I’ve known Roxane Gay for, I think, three years—maybe more. We’ve met a couple times, briefly, at AWPs. I am sad to say that I have not spent enough time talking with her in person. Nonetheless, Roxane and I have corresponded many times via email. So let me attempt to characterize—if it’s at all possible in this short space—this fantastic person and writer.
Roxane in real life is a generally soft-spoken human. She laughs a lot. She didn’t flinch when we first met and I offered up a hug. Since I’ve only ever seen her at AWP, she does not exude the AWP-ness that seeps out of some conference-goer’s pores (i.e., she isn’t trouncing around looking for the next influential person that could possibly help propel her and her work into the literary stars; and if it’s okay I’ll use this moment to just ask “What the hell, writers? Why do you act like that? Aren’t you supposed to be smart?”). Because of this she strikes me as a well-rounded, intelligent person, one who cares about human relationships and not selfish personal endeavors.
Via email Roxane feels pretty much the same, except she is perhaps more outspoken than she is in person. And bravo for it. This email persona in some ways extends into her writing, editorial, and publishing persona. She is what you’d call a literary powerhouse: she writes fiction and nonfiction (prolifically); she contributes to HTMLGiant; she serves as Essays Editor at The Rumpus; and she publishes and edits books from her own micropress, Tiny Hardcore. On top of all these hats she dons yet another as Assistant Professor of English at Eastern Illinois University.
As a writer Roxane Gay has evolved in a short span. Maybe “grown” is better—to use her own verb. Her early published fiction follows a more or less Aristotelian progression of intro to character and conflict, rising action, climax, and truncated falling action and denouement. If you have not already, you should read her stories in her debut collection, Ayiti, published last year by Artistically Declined Press. Her fiction and nonfiction explore themes of sex and gender, class, and economic inequality, love (romantic and otherwise), violence, politics, philosophy, basic human rights. While she writes about “big ideas,” her characters are simple, down-to-earth. They are you and me.
In the last couple years she’s successfully tried many different strategies for storytelling: lists, calendaric journal entries, flash. I’m tempted to say that Roxane’s growth has culminated in “Glass,” one of the stories—a piece excerpted from a larger project—published here in Atticus Review. But to place such strictures on a writer of Roxane Gay’s magnitude is too limiting. As a writer who is still emerging (although fast, as you will read her story “North Country” in the 2012 Best American Short Stories anthology) Roxane Gay, I predict, will do far greater things yet.
Photo Source: Eastern Illinois University on Flickr