Dionne Christian is the NZ Herald’s arts and books editor

Roxane Gay: 'I'm a bad feminist'

Roxane Gay. Photo / Jennifer Silverberg
Roxane Gay. Photo / Jennifer Silverberg

By her own admission, Roxane Gay is a contradictory soul.

The writer, professor, editor and commentator is one of a new generation of feminists - part of the fourth wave, if you like - who put race, class, sexual identity and media representation at the heart of their feminism and are quick to take to social media to share their thoughts.

Gay's books, notably 2014's Bad Feminist: Essays, a novel, An Untamed State, and short story collections Ayiti and Difficult Women have also gained her a truckload of followers. But rather than offering supremely confident opinions on what feminism should be and how she walks her talk, Gay admits to conflicted feelings about the subject and what it means to be a feminist today.

In Bad Feminist, she declared she felt as if she was failing as a woman and as a feminist: "To freely accept the feminist label would not be fair to good feminists. If I am indeed a feminist, I am a rather bad one. I am a mess of contradictions..."

She went on to describe these: the desire to be independent but be taken care of and have someone to come home to; she wants to have babies and is willing to make compromises - "not sacrifices" - to have one and that, despite holding lofty positions at work, she sometimes feels an overwhelming need to cry "... so I close my office door and lose it"; pink is her favourite colour.

Gay even admitted she liked driving to work listening to "thuggish rap at a very loud volume even though the lyrics are degrading to women and often offend me to my core"; earlier, she'd defended Robin Thicke's hit Blurred Lines. Safe to dance to again!

"I fall short as a feminist," she wrote. "I feel like I am not as committed as I need to be, that I am not living up to feminist ideals because of who I am and how I choose to be."

Hallelujah! A woman who writes humanly and engagingly about the trials and tribulations of feminism and even when she's taking down - politely - other feminist writers, she does so with nuance.

Set to visit Auckland for our annual writers' festival, Gay encourages us to recognise feminism is flawed and so are we. Embrace this, she argues, and recognise in the digital era of democratised "isms" everything, including feminism itself, is deeper, richer and more complex for it.

"It's more important to focus on the actual work of feminism in our everyday lives. I also say that the best kind of feminism is where people are thinking about the intersections of identity and recognising that women are far more than just women - we have to consider race/ethnicity, gender identity, ability, sexuality, class, and so much more.

"Feminism, again at its best, is never just concerned with womanhood. It's equally about recognising the need to look at all aspects of social and economic justice."

As for why feminism is still important, she says: "My feminism is as naturally a part of who I am as my gender identity and race. To know my inherent worth as a woman helps me have confidence in my voice and sharing my writing."

And social media has been a boon for people everywhere who want to share writings and opinions. For Gay, it allows her to feel connected to other writers and people who share similar interests even though where she lives in West Lafayette, Indiana, is a small town. It allows her to talk about her work and connect with readers.

This year, she became the first major author to walk away from a deal with TED Books, an imprint of publishing company Simon & Schuster, because of the latter's decision to publish Dangerous, by alt-right figurehead Milo Yiannopoulos. His book deal was subsequently cancelled after a recording appeared to show Yiannopoulos endorsing child abuse.

Her response? "They did not do the 'right thing' ... they were fine with his racist and xenophobic and sexist ideologies."

In a statement to Buzzfeed News, Gay said she couldn't bring herself to turn in her book How to be Heard: "I was supposed to turn the book in this month and I kept thinking about how egregious it is to give someone like Milo a platform for his blunt, inelegant hate and provocation."

Reflecting on her stance, she says it wasn't a difficult decision though she was nervous about possible repercussions for taking that stance.

"I don't know that being able to pull my book was a mark of success. I have a day job [as an associate professor at Purdue University] and the security of that made it financially possible for me to pull the book."

So what's her one fervent hope for how she'd like the world to be in five years' time? "I'm hoping there is a Democrat as President in the United States and that this global rise of so-called populism, which is thinly-veiled xenophobia, is no more."

Roxane Gay will appear at the Auckland Writers Festival, May 19-21. writersfestival.co.nz. Her next book, Hunger - A Memoir of (my) Body, will be published by Hachette in August.

- Canvas

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