In a virtual webinar hosted by the Oxford Creative Writing Center on Feb. 22, author of The New York Times best-selling essay collection “Bad Feminist” Roxane Gay discussed her most recently published essay “Writing into the Wound” and her book “Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body.”
Moderated by Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Oxford College Tameka Cage Conley, the event centered around the deeply personal nature of Gay’s work.
“Writing into the Wound” explained Gay’s decision to finally pen her memoir, after years of secretly weaving the details her own experience into fictionalized narratives. During the talk, Gay described the therapeutic release writing provided her as she dealt with the trauma of being a sexual assault survivor.
“I just always told myself, ‘It’s okay if I make it someone else’s story, no one will have to know about mine,’” Gay said.
Although Gay felt immense “relief” upon publication, she explained she grew frustrated at times with how critics would fixate on the “fatness” caused by her trauma rather than the trauma itself.
“You can’t control how people are going to engage with your book,” Gay said. “You can’t control how they’re going to read it and what they’re going to take away from it and what they’re going to think about it.”
Gay said that while she is pleased with her book’s reception thus far, she is hesitant to call the writing process a healing one. Instead, she credited her brokenness as being essential to her story and described the “catharsis and patience” that came with being so publicly vulnerable.
“A lot of it is coming to terms with whatever it is that you’re dealing with before you write it,” Gay said. “There are certain experiences I think you cannot fully reconcile, and I’ve made my peace with that. I think because I’ve made my peace with that it was possible for me to write my story in the way that I did.”
Unpacking the painful memories and emotions led Gay to return to therapy after a decade-long break, which she said was a necessary next step in her journey. After expressing gratitude for the experience, she said that therapy is often inaccessible to people of color who would benefit the most from it.
“We are marginalized in every possible way,” Gay said. “It is so overwhelming, and I think a lot of us would be in a much better place if we had help with at least dealing with that and living with that very bitter truth.”
Gay spoke about how she balances the angers and triumphs of being a Black woman in her work. She said that while acknowledging suffering is important, it is equally as productive to explore other aspects of the Black experience.
“As a writer, one of the most important things is remembering that we contain multitudes and that our experiences cannot be defined by any one thing,” Gay said. “I also always try to remember that every Black person has a different experience of being Black and expressing their Blackness and that there’s room for all of us.”
Conley moderated a Q&A session at the event’s conclusion that focused on Gay’s decision to publish her pesonal suffering. In response to an audience member’s praise of her “courage,” Gay said it was an inexplicable desire, not bravery, that drove her to be painfully open and honest in her memoir.
“It seems like I have a lot of courage but the thing is I’m terrified because I know what can happen when I make myself vulnerable and open that to an audience,” Gay said. “But I think silence is the alternative, and I find that even scarier.”
Throughout her work, Gay deliberately refers to herself as a “victim” when speaking about her sexual assault instead of a “survivor.” Gay explained her word choice as both a refusal to be defined by her victimhood and a removal of the glamour of survivorship.
“I claim ‘victim’ more because to say that I was a victim of a terrible crime doesn’t mean that that’s all that I am,” Gay said. “Suffering is complicated. It lingers, and ‘survivor’ makes it seem like everything is okay that there’s nobility to it.”
Gay views the abrasive, abrupt nature of terms like “victim” as necessary components of social justice reform. She said that uncomfortable conversations often spur change by garnering reactions and rousing people from complacency.
“I always just believe in discomfort as a productive place,” Gay said. “‘Victim’ instills more discomfort than comfort, and I don’t think we should be comfortable when it comes to talking about trauma and suffering.”