By Tyler Calder
Roxane Gay is many things: an award-winning writer, a consummate teacher, and a much-needed voice in a society trying its damndest to suppress the the stories of women of color, queer people, sexual assault survivors, and anybody above a size 12.
What you might not realize, though, is that Roxane Gay is also deeply funny, finding a lightheartedness in life that we sometimes gain a glimpse into on Twitter, and always deeply enjoy. When we learned that Roxane would be in town for D.C.’s Bentzen Ball for an afternoon in conversation with comedian Sasheer Zamata, we knew we had to try to speak to her.
Perhaps no writer of this decade has done more to amplify voices and create space for difficult conversations than Roxane Gay. One of those recent spaces is her new book club, which first aired on VICE News Tonight on HBO this past July. In the intro, she says, “This is a book club. We’re going to drink some alcohol, we’re going to talk about some books, and we’re going to get a little petty.” See? Funny.
Imagine our surprise (an honest-to-god, holy cow, is this really happening? moment), when with the same signature measuredness, purpose, and a slight air of mischief, she picked up our call this week.
It’s only been around a short while, but we already love your book club. We’re a bunch of book clubbers ourselves. Why do you think people are drawn to this format of gathering at this particular moment in time?
Roxane Gay: I think that, while social media and the internet are well and good, sometimes you just want to hold a book in your hands and talk to other people that read that book. You want to talk about what you loved and what you hated, what made you laugh and what made you cry.
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A new lil project of mine is a book club on @vicenews. You can see the first segment where we discuss Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys online now. My guests were @goodtalkthanks, @debbiemillman, and @open_mike_eagle. Next up, Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone with all new guests. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rKOyDrLYsQA
And it makes so much sense that you’d have a book club. You’ve given us some of our favorite books, from Bad Feminist to Hunger, over the years. First of all, thank you. Second, how do you work on tackling really difficult topics like these for the amount of time it takes to write a book, without getting completely consumed by them?
RG: I wouldn’t say that my creative process necessarily changes by subject matter – but I do [more frequently] ask what I need to keep myself sane while writing about some of the darkest parts of humanity. It’s important for me to have a really strong support system around me, and to know I can take breaks, and that it’s just a book. This isn’t the front lines of struggle. I make sure to give it the proper distance when needed. Allowing myself that distance and that space when I need it has gone quite a long way and can be really useful.
It sounds like you’ve figured out how to set some key boundaries when needed, and that’s something we’ve always admired about you. We see you do it really well on Twitter, too. Do you have suggestions for people who might be trying to figure out how to protect their energy at work, online, or during the current news cycle?
RG: I’m still working on it myself — it’s a work in progress, but I always try to remind myself I have every right to say no to the things I don’t want to do or to the things I cannot do because there are only 24 hours in my day.
I think a lot of times people think, especially as women, that we should serve them and not take care of ourselves, and that’s absolutely not the case. Whenever women find themselves in those positions, I encourage them to remember (and I have to remind myself sometimes too!) that you don’t work for all those people. You do not have to answer every question someone has and you don’t need to give people attention just because they want it. That’s not how it has to work.
We so appreciate that sentiment, and we’ve grown accustomed to hearing you share many slices of wisdom like this on your podcast, Hear to Slay with your co-host, author Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom. We’ve especially enjoyed the episodes about problematic faves and hustle culture. What advice would you give other women about learning to navigate hustle culture and the pressures to do it all?
RG: I think it’s important to remember that you just can’t do it all, even though we live in a world where people say you have to work five or ten jobs or you have to schedule yourself within an inch of your life. You don’t actually have to do that. You have to learn to work smarter, not harder. I do believe in working hard, in general, but I don’t believe you have to work yourself to the bone. Of course, there are some of us for whom that is not an option, especially if you’re the breadwinner and you might be underpaid, working multiple jobs, or underemployed.
You cannot work all the time – you’ll burn out and that won’t be good for anyone, including yourself. I encourage people to set boundaries around work-life balance.
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This week on Hear to Slay we talk about black women making political moves and we talk to the superlative @staceyabrams https://luminarypodcasts.com/listen/roxane-gay-and-dr-tressie-mcmillan-cottom/hear-to-slay/chief-black-women-in-charge-cbwic/5844fcac-f300-4696-b814-58f87e5358f7 @tressiemcphd
Speaking of burnout, you’re coming to our own very-stressed hometown of Washington, D.C. in a few weeks for the tenth-annual Bentzen Ball. We’re excited to see you in conversation with comedian Sasheer Zamata at a comedy festival. What role do you think humor can play for us during challenging times like these?
RG: I think when the political and socioeconomic landscape are so stressful, you have to have something to relieve some of that pressure and some of that tension. Humor is really good at giving us a language for understanding the world in ways that are a little more lighthearted — it gives us an escape hatch.
Who or what do you turn to when you need a pick-me-up or a reason to laugh?
RG: Often times I turn to books. And of course, music. Sometimes I listen to song lyrics and I’m just like, “Did anyone else hear that?! This is fucking hilarious.” I enjoy standup comedy – I love Ali Wong, Michelle Buteau, and Tig Notaro. I thought Always Be My Maybe was so funny. And a show I like to watch that is funny but also a drama is Succession. It’s just that good.
What can we expect from your upcoming conversation with Sasheer? There’s plenty going on in politics to talk about — impeachment, specifically — but I don’t think that the conversation will necessarily only be about politics because that would be far too depressing.
From the sound of it, you’re traveling for speaking engagements a lot and juggling projects across many channels. It feels like you are truly meeting people where they are, though – from podcasting, to book-writing, New York Times essays, and now a digital magazine via Medium. What’s your goal with Gay Magazine?
RG: I’m doing what I always aim to do as an editor, which is to create a literary space for a range of voices who have something smart and interesting to say — and more importantly, to be able to pay them well. One of the biggest challenges of the digital media landscape is that the money is concentrated at the top and it rarely trickles down to the editors and writers, so to be able to have the support of Medium to create a publication — for however long it lasts – where we can pay people equitably and fairly is a really great thing. There is so much good writing going on out there, and I love being able to have a small hand in bringing that into the world.
Who is inspiring you right now?
RG: I’m really inspired right now by Elizabeth Warren. I think she’s doing incredible work, and while no candidate is perfect, I’m really excited to be able to support her.
You’ve said you’d love to profile Rihanna. Who else would you like chat with in a similar context?
RG: Rihanna and Beyoncé. I think Hillary Clinton would be an interesting conversation. And Michelle and Barack Obama together. I’ve spoken to Michelle before, but I would love to do it again. I want to speak with the people that are most interesting in our culture right now. I always love being able to sit down and talk with them and really understand why they love to do what they do.
Same, Roxane. Same.