This interview was conducted as part of The Advocate's interview series, LGBTQ&A, a weekly podcast that documents modern queer and trans history.
"How do you name this unnamable thing, this overwhelming and all-encompassing thing?" Roxane Gay asks. "How do you do it without sounding like a romance novel?"
The author's talking about how hard it is to write about love—all the feelings and clichés that accompany it, not to mention the bigger issue of privacy. There's a divulging of details that's required, details that don't exclusively belong to you. And so when it comes to writing about specific romantic relationships, "the best parts of my life", she doesn't do it. Gay draws a hard line.
Roxane Gay's known for her honesty, her willingness to tackle complicated subjects; she's written extensively about her childhood sexual assault. One could assume, as I did, that she shares, well, everything, and her declaration runs counter to what we've been trained to expect amongst the curated happiness of our online lives.
It's a reminder to protect what's important, simple yet necessary.
I sat down with Roxane Gay, the bestselling author of Bad Feminist and Hunger, for this week's episode of The Advocate's podcast, LGBTQ&A, to talk about the other challenges that come with writing about love, how she's just entering into her sexual prime at 44, and why the stories of trauma her readers share keep her up at night.
Jeffrey Masters: I love that you write and talk so much about sex. We're still in a place in society where having a fat person do that is radical.
Roxane Gay: Very much so, because people think that when you're fat, you’re sexless and oftentimes genderless, and that you don't have a sex life of any kind, that people don't see you as attractive.
All these men on Twitter who are insulting me all day, they genuinely seem to think that I'm just sitting in my house by myself. It's really adorable. They also think that men aren't interested. I'm just like, "Look, I could pull a dick today. Let's just get it together. I choose not to. You're welcome."
JM: When it comes to fat representation, the media seems to have taken away all sexual desire from fat people.
RG: They have, because so many people see fatness as unattractive, as unhealthy, as unhappy. It's very hard for people to consider fatness in anything beyond what the diet industry and the fitness industry tell us, and also the medical industry, to some extent. That can be really frustrating and really painful because what do we do about our sexuality when the world does not want to consider us sexual?
I don't know if you've seen Shrill, but it's a really good show. It's problematic, but very good. In it, we see fat women who are sexual. She has the same trash boyfriend that anyone else would have. It's not because she's fat that he's trash, he's just trash because he's trash.
It's also great that she's just allowed to be a young woman in her sexual prime, or nearing her sexual prime.
JM: When do you consider as your sexual prime?
RG: Oh, I'm living it right now.
JM: Oh, really?
RG: Yes. I find 40s work really well because by the time you're 40, 41, 42, you know what you like and you're more comfortable, for most people. There are always exceptions.
But you know what you like and you're more comfortable asking for it. You're less self-conscious. You're more willing to experiment and just try things that might not work out, but still. Hey, why not? Let's give this a go.
JM: It took you reaching your 40s to be able to say that.
RG: Oh, for sure, for sure. Because during my 20s, I just had sex with whomever. It was never about my pleasure. It didn't even cross my mind that my pleasure was something that mattered.
But once I turned 40, I just stopped caring. I just also was more comfortable with admitting what my desires were. For me, once I've done that, it has been very freeing. It has made having a sexual life much more interesting and much more satisfying.
JM: One of my favorite things you've written is about love.
RG: Which one? The New York Times piece?
JM: Yes. Called "Where the Hell Is the Love of My Life?" You wrote, "As for soul mates, I did not believe such a thing existed until I did." How do you define a soul mate?
RG: I think a soul mate is just that person with whom you feel entirely complete. When you're with them, the world falls away. Your problems, they don't disappear, but you feel like you can handle them.
They're just that person, the one person in the world that you feel this incredibly intense connection with, and that connection can never be broken whether you're together or not.
JM: Is it difficult to write about love?
RG: I do find it difficult to write about love because love is so complicated. It's also just incredibly simple. It's also very private. It's challenging to write about love and maintain some semblance of privacy, which is why I actually don't write about my relationships. It's just too much to put stuff out in the world.
I make deliberate choices, but I don't want to expose the best parts of my life and the most private parts of my life to people who are really insensitive and not at all equipped to respect boundaries and things like that.
Also, you just want to save something back for yourself. I struggle for that reason, but also because how do you name this unnamable thing, this overwhelming and all-encompassing thing? How do you do it without sounding like a romance novel?
JM: We end up repeating the same clichés.
RG: Oh, absolutely. We just go with the clichés because that's the best available tool that we have for articulating this experience of being so overwhelmed by your feelings for someone else.
