Roxane Gay in conversation
I do think we are on the precipice of a major cultural shift and anytime you reach these moments it's overwhelming. Lots of things are happening that are uncomfortable and hopefully you come out on the other side better.
Sharp, tough, funny and humane, Roxane Gay’s work spans fiction, non-fiction and commentary. Since she came to global notice with ‘Bad Feminist’, she has published essays, stories and a memoir that take on questions of race, misogyny, trauma and body-shaming. Hear Roxane in conversation with UNSW academic Nicole Watson, a Murri woman who works on Indigenous storytelling.
Ann Mossop: Hello, and welcome to the UNSW Centre for Ideas podcast, a place to hear ideas from the world's leading thinkers and UNSW Sydney’s brightest minds. I'm Ann Mossop, director of the UNSW Centre for Ideas. This podcast was recorded on the lands of Bidjigal and Gadigal people. We pay our respects to their elders past and present, whose sovereignty was never ceded. The conversation you're about to hear is between Roxane Gay and Nicole Watson, and was recorded live at UNSW Sydney. I hope you enjoy the conversation.
Nicole Watson: Good afternoon, and welcome to this special event with Roxane Gay. My name is Nicole Watson. I'm a Munanjali and Birri Gubba woman from Queensland, and I'm the director of the academic unit in Nura Gili. I'd like to introduce you to Roxane Gay. Roxane is the author of the books Ayiti, An Untamed State, the New York Times Best Selling; Bad Feminist, Difficult Women, and the New York Times Best Selling; Hunger. She's also the author of World of Wakanda, the Marvel comic book series. Roxane has several books forthcoming, and is also at work on television and film projects. Welcome Roxane.
Today, we will be having a general conversation about Roxane's writing, Roxane's current projects, and we'll have a discussion about general events. So Roxane…
Roxane Gay: Nicole.
Nicole Watson: Let’s have a chat about your writing.
Roxane Gay: Okay.
Nicole Watson: In Ayiti, you paid homage to your Haitian heritage, they're a collection of very moving short stories. One of the things that really spoke to me from those stories was the need to speak back to offensive and simplistic representations of Haiti. Why is the medium of the short story, a compelling vehicle to disrupt such ideas?
Roxane Gay: Well, I think and studies have shown that fiction tends to bring about empathy for some reason. And I love telling stories. And in writing Ayiti, I was interested in telling stories that would reflect some of the realities of the Haitian diaspora. And also to do so in a way that was entertaining because first and foremost, fiction should entertain. And I think we forget that sometimes. And people make it seem like oh, to learn about other cultures means that it's going to be like taking medicine that doesn't taste good. Like, no, my medicine tastes great. So I really thought, yes, short fiction is really a great way to do this particular thing that I wanted to do with those stories.
Nicole Watson: I enjoyed reading all of your essays in Bad Feminist, but I particularly enjoyed your pieces on race and entertainment. In beyond the struggle narrative, you discussed the violence of films set in the slavery era, such as 12 Years a Slave, and you wrote that you were worn out by slavery and struggle narratives. While history was important, the past could also render one hopeless, and helpless. And it strikes me that since Bad Feminist was published, there have been a number of productions that depict brutalities inflicted on black people, such as the film Antebellum and TV series, such as the Underground Railroad. And more recently, then, which I found particularly violent. Does that concern you? And what are the harms of such productions?
Roxane Gay: Well, I think that people should tell the stories that are called to tell, and I would never try to dictate what another creative person should or should not do. But I am thinking about what I'm going to put into the world. And we need stories about slavery, obviously, because especially in the United States, they're trying to pretend it didn't happen or that it was a benevolent institution, which it was not. And so, in that context, you have to wonder why Hollywood is so hell bent on only showing blackness within the context of suffering, as if we don't have any other aspects to our lives. And that's not true. And so what I'm really looking for is more storytelling that tells the complete story, that demonstrates the fact that we contain multitudes that we know joy, that we know love, that we know suffering but also happiness. And when you only show one kind of story, you tend to allow people to distill the realities of your life into a singular narrative and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes about this and are talked about this in her TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story, which is applicable to almost any culture that tends to be featured in only one way in popular culture. And, you know, Underground Railroad, for example, was beautiful. I thought the TV show was actually much better than it got credit for being. And what I thought was interesting about that show is that it took a slavery narrative, but did something original, this idea that what if the underground railroad was a real train, which I had never considered, even though when I was a kid, I honestly thought there was a train that people got on. I had Haitian parents, like, it's, you know, it's complicated. But, you know, when it's just sort of torture porn, and all you see is degradation, it really, I think, narrows the limits of possibility for black people. And so I just think it's important that we at least have the conversation. Why are we only interested in consuming these really negative and dark stories? Or about slavery about oppression? How can we tell stories that acknowledge slavery that acknowledge oppression, Jim Crow, the ongoing racism, police brutality, it's a long list, while also acknowledging that we do things other than suffer in our daily lives, which we do once in a while.
