Introducing the 2019 NCCWSL Keynote
Roxane Gay: With One N
When Roxane Gay’s essay collection, Bad Feminist, hit the bestseller list in 2014, Gay became an overnight sensation. But her journey to success had been a long and winding road.
Gay’s parents were Haitian immigrants who came to the United States when they were young. Her father’s self-made success in civil engineering gave Gay a comfortable childhood, and Gay credits “everything good and strong about [her]” to her mom and dad. As a child, she says she was “respectful, studious, hardworking” and had an affinity for writing for as long as she can recall.
But a traumatic experience in middle school proved to be a watershed moment in her life: She was sexually assaulted by a group of classmates, which left her “broken, shattered, and silent.” She says there was a distinct “before” and “after” in her life.
To cope, Gay threw herself into her studies at Phillips Exeter Academy, an elite New England boarding school where she excelled academically. But she began eating compulsively: “I ate because I thought that if my body became repulsive, I could keep men away,” she later wrote. The trauma also informed her creative writing, which became dark and violent. The characters in her short stories were often vulnerable young girls exploited in their innocence.
After high school, Gay enrolled in Yale University, but dropped out in her junior year to pursue a relationship in Arizona. At the urging of her parents, she later returned home and finished her college degree in creative writing at the University of Nebraska, in Lincoln.
Since then, Gay has shaped her experiences and insights into essays, stories and commentary that attract countless readers and fans. Her writing tackles issues of race, privilege, sexual violence, the immigrant experience, family, body image and more. While her writing is undoubtedly raw and honest, it is also smart, even-handed, approachable—and often very funny. Her work has received international acclaim for its reflective, no-holds barred exploration of feminism. With a deft eye on modern culture, she brilliantly critiques its ebb and flow with wit and ferocity.
Gay’s 2014 bestseller, Bad Feminist, has been described as a quintessential exploration of modern feminism. In 2017 she published her highly anticipated memoir, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, as well as a collection of short stories, Difficult Women. Recently, she became the first black woman to write for Marvel, creating a comic series in the Black Panther universe called World of Wakanda. Gay is also a contributing writer for the New York Times. In addition to working as a writer, Roxane Gay is also an English professor at Purdue University, though she recently announced plans to leave her tenured position at the end of the current academic year.