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Roxane Gay on Unruly Bodies, the difficulty of being transgressive, and #WhoBitBey

“There are a lot of consequences to living in a body, and to living in a woman’s body.”

Roxane Gay Harper

Roxane Gay is the woman who never sleeps. The author of Bad Feminist and Hunger and Difficult Women — not to mention her Black Panther comics spinoff series World of Wakanda — is now launching a pop-up magazine on Medium.

Beginning April 3 and continuing throughout the month, Gay’s magazine Unruly Bodies will feature 24 writers on what it means to experience the world in unruly bodies — bodies that are too fat, or too hairy, or too disabled, or that otherwise transgress the boundaries constructed for them by polite society. Contributors will include Carmen Maria Machado, Larissa Pham, Kiese Laymon, Samantha Irby, and Kima Jones.

I spoke to Gay over the phone about her plans for the magazine, what it means to be unruly, and the ever-pressing question of #WhoBitBey. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Constance Grady

Tell us a little bit about this Unruly Bodies project. What can readers expect to see?

Roxane Gay

Last year, Medium approached me and asked me if I would like to assemble a pop-up magazine. I was really intrigued, so I said yes. And then I was thinking about what I wanted the overall theme of the magazine to be because I knew I wanted it to have some sort of connective tissue. And I was also thinking about my most recent nonfiction book, Hunger. When I wrote Hunger, I was really interested in what it means to be living in an unruly body, so I thought I would do something beyond that.

I decided to call the magazine Unruly Bodies, and to ask a group of writers — I think I have 24 in all — the same question: What does it mean to live in an unruly body? And then I just let it go and see what they came up with, and I’ve been really thrilled so far.

Constance Grady

A lot of your titles, in both your fiction and nonfiction, tend to center figures, usually women, who are transgressing some kind of expected norm or boundary: Bad Feminist, Difficult Women, and now this Unruly Bodies project. What is interesting to you about those kinds of transgressions?

Roxane Gay

I think that any time a woman does something that goes against what our cultural expectations are for women, it’s interesting, and there’s a lot of tension there because it’s difficult to be transgressive. It doesn’t always go over well.

And as a writer, I’m always interested in that tension, in what it looks like. In what it means to dare to believe, for example, that you are equal to a man and deserve to be treated with dignity and humanity. Or to deserve that same dignity because you’re a person of color, or queer, or someone with a disability, or working class. Any time you’re marginalized, you deserve, nonetheless, to be human. And unfortunately, we live in a world where that’s often not the case. There’s a lot there to think through and bring attention to.

Constance Grady

One of the things that I think is so interesting about your work is that you’re one of a number of writers, including Ta-Nehisi Coates, who have started to write about oppression specifically as it is enacted on the human body. I wondered if you could talk a little about how that aesthetic emerged in your work.

Roxane Gay

I think what Ta-Nehisi Coates does is fairly different in terms of thinking about the body. He’s often thinking about the black male body, and the black male body as a target, one that absorbs the ills of racism. As a black woman, I know that my body is endangered, but I don’t know that a lot of my writing is centered on that. I think that my writing about fatness is one where I’m looking at how fat bodies carry and receive quite a lot of oppression.

So I don’t know that the connection is quite there, but I am very interested in women’s bodies and how women’s bodies are treated as public spectacles, regardless of what the body looks like. If the body is closer to our cultural ideal of what a woman’s body should look like, it’s gawked at, but if your body does not conform to that ideal, it’s also gawked at and commented on. There are a lot of consequences to living in a body, and to living in a woman’s body. I think you spend your entire life on display, whether you want to be or not. I’m very interested in exploring that, and how we live with that.

Constance Grady

You’ve said when you were writing Hunger that your body and fatness in particular was the thing you wanted to write about least. Was it a relief once you’d actually written about it?

Roxane Gay

Oh, no, not really. [Laughs.] I was glad to be done, I was definitely glad to be done with writing the book, but once I had finished the book and turned it in, then I had a whole new set of anxieties. Because not only had I done the work of going there, which was very difficult, but then I had to face people reading what I had written. So I actually had more anxiety after the book was written and before it came out, wondering what people were going to think, how they were going to read the book, what my — not enemies, but the people who dislike me — what they were going to take from the book to use against me. It was very stressful.

Constance Grady

You are constantly working in a million different media, fiction and nonfiction and comics and mysterious projects with Channing Tatum. What can we look forward to seeing from you next?

Roxane Gay

On May 1, my anthology that I edited called Not That Bad is going to be released. It’s an anthology that looks at rape culture. Twenty-nine writers, both women and men, write about sexual violence, sexual predation, harassment, rape culture, in one form or another.

Constance Grady

Last question to send us out on a high note: Who do you think bit Beyoncé, and why?

Roxane Gay

Oh, my god. I think Gwyneth Paltrow did it.

Constance Grady

Oh, man, why Gwyneth?

Roxane Gay

Because I think that would just would be hilarious if it were true. I just could see it with all her Goopy advice that’s so medically unsound. … She just seems like the kind of woman who would overstep that boundary. I think that I think that because I saw her singing a Jay-Z-Kanye song once and she said the n-word while she was singing it, and I was like, “Girl. No. Not for you.” Which to me is the same kind of thing as biting Beyoncé, so I think she bit Beyoncé.