: Stacey D’Erasmo, who wrote The Art of Intimacy for Graywolf’s “Art of” series said at a lecture that not all intimacy is lovely. I was reminded of this in An Untamed State. The violence that Mireille experiences during her captivity is unrelenting. It functions as a language that she must learn to survive and attempt to unlearn to live. I watch all the cop procedural dramas where assault and violence have been rendered commonplace, but Mireille’s experience was anything but. Why was it important for you to tell the story in this way?

RG: There were so many things going on in how I chose to depict Mireille’s experiences during her kidnapping. First and foremost, I was thinking about how all too often, when we read or see violence, we aren’t forced to look away. The closer we get to the truth of this kind of violence, the closer I believe we get to a place where you do have to close your eyes or turn away, or take a moment. I was definitely trying to get there and it was a hard choice to make and a hard set of scenes to write but it was not done to be gratuitous. I also do think about intimacy and violence, and what happens in the circumstances Mireille faced. It is brutal but particularly in her situation, the violence is not impersonal or dispassionate. It is fueled, I think, by desperation, bitterness, and rage. Because Mireille’s experience is prolonged, there is also, as you so beautifully put, a learning of a language Mireille must do. She must figure out how to bend without breaking. She has to try to understand the men she despises most and is most vulnerable to. How could that be anything but intimate, in such a horrifying way?

“Back then, memories were everywhere, and constant, and I was afraid of everything. I thought running away would leave all that behind. I thought I might be free of what had happened and what it had turned me into.” –“Second to Last Woman I Loved”

Rm220: I enjoy so much of your writing. It is smart, funny, and just plain good, but I was trying to identify the thing that resonates with me in my favorite work by you. I noticed this quality in your recent essay, “Second to Last Woman I Loved” and encountered it in An Untamed State. As I read these works, I felt the narrative distance decrease until my own vulnerability felt at stake. I was unsettled and a bit undone. Most of my favorite writing has this kind of intimacy at its core. Is this an active goal, to achieve this kind of intimacy with your reader?

RG: It absolutely is. I want to pull the reader in so that they feel as inhabited by the story I’m telling as I do. That’s what the best writing does for me, and I certainly strive to write that well.