When Roxane Gay describes herself as a teenager, she uses phrases like “a complete mess.” Almost 30 years later, she’s the best selling author of Bad Feminist and Hunger, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times and a beloved voice on issues of gender, race, and poetry.
Throughout her career, Gay has turned to peers such as the fiction writer Tayari Jones—who once advised her to cultivate relationships with fellow black writers—for guidance. Gay has also been keen on returning the favor: One of her mentees is Ashley C. Ford, a senior writer at Refinery29 and the author of an upcoming memoir about growing up in Indiana.
Ford says her relationship with Gay is a mentorship without pressure. That may be because Gay’s rule when giving out advice is to let mentees be themselves, instead of imposing her idea of who they should be. I spoke with the pair for The Atlantic’s series on mentorship, “On the Shoulders of Giants.” The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Elisha Brown: Who was the first person to value your talent as a writer?
Ashley C. Ford: My third-grade teacher, Miss Duckie. We had to write these poems for different holidays and events, so I wrote two poems—one was about Halloween and the other one was about Titanic, which I was obsessed with. I remember her pulling me aside and saying, “Those are really good poems, Ashley. You should keep doing this.” I was definitely the kind of kid, who, if I respected an adult, anything they encouraged in me I would go for it, 100 percent.
Roxane Gay: Rex McGuinn, my high-school English teacher. He took me seriously, even though I was a 15-year-old kid who was a complete mess. He was always professional and always made me feel safe and feel seen. He encouraged my work and gave me [constructive] feedback on my writing. He was willing to go above and beyond the classroom and what was expected in that classroom. That was really wonderful.
Brown: Roxane, how did you and Ashley first meet?
Gay: I became aware of Ashley online. She was living in Indiana at the time, and I was in Illinois. We met online and first began corresponding via email.
Brown: Ashley, do you remember when you first met in person?
Ford: I do. I was with a group of English students from my school. We drove to Indianapolis where Roxane was doing a reading. Our professor asked her if she would get dinner with us. All of us girls who were quietly obsessed with her showed up to this restaurant. We were so nervous. She was gracious and funny, everything that Roxane is. When we did hang out one-on-one, it was just hanging out and talking, me asking her for advice.
Brown: Ashley, you’ve talked about how you sometimes struggle to ask people for help. How did you get past that challenge?
Ford: I realized nobody was doing it by themselves, and it wouldn’t make me look weak by asking for help from people who had offered it. Roxane was a force when it came to things that I needed or things that I couldn’t bring myself to ask for. She provided in a way that allowed me to maintain some sense of dignity but also didn’t allow me to count myself out, which I had a history with at that point.
Brown: Roxane, what’s the best piece of advice that Tayari Jones [a mentor and fellow author] has given you?
Gay: That the black writing community is very small, and it’s important that we help each other. We don’t have to always like each other, but we should help each other. There are so few of us, relatively speaking, and we do face so many obstacles in mainstream publishing.
Brown: What’s the best piece of advice Roxane has given you, Ashley?
Ford: Know what you should be earning at a job. Know what you’re bringing to the table as much as what they’re bringing to the table for you. And try to make that as equitable as possible.
Brown: Roxane, in an article you wrote for Fortune, you reflected on a New York Times Magazine story that described a mentorship that evolved into a toxic sexual relationship. You said one of the takeaways from that story was the importance of responsibility in mentorship. What did you mean by that?
Gay: You have to maintain firm boundaries. Anytime a mentoring relationship becomes sexual, I wonder what’s really going on. It’s such an abuse of power and privilege on the mentor’s part.
You have to make sure the mentoring relationship is active and that it goes both ways. You have to be clear of the expectations, if any, that you have of the mentee. Don’t pressure them into being like you. Whenever I’m mentoring someone, the most important thing to me is that they become who they’re meant to be, not who I want them to be.
Brown: Ashley, in your recent piece for New York magazine about the plus-size fashion industry, you mentioned that you originally majored in fashion merchandising but a teacher discouraged you, saying it would be difficult “unless you were a man or a genius.” Do you think that sort of advice is ultimately helpful or harmful?
Ford: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being honest about difficulties. It was clear to me that a lot of her discouraging came from her own experience. Roxane would’ve told me it was going to be difficult, but she would’ve never discouraged me from continuing. That’s the hard thing with mentorship: finding that balance of giving someone an accurate picture of where difficulties may lie, but also maintaining that you believe in their ability, if you do, and at the very least you want to try to have their backs.
Brown: Roxane, as you’ve become more well known, how do you handle the pressure of having everything you say or write subject to analysis and criticism?
Gay: I try to remind myself that my opinion is just one opinion, and it’s not my fault if people think I’m speaking for everyone. I also know that I can’t control the reactions of other people. I am human and certain criticisms hurt more than others. It’s challenging, but I remind myself that I have as much right as anyone else to offer opinions on the world that we live in.
Brown: Ashley, do you do deal with similar issues?
Ford: Roxane is this globally renowned public intellectual—there are going to be a lot of people who feel like when you have that amount of influence, there’s no margin for error. I don’t deal with a lot of hate. It’s starting to happen a little more—people feel like it’s important to correct me, they want to check someone. It means something to take down that person, because they have the platform you don’t have. It actually doesn’t mean anything. It’s just annoying.
Brown: How does it feel to be a role model to so many people?
Gay: It’s quite an honor, but I’m always clear that I’m no role model. I remind them that I’m human, and you should not put me on a pedestal. If you do, that’s your choice and you have to deal with the disappointment when I do something you don’t like.
Ford: Watching Roxane and some of the things that she has had to go through by having a larger platform has made me a little shy about having fans that look up to me. Sometimes people put you on a pedestal, just so they can tear you off of it. At the end of the day, I will never be unhappy when I hear that someone has found a way to connect with my work. I hope that in looking up to me, people continue to allow me to be human.