Featured, Race & Politics

Roxane Gay Is Kind Of A Big Deal

The #NBRB book club (I’ll let you consult Google for the acronym’s meaning) uses Twitter to discuss books written by some of the best and brightest. A few months back, the club set its sights on Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. I had the opportunity to interview Roxane for the inaugural “Kind of a Big Deal” feature on VSB, where I pick the brains of women I’d want to have coffee with, and whose work you should know.

So, one of the things I’m unofficially charged with on VSB is to write the “Black Girl Beat” for the site, which up until last year only had two very opinionated Black men sitting at the helm. Basically, I write from an intersection of being Black, female, and a (relatively) young person, but I also write from the very specific position of being myself. While Bad Feminist is obviously a book about feminism, it’s also a book about you. Why did you choose to personalize the topic in your writing?

Personalizing feminism was the only way I could think of to effectively write about the issues that matter most to me. It helped to explain where I am coming from and it also helped, I think, to make some of these issues and my take on them more relatable. I write to feel less alone and part of that rises out of writing from the personal.

The topic of feminism is getting a lot of traction in the blogosphere. There’s a lot of debate about who is feminist, who isn’t feminist, and which behaviors or opinions could be considered feminist or anti-feminist. Why do you think people are debating this so passionately now? Is this conversation about the definition of feminism new, or is this a long-existing back-and-forth that’s just getting more attention now?

It is easier to debate the semantics of feminism and who is or is not a feminist than it is to discuss the difficult and overwhelming issues women face, whether they are feminists or not. This is a long-standing conversation because the status of women is a long-standing issue. We saw a lot of feminist conversation, much of it productive, in 2014 and that inspires me. I hope we can do something useful with this momentum. I hope we can move from conversation to creating sustainable change.

What I thought was great about the book is that it embraces the idea of imperfection. It challenges the idea of women having to be all things to all people, even feminists. It even encourages the notion that feminism itself isn’t all of one thing, that it’s nuanced and layered and can sometimes be a bit messy. Can contradiction be empowering?

Contradiction can be empowering so long as we are accountable for our contradictions. I do my best to acknowledge the inconsistencies in my thinking but I don’t worry about reconciling them. One of the key ways forward for any kind of progress is simply accepting that no matter where we stand on a given issue, we’re human and hopefully trying the best we can.

Switching gears a bit, there was a lot of talk on Twitter among women who self-identify as Black feminists about a comment bell hooks’ made last year (“the pussy is old hat”) while at the New School’s “Whose Booty Is This” panel about pop culture’s emerging interest in booty. Beyonce and Nicki Minaj, specifically, are both oft-lauded and oft-criticized for the overt sexuality in their music and their personas. They’ve also received criticism from hooks.

I was interested in hearing what you think about those two artists, and if you think “male gaze” can ever be empowering for women?

Both Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj are interesting because they acknowledge the male gaze and cater to it on their own terms. Yes, they’re playing the capitalistic game but I admire how they are playing that game. In Beyoncé’s case, she is so openly feminist and is introducing a very big audience to the shocking idea that women are equal to men. I often talk about how celebrity feminists are a gateway but Beyoncé (and others) is stepping over the threshold, particularly with her charitable efforts. We don’t talk about that nearly enough.

Can the male gaze be empowering? That absolutely depends on the men and how he interprets what he sees.

And lastly, I always like to ask writers what they’re currently reading and for the name of a few writers or titles they think other people should know. Can you share a few? 

Right now I am reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Writers people should know about include Randa Jarrar, xTx, Michelle Dean, Celeste Ng, Stacia Brown, Rohin Guha, Tyler Coates, and Jonterri Gadson, to name a few.

Maya Francis

Maya K. Francis is a culture writer and communications strategy consultant. When not holding down the Black Girl Beat for VSB, she is a weekly columnist for Philadelphia Magazine's "The Philly Post" and contributes to other digital publications including xoJane, Esquire, and EBONY.com. Sometimes TV and radio producers are crazy enough to let her talk on-air, and she helped write a book once. She cites her mother and Whitley Gilbert as inspirations.

  • ” I do my best to acknowledge the inconsistencies in my thinking but I don’t worry about reconciling them.”

    That is certainly an interesting position that I, myself couldn’t ever really reconcile with myself. My life goal is to have a singular holistic belief and living system that doesn’t contradict or undermine itself in anyway. Any personal inconsistencies bother me endlessly. That is the only way I know how to temper myself with my thoughts and feelings.

    • ED

      I find it interesting, too, that she doesn’t worry about reconciling inconsistencies.

    • NomadaNare

      Will this holistic belief system strictly adhere to any rigorous logical construction? It seems so if you are discussing inconsistencies.

      • It’s a completely new language considering no one else I no of has been able to articulate near what I’m developing with my thoughts.

        • NomadaNare

          I’ve been looking for something ‘consistent’ beyond the bounds of logic for a while. I don’t even know where to begin. I’m curious to hear where you’ve gotten.

  • God Shammgod

    So jealous you got to interview Roxane Gay. Loved her book so much – it captured so many things that I identify with – as a first generation, modern black feminist. Can’t wait til she puts out more work.

  • Ubuntu Thina Simunye

    I have the overwhelming feeling that there is a large amount of this interview that did not make it to press, for fear of creating a piece that would be too lengthy for the average reader to enjoy.

    If this is the case, what a shame, as a Black man, who has admittedly has consternation ‘reconciling’ feminism in our community, I think I would have been better served by more content. This is not to be perceived as an insult, I just wish there was more here.

    Will be looking up the book and adding it to my list!

    • Maya K. Francis

      Nope, not cuts/edits. I purposely kept it succinct because I wanted to tease the book so that others’ interests would be piqued and they’d get it and read it themselves and formulate their own POV :)

    • Damon Young

      “as a Black man, who has admittedly has consternation ‘reconciling’ feminism in our community.”

      care to expound about your consternation?

      • Ubuntu Thina Simunye

        ELLL NO!

        Won’t get me.

        Also, excuse my mechanical usage error.

  • I haven’t participated in #NBRB in a good minute but I did read “An Untamed State which was good.

    • Muze

      yeah haven’t read Bad Feminist but An Untamed State is the deal.

      • I just finished Untamed State. Kinda wrecked me.

        • uniquebeauty79

          I was looking for a good read, guess your comments just gave me one…*strolls off to Amazon*

        • It was mmm…brutal.

  • GemJ

    #NBRB = Ninjas Be Reading Books

    coordinated by Tunde (@taut_7) and me (@GemoftheOcean). we alternate between reading fiction (last: Kindred by Octavia Butler) and nonficiton (last: Bad Feminist).

    hit us up – ninjasbereading@gmail.com – if you’re interested in joining the group!

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