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A Conversation with Roxane Gay 

“People think they know me, but they only know what I choose for them to know.”

Roxane Gay is a Haitian-American author and English professor (at Purdue University) who explores feminism, race and sexual politics. Her new short-story collection, Difficult Women, depicts strong women facing challenges including abuse and addiction. Her 2014 essay collection Bad Feminist rejected perceived contradictions between sex-positivity and feminism. While it attracted critical acclaim, some critics called Gay’s thesis reductionist and a strawman. In advance of her sold-out March 6 appearance at Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures’ Ten Evening series, CP interviewed Gay via email.

Your writing is personal and confessional. Where do you draw boundaries?
I use the personal in my critical work … when it will lend me authority on a given topic. I have strict boundaries. People think they know me, but they only know what I choose for them to know. I’m pretty much always uncomfortable when I am writing about difficult topics or the personal, and that’s how I know I am writing something necessary. Writing about consensual sex doesn’t make me uncomfortable. That’s just plain fun.

How did you feel about negative reviews of Bad Feminist?
Some of the criticisms-against have merit and some don’t. … It sucks to read a negative review but it comes with the territory. I allow myself my hurt feelings, and vent about it with my closest friends and then I move on. I believe in my work. I know where the flaws are. I’m always trying to become a better writer and thinker.

How do you find time to be both an academic and a prolific, multi-genre author?
I could use a better time-management system, but constantly traveling makes any sort of schedule pretty much impossible. Sundays and Mondays, though, are dedicated to my teaching. That is one constant and it is comforting to have that. I also write a lot on airplanes and in hotels.

Why is much of Difficult Women in rural settings?
There are so many stories [in rural America] that all too often go untold, and I love being able to tell them. I love writing about isolation and small communities where everybody knows each other, and having so much space while still feeling claustrophobic.

Who are your inspirations?
Edith Wharton, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Michael Chabon, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith and Edward Jones.

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