Nicole Watson: In Bad Feminist, you also criticize the continuing popularity of the magical Negro in Hollywood. And the magical Negro is typically a Black person who selflessly gives the white protagonist, the wisdom to move forward. But when I read that essay, I thought about recent examples of the magical Negro. And it struck me that the recent film Mr. Church was an example of that. And in that film, Eddie Murphy plays a personal chef to the white protagonist and her mother. And for reasons that are never really explained in the film, he spends many years helping them without remuneration. And I just want to ask you, why do you think that the magical Negro trope has maintained its popularity and help in Hollywood?
Roxane Gay: Well, I think that it's a form of white guilt. It's this idea that yes, our ancestors did these terrible things, maybe even us, we're doing terrible things to Black people, but maybe it's not so bad if they're willing to help us, and willing to see us to a better place. And you see it all the time in film and television. And, you know, I think it's a very seductive idea that Black people are so forgiving, that we are willing to bring a little magic to your lives and make everything better. And the answer is no. We're not. But it's, you know, it's just appealing. And also this idea of selflessness, we see this a lot with narratives about women, People of Colour, and Black people, or people who are combinations of all of these things. And, you know, it's just a fantasy. It's a fantasy born of white supremacy, honestly.
Nicole Watson: As I was preparing for today, I watched an appearance that you made on politics and prose in 2018. And in that appearance, you discussed the incredible success of your memoir, Hunger, and the challenges of writing about personal trauma. And you said that one of the greatest challenges that you faced after Hunger was published, was being bombarded by strangers who wanted to share their stories of trauma with you. Did you expect that reaction to hunger?
Roxane Gay: I didn't, but I never expect any reaction to my books, because I always tell myself, oh, girl, no one's gonna read it, don't worry about it. And that's what gives me the ability to put that kind of personal writing into the world, where you have to make yourself vulnerable for, oftentimes, hundreds of 1000s of people, it can be incredibly overwhelming. But when Hunger came out, I was writing that book primarily for other fat women, and, you know, maybe a few fat men as well. And it never occurred to me that people in different bodies would connect. And it did and it continues to do so it's been such a surprise. And it's forced me to examine some of my own biases and to recognise that, you know, just living in a human body is hard, no matter what that body looks like. And I did not expect the reaction that people have, like, people are really intense about it. And that's great as a writer, like, that's the dream that people are, like, passionate about something that you wrote and put into the world. So as overwhelming as it can sometimes be, I also recognise that it’s the gift that it is.
Nicole Watson: And what steps did you take to protect yourself from the demands of so many people who sought that personal connection to you?
Roxane Gay: Well, boundaries are really important. And one of the things I try to make clear when people have intense emotional reactions to my work and want to tell me all about it, is that I can't take all of your stories. You know, when you write, especially about fatness, queerness, sexual assault, people feel like you're opening a door for them, and in many ways I am, but they think you're opening a door to them like to come to you personally, and not necessarily like someone in their lives. And, you know, there are days where I just, at the beginning of an event, I learned this from Ann Patchett, who does this, that I can't take your stories today because I have to carry my own, but thank you for connecting to my work. And I also try to often remind people that I'm not a therapist, because people, especially women, will send me like these 1000s and 1000s of word emails telling me about everything terrible that's ever happened to them, and then saying, can you help me? And the answer is no, actually, I can't. And so what I can do is direct you to places where you can get therapy, or you can call the RAINN hotline or whatever other resource they might need. Aubrey Gordon does this, she has an email responder, she's @yourfatfriend on the internet, and she has an email responder that offers people resources for whatever they might be emailing her for, because people tend to also email her for advice or counsel. And that is also useful, so that people know, I hear you, I care, but this is not actually what I do. And also, I don't want to do any harm. You know, therapy is a real thing, and mental health care takes quite a lot to do it, it takes training. And I don't have that kind of training, and so I do try to point people in the direction where they can get some of the help that they need that will actually be useful to them.
Nicole Watson: I'd like to attend to some of your current projects now. You're a great champion of emerging writers, you have a book club, which promotes new literary voices. You've also established a partnership with Grove Atlantic to publish your own imprint. How important is it to you to support the work of other writers, and in particular writers from marginalised communities?
