Let Roxane Gay Change Your Life In 5 Minutes

Photo: Courtesy of Roxane Gay.
Last week, WNYC hosted its first ever women's podcast festival, "Werk It: How To Be A Grown-Ass Podcaster." The two-day event brought together some of the most innovative female voices in media, including Anna Sale of Death, Sex & Money, Jessica Williams of The Daily Show, Katja Blichfield of High Maintanence, and New York Magazine's Heather Havrilesky — plus, a bunch of other ladies you're already obsessed with. The keynote speaker was none other than Roxane Gay, who — to absolutely no one's surprise — destroyed the crowd with an intimate, rousing, right-on-the-money speech about the power we wield simply by speaking up and refusing to quiet down.

In an era that still hears silliness in female voices, it takes events like this and women like her to remind us of the necessary work to be done. I had the chance to speak with Gay just moments after she took the stage — still jittery with adrenaline after watching her speech (see the video below and you'll feel it, too). That's the bad-ass wonder of Roxane Gay: She makes you feel nervous, joyful, and wholly understood, all at the same time.

That was a wonderful speech!
"Thank you."

So, obviously, this entire event is about women in podcasting. Is there anything like that on your horizon?
"I hope. I haven’t even started. I just want one. I don’t wanna do any of the leg work. I just want to talk about things. I don't have any of the technology or the know-how. I just wanna do a podcast. I'll figure it out eventually."

I've recently written about the issue of female voices and unconscious bias. People talk about vocal fry or the lack of authority in female voices, and it seems like such a transparent form of sexism.
"Definitely. I think that we have an inherent bias toward men and their voices, and it's something that we always have to work to overcome. It's frustrating because we have to work two or three or four times as hard as men just for basic consideration and we deserve better than that. But, I don't think that as women creators and as writers and speakers and whoever else we are, we can't live our lives from that place of uncertainty and bias. It's important to know that bias exists, but it can't shape how we move through the world. Otherwise, we're not going to get anything done."

It's so hard to shut it out, though. I spoke with Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel, who host a science podcast called Invisibilia. It's two female hosts and they constantly get comments like, "They sound like they're talking about going shopping. They sound like valley girls."
"And, so what if they do? I like shopping. There's nothing wrong with that. I think there's this unnecessary tendency to dismiss those things like, "Oh no, I sound too girly." So what?! I like being girly. There's nothing wrong with that. I think we have to completely rework the conversation and how we think about it. If those women sound like valley girls, so what? Are they smart? Are they saying interesting things? Who cares what they sound like? What are they actually saying? I think we have to keep bringing the conversation back to content."

The issue is that that we don't associate that content with "girly."
"And, also just changing how we understand "girly." So what if it's girly? And? That's not a bad thing. We have to stop treating it as a pejorative."

I want to ask you about criticism. You challenge people on social media quite a bit.
"I do?"

Yeah! I don't know. Uh, I, I, I feel like I see that in a way that I…
"I'm just fucking with you."

[Insert nervous laughter ]
Okay, great. That's good! So, do you view that criticism more as fuel or as a challenge for you to overcome?
"Criticism? Definitely. On Twitter, it seems like people will attack me for anything and everything. It just doesn't matter. Like, "I woke up today." "Well, how dare you wake up when there are so many people who can't sleep!" or whatever. It becomes very tiring. There's literally nothing that someone won’t crawl up my ass about.

People say, "don't feed the trolls" and "just let it go." But, you know what? You can't. Sometimes you have to push back, and so I've started pushing back. If you wanna talk shit that's fine, but I'm going to talk shit right back. I'm going to challenge you when you come to my doorstep with nonsense. That stuff should not go unquestioned. I think there's this strange culture of fear that's being cultivated online: Fear of misstep, fear of making mistakes, and fear of this invisible mob that will take you down. Let it take me down. I don't care. I have a day job."

When do you decide to engage and when do you decide to let it go?
"I engage until my girlfriend tells me to stop."

Fair enough.
[Laughs] "It's the truth."

Yeah, it's very easy to get hooked in.
"It's really hard because, you know, criticism is hard. It's important and it's necessary, and I try to grow from good criticism and constructive criticism. But, like, the other day I wrote this thing for NPR about Kevin Kwan's book, Crazy Rich Asians. I talk about how I enjoyed it because it was all about people of color. And, turns out, in Singapore, the Chinese are like the evil colonizers, which I didn't know. So, there were some very angry people from Singapore who were like, "How dare you enjoy this book when there's so much going on and this book is really a whitewashing of Singapore?" It was frustrating because that's like expecting Jackie Collins to be an accurate representation of America. It's a fluffy novel.

I mean, I can own that I don't know everything about the world. And, I now know more and I'm going to continue to learn more, but I just couldn't stay silent on that. I was like, "No, I enjoyed the book. I'm sorry that life is difficult — and it's difficult everywhere, and it's something we need to talk about everywhere." But, this wasn't even a review. It was on a list of seven things I like and I called the book a glitter bomb. Context is everything. I wasn't seriously engaging with the text. So, it's frustrating to be called out like that. But, I guess they have a valid point."

