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Roxane Gay on 'Opinions', her new book of essays

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

These days, it seems like everyone has an opinion on everything. But what makes an opinion worth considering? Writer Roxane Gay has an idea.

ROXANE GAY: Is the opinion well-articulated? Is the argument well-supported? Does the author of the opinion have something that draws your attention to their work?

RASCOE: Roxane Gay has written for The New York Times, The Guardian and other outlets. She's published a new collection of essays called "Opinions." She told me it took a journey to find her voice.

GAY: The more you do something, the more comfortable you can become doing it. And it's more that I realized, why not me? What is really going to prevent me from sharing an opinion? You don't have to agree. You don't have to like it. You don't have to like me. But I'm as entitled as anyone else to share my opinions.

RASCOE: And let's dig into some of the essays in the book. One of the essays that stood out to me and also to one of our producers was the essay about, like, why are Father's Day gifts so terrible? I mean, it sounds like a very simple subject, but it's really quite deep because it's almost saying, why doesn't society think more of men or men as fathers and give them a fuller experience of life apart from they grill and drink beer and, like, wear ties?

GAY: (Laughter) Yes. You know, every time I shop for my father for Father's Day or even his birthday, I tend to be flummoxed because there are so few readily available options that seem interesting. He doesn't really barbecue that much anymore. He doesn't drink whiskey. He does not need any more tumblers. And so how do we celebrate the men in our lives and let them know that they are appreciated for who they are and what they bring to our families?

And that's challenging because we tend to valorize motherhood overall, and there are no problems finding things to give. And Hallmark and the sort of greeting card industrial complex around Mother's Day and Valentine's Day has found myriad ways of compelling people to buy things for their mothers. And then Father's Day comes along, and we see the same old tropes over and over, and I just think maybe our fathers deserve a little better.

RASCOE: Is there a way you think that, like - and not that we have to have an answer for this - but a better way to celebrate men and, like, kind of free them from these, like, rigid, very rigid gender roles for - that society gives them?

GAY: What I've done in recent years, especially now that I can afford it, is focus more on experiences, things that I know he likes to do. He loves NBA games. He loves going to live sports. He's gotten into football. Being able to get him two tickets to an event where he can go and do something and really have a lovely moment - that feels really wonderful.

RASCOE: Obviously, you've written about a wide range of things. Something that you've written a lot about is race. You have an essay, "White Crime," and you talk about the shield that whiteness creates. And you write, whiteness provides instant redemption and unearned respect. And Blackness, on the other hand - you say innocence and Blackness are seen as antithetical. When you write those things, are you hoping that people will receive them? Are you looking at them as a testament for this moment? Are you hoping to spur action? Is it all of the above?

GAY: It's a combination of all three of those things. Sometimes, the obvious does need to be stated because we're dealing with issues that are persistent and have lasted across generations, and it often feels like things aren't getting much better.

So yes, we do need to bear witness. We do need to offer testimony. But we also need to articulate just how egregious these things are - extrajudicial murder, the lack of care or consideration for young Black people, how young Black people are considered adults while 35-year-old white men are considered children. We need to talk about these things. We need to name them even if we don't offer solutions.

And really, implicitly, you're being told in a many of these essays, say something. Talk to your friends and neighbors. Change your attitudes. And recognize the crises that we're dealing with around race in this country.

RASCOE: You do reviews of other - you know, of other people's work. And in warning signs, "The Sacrifice" - it was a review of "The Sacrifice" by Joyce Carol Oates. You had some concerns not about the fact that Joyce Carol Oates wrote about people that were different than her - the characters were different - but the way that it was handled. And you brought this up in other reviews, too. I guess you say that it has to have empathy, that when you're writing about people who are different from you, you have to have empathy. How can you have empathy, I guess, without being patronizing?

GAY: We often overuse the word empathy, and it's just this empty placeholder for vibes. But...

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: Yes, yeah, yeah.

GAY: When I say that you should have empathy, it means that you should be writing about people, regardless of whatever identities they inhabit, as if you have spent some time in that community and have a clear sense of who those people are. In "The Sacrifice" in particular, it just was not a good book. And that's OK. We all have bad books in us. So it's weird when people take it so profoundly personally. What Joyce Carol Oates did in that book was write about Blackness in ways that were at times ludicrous, at times offensive. And it just felt like she had never spent any time with another Black person ever.

RASCOE: Do - when - in pulling all of these opinions together, did you find any kind of unifying themes in the chapters or in the essays or things that stood out to you? Or even, like, oh, I say that a lot (laughter).

GAY: Listen. There is something very humbling about pulling together a lot of pieces that you've written. I do notice certain tendencies and tics that I have in my work. And I tend to do this thing where I sort of engage in accumulation, where I share, like, here are all the terrible things that are happening. Like, this is what we're dealing with. Here is the context into which I'm writing.

RASCOE: Yeah.

GAY: But when you write about the same things over and over again and terrible things keep happening, you have to keep doing that from piece to piece to piece. And when you take them as a whole, it's like, yes, OK, we do that a lot. What are we going to try for the next book?

(LAUGHTER)

GAY: And so now I'm thinking of new ways to get the effect that I'm going for without necessarily relying on that rhetorical approach so much. But overall, as I read the book, you know, I've not ever really written anything that I'm ashamed of. I've grown as a writer, and I think you can see that growth from some of the earlier pieces to the more recent pieces. I definitely see that I have a distinct voice. Like, when I read something, I know I wrote it. And on the whole, I have an interesting range of interests and, I think, viewpoints. And so the book has something to offer.

RASCOE: That's author Roxane Gay talking about her collection of essays called "Opinions." Thank you so much for joining us.

GAY: And thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO'S "OMNIPUSS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Hadeel Al-Shalchi
Hadeel al-Shalchi is an editor with Weekend Edition. Prior to joining NPR, Al-Shalchi was a Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press and covered the Arab Spring from Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, and Libya. In 2012, she joined Reuters as the Libya correspondent where she covered the country post-war and investigated the death of Ambassador Chris Stephens. Al-Shalchi also covered the front lines of Aleppo in 2012. She is fluent in Arabic.