What Zadie Smith Taught Roxane Gay: Identity Is Drag

Gay, author of An Untamed State and the forthcoming Bad Feminist, sees her own questions of multi-ethnic and multi-national identity reflected in Smith's NW.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

Roxane Gay’s work refuses to be neatly classified. Her genre-spanning first book, Ayiti, used poetry, essay, and fiction to dramatize and depict the far-flung diversity of the Haitian diaspora. As she continues creative work in many forms, Gay’s book reviews and cultural criticism appear in venues like The New York Times and The Rumpus, while her blog—which combines personal confessions, reactions to just-breaking stories and reality TV, brief poetic missives, incisive social commentary, and feminist musings made while cooking and photographing meals—elevates the Tumblr to high art.

Gay’s varied formal approach reflects the content of her work, which tends to pit the messy nature of individuality against the simplistic ways we talk about identity. Her essay for this series is a brief, powerful defense of the multivalent nature of one’s self—a coming-to-terms with the way we inhabit numerous contradictory personae. For inspiration, she looks to a passage from Zadie Smith’s latest novel, NW, that likens a woman’s many different (and sometimes opposing) identities to forms of drag, a series of wardrobe changes, each outfit expressive of its own truth at the same time it disguises others.

Gay’s new novel, An Untamed State, looks at another form of identity dissolution: the way selfhood breaks down in the wake of trauma. On a vacation to Port-au-Prince, Mireille, a wealthy Haitian-American woman, is kidnapped at gunpoint from her car while her husband and child helplessly watch. Held for a million-dollar ransom—one her politically powerful father is reluctant to pay—she experiences unspeakable physical assault over the course of 13 days. After her release, Gay traces her character’s attempt to regain a functioning self, to fold the obliterating horror she endured into one sentence: “This is who I am.”

Gay’s essay collection, Bad Feminist, will be published later in 2014. She teaches at Eastern Illinois University, and her fiction appeared in The Best American Short Stories 2012.

Roxane Gay: How do we inhabit multiple identities? This question has long consumed me and my writing. Perhaps it still does, though I have learned to ask more rigorous questions. The first essays I published, nearly 15 years go, were ones where I tried to write through my conflicted feelings about identity. As the child of Haitian immigrants who was raised in the suburbs, mostly in the Midwest, I often wondered where I belonged—never Haitian enough or American enough or black enough to feel like the world had a place for me.

I grappled with being black in America and being Haitian in black America and being black American in Haiti and being middle class when that was rarely considered a possibility for someone who looked like me. I was also trying to make sense of desire and sexuality and wanting so much for myself that felt forbidden. I was trying to figure out who I was and what might be possible for me. I was trying to write toward a space where I could reveal my most authentic self to the people who knew me but did not.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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