Roxane Gay: You know, it's very important because, you know, when I look at my success, I was supposed to be successful. I grew up in a two parent home, I was loved, I went to the best schools, I never wanted for anything, I've been broke, but I've always had a safety net. And so there's every reason for me to achieve some measure of success, but not everyone gets those advantages in life. And even when you have those advantages, there are systemic issues that will still keep you, there's still a glass ceiling for women, for people of colour, for queer people, for fat people. And so if I can do a little something to help people break through glass ceilings, or iron ceilings, depending, then I'm going to do that. And there are so many incredible writers, we often talk about pipeline issues, when it comes to inclusion and diversity, and there are no pipeline issues, there are gatekeeping issues. And so yes, taking on some of these projects is another form of gatekeeping, but I would like to believe that it's the kind that is insistent on keeping the gates open and letting people in rather than closing them and keeping people out.
Nicole Watson: You have a column in the New York Times called Work Friend, in which you provide advice to readers who are grappling with all kinds of challenges in the workplace. What motivated you to write this column?
Roxane Gay: You know, they approached me, and offered the gig and I thought, wow, that's not something I would ever think of myself doing, but I love giving advice. I mean, I love it, I live for it, and like, let me tell you how to fix everything. And so when the opportunity came along, I was really excited. And it was supposed to be a half a year gig, twenty six issues, every two weeks, or, sorry, thirteen issues, every two weeks, for half a year. But I've stayed on the position for, like, more than a year now. And I love it. People just want permission to quit their really shitty jobs. Literally 70% of the letters I get are how can I quit my really horrible job and find my passion? And I'm just like, oh, I don't know, what kind of saving situation do you have? Do you have health insurance? So it's fun, in some ways. It's also kind of sad, because so many people are stuck in really horrible jobs with really horrible bosses. And I work for myself, so I am also a horrible boss. But that's, I mean, you know, it's okay. But yeah, it's a great job. And I've learned a lot about… you know, I've been in academia now for almost 20 years, and it's a workplace, and it has a lot of the same bullshit as the corporate world. But it's also different in many ways. And it's a interesting and useful reminder of just how rigid the corporate workplace is and how attached they are to the idea of 40 to 70 hours of work a week. And in academia, you might work those hours, and you do, but you do it kind of on your own time, which is great. Like when you get to decide, alright, you know, I'm gonna work on my research at three in the morning, and it's fine, no one's gonna tell me not to, the only place I ever have to show up is Monday nights from 7:30 to 9:30, which is to say that my class is happening right now. And I'm here, so flexibility, look at that.
Nicole Watson: What was the most striking request for advice that you ever received in your column?
Roxane Gay: God It's actually a letter in this week's column. I can't tell… sometimes people send in letters, and I just can't tell if it's real or not, like if they're fucking with me, or, you know, just looking for attention. And so this woman, I think it's a woman, wrote in and said that someone in her office… one of the partners in her office is having an affair with a bartender he hired, and I'm like, that's so specific. And they're having sex and carrying on in the office right next to hers, and nobody will do anything about it, because it's a 15 person firm. And she's asked to move offices, and her boss told her that we will soundproof the thing and get better noise cancelling headphones. And so she was like, should I keep my job? Or just like, suck it up? And I was like, well, I mean, just get some Bose QC45s on your boss's dime, and like, hope for the best? Because I mean, what do you tell someone who needs their job in that situation, and there's no HR? Like, there's nothing you can really do. But I also told them, like, if it's really that much of a problem, just off that resume and just tell people that it's a culture problem, and you know, get another job, but it was just off the wall, like, and she was like, really getting into the details about the sex in the office. You know, every time people talk about that, I'm like, have you seen a desk? It's not that fun.
Nicole Watson: I did not expect that answer.
Roxane Gay: That’s me, I’m always here to surprise.
Nicole Watson: Can you tell us about some of the writing projects that you're working on at the moment? Please?
Roxane Gay: No.
Nicole Watson: Ok.
Roxane Gay: I can. So right now, my primary writing project, which I'm trying to finish, is a book of writing advice called How to be Heard. And so it's part practical, just you know, all the time when you read writing advice, it's like loosey goosey stuff like, you know, find your zen, and like, centre yourself, and, a little bit Caucasian. And that's… I'm interested in practical advice, like, literally, how do I write a cover letter? Please walk me through this step by step. And so some of it is that, and then some of it’s the loosey goosey and centre yourself and find your feelings, but really about how to use your voice and how to use your voice to be effective, to reach other people, to be heard, to make a difference. And so hopefully that will be out late next year, because there is a paper crisis in publishing, which you may not know about, but books, there's not enough paper, and there's not enough space on printers in China. And so now, normally, you can, like, crash a book and get it done within three or four months if you really have to. But now you need at least a year to get in queue. And so like right now, books are queuing up for 2023 and 2024. And so there's no way to just, like, secretly have a book come out at the end of 2022 anymore. And especially now that China is going back into lockdown or parts of China, Shenzhen, it's gonna only get worse. And so we're gonna wait and see. And then I am working on a YA novel called The Year I Learned Everything, which is based on a short story I wrote of the same title a few years ago. And that one is very fun, and sweet, and it has a happy ending because I wanted to write a couple of things that didn't make me want to jump off a building. And then I'm working on some film and television projects.
