Author Roxane Gay joined Nerdette to talk about writing her most recent book, a collection of short stories called Difficult Women, and why Beyoncé, Law and Order SVU and Channing Tatum’s neck are mentioned in the acknowledgements.
Then, “reformed librarian” Kelly Jensen on why feminism isn’t always fun — but should be accessible — and how her new book is helping girls (and boys!) everywhere.
Greta Johnsen: This is a collection of short stories, but you're doing a lot of different things. You have first person reflections, you have stories that are almost family history, you have some speculative science fictiony stuff, you have some myths. Is there a genre you feel most comfortable in?
Roxane Gay: I think that dirty realism is probably my wheel house, and I’m always trying to grow as a writer and experiment. So I never allow myself to be constrained by what I'm most comfortable in because I don’t know that that’s where my best writing happens. And I just love experimenting with different genres. And I think that you can see that in this book.
Johnsen: In the acknowledgements, you have all of the standard “thank yous”: your agent, your family, your friends. But there were three things that you mentioned that I was particularly delighted by: Channing Tatum’s neck, Beyonce’s Lemonade, and Law and Order. Did they help you specifically with this book, or are they just forever life things?
Gay: They helped me with this book in particular, and they also help me every day. I was really moved by Lemonade, and it's just a beautiful work of art and a beautiful narrative. So I was just grateful, and I wanted my gratitude to Beyoncé to be out there in the world even though she will never see it. And then I love Channing’s neck, and I just always think about biting it and — grrrr — just getting a little gnaw in there. So I thought I’d thank him. And Law and Order SVU is on all the time, so it’s the background to most of my writing.
Johnsen: I’m very excited to talk to you about writing for Marvel as well. Can you tell us a little bit about how you ended up with the gig?
Gay: Ta-Nehisi Coates emailed me one day and said that he had a crazy idea. He suggested that I write a comic for Marvel. I didn't really know what he was talking about because when I thought of Marvel I thought “oh, the comic book publisher,” and “surely he wasn’t talking about that Marvel.” So I was like, “I’m gonna need you to elaborate.” And he did. And I wasn’t sure where I was going to find the time, but I also wanted to meet Thor. And so, I was like, well, maybe this will get me tickets to the premiere of Ragnarok.
Johnsen: What does it mean to you and what do you think it means to other readers to be able to create these characters who are of color and queer in a world that didn’t have a lot of that going on until recently?
Gay: I think it’s awesome, and I think it’s necessary. I’m the first black woman to lead a Marvel comic, but I know I won't be the last, and that’s also very important to me. You never want to be the first and the last. And that’s why I think Ta-Nehisi reached out to me and also Yona Harvey. It’s important to diversify comics, and not for political correctness, but because there are more stories out there that should be told. And it’s about time a black woman wrote a black woman at Marvel. It’s just ridiculous that this hasn't happened yet. But they’ve been wonderful, and storytelling is storytelling so it’s the same in many ways, but to tell a story and think in terms of scene and panel, and to see the visual art come to life with your words is very fun.
Kelly Jensen, who calls herself a “reformed librarian,” also joined Nerdette this week to talk about her new book, Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World.
Johnsen: So your book has this scrapbooky appearance. It looks fun and approachable and enjoyable like a young girl or teen would want to pick it up, which is obviously the goal, but then it also contains some really intense and serious stuff, like rape culture. How do you find that balance?
Kelly Jensen: I asked the contributors to write whatever they wanted to. I didn't give them a topic, I said “write the thing you’ve really wanted to write.” So there were super hard topics in there, but each piece has this wonderful hopefulness to it and this sort of empowering takeaway of “Okay, yeah. Things are hard, but you have the power to change that and you should change that, if you can.”
Johnsen: You do a really good job of collecting the voices from all sorts of different people, I mean not even just women but especially also not just white women. Can you talk a little bit about the priority of intersectionality in a book like this?
Jensen: We can talk about white feminism — which is this idea that white women have found themselves feeling like they have reached equality. But that’s really limited at looking at what feminism is. So my approach was to make sure we didn’t just stick to things like “suffrage happened in 1920.” Because what about black women who didn’t get to vote until the ’60s or native women who didn’t get it until the ’80s? So I wanted to really invite those voices to come in and share their perspective and their stories, as sort of an “Okay, feminism sounds great in theory, but if we’re in it we have to be in it for all, not just ourselves.”
Johnsen: So there was a really wonderful Q&A you did with TeenVogue — shout out to Teen Vogue for all the amazing work they’re doing these days — and you talk about sometimes the biggest acts of feminism are the smallest ones. I wonder if there are little moments like that for you in your own life, or how you can communicate that to girls especially because I think often it’s overwhelming to think about, “What can I actually do?”
Jensen: Right, so one of the pieces in the book, by Nova Ren Suma, is about when she was in high school, and she talks a little bit about being a kind of quiet, introverted person who never wanted to ruffle feathers and never wanted to cause harm. She was in this world literature class, and she said when she got the syllabus on the first day she was really excited because she loved to read and grew up in a house where reading was really encouraged. And she said “I get the syllabus, and there’s not a single female writer in this world literature survey class.” And she said, “I sat there in that class as a high school senior, like, what do I do about this? This can’t be right.” So she went up to her teacher, who was a man, and she said, “We are going to read women in this class, right?” And he said, “No. Women didn’t write any of the great works of literature in the world.” So the piece is about how when she heard that — I mean, not only was she appalled — but how she decided in that moment that she was only going to read women in her free time. So little things like that — I think it’s calling those things out that eventually makes a difference.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Hear the entire conversation by clicking play above.