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Roxane Gay speaks to feminism at book reading

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An un-air-conditioned room with blank walls and folding chairs became a literary salon last Friday as eager readers endured the heat to hear from writer Roxane Gay. Hosted by Left Bank Books, the event was part of Gay’s book tour celebrating her new collection of essays entitled “Bad Feminist.”

kellywritershouse/ Flickr

kellywritershouse/ Flickr


Drawing from her own life experiences as a woman of color, the book revolves around Gay’s commentary on contemporary feminism. She admits that she is a “bad feminist” herself – she is a vocal advocate of gender equality – but her use of this phrase is her way of claiming feminism, while acknowledging her personal imperfections. This idea provides a sense of relief for Gay and many of her readers; one need not be a perfect adherent to any supposed rules of feminism to claim the word “feminist.”

Gay’s friendly nature was clear as soon as she took the stage, immediately speaking as if everyone was gathered for a slumber party. She began by commenting on her love for Channing Tatum and reading tweets composed as she read the September 2011 issue of “Vogue.”

The first essay she read was “Typical First-Year Professor,” where she documents the joys and struggles of beginning her career as a university professor. “I tell [the students] to do things and they do those things,” she writes about her first day of teaching. “I realize I am, in fact, in charge.”

She also read her essay “I Once Was Miss America,” which focused on the pride and hope she felt as a child when Vanessa Williams was crowned the first African-American Miss America in 1983. Gay grew up in a Haitian-American family and says that she felt she was “never Haitian enough, American enough, never black enough to be comfortable”.

This insecurity came up again in the second half of the event, during a question- and-answer session. An audience member asked Gay if she found it difficult to put herself out there in her writing, revealing aspects of her personal and emotional life.

“I still don’t feel comfortable, [but] I think certain stories need to be told. I feel like I have a responsibility.” She said that she continues to write these stories in order to make others feel less alone, because she felt so alone for so long.

Gay also touched on the events in Ferguson after an audience member pointed out the low number of black people at the event. Gay argued for the necessity for authors and publishers to reach out to black communities to make sure they know they are welcome in the literary community.

Despite the impossibility of being a perfect feminist at all times, Gay finished by restating her attachment to the word. “Feminism allows me to believe I’m capable,” she said. “I love believing in myself.

In addition to being a writer and editor, Roxane Gay is a professor of English at Purdue University; the founder of Tiny Hardcore Press; an avid blogger, and a competitive Scrabble player.

Left Bank Books is an independent bookstore in St. Louis that hosts more than 200 author events every year. A calendar of upcoming events can be found at www.left-bank.com/upcoming_events.

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