Roxane Gay Gets Personal at the GC

November 13, 2018

Diverse fans flocked to the GC to hear from the writer and commentator about topics ranging from the midterms to coping with trauma.

Roxane Gay spoke at The Graduate Center on November 8. 

Writer and commentator Roxane Gay says there’s “plenty to be joyful about” from the midterm elections.
“If you take anything from tonight, it’s that we should be deeply encouraged by what happened Tuesday,” Gay told fans on November 8 at a sold-out event at The Graduate Center. More than 100 women will hold seats in the next House of Representatives, including the first Muslim and Native American women ever elected to Congress.
Gay’s wide-ranging remarks at the event ranged from the political to the personal. The author of Bad Feminist and Hunger, Gay has written about being gang-raped at age 12, and she spoke at The Graduate Center about the aftermath of that experience. “When I think of the girl I was, she died on the day I was assaulted,” she said at one point.
“And then I had to figure out who am I now. I’m still figuring that out.”
Gay is also the daughter of Haitian immigrants, and she shared the stage with another Haitian-American writer, Katia D. Ulysse. Both spoke about the Caribbean diaspora and how their roots influence their writing. Gay read from her novel, An Untamed State, about a woman who is kidnapped in Haiti and whose father refuses to pay her ransom. “I kept thinking what’s worse than being kidnapped, what’s worse than being raped?” said Gay. “For me it’s being betrayed by the person who is supposed to save you. That’s what she can’t survive in this novel. … I wanted to show not only what she endured but the aftermath.” Gay mentioned that the book is being made into a movie.
One of the evening’s most tender moments was when a young woman in the audience asked for advice in coping with trauma. Gay said that for her, a first step was “accepting that I will never know who I would have been if I had not endured this trauma.” The next step was accepting “the way in which the trauma has changed me … and recognizing that though I would never wish that kind of trauma on anyone, I would not be the woman I am today without it.”
Attendees lining up to ask questions reflected the audience’s diversity, with women introducing themselves as being from Nigeria, Mississippi, the Bronx and from Caribbean-American families. Gay and Ulysse urged those with Haitian backgrounds to learn Creole, read their history and literature, visit the island, and connect with Haitian communities in Miami, Brooklyn, and Boston.

Diverse fans came to hear Roxane Gay at The Graduate Center. 

Among those with questions was Graduate Center Professor Carla Shedd (Urban Education), who asked whether Gay was influenced by the late Ntozake Shange. Gay responded: “What (Shange’s play) ‘For Colored Girls … did for me was just open up the possibilities that as a black woman, I could tell my story and have my story matter to at least one other person and that one other person could be a black woman.”
Gay spoke at The Graduate Center the day after the mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, California. She said Americans have grown complacent about gun violence: “We have to stop calling this the new normal because when we do that we just contribute to the normalization of this level of violence.”
The November 8 event was introduced by Graduate Center Provost and Senior Vice President Joy Connolly. The evening was part of a series, Critical Caribbean Feminisms, presented with The Graduate Center’s Center for the Study of Women in Society; the Barnard Center for Research on Women; Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism; Women Writing Women’s Lives; the Society of Fellows in the Humanities, Columbia University; and the Heyman Center for the Humanities, Columbia University. Moderating the conversation between Gay and Ulysse was Tami Navarro of the Barnard Center for Research on Women.