Roxane Gay and nonfiction authors like her will continue to open up their own lives, in the hope of changing those of others. May we not remain silent in the face of ignorance, stupidity or distress. By Maxine Beneba Clarke.
Roxane Gay and Mamamia
Here’s the thing: you ascertain very quickly, particularly if you’re as experienced a writer and interviewee as Roxane Gay, where the questioner’s intentions lie. There’s that sick feeling that comes over you as the questions slide deliberately off-mark. Or you sense a nervous overfamiliarity, retrospectively attributable to inexperience with the topic or a carefully planned curve ball that ensues. Sometimes the interviewer just doesn’t get it: there’s no malicious intent at all. This, too, can be a form of privilege. I read your book. I chose not to engage with it. It was too hard. But you’re here now. So educate me. Make me understand. Isn’t that why you’re here? Your choice, in all of this, is to either remain patient in the face of insult, or cut the interview or interviewer off, to have the angry black woman trope dragged out as prime promotion.
In the case of her interview with Mamamia’s Mia Freedman, Gay knew something was awry. “Ok I can’t keep this in,” she tweeted on May 24. “I just did an interview w/ someone who read Hunger and they said ‘we did a bunch of special things to accommodate you’. Like. Am I supposed to be grateful you provided a sturdy chair? Why would you tell me this? Is it that arduous? Come on.”
Roxane Gay, the Haitian-American author of Bad Feminist, An Untamed State and Difficult Women, was in town for commitments around the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The date of her tweets sticks in my mind. It was the same date I was admitted to hospital. I had been due to get on a plane for the festival the next day, after six months off book tours. Even though my book was released in August last year, the publicist at my publishing house had cut all media access back in February at my request, due to the emotional toll some of the interviews were taking. I’d been really looking forward to sharing the Sydney stage with the remarkably diverse line-up of local and international writers the festival had programmed.
Writing a memoir about racism and its physical and psychological impact is like writing about your house burning down while you’re still locked inside. The writing process, and the publicity trail, would be far easier if we didn’t write about issues such as racism, sexual assault, discrimination or mental health. If we refused to storytell about being belittled, bullied, broken or dehumanised. If we didn’t let strangers see us at the lowest points in our lives, leave our actions and our trauma open to scrutiny and debate. We write our lives for many reasons. For me it is because I hope it might make some small difference, somehow, some way, to a former incarnation of myself. Make her world a little easier, kinder, less lonely.
After the angst and altruism of the writing, comes the tour: a double-edged sword. You wanted to initiate conversation and therefore change. To start the conversation, you need readers. To get readers, you need the press. You’re grateful for the press – for the many who interview respectfully and genuinely engage with the material. Then there are the rest – the stuff-ups, and the set-ups; the terrible question times. In Australia, the more diverse your identity, the more formidable a minefield this can prove to be. There was the time I was assured I would be doing a lifestyle segment about things you do in your spare time only to be faced with a live interview about the most intimate aspects of my memoir; the time the other guest turned out to be someone clearly intended to bait me; the audience member who told me they were “uncomfortable” with me using the word “racism”.
From my sickbed in Melbourne, I followed as the media detailed the clueless interview between the ABC’s Michael Cathcart and Man Booker Prize-winning author Paul Beatty. I followed as Cathcart dropped the “N-word”. Followed his query into how Beatty learnt to be black. His response to Beatty’s throwback of the question, that Cathcart felt he has “learnt to be less white”. His portrayal of Australia as some kind of post-racial paradise. His, “I think of myself just as a person. I think I have learnt not to be white.”
I read The Australian infiltrating young Sudanese-Australian writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s schools sessions, about an audience member questioning the Writing Race panel, the panel I was meant to be doing and felt bad about cancelling, about why writers are still writing about the “exhausted topic of race”. These incidents, so common to me now on the book trail, and no doubt old news to the many Indigenous and other diverse Australian writers who’ve been running this track aeons before me, seemed to shock many in the industry.
Three weeks later, on June 13, Mamamia published its Roxane Gay podcast. Interviewer and Mamamia founder Mia Freedman detailed private communications between Mamamia and Gay’s publisher about the logistics of the author’s visit to promote her new book, Hunger. There were stipulations such as a sturdy chair, and no photography. Mamamia chose to preface the interview with reference to whether Gay would fit into a lift; detailed her weight in medical terminology; explained the sheer inconvenience that encompassed accommodating her.
Interview stipulations are not uncommon in the publishing world, particularly among writers of Gay’s calibre. Most often, they are not diva demands, but polite requests based on extensive experience and a history of disrespect or discomfort. I avoid make-up rooms, and will only agree to do television if I can arrive made up: this is non-negotiable. I prefer not to have selfies taken with readers, unless they’re school groups, or young readers of colour, but at times I will acquiesce. There are certain shows I won’t appear on. There are solid reasons for each of these stipulations. Sometimes – of course – denial of these requirements comes at the cost of exposure. Authors carefully consider these costs: we all want a wide readership, and these accommodative requests are not made on a whim.
Roxane Gay is a New York Times best-selling author. I’ve had the privilege of hosting an extended in-conversation with her. She is exactly like her work: disarmingly smart, generous, fierce, warm, funny and politically astute. None of which Mamamia chose to introduce her as.
Mamamia saw fit to explain their breach of both privacy and sensitivity by positioning it as a favour to the author. Since her memoir Hunger talks about her size, and the difficulties of navigating the world in her body, Mamamia was helping Gay’s cause by disclosing the terribly onerous list of things they had to consider in interviewing her. The level of condescension here defies belief. Perhaps Mamamia was helping Roxane Gay the same way Mia Freedman helped racism in 2013, when she explained how a white person dressing up in blackface to portray a person with black skin wasn’t really blackface, and shouldn’t be considered offensive.
Roxane Gay has been interviewed by the best in the business. To my knowledge, no other media outlet in the world has chosen to breach Gay’s privacy, and to humiliate her the way Mia Freedman has. If there were industry whispers before about avoiding press with Freedman, believe me, the roar is now deafening.
Gay and nonfiction authors like her will continue to open up their own lives, in the hope of changing those of others. May we deal with the press the best way we can. May we not remain silent in the face of ignorance, stupidity or distress.
“Not entirely sure I am going to be able to keep it together during the press for this book,” Gay confessed on June 12, the day before Hunger came out. Then, a day later: “Today was supposed to be about my new book. That is what I wanted. And then an Australian website made today painful.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 17, 2017 as "Notes from a betrayal".
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