Roxane Gay addresses difficulty of writing about trauma, need for inclusive campuses
Though her bestselling books deal with tropes such as outrage against gender conventions and opposition to institutionalized sexism, Roxane Gay did not always identify as a feminist, she said in a lecture in the O’Laughlin Auditorium at Saint Mary’s on Wednesday.
“That was the problem for me growing up is that when I thought of feminist, I just thought of ‘oh, angry, man-hating, nobody likes that,’” Gay said. “It’s easy to say ‘I’m not a feminist’ because you want to be liked, you want to be part of the world and you want to be accepted. It’s challenging.”
This incorrect interpretation of feminism, Gay said, survives because fearing change comes more easily than seeking reform.
“The people who create those caricatures are afraid of women’s equality, and they have a lot to lose,” she said. “I think that we are each living examples of what feminism is, and it’s important to recognize that there is no one definition or one person [who] looks like a feminist.”
Gay said surviving sexual assault and encountering other issues especially pertinent to women have shaped her perspective as an author.
“Writing has also been a way of reasserting control and re-ascribing the narrative that a lot of people have put on me over the years, making assumptions about me,” Gay said. “Writing has always saved me and has given me the kind of control that I have not necessarily felt in other aspects of my life. On the page, I’m in charge.”
Relaying her experiences — even the traumatic ones — with vulnerability and candor has bolstered a sense of self-appreciation, Gay said.
“Learning to accept myself and embrace myself as a I am and recognize that there is always room for improvement, but that I’m also okay where I’m at today has been a really useful tool for me,” she said. “I don’t write to heal, but that is a pleasant side effect.”
Women and men should never feel obligated to openly profess their personal stories, however, especially because adequate resources for survivors do not always exist, she said.
“It’s really easy to say ‘Why wouldn’t she come forward? Why didn’t she leave?’” she said. “Okay, let’s say it’s February. You have three children. It’s freezing outside. You have no money. Leave what? Go where?”
Gay said sexual assault has long-lasting repercussions that warrant recognition.
“It’s not just what happens in the moment,” she said. “Recovery can take a lifetime. I don’t think enough people realize that. I think a lot of times people think that the sanitized versions of assault that we see in popular culture are representative of what recovery actually looks like.”
Gay said she feels her memoir “Hunger,” is necessary and timely, especially due to the recent Me Too movement.
“I feel like I really did the right thing in writing “Hunger,” as difficult as it was, to show that, you know, sometimes you’re 12 years old and a good girl and you go to church every Sunday, and then one day, some guys gang rape you and your whole life changes,” she said. “It’s literally your whole life, and I don’t think we see enough of that story. People want to believe that we survive the trauma, and that’s that. They don’t want to know about after, and I wrote about after.”
The Me Too movement is opening doors for women to share their trauma and what it is like to deal with the aftermath of an assault, Gay said.
“With Me Too, we are seeing more of [the aftermath], with Mira Sorvino, Annabella Sciorra and Uma Thurman and all of these powerful women who are coming forward,” she said. “I think that is going to open the doors for women who are not in Hollywood, who are working at hotels and restaurants and to be able to come forward and say, ‘this happened to me 20 years ago and I am still living with it.’”
Gay said one unfortunate side effect of the Me Too movement involves the pressure some individuals feel to share their incidences of trauma.
“You may never be ready, and that’s okay,” she said. “Whatever decision you make about coming forward, about your history of violence, is the right decision.”
Gay said she does not recommend publishing information writers do not feel entirely comfortable sharing, though she recognizes the link between producing compelling content and sparking consumer interest.
“I think it’s important to decide early on in your writing career what your boundaries are, what you will and will not write about, because there’s something about this current moment and historical moments where women are asked to cannibalize themselves and to share their deepest, darkest secrets, and that’s how they matter,” she said. “I refuse to believe that, and I reject that. We never ask men to pour themselves out yet it happens to all kinds of women.”
Writing about how her rape influenced her conception of her body in “Hunger” was an arduous task, she said.
“The thing I wanted to write about least was fatness, and that’s when I knew … I know what I’m going to write next,” she said. “I decided to write a memoir about my body.”
Accepting all body types, rather than continuing to propagate a narrow margin of standards, serves as an integral step in eliminating policing against women’s bodies, Gay said.
“Be kind to yourself because we just live in a world where a woman’s appearance is a currency, and some of us play that game better than others in terms of wielding that currency, and that’s okay, as long as you don’t oppress other people,” she said.
The lack of representation of minority groups on campus, Gay said, indicates the need for Saint Mary’s to engage in active retention.
“One of the things that that looks like is where do the black people here get their hair done?” she said. “You should be bringing in a beautician from Chicago once a week or twice a month to do their hair. It’s a small thing, but it’s also a big thing.”
Orienting financial aid packages around comprehensive needs — such as travel expenses and winter clothing — rather than just tuition, can foster an increasingly inclusive atmosphere, Gay said.
“I have yet to go to a school that has truly solved this problem,” she said.
Gay said she wants students of color who feel as though they are not good enough to see themselves as equals.
“You are equal and you have to believe that because no one else is going to believe that for you, except maybe your parents,” she said. “If you’re always told from Day One, in general, that you have to be twice as good to get half the consideration, it’s exhausting. … You have to understand that it’s not you, it’s the world that’s the problem and you are exactly as good as your peers, and you work just as hard, if not harder, than your peers.”