Roxane Gay is one of the most prolific writers of our time. Even an abbreviated list of her publication credits is enough to make most writers sleepy: She edits for The Rumpus and PANK. She has edited a series of essays on Salon about feminists of color and written recently for The Nation about writers of color. She teaches writing at Eastern Illinois University. She has published her essays everywhere from The New York Times Book Review to Necessary Fiction. Ayiti, a collection of her fiction, poetry and nonfiction, was published in 2011. This year, two of her new books will be published: An Untamed State in May and Bad Feminist later this year.
On top of all of this, she also keeps a lively and active Twitter timeline along with a very entertaining blog. One of the most frequent questions she gets from mere humans is: How is all of this output possible? "I wish I had an explanation for it. I live in the middle of nowhere and I'm an insomniac, I guess," Gay says. Also: "I just make the time and I read and write really fast, so that makes a lot possible for me. I'm grateful for it."
An Untamed State, her harrowing and beautiful debut novel, received a starred review for good reason. It centers on Mireille Duval Jameson, who is undone by graphic, unspeakable torture at the hands of a greedy man who is only referred to as The Commander. Her father has the power to pay her ransom, but he waits instead, sending Mireille's husband, Michael, into a seething despair that is matched in intensity only by The Commander's cruelty.
For better or worse we live in an era that favors trigger warnings. Gay has written about them as unhelpful barriers to healing in an essay included in Bad Feminist, "The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion." She writes: "There are things that rip my skin open and reveal what lies beneath, but I don't believe in trigger warnings. I don't believe people can be protected from their histories. I don't believe it is at all possible to anticipate the histories of others." This explains why there isn't one at the outset of An Untamed State, though early reviews have suggested that that might be helpful for survivors of sexual assault like Gay.
The novel emerged from a short story, "Things I Know About Fairy Tales," which was included in Ayiti. First, "the main character wouldn't leave me alone," Gay says. So the summer after her first year of teaching, she kept writing, for up to eight hours each day. Though she is an affecting, witty writer in both nonfiction and fiction, it is the latter that she considers relaxing. When the narrative in An Untamed State became too claustrophobic and dark—as her editor mentioned after reading a first draft—she decided to shift the point of view between chapters to "air them out."
It helps that there is some respite for Mireille Jameson in the Midwest. Gay writes about the cultural differences with subtlety in both An Untamed State and Bad Feminist. Scrabble fans will rejoice after reading about her experience as an official competitor; students of race, fat-shaming, gender bias, reproductive justice and feminism will all find sharp commentary, but there is also a distinct geographical journey with plot points in places most American writers never venture. "I grew up in Nebraska and I've lived in rural America for the last 9 years," Gay says. "When you get the chance to see what rural America looks like, you get to see the ways that people of color react to others and how others react to us. Our country is so diverse; I was exploring that in the novel."
Another area Gay explores, both in An Untamed State and her creative nonfiction, is the overly simplistic notion of happy endings. "I think that there are certain experiences that change you, which is different for every person who experiences trauma, but there is no closure," Gay says. "We like to believe the characters in these kind of narratives find peace...but what if you don't? What if you find something close, but not what you crave? I don't like neat endings. Mireille does find something, just maybe not what you would expect. It's just that raggedness of an ending that I like."
Joshunda Sanders is a writer based in Washington, D.C. She blogs at joshunda.com.