JM: When you say that it's one of the best parts of your life and you don't want to write about that, I think that makes you pretty unique as a writer.
RG: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I think a lot of times women, especially, and queer writers, we're expected to cannibalize ourselves and give everything of our existence to the reader. When I decided that I was going to write about sexual violence, sex, politics, the body, and things like that, I knew I was going to have to have very firm boundaries, or I was going to end up cannibalizing myself in ways that would ultimately end up being really uncomfortable and untenable.
I just made that decision and I've stuck to it, and it's served me really well. I highly recommend it to everyone who asks me for advice of, how do I do this?
JM: I tend to hear people say, "If you're dating me, you're content."
RG: Yeah. I think that's insane. Why would you do that? That means you don't...I guess that's a judgment, but how much do you value your relationship if you look at it as content?
My relationship is not content. My relationship is the safe harbor from content. I know that when I'm with her, I don't have to think about my audience and my following and my work. I can just be myself, the most genuine version of myself, and I know that that most genuine version of myself will be accepted. That's really freeing. I don't ever think about making it into content.
JM: You have a ring on your left finger. Are you engaged?
RG: Not yet. No, not yet.
JM: One day?
RG: Someday. Yeah, definitely.
JM: When you wrote that you did not know that soul mates existed until you did, were you referring to your current relationship?
RG: No, I wasn't. Different relationship.
JM: When a relationship ends, does your love for that person continue forever?
RG: Absolutely. Well, not every ex. There's plenty of exes for whom I have no feeling or really hard feelings. But I think for some people, especially someone who is a soul mate, those feelings never go away, which is why it's such a powerful relationship.
JM: So we can have multiple soul mates?
RG: I don't know. That's a good question. I don't know if we can have multiple soulmates. I know some people believe that, and I can see how, for sure.
JM: How many times have you been properly in love?
RG: Three. Definitely three, which is better than none.
And then I've just had a lot of mediocre relationships where I thought I was in love, and I was really actually just in love with the idea of being in love.
I think a lot of us fall prey to that. Life is lonely, and so when someone demonstrates a modicum of interest in you, it's also kind of freeing to just be like, "Yeah, I feel the same way," and you just sort of say it instinctively.
JM: The idea of love versus the reality of love—I think the majority of people would agree with that, but that's not simple.
RG: No, it's not simple. It's taken me a long time, and actually quite a fair amount of therapy, to be able to understand the difference and to recognize the difference in my own feelings towards others.
JM: With the sexual abuse you mentioned, I believe in Bad Feminist, you said that had happened in broad strokes, but it wasn't until Hunger where you shared the details of your rape. You were 12 at the time.
JM: How did you decide how and when to disclose those details?
RG: I think that you tell the audience what they need to know to contextualize what it is you're trying to say. When I wrote "What We Hunger For", the essay in Bad Feminist, I knew that the broad strokes were going to get the point across, because I was really writing about YA literature and this idea that young people can't handle darkness in literature, when in reality, we deal with darkness in life all the time as young people and so it's totally fine to put it into books. And so, I don't think the details were needed there.
But with Hunger, which was a memoir about my body, to understand where my body was when I wrote that book, you have to understand what my body went through when I was a child. It became necessary and that's why I included it.
JM: You've had to talk about it so much. Has that desensitized you to it?
RG: In some ways, definitely. When I'm going to go do an interview, I just prepare myself like, "Okay, you're going to have to just suck it up and talk about this for X number of hours, and then afterwards you can feel what you need to feel about it."
It's gotten much easier, especially because I had to go on tour with it. The press was such a shitshow for that book, especially the international press, that I got really used to separating myself from the work and being able to talk about it without feeling like I was being traumatized.
JM: Since you're so open about this, I imagine your fans feel very comfortable confiding in you.
RG: They do.
JM: Did anybody warn or prepare you for that?
RG: They did not. They did not. If I had known I was going to get so many emails...and at events, people's deeply personal and painful stories, I would have just said, "Really?"
People have dealt with truly horrific things, and that's what keeps me doing the work that I do. It's really as bad as we say it is, and I wish that more people would acknowledge the extent of suffering that people across the gender spectrum are dealing with when it comes to sexual violence. The stories that I hear, they just...you know, they keep me up at night.
RG: Yeah, they do because you just think, oh my God, like, how do you wake up every day? How do you live with these kinds of horror stories? A lot of the things I hear, I'm like, "Wow, what I went through was not that bad." And that's a hell of a thing to say because it really was that bad, what I dealt with.
But the stories that I hear are just so much worse, and it just makes me worry about how we address this. How do we make sure that the next generation does not deal with this? And I don't know.