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.
My fiction has also taken on a lot of these issues. A black woman in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula tries to close herself off from grief but meets someone who makes her want to open those parts of herself she is protecting and make a home in a strange land. In a near future where the South has re-seceded from the United States, a father must decide between his wife and son and his own family whose roots run deep into Southern soil. In my novel An Untamed State, a Haitian American woman is kidnapped and has to overcome the betrayal of father and country as she tries to return to the woman she once was.
Where do we belong, I am always asking. How beholden are we to the places and people to whom we belong?
Writing requires courage, audacity. I’m not suggesting that there is something heroic about writing but I do believe that to commit words and ideas to the page demands something of the writer. Whether fiction or nonfiction, most writers are baring some part of themselves. They are making themselves vulnerable because the writing demands it. Whenever I come across a writer who takes bold chances and exposes their vulnerability at the same time, I am in awe. Zadie Smith is one such writer. Since its release, I have marveled over her novel NW, polyphonic, messy, sly, and tender in the most unexpected places.