#100PENMembers No.65: Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay is a novelist, academic, editor and feminist, and longstanding member of PEN America.

She won PEN America’s Freedom to Write award in 2015 and in 2016 delivered its Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture.

‘The freedom to write,’ Gay told Literary Hub, ‘has been one of my life’s greatest blessings and it is a freedom that should be available to everyone who wants or needs to share their voice.

‘I am thankful that organizations like PEN Center USA are doing the necessary work to ensure that such freedom is protected. It is humbling to be considered worthy of such an award. I am thrilled and honoured.’

Her essays and articles including her recent, widely read New York Times piece “Where Are Black Children Safe?”are hugely popular and widely shared on social media, leading to national and international conversations on issues around race, gender and sexuality.

In 2016 she delivered PEN’s Arthur Miller Freedom to Writelecture at the PEN World Voices Festival (created by #100PENMembers Salman Rushdie). Gay brought the attention of the audience for the lecture to the obstacles faced by individual writers, discussing the self-censorship and personal hardships endured by female writers, particularly those of colour, framed by her own struggles.

‘I allow myself to believe my perspective, how I choose to narrate the world, is as valuable as anyone else who chooses to do so. I allow myself to believe my life experiences have relevance.

‘I allow myself to believe my voice matters in a world where as a woman, as a black woman, as a Haitian American woman, as a bisexual woman, I am told to remain silent in so many harmful ways.’

‘I refuse to accept that inequality or violence and suffering are things we must accept as facts of life as if we do not dare to want for better, for more.’

She discussed her anxieties about her own memoir Hunger(2017) and the role of black female role models like Beyoncé, shortly after the release of the singer’s Lemonadealbum, in empowering women to speak out and use their own experiences in their work.

She went on to criticise the publishing industry for failing to embrace black voices and black editors: ‘When white men write about themselves, people are like, oh my god that’s groundbreaking, like Knausgaard. When a woman does it it’s self-indulgent’ calling on publishers to ‘step up’.

In 2020 she judged the PEN America literary awards and she continues to support the organisation and the champion writers’ rights worldwide.

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