They have a valid point, and I think when people are in those terrible situations they'll take any opportunity to call it out, even if they're grasping at straws.
"Absolutely. There was a valid point there, but it just became — it wasn't a whole lot of evil. It was just three people and then I blocked one of the women because I was like, "Okay, nothing good is going to come from this conversation." And, she said that I was silencing her. That's literally the opposite of silence! It's not listening to you. It's not silencing because you're still running your mouth.

People have found these really great ways of manipulating conversations to make it look like you're a very bad person. Like, by using words like "silencing" and "shaming." People don't even understand what these words actually mean."

It's almost like the way some people use the word "feminist."
"Right."

You can use it as a weapon if you're saying feminism is this or feminism is that. You can turn it into a negative thing.
"Exactly. You think women are equal to men? How dare you?"

I have a guy friend who throws the word "misogyny" at everything. Gone Girl is misogynist. Jane Austen is misogynist — and therefore bad. And, it leaves no room. He's well-intentioned and thinks he's being an uber-feminist, but it's such a narrow view of women and culture. Unless the woman is a feminist paradigm, there's no room for them. They're a problem.
"You can see what you want to see in everything. The reality is, he's not wrong but he's not right, either. I think that's why we have to have more nuance in these conversations. Yes, misogyny exists in these texts because we are all inculturated in a world imbued with misogyny. We don't know any other way of seeing the world and so we have to actively work against that. But, fuck you — Jane Austen's awesome.

We can still appreciate what these misogynistic texts have to say — unless they're grossly misogynistic — and neither Gone Girl nor anything by Jane Austen is grossly misogynistic. Actually, I think Gone Girl's kind of anti-misogynist."

I know! But, at the same time, I can see how someone who wants to see it through that lens could easily do so.
"And, that's why we have so many of these debates. Because, with the right framing, you can make anything appear the way you want it to appear."
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Photo: Courtesy of Roxane Gay.

You've just gone through a period of constant exposure that comes with having a successful book like Bad Feminist. Going back to the criticism issue a bit, I wanted to ask you about self-doubt. I just turned in my own non-fiction book and one thing I'm grappling with is the fear of angering people by telling the truth. Sometimes it even gets to the point where I doubt myself, thinking, "Am I making too much of this? Am I being too selfish?" Even when it's about obvious trauma. Do you ever bump up against that doubt?

"Oh yeah, every day. Whenever I put my writing out into the world, I have that fear. But, then I just ignore it. I tell myself no one's going to read it anyway, so it doesn't matter. I mean, I delude myself. It's an active, enthusiastic delusion, which helps. Fear is natural. I allow myself to feel that fear and then I try to find ways to work through it or around it, because silence is the alternative and I don't think that silence is an acceptable option."

There you go. I'm going to hang onto that one if that's okay.
"Mmhmm."
In your speech, you said that part of the reason you keep speaking up is because you want to amplify other voices as well. Whose voice would you like to amplify?
"Mine."
Well, yes.
[Laughs] "Just kidding."
Your name will be in the headline, I promise.
"No, really that was a joke. There's a young woman who actually I was just making fun of in the audience, Ashley Ford. I would love to see her voice amplified. I think she's amazing. And, I think she's well on her way. She doesn't need amplification. She does it her own self.

You know, everyone I can think of is on their way and has their own platform, so I'm actually interested in finding who's next. Like Mallory Ellis, but she's got a platform and she's only going to become bigger and bigger, because she's so confident and so smart."

What do you listen to right now?

"I don't do a lot of podcast listening, just because I don't have time. I don't do a lot of anything other than work. The one podcast I listen to regularly is Brad Listi's Otherppl podcast. He interviews writers and he does it in this really weird, interesting organic way. It's never the boring, "What is your process…" questions."
Last question. I interviewed Lea Thau recently about the female voice "issue" and the initial dearth of female podcasters. She thought it had to do with the fact that podcasts are so personality driven and there's a conditioning in women where it feels sort of icky to stand up and say, "Hey, look at me." Do you agree?
"I agree with that. I think it's a lot of different things. I think it's confidence and feeling that our voices merit attention. I also think it's literally access to resources. Podcasting is a rich peoples' sport. So, in addition to the gender barrier we need to talk about the class barrier to podcasting. To do it well you need to have good equipment and that equipment is expensive. To have it scale up you need to have connections to the right people or get noticed by the right people, and it's often driven by who you know. Media circles are very narrow. It's access, mostly. I think that's a huge problem."
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As Lea also pointed out, it takes guts to quit your job and say, "I'm going to do a podcast instead."
"Yeah, I would not do that. I'm sorry. Podcasting is great but that would be crazy. I mean, really? I would applaud anyone who has the chutzpah to do that, but I like health insurance.

I'm also old. Like, I'm done with the suffering. I pay my bills. I love it. My favorite time of the month is the first day when I'm writing out my little bills. You know, I'm not rich but I can pay my bills. I can put a roof over my head. And, I'm never going to go back to the ramen and, "how am I going to pay this rent?" No. The starving artist days are over."

The ramen days.
"Yes, the ramen days. There's no appeal to it for me. But, I applaud people who are like, "Yeah, I'm still wiling to live with five people." How many roommates do you have?"

Just the one.
"Okay, that's good. You're on your way."

Video: Courtesy WNYC.
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