I STARTED this column, “Five Questions and Five Answers,” by interviewing the mesmerizing Cassandra Gillig in 2014. I’m back now with the second of a new three-part series. What governs this interview series is the idea of the imagination. People often talk of the imagination as if it is one thing for everyone, a place without context, a specific, singular landscape that we all go to. This kind of talk can make people feel that if they don’t have immediate access to this single place, they can’t engage in imaginative thinking, which disempowers infinite possible new ways of seeing the world. Everyone has their own imaginative landscapes, populated with very particular experiences, and when people open the door and let us into those places, it helps each of us connect with our own. It also helps us see the doors that connect all of our imaginations together. Because imagination is both specific and universal, real and unreal, profane and holy, a place of both rest and unrest, that we all can go to and share with others when we make new things.
I am lucky that I have the opportunity to interview the artists, thinkers, and writers who populate my own imaginative landscape, and to share our short conversations with you.
In this installment, I asked five questions of the groundbreaking genius Roxane Gay.
DOROTHEA LASKY: My first question is about your book called Bad Feminist. Part of what I took away from the book was the marvelous idea that no one is a perfect feminist. I really feel this way, too, as we all love things we shouldn’t. I consider myself a feminist, but I also love all kinds of art that I technically “shouldn’t” and sometimes I find that hard to reconcile. I feel inside and outside songs, poems, and visual art that might seem anti-feminist in tons of ways. So my question is: How do we deal with the disconnect of being drawn to culture that can be insidious with ideas that are seemingly against our own and what advice might you give us to deal with this dissonance?
ROXANE GAY: That dissonance between what we enjoy and what we know is a fraught place. We deal with that dissonance by accepting that we are human and that sometimes we want what we want, even if it isn’t good for us. That said, we also have to be literate enough to recognize the damaging messages of the culture we consume and we have to find ways to push back against more of such culture being created. We have to encourage the creators to be better, to stay true to their work while also respecting women. It shouldn’t be so difficult for them and if it is, well, that tells us something. I also believe that we all get to a place where enough is enough and the pleasures we derive from toxic cultural artifacts is not enough to overlook the pain.
What I love about all of your work, and especially your book, An Untamed State, is that you are never afraid to face the real dead on. The book unflinchingly confronts violence and real emotions as all part of the beauty of life. It’s what I’ve always loved about Sexton, too, she isn’t afraid to create personas that feel ugly things. It’s a vulnerable position at times because it’s asking a reader to accept what is and sometimes readers don’t want to. So, I’d love to know, what writers and artists do you love that give us the real in full dose?
My favorite, realest writers are xTx, Lindsay Hunter, Merritt Tierce, Taiye Selasi, and Randa Jarrar, to name a few. They just go to that ugly, vulnerable place over and over in their writing and make their readers the better for it.
My next question is pretty related to the last one. In Bad Feminist, in “Not Here to Make Friends,” you say: “I want characters to do the things I am afraid to do for fear of making myself more unlikable than I may already be. I want characters to be the most honest of all things — human.” And of course, this is rooted in part to the idea that women always face the pressure to be likable: to be polite, to not take up space, to make friends and not enemies, and to be good always in spite of everything. I think about this idea a lot in terms of how to create personas in poems. I want to make personas that don’t have the burden of being friendly and can just be. So, my question is: Have you ever created a character that you let be human and in doing so, he or she became more likable, so much so that he or she changed your view about something or ways of being? Or if not, has the opposite ever happened — that you created a character so unlikable it changed your own way of being in the world?
Lorraine in An Untamed State is one of those characters who was very human and flawed as the novel began but the more the story moved forward, the more we got to see the extent of her humanity, and in seeing a more whole picture of Lorraine, we were able to see that she may not be perfect but she was someone interesting and caring and, in her way, likable. She remains the character I’ve written who has surprised me the most because she forced me to confront my assumptions about what a woman like her would do and whether or not she would be able to grow.
In “Garish, Glorious Spectacles” (that title is so awesome because it reminds me of that Neutral Milk Hotel line, “God is a place where some holy spectacle lies.”) you talk about how on the show Flavor of Love, Flavor Flav renames his girl suitors, turning them into a bunch of silly and offensive creations, in order to take some ownership of them. Which of course is pretty awful, but then again, it’s interesting how you claim ownership over something when you rename it and I guess that’s how so many pet names and nicknames work in good ways. In this spirit, if you could rename your three favorite writers, what would these new names be and why?
This is a fantastic question. All of these questions are great, actually.
Edith Wharton would be renamed Elegant Blade because she was able to cut so deeply with her social critiques.
Zadie Smith would be renamed Flawless because, well, she is flawless and she only needs to go by one name, kind of like Beyoncé, who is also flawless.
Dave Housley, one of my favorite writers who is active in the small press world, would be renamed Witty Wizard because he writes about pop culture in such a confident and knowing and clever way.
My final question: What was your favorite toy growing up? (Mine was a blue and yellow bunny named Felicia my parents got me in a grocery store in LA when I was nine.)
This is so nerdy but it is also true; my favorite toy growing up was my typewriter.