Roxane Gay, Author of An Untamed State

Roxane Gay

Photo: Jay Grabiec

Prolific writer of primarily creative nonfiction, Roxane Gay tackles fiction in her debut novel An Untamed State, about a Haitian-American woman, Mireille (Miri) Duval Jameson, who is kidnapped for ransom and brutalized for thirteen days as her diplomat father struggles to get her back at a fair price. The problem is, there is no getting her back—at least not the way she was—and it is she, not her father, who pays the real price. Using literary devices like point of view and figurative language, Gay brings the motifs of survival and resiliency to light through Miri’s struggle. These motifs are at the heart of the narrative; they are the real story.

The book is set up in “the before,” when protagonist Miri has a husband and a baby and a career and confidence and spunk, versus “the after,”when she has nothing because she is nothing—her sense of self, her belief in happily ever after, her notion of her perfect father all die with her in the cage where, for nearly two weeks, she is held. The drama is in the thirteen days of captivity, filled with hunger and brutality and rape and abuse, but also in the aftermath, when she devolves, curling into herself, before she can eventually make sense of her trauma and regain some semblance of a life. 

Gay writes the story in an interesting way, playing with point of view as she switches back and forth from first person narration—Miri’s perspective—to third person omniscient narration. Her doing so allows the reader to enter each character’s psyche and also gives her the opportunity to shine a spotlight on the book’s primary setting, Haiti—a land of contradictions—which, in addition to being beautiful and ugly, familiar and unknowable, filthy and a jewel, is the birthplace of Gay’s own parents.

As readers, we trace Miri’s evolution—a transition Gay meticulously crafts—from headstrong, willful, independent law student and abiding daughter—whole on her own—to a woman who needs her husband to feel whole, who is “inconsolable without him,”to a captive who “need[s] something to fill the gnawing hollow inside”of her, to an entirely un-whole shell, so empty that she can’t bear the thought of anything inside of her, be it food or her husband. 

We also follow Michael Jameson, Miri’s other half, as he goes on a personal journey from determined courter, to faithful life partner and father, to irate husband who will stop at nothing to get his wife back, to meek and terrified man who doesn’t know if he has the strength to put the pieces back together, to supportive lover who chooses his wife always—“today, yesterday, [and] tomorrow”—the kind of man who will be her rock through the “for worse.” 

Finally, there is Miri’s dad Sebastien Duval—a Haitian success story—a self-made man: calm, rational, determined, demanding, serious, disapproving, controlling and in control, hardheaded, obstinate, and ruthless. A man of principals. As readers, we watch as this strong man goes from being Miri’s hero to being a stranger whose sacrifice costs his youngest child everything—whose “impossible choice [to take thirteen days to pay her ransom]…killed all [her] love.” In the after, Sebastian knows that his daughter sees him as “a man who could not love [her] enough to save her when there was still something of her left to save,” and this knowledge slowly eats away at him. He is racked with guilt over making his daughter dead instead, and this contrition softens him and makes him more human.

As readers, we get all of this information either from Miri or from the omniscient third person narrator. This interesting back-and-forth dance jumbles time and perspective, keeps us in suspense, as we gain access to the rich and layered characters, bit by bit. 

Just as artful as Gay’s unique approach to point of view is her use of literary devices. Whether she uses personification—the Haitian air “wraps itself around you,” “The cuts on my back wept angrily,”—or polysyndeton—“I would taste the salt and sun and sea,” the air filled “with the smell of soap and sweat and smoke,”—or antithesis—“We loved Haiti. We hated Haiti,” the country held “so much beauty, so much brutality,” I became the woman “who remembered everything and the one who remembered nothing,”—or simile—The scar “swelled like something serpentine,” “I stayed there…like a prayer,”—or metaphor—“He was a sharp blade, I was a tender wound,”—or repetition—“The smell of his saliva repulsed me. The texture of his tongue repulsed me. The sticky wet sound repulsed me,” “I tasted nothing, felt nothing, was nothing,” “I kissed his forehead. I died. I kissed his cheekbones, sharp. I died…pressed my lips to his chest…I died,”(363), Gay draws the reader in with her beautiful use of figurative language. 