Nicole Watson: I want to turn to current events.
Roxane Gay: Ahhhhh.
Nicole Watson: During the height of the pandemic in 2020, you made a pledge on Twitter to donate $100 to 10 people who are in desperate need, no questions asked. In a later appearance on The Daily Show, you're asked about your pledge, and what more should be done to help the victims of the pandemic. You reply that systemic change was required, and also a conversation about things like a universal basic income. Do you think that a universal basic income could become a reality in America?
Roxane Gay: No. I think we're getting… I think we're closer than we've ever been. I do. I think we're finally having serious conversations, and there are many cities across the country that are doing pilot programs. And those programs are bearing out exactly what we always thought, which is, if you give people basic income, A: they continue to go to work. But they're able to do things like take vacations, and have a better quality of life, eat better food, suffer less. And it's so sad that we think that's special, like everybody should have a good quality of life. And it is possible for everyone to have a good quality of life. And do so without taking something away from anyone. A lot of times people are afraid of ideas like universal basic income, because they think they're going to have to pay for it. And we pay for all kinds of bullshit with our taxes, that I don't give a damn about, like an $800 billion defence budget that just that Joe Biden's like yeah, here, take my money. So if we can afford $800 billion for the military. I mean, don't even get me started, then yes, we can afford to give every American $1,000 A month, or whatever number. And so I hope that we get there because people are really suffering. People are going hungry, people are struggling to get to work. And every once in a while in the United States, you'll see this, like, supposedly feel good news story about a guy who, like, walks 12 miles each way to work every day. And people are like, look at his commitment to work. And it's actually a tragedy, look at this man who has no access to even public transportation, who is killing himself to get to work to keep his family alive. And so I don't want to hear these stories anymore. I don't want people to have to live these stories. And if that means I have to pay a little bit more in taxes or a lot more in taxes, that's fine. I'm going to complain about it. But I'm going to do it. And I think everyone who has the means should also, and just like shut up, it's not going to really change our lives in any way. So yes, I'm all for it.
Nicole Watson: Like many of the people in the audience, I also follow you on Twitter. And I just imagine, I remember that that pledge got so much publicity. Did it also spur others to think more practically about what they could do as well?
Roxane Gay: It did. So it started with, I was gonna give 10 People $100. And the amount of people who needed help was shocking. And so I ended up, I can't even remember how much I ended up giving, but it was maybe ten or eleven thousand dollars, it was a lot. And other people started giving as well and sending me money to give to others, which was so generous. And I didn't ask for anything. And yet people still gave, which always reminds me that there are more good people than bad in the world. And unfortunately, they don't get as much attention. And other people also started, sort of, doing their own, like, I can afford to give three people or I can afford to give one person $25. And the reality is that when you're broke, and when you need money, every little bit helps. And so for a while there, especially early on, a lot of people were being incredibly generous in ways that I think were very helpful to people who needed some money. And I got the idea from Che Serrano, who's a writer and he does other things too, and he's just a great guy. And so really, credit goes to him for, like, starting the generosity train that week.
Nicole Watson: As I was preparing for today, I read the transcript of an appearance that you made on an episode of the podcast, Seat at the Table. And the episode was devoted to the burdens carried by Black people in the media. At the beginning of the episode, you're asked about your emotions during 2020. And you replied, 2020 has been a year that has been entirely overwhelming. And honestly I feel really hopeless and helpless. I know that it’s a luxury, but every time I open the news, I see how terrible things are. Not only is it the political climate, it’s the environment, and the country is burning, and there are floods and tornadoes, and it just seems like these are indeed the end times. I thought I would repeat those words again today because when I read that quote, It had so much resonance for what we in Australia are going through now. I think it really reflected the feelings of so many of us.
Roxane Gay: I mean, Morrison.
Nicole Watson: Yeah! So, how did you…
How did you get through that emotional toll of 2020? And do you still feel like we're in the end times?
