“Oh, this is so quaint. Everything is so old.” That is how Roxane Gay, renowned author and 2018 William Starr Lecturer, described Vassar on Wednesday, Nov. 3. Sitting in an armchair at the front of the Chapel, she leaned her head casually on her arm, used to these types of events and “quaint,” “old” campuses.
This casual, conversational structure is what makes Gay’s lecture series so unique. From her cozy chair, she lets the audience into not only her academic mind, but also her personal one. To that end, she refuses to spend her time on stage giving conventional lectures. Instead, she reads short excerpts of her writing (on Wednesday, she chose two essays from her book “Bad Feminist,” “Typical First Year Professor” and the titular piece) and spends the rest of the talk answering audience questions, preferring, as she puts it, “to talk with you, not at you.” This is also emblematic of Gay’s style as a writer: as Associate Professor of English Eve Dunbar said in her introduction, “[Gay] listens, she hears us and she creates in response.”
“Bad Feminist” was the required summer reading for the Class of 2022. Each year, Vassar invites the author of the selected book to campus to give the annual William Starr Lecture.
Dean of First-Year Students Denise Walen said in an email correspondence that she and the Writing Committee chose “Bad Feminist” and Roxane Gay this year because “[The committee was] struck by the book’s ‘strength,’ ‘counter-intuitive way of thinking’ and ‘compelling’ ideas … Gay invites us to build a better society and does not shrink from identifying struggles and weaknesses within the U.S. society.”
Gay extended the same invitation in person on Wednesday, and students gladly accepted, taking the opportunity to pick the brain of a second-generation Haitian woman who has made a tremendous impact on American culture and who refuses to be silenced by anyone who would prefer that people who share those identities remain quiet.
One student posed a question directly related to Gay’s identity, requesting insight into Gay’s ability to reconcile her Blackness and “woman-ness” in spaces where those identities are not traditionally welcome. Gay responded quickly, giving the impression that she has offered the same advice to many Black women before: “I try to remember that I have the right to be in any space I’m in…I also try to make sure I’m not the only one. We have to show up in numbers.”
Another student asked how to handle situations in which white people expect people of color to be authorities on topics of broader minority experience, to which Gay responded with her characteristic bluntness: “The older I get and the less fucks that I give, the more I tell people that I am not the spokesperson. Allow yourself to say, ‘This is not my burden, and I refuse to let this be my burden.’ When that happens in the classroom, push back and tell your teacher to do better, because this is Vassar and we should be doing better.” Gay was aware of her audience: not only was she responding to the student’s question, but she was also issuing a warning to the professors in the room that they must do better.
Gay did not let students off easily, either: She reminded the room, “People who attend schools like this have a lot of privilege and need to use it.” She encouraged students to look into and challenge the allocation of Vassar’s endowment, recalling how she worked with a group of peers in high school to push her school to divest from Coca-Cola, which at the time was supporting South Africa’s apartheid regime.
Proving that her political engagement has sustained from those days to the present, Gay implored audience members to ask her about the 2018 midterm elections, which had taken place the day before. When one student finally did, Gay was positive in her analysis: “Last night was a good night, and I wish more Democrats would pause and enjoy it. Last night was a victory, even though there were some disappointments.” She spoke to the problem of increasingly misrepresentative polling. She commented, “[With minorities running for office more frequently,] people lie to the pollsters because they want to seem better than they are.”
Gay went on to share innumerable insights in about 45 minutes of questions and answers—ranging from the self-proclaimed controversial assertion that “if you don’t believe in a woman’s right to choose, you’re not a feminist,” to reminding the audience that “survivors of trauma need to protect themselves first and foremost.” She spoke about writer’s block, Twitter and several celebrities’ bodies, referring to one as “Daddy.” In short, she gave a lecture so dynamic and wide-ranging that it could only be the product of allowing hundreds of college students to ask whatever was on their young, growing minds.
That breadth of topic was precisely what Walen had hoped for when she invited Gay to campus. Walen wrote that “The talk went very well … The students asked very thoughtful questions and Roxane Gay was generous about responding at length, shifting easily between very different questions on topics like writing, the midterm elections, feminism, and identity.”
That ability to talk about everything and anything—from sensitive, painful subjects to light and funny life moments—is what gives a writer range and depth. It is what makes Gay’s work so relatable and creative. It is why, in Dunbar’s words, “[Gay is] one of the fiercest and most prolific writers in the U.S. today.”