A final gift of Gay’s is her ability to present multi-dimensional characters. Even the most evil of men, Miri’s captors included, are given a depth that makes them somehow human, and this ability to see their humanity is what helps Miri to survive and eventually make herself whole again. She says of the Commander—the mastermind behind her kidnapping—“We were both broken in similar ways.” That she could be so perceptive and kind in her assessment is quite remarkable. Later she writes, “He was rough because he is not a man who knows how to be gentle,” again showing her sympathy toward the character and making him somehow less evil, less black and white. She paints more gray still into this beast when she admits that he carried her “to his room, placed [her] in his bed like he was a good man…covered [her] with a blanket like he was a good man,”treating her “as both lover and enemy—the only way he could.” Of another rapist she describes the “gentleness of his touch” and says, “It would be easy to pretend the man before me was a lover, that our bodies belonged together.” 

Of her father whose “eyes [start] to water”with regret, Miri thinks, “He did not deserve the truth of how I died [inside],”even after his failure to pay quickly. She shows him further compassion by allowing him to pull her “into a loose, awkward hug”for his own emotional well-being.” She even lies to him, feigning forgiveness in order to grant her dad peace, reasoning, “I lied because that lie cost me less than the truth would have cost him.” 

Gay’s novel is successful because she hones in on a universal theme, survival, something to which we can all relate, and makes us believe it is possible, even under the most unimaginable of circumstances. She shows us that “dirty and broken” people, like countries, can be cleaned, can be healed. That after the darkest of hours, it is still possible to overcome ourselves. That the will to live, to fight, is almost indestructible. This message on resiliency is what Vivian Gornick would call the “so what?”of the narrative; it is the very essence of Gay’s work. 

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Roxane Gay is one of the most prolific writers of our time, and her career has never been hotter. Her 2014 debut novel An Untamed State (reviewed above by yours truly) is on the shortlist for the PEN Open Book Award, and her most recent essay collection Bad Feminist, released this past August, was a New York Times bestseller. Gay also works as editor for The Toast’s new sister site The Butter, contributes to Fortune Magazine in a column entitled “Beyond the Workplace,” and has a very active social media presence (no really, check out her Twitter). When she isn’t on book tours or sitting behind her computer screen churning out gems for us to read, she can be found mentoring fiction MFA students at Purdue University, playing competitive Scrabble, and keeping up with all things pop-culture related. We recently caught up with Gay and learned everything from her thoughts on catchy but misogynistic music, how to write the “other,” and whether she still holds a flame for The Hunger Games’ Peeta.

Melissa Greenwood: In your recent article for Fortune “When Mentors Cross the Line,” (about a situation at Stanford where mentoring “went horribly wrong,”) you write, “There is a responsibility attached to being a mentor. Mentors must live up to that responsibility.”

Now that you mentor fiction MFA candidates at Purdue, can you speak a bit more about this responsibility insofar as it relates to you personally? How does this new role compare to teaching a roomful of students?

Roxane Gay: When I am working with my thesis students, I’m hoping to guide them toward the best writing of which they are capable. Sometimes this means helping them find confidence in their voice. Sometimes it means telling them difficult but constructive things about how they can improve their writing. Mostly it’s about being there for that student in the ways they most need me to be there. It’s similar to teaching in the classroom but different because it’s such an intimate and intense and ongoing relationship.

MG: I can imagine that there are a lot of topics that come across your desk in your role as cultural critic. How do you decide what to write about? I noticed, for instance, that you addressed Michael Brown (Ferguson) and not Eric Garner (“I can’t breathe”)? Was it simply too much, too close together? Was it an “I just can’t” moment for you?

RG: I try to write about those issues around which I feel the most urgency and that I feel in some way qualified to discuss. I didn’t write explicitly about Eric Garner but I have discussed him in some of my work. Mostly, it was just too much to wrap my mind around yet another unarmed black man murdered by police within such a brief span of time. I also don’t want to be a “hot take” vending machine. I want to consider the world more carefully so that means making the wisest choices I can.

