Wisdom From Roxane Gay: How To Thrive As A Woman In The Publishing Industry


“You do realize this is the faculty parking lot, right?”

Roxane Gay has heard this question before. When people on campus assume that she is stealing a faculty parking space and entering Eastern Illinois University to perform janitorial duties, they are mistaken, but are they more than mistaken? Do they ask why Roxane is parking in the faculty lot because they are territorial or because the large, brown woman pulling into the lot could not possibly be who she is – a Haitian daughter, a friend, an author,  an elephant enthusiast, a writer for Salon.com, and a professor at Eastern Illinois University.

I can not presume to know what thoughts trickle through the minds of people who encounter Roxane. What I will do is recount some of the words that rang in my ears long after I left the New York City WAM! event where Roxane spoke this month.

Here’s Roxane Gay on the nature of being a minority woman in the publishing industry:
As a woman of color in publishing there is consistent encroachment upon your dignity in small ways. People in power want to remind you of your place. As women in publishing, we have to resist the buckets that people try to put us in.

On modifying behavior after gaining a public following:
The more you have a platform, the more responsible you have to be about what you say. You leave a bigger footprint and reach a bigger audience. I just try to be mindful.

On bringing more minorities into the publishing field with you after you get in:
You shouldn’t be able to name the writers of color on one hand all of the time. It’s not good enough to be the exception, until we’re all the rule instead of the exception. We’re not doing enough to open up the pipelines when we get in, but white guys are. I want to study them and figure out what kool-aid they’re drinking.

On Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s lauded (and lambasted) Lean In philosophy:
People like to talk shit about this Lean In book, but I love it. I recognize its faults, but it talks about the imposter syndrome where women think: “I can’t be good enough. How’d I get here? Do I deserve to be among all these smart people? Are my accomplishments fraudulent?” What I did find irritating about Lean In is, it essentially says act like a man (and not just any man, but an asshole man). Shouldn’t there be a different measure? Maybe they should be more like us?

On reading (and now avoiding) the comment section beneath stories:
When I read comments on things I had written, people said I was ugly, stupid and fat (ok, I’m fat), but I cried and thought “You don’t even know me. I like elephants.. I’m a real person!” I don’t read comment sections anymore.

On blending in with ‘bro’ culture and fraternizing with frat boys:
Don’t bend so much that you break. If the bro culture doesn’t suit you, change it without letting them know that you’re changing it. I golf now and I love it. All these people say “There’s a big black woman on the golf course,’ and I say “Yep, here I am. Deal with it.”

On mentorship:
Mentoring is not about age. It’s about what skills does this person have, that I can learn from. Find a mentor.

On never giving up:
Ask for what you need. If you get a “no”, then ask again and again, both inside your organization and outside of it. You are in charge of your own growth.

That last sentence described what I took away from this talk. We are not in charge of what others may think of us, assume about us or despise about us. While we can and should find safe spaces to talk about our frustrations and make new headway, we are ultimately in charge of our own growth and must go up, over, around or through human obstacles to get what we need. Let’s get going.

Roxane Gay’s
writing has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, Time, The Los Angeles Times, The Nation, Salon, The Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy culture blog, and many others. She teaches writing at Eastern Illinois University. Her novel, An Untamed State, will be published by Grove Atlantic. To view her book tour schedule, click here. You can follow the author on Twitter @rgay.


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