Roxane Gay: Yeah, we're definitely at the end times. I mean, like, you guys literally flooded. So like, it's time. They're all happening, a plague, and the floods, and there are fires burning all across the western United States and also, all across Australia. Like, God is sending a message, and either we can sort of get on the boat with Noah or we can wait it out. But no, I do think that we're at an inflection point. I think that we are often at inflection points throughout history. It is not the first, and it's not the last. But I do think we're on the precipice of, like, major cultural shifts. And anytime you reach these moments, it's overwhelming. Lots of things happen that are uncomfortable, and hopefully you come out on the other side better. And so 2020 was just one of those years where everything felt pretty terrible. And I think we are also, in the United States, desperately worried that Donald Trump was going to be reelected, which was such a horrifying possibility. I mean, the fact that he was elected in the first place is one of the greatest travesties. And so it was a lot, but I got through it, I think, because as bad as the pandemic was, like, personally, my personal life was really good. And for the first time, in seven years, I stopped travelling. And it was lovely to just be at home with my wife, we got married, we eloped during the pandemic. We got a puppy, his name is Max, he's so cute. Oh my god, I just gotta tell you, every morning he gives us kisses, and he's just a cute little angel. And so you know, having that in our lives, my parents started spending time with us. I mean, a lot of time. And it was fun, you know, cause they stay in their little place, and then they come over for dinner, and you know, we had a lovely time with them. And so, to have, like, a really nurturing home life, really made it possible to look at the state of the world and feel a lot of despair. But also recognize that despair has to be understood in context.
Nicole Watson: I really enjoyed reading that episode again, Politics and Prose. And there was this wonderful exchange between you and the host, and you're asked about twitter, and you said, I like complaining, complaining is relaxing.
Roxane Gay: It is.
Nicole Watson: And there is no better forum for complaining than Twitter.
Roxane Gay: True.
Nicole Watson: What is it about Twitter that makes it an ideal forum for complaining?
Roxane Gay: Well, I mean, Twitter is not what it used to be. But like, in general, especially before anybody followed me, it was just this void that you could just put your bullshit into. And then maybe someone would reflect back some empathy for it, or agree and say, yeah, me too. And, you know, it's become a much more toxic place in recent years, and I think it's really unpleasant. And it's an example of what happens when you don't curate an online space. When you decide anything goes, well guess what? Anything goes. So I still enjoy it very much. But I find that I have to step away quite a lot, because it's just not worth it to get that aggravated. And to get that upset over people who are hell bent on just getting under my skin. And I have plenty of other places where I can complain now, much to their chagrin.
Nicole Watson: In February, you removed the podcast the Roxane Gay Agenda from Spotify, in response to the continued airing of the Joe Rogan Experience, a podcast that promotes misinformation on COVID, and racism. How important do you think it is for writers to take a stand not only against the likes of Joe Rogan, but also the powerful organisations that enable them?
Roxane Gay: I think it's really important for people to take stands, and writers especially if you can, because it does mean something, it does signal, even if it's in a very small way, that we have taste, and there are things that are not acceptable. And a lot of times reactionaries will say that that's censorship, but it's not, Joe Rogan is free to be Joe Rogan. And like, congratulations to him, you know, he's being paid $200 million to make his podcast, he does not give one good god damn if I take my podcast off Spotify, but I care. And I care about who I do business with. So, you know, I, you know, it was a very small stand, but other people took their podcasts off of Spotify as well. And, you know, Spotify pays attention in a little bit of a way. They're not going to really change. I'm actually writing about this right now, about the limits of corporate activism. And the limits are, that there is no such thing. They talk and they talk, and they rarely follow through on the promises that they make. We saw that after George Floyd was murdered. We're seeing it now in Florida with just, Don't Say Gay. And we're seeing it in every other place where really draconian laws are trying to be shoved down people's throats. Just to oppress people who are already oppressed. It's very terrible, for lack of a better word. So if I can make a small stand, I'm going to do so because Joe Rogan, you know, the problem is not only was he talking to a bunch of fucking COVID quacks. He's just super racist. You know, he believes in race science. He believes, like, that Black people's brains are different from white people's brains. And he has 12 million people who listen every week and who then start to think, yeah, maybe there is something to this idea that Black people are good athletes and white people are good thinkers, which is a true thing that happened on his show. So yeah, I'm gonna take those stands every time I can.
Nicole Watson: I think it was yesterday, I turned on the news and followed Twitter as I usually do. And there were a lot of comments about a speech that the filmmaker Jane Campion made at The Critics Choice Awards. She won, I think it was the award for Best Director. And Serena and Venus Williams were in the audience, and she actually singled them out. And then said, words to the effect of, you girls are wonderful, but I actually have to compete with the guys. It was incredibly offensive.
Roxane Gay: Yes.
Nicole Watson: Yeah. I just wanted to know if you would like to comment on that.
