I don’t often get to say that I agree with the Pope, but he nailed it this week when he urged teenagers to engage in face-to-face dialogue. “Dialogue which brings hearts closer together” is “a medicine against violence,” he told an audience at St. Peter’s Square. I can say this because I was there in the room last week when 25 of my students put down their phones and engaged in face-to-face dialogue with Roxane Gay.
Most of these were first years. They had never heard of Roxane Gay until one of us, the two professors traveling with them to Mount Holyoke College, had assigned Bad Feminist–the quintessential exploration of modern feminism according to the Mount Holyoke website. Very few, if any, had ever been to an author reading or a talk on feminism or social justice. They’d never pondered how external experiences–like being in the presence of Roxane Gay, 42, bestselling author, New York Times opinion writer, and associate professor of English at Purdue University–can catalyze deeply personal (and political) internal experiences and provoke feminist wakefulness.
We two professors, wildly dedicated “fan girls,” knew that meeting Roxane Gay in person would change their lives in ways that reading her essays had only begun.
“I like Roxane Gay because she is black, a woman, and not straight,” Tori Vargas, a first-year student, told me. “I’m interested particularly because she’s black, and I learned a lot about privilege from reading her.”
“Roxane Gay gives us permission to be imperfect about feminism,” adds my colleague Jess Landis. “She acknowledges we always need to be learning.”
I’ve read everything she’s written, yet seeing her walk onto that stage and take a seat on a sofa, ready to talk to us, was intimate, real, invigorating. Not just text on a page, but a living human hero.
Gay reads from her Difficult Women collection and an essay about American disgrace and the recent election. She is funny and cool. Around me, my students laugh and clap.
About the new U.S. president and his patriarchal posse, Gay offers nuggets of wisdom. “We need to do better,” she declared. “We need to get uncomfortable. We are devastated, but your eyes are open. We need to raise our voices and keep them raised. We cannot afford protest fatigue. Change comes with a willingness to think differently.”
Then we dialogue. Face to face. She is generous, frank, irreverent. The first question is about her decision to pull her book from Simon and Schuster because of their contract with misogynist Milo Yiannopoulas. She declares that he is out to provoke, to be “salacious, cruel.” In January, one of her newest books was due, but she called her agent to tell her to “pull the book” when she heard an imprint of Simon and Schuster had offered a $250,ooo advance to Yiannopoulas for his new book. “I was not going to give them a bestseller,” Gay chided. The audience roared.
“Someone had to stand up,” she says. “I could not believe I was the first author to do this.” Others, she admonished, could have afforded to do the same. Meanwhile, she has gotten many other offers. (S&S dropped Milo like a hot potato days after our visit with Gay.)
What do you do, one student asks Gay, when your guy “friends” shush your feminist opinions, ask if you are “on your period” when you get angry at the mistreatment of women. Gay nods. “I get this question a lot,” she says. “It’s not your job to be the world’s teacher, to do that emotional labor. Some people cannot be reached.” Let them go, she advises.
I quietly remind myself that I have given this very advice a multitude of times, but I am not as hip as Gay, who sports tattoos, drops f-bombs freely, and has a presence that makes you want to pitch a tent at Mt. Holyoke just to be near this “bad feminist.” I can live with this because my students are hanging on her every word.
A pop culture whiz, Gay applauds Oscar nominees Moonlight as “breathtaking,” La La Land as “cheesy as hell,” and the entire 2017 as a “particularly good year for black film.” As for the Bachelorette’s newest pick, Rachel Lindsay, 31, a black attorney, Gay says it is important to see “black women as love interests,” as opposed to the other stereotypical roles they too often inhabit.
What to do about “fake news?” someone asks. “We persist,” Gay exhorts. “We say the truth enough so it stays true. We confront with the truth. Truth is our greatest ally now.
When it was over, we cheered, stood in line to have Roxane Gay sign our books and shake our hands. We Facebooked our photos. Enroute home, the students talked over each other, wired.
“She is so REAL,” says Tori Vargas, who loved her from the start.
“I admire her honesty. She is comfortable with her intellect and talking about women’s rights, especially about African American women’s rights,” says first-year student Sydania Grady.
“She talks about the difficult issues; she doesn’t censor herself,” says junior Milana Tinaeva.
“I like that she says she cannot be optimistic, that she is still figuring it out,” says senior Danica Thoroughgood.
“And she’s looking for the ‘grace in disgrace,’” shouts senior Erin Baronas, “that is so cool.”
It was all so cool. In our country, where truth is a squishy thing without feathers, Roxane Gay soars. She woke up an auditorium. Feminist click moments abounded. The students heading home with us were not the same students we’d traversed hill and dale with several hours before. They could not unhear the truths spoken in that auditorium, where they were face to face with that badass feminist writer.
Donna Decker is an English professor at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire, where she teaches a seminar on school shootings.