Roxane Gay: 'It's Important To Show The Harassment Black Women Receive Online'

Roxane Gay isn't here for your bullsh*t.

Roxane Gay is busy. Of course she's busy! We're all busy, but are we writing bestsellers / critiquing pop culture / teaching literary students / speaking about feminism / clapping back to 500,000 Twitter followers busy? Of course not.

Unless you're Roxane Gay.

"I just try from one day to the next to perform triage," she told ten daily over the phone.

"I just try to work on the most critical thing first."

Right now, that's prepping for a 'conversation' with self-styled 'factual feminist' Christina Hoff Sommers at Sydney Town Hall, and if that description doesn't make you break out in hives, it perhaps should.

"A lot of what I read about her is not encouraging," said Gay.

"I don't know that there's a middle ground with someone who doesn't believe rape culture exists.

"What middle ground is there? I would like to believe that we could have one, but you both have to be working from a place of rationality first. Some of her viewpoints are really extreme."

Still -- it's a better starting point than where we were a few weeks ago, when Gay pulled the ultimate Mariah Carey "I don't know her" move.

Twitter clapbacks are just par for the course with Roxane, although this could hardly be considered a clapback, more a correction for the records.

"I'm not engaging in trolls to create change or anything like that," she told me. "I do it because it's fun."

But as with everything Roxane does -- fun, academic, creative, whatever -- there's a sense of purpose behind it, too.

"I think it's important to show the level of harassment that black women receive online," she said.

"I also think it's important to push back on bigotry and harassment, and if I don't do it for myself, then who will?"

Roxane Gay. Source: Twitter.

She might be selling herself short here. As a prolific writer with an online following, she has tens of thousands of fans who look to her for advice, defend her from the trolls, and get excited to meet her on the street -- or as it happens, the hospital bed.

When she underwent surgery earlier this year, she woke up groggy from general anesthetic to a nurse excitedly telling her: "My girlfriend and I love your books!"

Roxane stands out, and not just because she can tackle deeply intimate topics like body image, violence or race with care and nuance, and then turn around and write just as beautifully on The Bachelor or competitive Scrabble (a particular favourite pastime).

"Most writers, nobody knows what they look like," she said.

"I'm six foot three, I'm fat, I'm black, and I have tattoos, so when people see me, they know it's me. I have had a different public trajectory than a lot of other writers who are far more famous. It's challenging."

Roxane appeared to burst onto the scene with the New York Times bestselling essay collection Bad Feminist in 2014, but in fact she was first published about two decades ago. Becoming a leading voice in feminism has been a long, hard slog, and as her profile grows, so too does the abuse.

READ MORE: Why Aren't More Women Going Into Politics?

As I write this, she's copping heat for a much-lauded opinion piece published in the New York Times, about the surprise return of Louis C.K. to comedy and how nine months of "self-imposed exile in financial comfort" is not the redemption story #MeToo deserves.

"Twitter can be really useful, in reaching across different kinds of social issues, but it requires people on all sides to be open to that" she said.

"I think that's the hard part. Often times people are resistant to listening to alternative points of view. There are certainly days where I include myself in that."

Criticism is, unfortunately, the price one pays for writing online -- but make no mistake, the criticism of Roxane Gay is compounded by the fact that she's a fat, black, opinionated woman writing about nuanced topics like feminism.

Joke about unsolicited dick picks? Get dozens of sanctimonious people telling her she shouldn't share it with her followers (she didn't). Reviews Netflix's widely criticised new show Insatiable? Gets told she's only mad about the fatphobia because she's fat. (For the record, Gay says Insatiable's fatphobia is "the least of the show's worries ... it's just bad.")

There's a feverishness of 'gotcha!' with trolls and other unpleasant people who attack her, a sense that they'll 'put her in her place' with a simple tweet.

The truth is, she usually puts them in theirs.

Australians will remember that the last time Roxane visited our country, she gave an interview to Mamamia's Mia Freedman that resulted in an unimaginably cruel piece about her weight, casting doubt on Roxane's mobility.

"It was a really painful episode," said Roxane. "She had met me before, she knew I was certainly capable of walking. It was just... weird. It was like, why did you say the things you said?"

After international backlash and prolonged delay, Freedman offered an apology, but not, as Roxane says, a great one.

"I still don't think she understands what she did wrong. But she did apologise, and it's over. That's good. I do know that I'll never do an interview with Mamamia again."

But negative past experiences aside, Roxane's looking forward to visiting Australia soon. As for what's next, she's taking a year out from work -- hopefully "getting some good writing in" -- and working on YA novel about first love.

"I think there are a lot of girls who don't know how to be loved, because they've been loved wrong their whole lives," she said.

"I just wanted to tell this young girl's story."

In an age of carefully managed social media profiles and public apologies made via the Notes app, it's rare that we have the level of access to someone of Roxane Gay's stature.

She shares the highs, the lows, the frustrations, the triumphs, and the teeny tiny bullshit of her days with the public. That's pretty unusual. And for the tens of thousands of us who appreciate her writing, we're probably not grateful enough.

You can catch Roxane Gay at her This Is 42 talk in March next year, alongside Christina Hoff Sommers. Book tickets here.