Roxane Gay: Of course I would. Yes, last night, somebody was like, don't tweet. What a mess. Like, talk about blocking your own blessings. She literally was like, you know what, Oscar, I don't want you anymore. Even though she may still win. Power of the Dog was such a good movie, and so I was really excited to see her winning all these awards. And for her to do this, it all starts with Sam Elliott, who told some reporters somewhere that she didn't make a Western, because, you know, it was like a chick film or whatever, but it wasn't a chick film, in fact, it was a really beautiful meditative Western. And so then she had a little witty rejoinder to a journalist talking about Sam Elliott is not actually a cowboy, which is true, he's just an actor. And so you could tell that I think she really, his comments really got under her skin, and she was really feeling it. And so I think she missed some of that cachet and power that she had, that she felt he took away. And so she looked around that room and wondered who do I have more power here then. And she picked out the black women in the audience, who aren't movie directors who weren't competing in that category in any way. And then decided I'm going to shit all over their incredible legacy as two of the greatest tennis players of all time. It's just mind boggling. And that shows you how insidious racism is, like, that A; the Williams sisters were taking up so much real estate in her mind that she had that shit ready. Like just ready to like, come out. And you know, the world will go on. And this is not about cancellation. I'll continue to watch her movies. She's a brilliant film director. She is a brilliant film director and clearly harbours some racism, like most people. But it was disappointing. It just was like, wow, why did you block your, like, why did you… you just could have just sat there and ate your food. But no, you had to pick on the Williams sisters, not even pick, they're fine. But just like, why bring them up? Why bring them up? And it was just her way of asserting that, like, sort of white woman dominance that she felt Sam Elliott had taken away from her. And then of course, now she's walking it back. But like, girl, you said what you said.
Nicole Watson: I learned that you are a great fan of the actor Channing Tatum. And the two of you are working on a collaboration together.
Roxane Gay: We are. Yeah we are. Mmmm.
Nicole Watson: But in all of the articles that I read about this collaboration, there were no details. It seemed like a secret collaboration. Are you able to share any of the details of that project with us?
Roxane Gay: Not yet. But it's great. It is so great. He smells like a pine forest. I really don't know what to tell you. But like I meet a lot – not a lot – I meet a fair amount of celebrities and many of them are not good people, but he is really nice and really kind, and very sexy. It's like, wow, thank you for not disappointing me. And someone was like, he looks like a potato. Well, potatoes are delicious. So. But, it is book related. And it's fun and it's sexy, and I don't know when it's gonna come out because his schedule is more ridiculous than mine. But, it's there.
Nicole Watson: Actually felt less than a person because I hadn't actually watched my Magic Mike yet. I will do that this weekend.
Roxane Gay: I mean, you have your homework now. You don't even need to watch the first one. Just watch Magic Mike Two.
Nicole Watson: Okay.
Roxane Gay: Yeah, it's so great. Truly a film classic.
Nicole Watson: Have you seen his new film, with the dog?
Roxane Gay: No. No. It's not on airplanes yet. But the minute it's on an airplane, I'm there. I'm excited for his new movie with Sandra Bullock. It's like a Romancing the Stone remake. And it's not really a remake, but it's the same movie. And so I'm excited for that. I think that one's going to be fun.
Nicole Watson: While we're on the topic of dogs. I'd like to go back to your beautiful puppy. So, Maximus Toretto Blueberry Millman Gay.
Roxane Gay: Yes.
Nicole Watson: Have there been any surprising lessons that puppy parenthood has taught you?
Roxane Gay: Oh, well, yeah, I mean, you have to keep it alive. It's, like, a little harder than you thought. But no, the thing I've learned is that I'm not an animal person. And I had never had a dog before. And my wife is an animal lover, and she is very good at it. And I never thought we would have a dog. And in fact, when we started dating, I was like, we are not ever having a dog. But then I got her a dog for her birthday last, or almost two years ago now. And he just… like, the capacity for love that he brings about, I mean, like, I wear him in my sweatshirt sometimes, and like, he's my little buddy, he follows me everywhere I go. When I'm going to the bathroom, he is right there, just like, what's up? It's like, what do you think is up? I am using the restroom. And he's just so trusting and so sweet. And like, if I'm upset, or if my wife is upset, he, like, will make it all better, and like lick your little tears, like their crack, and it’s just, he's just an angel. We call him a sweet, tiny little angel baby. Because he is and I just never thought I had that level of niceness in me. But I do. And he's a great… everyday is a little learning experience. We should have brought him, but it's a really long plane ride.
Nicole Watson: It is. We might take some questions from the audience now. How have you navigated the space between academia and sharing your lived experience when the university is, quote, an institution that doesn't always get it?
