Portrait

Every second woman wants to be Roxane Gay – the rest want to be the Bad Feminist's best friend.

By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

One fine Gay

This woman does neutral-face like nobody’s business, and I’m all but convinced she’s turning her dead-eye on me as I walk nervously down the stairs of the wide, empty auditorium. Dark eyes pierce out of her expressionless birch-tone face. Sporadic silver streaks glint through dark you-can’t-fool-another-sister-that-there-isn’t-afro-hair-in-fast-need-of-salon-heat hair.

The Haitian-American is wearing jeans the kind of indigo blue you only get in new denim. Her horizontal-striped shirt has pretty rose pink woven into the mix – even though she was once afraid this hue might not be feminist enough. She’s all bags-beneath-the-eyes-cause-I’ve-been-on-the-road-some-god-awful-while. She’s melodic voice, ample bust and cherubic face. Her expression cracks as I draw closer, into that mischievous half-smile from all the book-jacket photos – that almost-a-smirk, as if maybe she knows some big embarrassing secret about me, and is right now deciding whether or not to tell the world.

Yeah, she’s big, but that story’s getting old. And in any case, she’s not towering in the way they all report. She’s not run-and-hide-behind-your-mama. 

We climb the stage together, make small talk while they’re hooking up our microphones.

“So. Time magazine says it’s the Year of Roxane Gay. Was that 2014 or 2015?”

Roxane rolls her eyes at the ridiculousness of the proclamation.

“2014,” she says.

“Well,” I raise an eyebrow. “It’s 2015. It’s my year now. And I think you should shuffle over and let a new black queen on the throne.”

Soon as the bravado leaves my mouth, I get to worrying. I’ve seen the writer online, where she most likes to be, cutting her eyes across at a person’s stupid question as though she’s slicing through steel. Like: somebody over there just said something so not-worth-it, all I’m gonna bother moving to squash that lameness is my eyes. I’ve seen that dubious look that says: aren’t you just all of the ridiculousness gathered up from every single corner of the world and sat there bundled together in one chair. Mostly these looks are well deserved – for the doubters, and the dickheads, and the haters. She’s almost always very polite, and perhaps my nerves are unfounded, but right now I’m still a little bit afraid of the dirty one she might throw in my direction.

And then she laughs. She laughs, and her head shakes back and forth. Her eyes light up. Her cheeks swell to bursting point. She looks at once like a toddler in special-occasion dress who just outran her parents to plunge wanting hands smack in the centre of a giant puddle of mud.

The audience files in. Roxane’s eyes widen as the 700-strong Melbourne contingent floods into the room.

“Seriously, don’t you people have anything better to do?”

Roxane works the crowd as though we’re in her lounge room. Her television’s switched on in the background. Some of us have on pilled tracksuits. Roxane’s set out chocolate cake, peanuts and Martinis on the coffee table. All of the guests know cake, peanuts and Martinis don’t go together, but we’re all having way too much of a good time to care. Nobody wants to be the first to leave, and she chats on and on, as if it would actually be alright if we stayed and bunked in.

“I wasn’t going to tell my family about my book,” she confesses into her headset mic. “But then in release week, my stupid brother told them about it. Then Time magazine wrote this little thing …”

The audience erupts with laughter, cheering, clapping.

That was back during the 2014 release of her critically acclaimed debut novel, An Untamed State. Six months later, The Guardian called the collection of essays in her next book, Bad Feminist, “the most persuasive feminist recruitment drive in recent memory”.

Roxane Gay slays every question as if it’s not a big thing, with a shrugging, casual eloquence. She admits the things she’s ignorant of: “I didn’t know who Germaine Greer was. I kind of had confused her with Graham Greene.” She insists absolutely on the things she believes in: “I find her stance on transgender women unconscionable. You cannot call yourself a feminist, and then only advocate for some women.”

We talk domestic violence: “… how are they even allowed to be out walking around in the world like we are?” Idols, icons and pedestals: “What really scares me is how quick we are to tear someone down when they make a mistake.” Writing the other: “Somehow, writing the black experience confounds us. Meanwhile: HOBBITS.”

She speaks with such sense and clarity she’s all too easy to relegate to sound bite. In extended conversation, though, it’s easy to see why her message has spread like flame.

Roxane Gay makes every second woman want to be Roxane Gay. Roxane Gay makes all the remaining women want to be Roxane Gay’s best friend. And when all the Roxane Gays team up with all the Roxane Gay’s best friends, it’s not difficult to imagine what will happen to our world. There will be women of colour all over our television, including in Lena Dunham’s Girls. The women of colour in our narratives will not just play music or sport, or be the wives and girlfriends of men who do. They will be for real. When Roxane Gay and her besties run the world, domestic violence resources will be top priority, baby elephants will love us as they love their mothers, and admitting you once read Sweet Valley High will not be cause for ridicule.

 When Roxane Gay is boss, the word “poverty”’ will be 10 times more loaded than the word “privilege”, and we will all readily acknowledge our responsibility to talk about and tackle both. All the Roxane Gays will make sure wife-beaters are not allowed to sell records. Catchy pop songs will not contain violent misogyny. Black Maid Nostalgia such as The Help won’t be written or created, or even thought up in the first place. In Roxane Gay World, women everywhere will love themselves and each other and the cause just that amazing, awesome bit more. Feminism will raise us up as we are: beautiful, smart, funny, sassy, contradictory. And flawed. 

When Roxane makes the rules, the only glass ceiling left in this world will be the roof of Channing Tatum’s house, and flyover helicopters will be readily accessible.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 21, 2015 as "One fine Gay". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil.

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