Roxane Gay’s writing makes me deeply, deeply uncomfortable – and for that I thank her.
In the past month, I’ve read both of Ms. Gay’s works, first her novel An Untamed State about a Haitian-American woman who is kidnapped and must endure incredible suffering before being able to return to her happily ever after life, and then most recently her collection of nonfiction essays, Bad Feminist, which discusses pop culture and her life experiences in tandem with thoughts about politics, racism, feminism, and gender. They were both deeply disturbing, though for different, yet complementary, reasons.
An Untamed State is simply a hard book to read. Ms. Gay does not shy away from graphically describing the violence her main character, Mireille Duval Jameson, undergoes at the hands of her kidnappers or flinch from showing how culpable her family was in her torture and degradation. She heartbreakingly portrays the ways even our most loving family members can let us down and how endemic and pervasive rape culture can be – even to a husband demanding that his brutalized wife think of his suffering and pull herself together. An Untamed State could be nauseating, and I often had to put the book down and walk away – only to pick it up a few minutes later. As a reader, you are desperate to know how Mireille gets away and how she can possibly move on after such a terrible ordeal. You hope against hope that there will be a happy ending, with each word read a plea to the author that there will be one.
Bad Feminist is not so difficult to read. The essays are short – less than ten pages each – and they deal with such friendly, even trivial subjects as reality TV, Tosh 2.0, and Scrabble. Ms. Gay is candid and even congenial, speaking directly to the reader and gaining our trust, respect, and admiration.
And then she drops the hammer and discusses rape culture, the ways broken women learn to endure, privilege (both racial and economic), and the many ways media has fetishized and dehumanized black people – even in such beloved and seemingly innocuous books as Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. That’s when you remember that much like the TV women she loves to watch, Ms. Gay is not here to make friends. She is damn tired of the bullshit she sees around her, and she wants all of us to stop giving ourselves free passes to be awful, lazy, and casually cruel – now.
I feel strongly that Ms. Gay would not care what I, a young, white, liberal woman, think of her work – or, at least, she would not want to care and would make an effort not to care. She is a professional with a busy life writing her next book, judging numerous writing contests, and editing a new website, The Butter – in addition to any academic and personal responsibilities she may still be shouldering. Besides, I have the strong feeling that much of her work is not for me – or any other white person for that matter. So it would be both presumptuous and even insulting for me to discuss her work in relation to myself, and I really, really shouldn’t do it. However, Ms. Gay taught me two things with her work – strong, important writing will resonate with people on a personal level, and writing can act as a catharsis for exorcising strong emotions and past traumas. I am fortunate and privileged not to have had great trauma in my life, but I do have strong emotions so there ya go.
Ms. Gay’s essays on race – specifically her essays “The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods and Other Quaint Remembrances from 1960s Mississippi: Thoughts on The Help,” “Beyond the Struggle Narrative,” and “The Morality of Tyler Perry” – were devastating to my smug sense of self-righteousness. I consider myself a good person and try to do good. I’ve worked in the nonprofit, human services industry for more than ten years, both as a volunteer and as a staff member. I volunteer at literacy nonprofits and donate to charity a few times a year. I’ve followed the Michael Brown case obsessively and took part in a local demonstration after the Ferguson grand jury declined to indict ex-Officer Darren Wilson. I’m part of the Operation Help or Hush email list, and disseminate information about Ferguson, Tamir Rice, and the New York protests on a daily basis. I understand that I have both white privilege and economic privilege and that admitting to both does not discount the abuse and hardships I have suffered. As a writer, I work hard to create diversity, even making myself anxious and sick at the thought of offending another person.
And yet I never realized that The Help was racist or that the black men and women in that book should have aspired to more than a steady job as the help and a white person taking pity on them. Wiping a nice person’s ass for the rest of your life is not, in fact, a happy ending – at least, not for an actual human being.
That essay (“The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods…”) was especially illuminating. Why the hell did Minny only get the courage to leave her husband when Celia befriended her? Why is Aibeleen’s whole life about the joy she gets from raising white children, and why was her relationship with little Mae Mobely given more time than the death of her son Treelore? Why could things only change for black maids in Jackson once a white woman gave them voice? Why did these black women have no strong community with other black women? Why did none of these black women have lives outside their work – where were their families, their friends, their hobbies, their personal aspirations, the little things they stole time from sleeping to do? Why, in a word, were they never fleshed out with the same attention given to Skeeter, Celia, and even Mae?
How many times do we (white people) do this in fiction? How many times do we say, “Well, that’s just how things were back then”? We just can’t conceive that, even if black people usually did specific jobs, they could have rich inner lives or that there would be a few people in the community that did something different or that they would have black community leaders talking with them every day and fighting for their betterment. We seem to think that the civil rights movement only happened when a few compassionate white people looked around and went, “Hey, that’s not right, I have to change something!” We seem to think that black people’s entire lives revolve around white people – even to the detriment of their personal relationships with their families, friends, and other black people.
The fact that we do this in fiction is unconscionable. Fiction is a realm of fantasy where anything can happen – male impregnations, dragons, magic, interspace travel – but somehow we can’t actually think of black people as three-dimensional human beings who deserve better than being the help or magical or martyrs. We hide behind excuses of, “Well, that’s not historically accurate” or, “Well, that’s not my personal experience,” or, “Well, couldn’t that just be implied?” We don’t try at all, not even a token effort, and then we wonder why race relations in America are so poor and why black people are vocally protesting in the streets.
Ms. Gay’s works will make you uncomfortable, but that’s exactly why they’re so good and so necessary. An Untamed State is unafraid of its readers’ negative reactions and indeed courts them – how else could the reader even begin to understand Mireille’s situation, Haiti, and the lives of immigrants and their children? It seeks to create a happy ending, but it knows that happy endings do not have to be bland or smooth; happiness is not about everything being perfect. Bad Feminist tells the story of a black woman standing up and demanding to be heard. It is about women and black people letting the world know that they see what is happening around them and they are not pleased. Its happy ending is in the act of writing and publication and in the knowledge that there is another black female voice out there in the world. It is about a black woman with the power to make people sit down and listen – at least for a little while.
I am better for having read Ms. Gay’s works, and I am grateful that I found them. I hope that I can begin to live up to her standards.
* My apologies to Ms. Gay is I have misrepresented her or her work in any way.