Roxane Gay: Well, you know, I've been really lucky, I don't need the university. I don't have to teach, I choose to teach. And so there's less at stake, when you don't care, like fire me, go ahead. You need me more than I need you. And so that has been really liberating. And even early on, when I was pre-tenure, I was like, I'm fine with working at Barnes and Noble. And that was the truth, I really am fine with working retail, I will go work at Starbucks, like whatever, if I can write it doesn't matter what I do for a day job. And so just giving myself that sense of freedom has been very useful and living my life on my own terms. And also recognizing that the job is never going to love you. And so stop treating it like a person and stop thinking that your job has any right to dictate your personal life and how you live it. Especially when you're not breaking any laws or doing anything sort of disgraceful, like don't worry about what I'm doing over here, I only make you look good. So, that's how I've done it. Just be willing to quit. That's all, which is not easy, I know.
Nicole Watson: What makes you get into the creative zone?
Roxane Gay: I don't know. It's increasingly elusive. It's sometimes just a moment, like, I'll listen to some sort of snippet of a conversation and then I'll have an idea. Or I will look at a piece of art and then have an idea, oftentimes, there's an external trigger, or sometimes I just think oh, I know what I want to say now and I'll just run to my laptop, wherever it may be, to try and get it down. So I just think I'm always ready to receive the creativity, it's just that the creativity is not always ready to show up. You know, I think trying to make space for it also helps, and I've, like, lately been saying don't schedule anything for me on Mondays and Fridays. A: I teach on Mondays now, so I need to think about all that and grade and whatever. But also to have days without appointments, makes it possible where I can maybe just sit and stare at the screen for a while, or read I read or do a crossword puzzle, which will then start the process of my, sort of, hind mind working on some problem and whatever I'm working on at that moment. And also, I try to get into it on weekends. But you know, it's elusive. I don't write a lot, I write every day, but sometimes it's like 30 words.
Nicole Watson: And how important is it for writers to write every day?
Roxane Gay: It's not. I think it's important for writers to write consistently. When I was in high school, Mr. McGuinn, who was my amazing creative writing teacher, told me, write every day. And I really thought he was giving me, like, this really sacred piece of writing advice. And I didn't realise that it's like one of the most common pieces of writing advice ever. So I was like, yes, Mr. McGuinn. I'm gonna do it. And so, you know, since I was 14, I've been doing it, because Mr. McGuinn told me to. So. But what I tell people is just write consistently. So if you're going to write weekly, write weekly, if you're going to write monthly, write monthly, but keep an appointment with yourself, because it's that consistency that's going to get you toward the finish line of whatever you're working on. It's… there's no magic to it other than like, putting in the time, regularly.
Nicole Watson: Do you think the magical Negro trope has parallels in Australian film and literature? E:g the helpful Aboriginal tracker or guide?
Roxane Gay: Ooh, that's a good question. What do you think, Nicole?
Nicole Watson: Yeah, look it’s… I would agree. And there are certainly offensive stereotypes of Aboriginal people that are perpetuated in Australian film and literature as well. For the most part, we've been invisible, though. Yeah. And the representations of Aboriginal characters in literature in particular are often Aboriginal people who I don't even recognise. And that is improved, as more Aboriginal people have gotten into publishing and in film. Yeah, and I guess there have been films on, like, the tracker character, for example…
Roxane Gay: Like Priscilla Queen of the Desert, where the Aboriginal man leads them to get help?
Nicole Watson: Yeah.
Roxane Gay: Come on guys.
Nicole Watson: I did my doctorate on Aboriginal crime fiction, and one of the most enduring characters in Australian crime fiction was an Aboriginal detective called Bony. But this person is so incredibly offensive, and completely unrealistic, and often expressed, things that were quite racist towards other Aboriginal people. And I do see that perpetuated sometimes, but it's often more subtle these days.
Roxane Gay: Which is actually kind of scarier.
Nicole Watson: Absolutely.
Roxane Gay: Because when it's not subtle, you can point it out and say, yeah, look! But when it's more subtle, you can still point it out, but sometimes it's harder for more people to recognise it.
Nicole Watson: Or they'll have an Aboriginal character, but their cultural values will be exactly the same as the white characters, you don't even learn about their Aboriginal heritage or culture or anything.
Roxane Gay: Yeah, I was recently working on a project where this was the major issue, where they had made different characters on a TV show different races, but if you deracinated with them, and just call them like Bill, Ted and Susie, they would read as the same background. And the reality is that, yes, we all have humanity in common, and I think it's important to look at those common grounds that we share, but also we have different cultural values. And that's not a bad thing, I think difference is a place of celebration, and there's a lot to learn from recognizing the differences between us. And so when you see people that are flattened in that way, where they just are Black, or Aboriginal or Asian or Latin, LatinX, you just think do you really mean that? Do you really understand what that means? Or are you just doing that, because you think that's diversity?
