Roxane Gay is a force of nature. She reviews books for The New York Times. She is the essays editor for The Rumpus. She is the co-editor of PANK, and an HTMLGIANT contributor. She is the fiction editor of Bluestem. She curates an essay series for Salon. She is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Illinois University. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Best American Short Stories 2012, New Stories From the Midwest 2011 and 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, NOON, Salon, Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, Brevity, Black Warrior Review, Mid-American Review, Cream City Review, Annalemma, McSweeney’s, and many, many others. Her first book will be published in 2014…and we cannot wait. Plus, she is one of the funniest, kindest, and giving people you will ever meet–fully committed to nurturing other women writers and writers of color. So who better to kick off our interview series of working writers of color than the amazing Roxane Gay? And lucky for us, she said yes. Follow her on Twitter @rgay.
1. Where did you grow up? What was that like? Where do you live now? How do these places influence you?
I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, and then all over the place, but we always came back to Omaha. It was interesting, growing up in a place like Nebraska, particularly as a Haitian American. It was hard to know where I belonged and as a kid, I thought Nebraska was the most boring place in the world. I have a much deeper appreciation for the state now. I currently live in rural Illinois. Living in the Midwest, off and on, has taught me that the stories of people who live in these so-called flyover states are just as rich and valuable as the stories of people who live in major cities.
2. Please tell us some of the books/writers you love.
I love Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence, Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy, Zadie Smith’s NW, Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak!, Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, and the list goes on and on.
3. How did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve always felt this intense desire to tell stories and to express myself with words. I cannot point to a specific moment. I’ve just always wanted this.
4. What is the best thing about writing?
I love losing myself in words and seeing where a story I’m writing will take me.
5. Where do you write?
I write wherever I can. I don’t have a specific, well-curated writing space, though most of my writing takes place on my living room couch.
6. When did you begin to write? Why did you begin to write?
I’ve been writing since I was like four years old. Back then, I would draw little villages on a napkin, and then write stories about the people who lived in the little village. I have no idea what was going on there.
7. How did you begin reviewing books for The New York Times? How did you begin editing for The Rumpus?
I pitched an editor a couple years ago at The New York Times and nothing came of it but my interest was noted. When an opportunity came up for which an editor felt I would be a good fit, they got in touch and I’ve been fortunate that this has happened twice now. They’re great to review for. I began editing at The Rumpus after writing for them for a while, and wanting to take on a more significant role on the site.
8. Can you tell us about the support you have had, the inspiration you have had? Your education?
I’ve had all kinds of support from family, friends, mentors, teachers. I’m very blessed in this regard. Even when I’ve felt unsupported, that support was actually there and I just had to get out of my own way to see it. In terms of my education, I’ve had amazing teachers, from Mrs. Dewell in elementary school Rex McGuinn, Dolores Kendrick, and Betty Ogami-Sherwood in high school, to Gerald Shapiro and HIlda Raz in my M.A. program to Nancy Grimm in my doctoral program. Today, I have an awesome mentor in my friend, and fellow writer, Tayari Jones. I’m part of a fantastic writing group. My students teach me with their wit and youthful wisdom.
9. What do you enjoy about writing non-fiction? How do you balance reviewing books for The New York Times, editing at The Rumpus, your own writing and other projects?
With nonfiction, I love that I get to share how I see truth. In terms of balance, I’m not sure how I do it. As of late, I’ve not been very good at it, but I try to make my deadlines.
10. What is your upcoming book about? What inspired it?
My novel, An Untamed State, is about Mireille Duval-Jameson, a Haitian American woman who is kidnapped while visiting her family in Port au Prince with her American husband and infant son. She is held by a brutal man who calls himself The Commander, for thirteen days, because her father is reluctant to pay the ransom for fear that it will only be the beginning of such extortion. It’s a story about family and country and betrayal and how salvation is often found in unexpected places. The novel originally began as a short story and Mireille just wouldn’t get out of my head so I wrote her story until it was done being written.
11. How did the Solidarity is For White Women curation for Salon come about?
In the wake of the Solidarity Is For White Women hashtag, I kept thinking about platform and access and wondered if I could do anything to broaden the access available to feminists of color. I asked my editor Anna North and Salon‘s Executive Editor Dave Daley and they were both really supportive of the project.
12. What do you want to say in your work?
I want to say, I am flawed, I am still growing into myself, but I care and that care runs deep.
13. What are you obsessed with?
I’m obsessed with stories and truth and darkness and light.
14. What do you see a center for African American fiction doing?
A center for African American fiction works to create a broader space in modern letters for African American writers to practice their craft and put their work out into the world. It’s about support, hopefully both material and emotional.
15. What is the state of fiction in America right now?
American fiction is in a wonderful place. So much wonderful work is being produced and 2014, in particular, is going to be a great year for black women with new work from Natalie Baszile, Tiphanie Yanique, Jacinda Townsend, and Helen Oyeyemi, just to name a few.
16. Why are so few African American or black writers and women writers being published? What does this mean for African American or black women writers?
Publishers tend to assume there simply aren’t many writers of color because writers of color don’t get the same visibility that other writers benefit from so publishing is generally a reflection of perceived scarcity. By reminding editors and publishers that writers of color abound, and finding multiple ways to put diverse writing in front of gatekeepers, I think we can slowly but surely create some much needed change.
17. Where can one get a good cup of coffee these days?
In one’s kitchen.
18. Is there anything else you want to say about writing?
Writing is a great joy. It has given me my voice, and for that I am grateful.