One of the things that I’m doing these days is taking a course in feature-length magazine writing. My instructor, David Hayes, is showing me and my classmates how to incorporate elements of narrative writing — scenes, settings, main characters, and story arcs — into non-fiction pieces. And one of the things that he recommends is to get comfortable with the personal essay as an artform.
Roxane Gay is supremely comfortable with this style of writing, as Bad Feminist, her recent essay collection, shows. By turns funny, candid, and painful, she brings her considerable wit to bear on a variety of topics. She eases us into things slowly by talking about subjects that are somewhat innocuous — like her days playing at competitive Scrabble tournaments and her love of the Sweet Valley series in middle and high school — but as the book progresses, she tackles weightier issues: the erasure of black lives and experiences in America, feeling isolated as an young black woman in a school full of perfect, cornfed-looking white kids, the stresses of academic life, and being gang-raped as a teenager.
She also talks about the representation of people of colour in American media, being overweight and how the realities of life with her body type are rarely treated with respect, and how she struggles to fit an outdated, damaging perception of what feminist practice should look like.
Through it all, her prose is clear, direct, and unvarnished. Yes, there are intense flashes of humour and an underlying vein of pain and empathy winding itself throughout the collection, but she chooses clarity over verbal acrobatics. I may love the wit and sarcasm of writers like David Rakoff and David Sedaris, but after a while, writing like theirs feels forced and arrogant. In contrast, Roxane Gay feels like a real person, and her authenticity (god, what a loaded word!) is relatable and comforting.
In fact, the clarity of her writing may lead readers to underestimate her, since it flows so smoothly. However, such a belief is misplaced. Easy reading is damn hard writing, as they say, and Roxane Gay’s writing is very easy reading. As a freelance editor often tasked with ensuring clarity in the work I edit, I appreciate the effort that goes into the kind of writing she does.
However, when she gets going into her cultural analysis, she really gets going. I particularly appreciated her deconstruction of race, class, and gender within Tyler Perry’s films, and her take on what his success says about the relative paucity of black filmmakers’ voices in Hollwood. Plus, I wish I could write about authors like Kate Zambreno, Junot Diaz, and Diana Spechler with her level of insight, cross-referencing with other works, and cultural understanding. If I hope to write reviews like the ones in Bad Feminist one day, I have a lot of work to do.