Author Roxane Gay explores nuances in race, pop culture at campus event

Yvonne Kim, Reporter

Among her words of advice to young writers on Tuesday, author Roxane Gay encouraged audience members not to feel like “you have to” constantly write about identity.

“I don’t want you to feel like you’re limited in how you narrate your world and the kinds of work you put out,” Gay said. “But if you want to … explore your position, do that work and know why you’re doing that work.”

She addressed a packed Pick-Staiger Concert Hall in a talk co-hosted by the Contemporary Thought Speaker Series and the Women’s Center. Answering questions from a moderator and audience members, Gay explored nuances in race, pop culture and writing.

Gay is an op-ed contributor for The New York Times and the author of several best-selling books, including her book of essays “Bad Feminist” and personal memoir “Hunger.”

Gay, who is also a professor at Purdue University, pushed back against people who “love to say that students can’t write.”

“The current generation is more literate than ever before, but simply literate in ways that we don’t traditionally recognize,” she said. “I just acknowledge the kinds of risks they’re willing to take and the risks they’re afraid to take. For the most part, (young people) are really uncomfortable when it comes to writing about themselves.”

In her advice to younger black girls, Gay said standing up for oneself and resisting people’s stereotypes of “angry black women” is her most powerful tool. And more importantly, she told them that it’s “OK to be angry,” but encouraged them to make good use of their anger.

“Your anger is entirely justified,” she said. The question is what you’re gonna do with that anger, and how are you gonna let that anger not consume you and subsume you.”

CTSS chair Ben Zimmermann told The Daily the group had wanted to bring Gay to campus for a while.

He described her as the epitome of a great contemporary thought speaker whose expertise is “interdisciplinary” and “innovative.”

“(Gay) is not only a writer and author and journalist, but she’s a cultural critic, she’s a social media personality,” the Weinberg senior said. “She’s at the very forefront of a lot of really important … conversations that are going on right now.”

For Gay, her role as a critic involves seeing pop culture and broader culture as not a binary, but a spectrum. Analyzing pop culture allows for a better understanding of the current political climate, she said.

Gay’s talk also pushed back against expectations for art by black people and people of color.

While white people can get away with art of far lower quality, Gay said, black artists are held to much higher standards. She added that though the recent rise of black art is hopeful to see, artists of color should be allowed more room to fail as well.

“That’s the bar of entry for black art — you have to be the best,” she said regarding films like “Moonlight” and “Black Panther.” She then joked, “And until we get black people that can make a ‘Justice League’ and continue to thrive, that’s when we’ll know we made it.”

Weinberg junior Toni Akunebu told The Daily she resonated with Gay’s discussion of how to tell personal stories and make the private, public.

“(She’s) hilarious and a gem of a human that has this very particular experience,” Akunebu said. “But this experience can also be universalized, and she has so much to share and so much to give to the world.”

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