Nicole Watson: You've got a question, what would be your dream collaboration? Beyond your collaboration with Channing Tatum?
Roxane Gay: Beyonce. Yeah, my dream collaboration would probably be with Beyonce. and I think that's very self explanatory.
Nicole Watson: I will not ask why.
Roxane Gay: Yeah, I mean she's just incredible. I, I really am intrigued by her and the way that she has decided to mediate her public image through visuals only. And she never does an interview that she doesn't control, which I understand where that comes from. But that also means that she's never challenged. And she's never asked real questions. And so I would love to, you know, A; interview her and ask her real questions, because I think she's eminently capable of answering them. And also, I think she'd be interesting to work with.
Nicole Watson: Could you tell us about stories and films that you enjoy? That succeed in conveying complexity, and that avoid the trap of being a single narrative.
Roxane Gay: Yes, let me think. Well, I've been talking about this quite a lot lately, but Yellow Jackets, which is this show on Showtime in the US, and I'm pretty sure it's everywhere now. It's a show about young women, but it's really transgressive, and it's really interesting, and there's some cannibalism. And I really have enjoyed that.
Nicole Watson: While you've been in Australia, have you had an opportunity to watch any Australian programs?
Roxane Gay: Yeah, but not the one you would think. We watched the great Australian Baking Show. And MasterChef Australia. The hotel's options were quite limited. So we watched Lifestyle, whatever, Lifestyle Food, and so, we watched those, which are not Australian shows, but that's as close as we got. I haven't watched any Australian television this time around. Last time I was here, I watched a lot of um, rugby.
Nicole Watson: Okay. Rugby league or rugby union?
Roxane Gay: I didn't know there was a difference. I was mostly like, I find rugby very fascinating. It's very homoerotic. And they're like, I'm straight. I’m like, maybe that word means something different down under, cause I don't think you are! I just find it really amusing. Also, in New Zealand, I did the same thing. Cause like, wow. There’s a lot of grabbing at bits.
Nicole Watson: Could you tell us about what you think at the moment about the internet, both the positives that it brings to the community, but also the out of control online misogyny.
Roxane Gay: The internet was a great idea. And then people came on to it. And I think we're seeing that now, that this idea of the internet as an unregulated space was very appealing, because it meant that anyone could participate, and you could use it to do almost anything. And we do see the good that the internet brings, all the time. But when you have an unregulated space, that means you're also going to have things like the dark web, and things like racism, and misogyny that are really unchecked, and constant harassment, and stalking and all sorts of really terrible stuff. And so, I don't know, like, how you reconcile these two things, where you're like, oh, look at it as a liberatory platform, but just like, don't look in that corner over there. Because that corner over there continues to expand, and it's not, like, the edges of the internet anymore, it's like front and centre. And I struggle with that, I find the internet… I love it, I love being connected in all kinds of different ways. But I hate the level of just bigotry that I have to deal with every single day. It's so profoundly unpleasant and toxic. And I always wonder, is this the day when someone is going to take their crazy from the internet and bring it into my real life? Well, my physical life, because I think the internet is real. So I don't know, I find it increasingly difficult to reconcile those things. But I also know that there are connections that the internet provides that are invaluable, and so it's one of those you have to take the good with the bad but at some point the bad is going to be so bad that it's not worth it anymore.
Nicole Watson: We've run out of time, but can everyone just join me in thanking Roxane.
Roxane Gay: Thank you.
Nicole Watson: It’s been such a privilege for us to speak with you today. Thank you so much.
Roxane Gay: It’s been a privilege to be here, and to speak with you.
Ann Mossop: This event was presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas. Thanks for listening. For more information visit centreforideas.com, and don't forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Roxane Gay is a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. She is the author of the books Ayiti, An Untamed State, The New York Times bestselling Bad Feminist, the nationally bestselling Difficult Women and The New York Times bestselling Hunger. She is also the author of World of Wakanda, the Marvel comic book series. She has several books forthcoming and is also at work on television and film projects. She also has a newsletter, The Audacity.
Photo credit: Jay Grabiec
Nicole Watson is a Murri academic from south-east Queensland, whose family hail from the Munanjali and Birri Gubba peoples. She is the Director of Nura Gili Academic Programs at UNSW and has an LLB, an LLM and a DCA. Nicole has published a large body of work on legal issues that are pertinent to Indigenous peoples. Her most recent work is looking at how the stories of Indigenous peoples can be incorporated into legal decision making.