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.