MG: Because you’re a cultural critic, your thoughts and opinions are out in the universe. In your essay “The Danger of Disclosure,” which you shared with Antioch students at the June residency, you write:

I have things I want to say. I know disclosure can be dangerous, but still I want to speak. I want to share my opinions. I want to provoke conversations. I want to leave my mark…And yet, the exposure makes me anxious…I have firm boundaries about what I will or won’t write about…

How do you set those boundaries, and do you find they are ever in flux? Is it safe to assume your method of birth control, which you don’t divulge but say you “kind of swear by,” is an instance where you’re setting a firm don’t-share boundary?

RG: I set boundaries based on how much of my personal life I am comfortable with other people knowing. I am often trying to protect the people in my personal life who have signed on to be with me but have not signed on to have their lives scrutinized by thousands and thousands of people. Those boundaries are sometimes in flux in that they evolve but for the most part, I stand my ground about what I will and will not reveal.

MG: You have an active Twitter presence (@rgay), and you were busy, busy on Oscar night. You wrote “Damnit she had to speak backstage,” re: Patricia Arquette’s commentary on equal pay for women that spiraled into something less about all women and more about some women. Your next post was: “I just can’t but I am sure someone will write about intersectionality and these unfortunate remarks tomorrow.” What were your initial thoughts when Arquette made her wage equality comments when accepting her award, and how did your thinking change when she added, “It’s time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now?”

RG: I loved Arquette’s comments as she accepted her Oscar. My thinking didn’t really change because her frustrating comments later don’t negate what she said about the importance of equal pay. I wanted to believe she was caught up in a moment, the highlight of her career, and I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. In the days after the Oscars, she basically doubled down on her comments, as is her right, but as I said then, her comments continue to demonstrate the importance of feminism that is intersectional. She’s a talented actor who said something I disagree with but I don’t think anything more needs to be said than that. The world keeps on turning.

MG: You mentioned to Antioch MFA students that you wanted to make your novel An Untamed State unreadable—so visceral that the reader should have to look away. What do you say then to readers like my own octogenarian grandmother (perhaps not your ideal demographic) who actually did look away, for good. I loaned her my copy, and her response (via new-agey email, nonetheless) was: “It was too violent, and I couldn’t get past the multiple rapes. There is enough horribleness in the world right now, and reading more [of it]…is not a choice I want to make.”

RG: To those readers, I say I absolutely understand that choice. We all have to take care of ourselves as best as we can. I stand by what I wrote. An Untamed State is not a book about violence. It’s a book about hope.

MG: In “What We Hunger For” (originally published in The Rumpus), you write about your experience with childhood rape using Katniss Everdeen, the fictitious protagonist in The Hunger Games series, to talk about strength and survival. You read this essay (which can now also be found in Bad Feminist) at Antioch, and the reaction from the crowd was a mixture of wonder and reverence. How did you decide that The Hunger Games and The Rumpus would be your platforms for this major disclosure, and how did this parallel with Katniss first occur to you?

RG: I wrote “What We Hunger For” because as I read and re-read The Hunger Games trilogy, I was fascinated by how well Suzanne Collins approached trauma and its effects. That got me thinking about my own trauma and how it has lingered throughout my life so I started writing and that essay came out of me. I published it on The Rumpus because I knew my words would be safe there.

MG: You write about “rape culture,” throughout Bad Feminist, and the phrase got me thinking back to my own college years (circa 2001-2005). I went to UC Berkeley—a university that fancies itself a liberal and politically-active place—but at the fraternity parties, we’d all forget our beliefs and sing along to Jordan Knight’s “Give It To You.”

It’s creepin’ around in your head
Me holdin’ you down in my bed
You don’t have to say a word
I’m convinced you want this

And Snoop Dogg’s “It Aint No Fun (If The Homies Can’t Have None)” featuring Nate Dogg, Kurupt, and Warren G.

I know the pussy’s mine, I’ma fuck a couple more times
And then I’m through with it, there’s nothing else to do with it
Pass it to the homie, now you hit it
Cause she ain’t nothing but a bitch to me
And y’all know, that bitches ain’t shit to me

And then of course, there was the famous chorus, which we’d belt out at the top of our lungs as though there were no shame in the words: “It ain’t no fun, if the homies can’t have none.”

These songs legitimize and popularize rape, and I’m sure there are a host of more recent ones popping up at college campuses every day. What can we say to our youth about messages as pervasive and insidious as these, when even you have admitted (likely as much to your chagrin as my frat party admission) that “I like these songs. They make me want to dance. I want to sing along,” (Bad Feminist 187-188)? You even defined some of these “misogynistic” melodies as being “so damn catchy” to Elle, and that’s the problem—they are. So, what to do?

We have to teach our youth about cultural and media literacy. We have to teach them to recognize the damaging and often degrading messages all too often found in popular culture.

RG: We have to teach our youth about cultural and media literacy. We have to teach them to recognize the damaging and often degrading messages all too often found in popular culture, how those messages warp our thinking about gender, sex, and sexual violence, and how we must steel ourselves against those messages. We also have to urge them to create pop culture that is “so damn catchy” without being so fucked up. It is possible. And at some point, we have to lead by example and we have to forego the temporary pleasure of a catchy song for the lasting pleasure of taking a stand against such cultural misogyny.

MG: Writing the “other” is a big topic at Antioch, and you address it in your essay “The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods…” in which you say, “I firmly believe our responsibility as writers is to challenge ourselves to write beyond what we know;” yet, you have not been pleased with many attempts you’ve read or watched on the screen, at least on the part of white people writing (or directing) the other. “I know that I have work to do,” you admit in the same essay insofar as your tolerance of “white writers working through racial difference.” What is your suggestion then to those who wish to tackle this “complicated” work that “requires a delicate balance,” as well as a whole lot of what I consider to be your favorite word—nuance?

RG: It’s not that complicated. We have to stop treating difference as a monumental obstacle. We have more in common than we don’t. As long as writers approach difference in good faith, there is room for trial and error. The examples I cite in the aforementioned essay were not created in good faith. They were lazy and diminishing and that is the problem.

MG: How do you strike the balance between research and personal admission in your essays, and what is your advice to those of us who aren’t yet as badass as you when it comes to seamlessly blending the two?

RG: I include as much research as a reader will need to have the proper context for considering a given argument. I don’t want it to be too much so that an essay reads like an encyclopedia and I don’t want it to be too little so that an essay reads as poorly conceived.

MG: You have said, “I want to believe writing can be a catalyst for action, for demanding change…I want my writing to do something more than just satisfy my love of writing. I want it to reach people.” What causes are most important to you now, and who specifically are you hoping to reach?

RG: I’m going to skip this question. I feel like this is pretty clear in my writing.

MG: I see that you have a book of essays due out in 2016 entitled Hunger, as well an adult novel Nice Man, and a short story collection Strange Gods. What can you tell us inquiring minds about these upcoming projects?

RG: Hunger is a memoir about obesity and living in this world in an unruly body. Strange Gods is a short story collection I’ve wanted to see out in the world for many years so I am thrilled it will happen. My editor Amy Hundley and I are working on edits right now. Most of the stories are about women dealing with the way this world makes it difficult to be a woman. Nice Man, well, that’s a secret but it involves surrogacy, a marriage of convenience, and a fierce fight.

MG: Last question: you can meet your favorite character from a book (Jessica from Sweet Valley High or Peeta from The Hunger Games come to mind), or spend the afternoon with Channing Tatum. Go!

RG: I would meet Peeta.

Melissa GreenwoodAside from being a huge Roxane Gay fan, Los Angeles native Melissa Greenwood is a nonfiction MFA student at Antioch University Los Angeles, where she is entering her fourth and final term. In her past lives, she freelanced for various entertainment magazines and local papers, taught middle school English, and even custom-fit women for high-end bras at a specialty lingerie store. Now, Melissa resides in Toronto, Canada with her fabulous roommates (one of whom is not yet two), where she teaches mat and Reformer Pilates, reads a whole lot of nonfiction books, and tries to sneak time with said roommates for a guilty pleasure they share with Ms. Gay—Law & Order SVU and Criminal Minds viewing parties. Let the record show that the roommate who is not yet two does not attend said parties. Nor does Melissa’s boyfriend.