Dialogs: The Fire This Time with Roxane Gay at the Chicago Humanities Festival

The Chicago Humanities Festival hosted writer Roxane Gay, in conversation with writer Lindsay Hunter, at the University of Chicago’s Lab School. Like recent CHF speaker and fellow Black female author Zadie Smith, Gay was promoting her latest publication. Her compilation Opinions: A Decade of Arguments, Criticism and Minding Other People’s Business was characterized as “truthful, elegant and fierce.”

Hunter attended the School of the Art Institute, and still lives in Chicago. Gay’s book imprint has published Hunter’s fifth book, the novel Hot Springs Drive. In addition to being a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, Gay is a nationally bestselling author, including the World of Wakanda for Marvel, and publishes a newsletter, The Audacity.

Gay is tall, 6’3”, and effortlessly funny, quipping responses to Hunter’s queries in front of an enthusiastic, packed audience. Born in Omaha of Haitian descent, Gay was an Eastern Illinois University professor before teaching at Yale. She remarked that coming back to the Windy City reminded her of perennial Midwestern sights, like “white men in shorts in cold weather, also wearing flip-flops … with one sharp toenail,” Gay said.

She recounted that her mother, in the audience this day, encouraged her to use her voice, so Gay never stopped speaking out. But now she’s carved out more time to consider that voice. She used to have to “churn and burn,” to crank out newspaper copy on pressing societal topics, but now she has created a position where she can sit and read and think before penning her dissections, something she considers “exacting yet human.”

Regarding journalism, Gay said that “objectivity is a myth. People who say they’re objective is not an objective assessment.” She also pondered those who “hold dominion over others without consequence.” Speaking of which, Gay confessed that Beverly Hills is her favorite of the Real Housewives franchise. When asked what her catch phrase or signature move might be if she was on that show, Gay said “I would hold a blade. Because I cut for keeps.” But would she really consider joining that reality juggernaut? “I don’t think producer Andy Cohen could afford my price,” Gay said. “Plus, he’d regret hiring me in a day.” Her Real Housewives of the Literary World dream cast would include Jennifer Egan and Donna Tartt. Gay likes writer xTx too.

Hunter asked Gay about her own writing process. Gay likes to write at night, between 9pm and 2am, “when the world is calm, things feel more natural, and all the emails have been checked.” Plus, she added that she doesn’t have a particularly demanding job; she’s just a writer and an English teacher, all of which can be done with little to no sleep.

When asked about current political polls, Gay advised to ignore them, as the last two elections were predicted incorrectly, and “polls are just to generate more business dollars for the outlets.” Gay warns that another Trump presidency would be a “disaster we cannot even conceive of,” where the wealthy would get wealthier, the borders would become more chaotic, and the disregard for those without money would grow.

But she said that we need a better choice than Biden, because she is “over the gerontocracy.” Gay knows that there is currently a lot on the American political plate, but “we are capable of doing it all.” We need to get rid of lobbying, she said, and the election season is way too long, and forces the electorate to choose between terrible and worse. Gay also reminded folks that “social media is not activism.”

Gay is working on a new article about ideological impermanence, and noted that when she visits high schools, she sees that “the kids are OK.” They are busy with charities and many types of socially progressive activities. When asked about the current Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce relationship, she supported dating “cornfed men, who are like a slab of beef” because “beef is delicious.” Gay considers CrossFit training her nemesis, primarily because practitioners always call the gym “a box.”

An audience questioner applauded Gay’s takedown of “fat representation” in Hollywood with her New York Times review of the film The Whale. Gay is frustrated that overweight people are usually portrayed as “pitiful, repulsive, the butt of all jokes, full of self-loathing, and unable to find relationships.”

“Stop giving into a failure, a paucity, of imagination,” she added. “Hollywood seems unable to imagine a marginalized life.”

Another asked about her response to Project 2025, the conservative plan to replace American democracy with an authoritarian dictatorship. Gay is frustrated that the media is not covering it, much the same way those institutions often cover war in the passive voice. She cited how MAGA movement pressure has also decimated Florida’s New College, and how only 11 people are responsible for the nationwide spate of fascist book bans. She said it’s a spectacular failure to not cover this nefarious, multifaceted march toward a Christian ethnostate.

The final question of this engaging, hour-long program was what two texts does Gay recommend for students to read? She quickly replied, advocating for a collection that she edited, The Selected Works of Audre Lorde. Her introduction to that collection of prose and poetry by the “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” called Lorde’s work “intelligent, fierce, powerful, sensual, provocative, indelible.”

She also recommended James Baldwin’s 1963 nonfiction book, The Fire Next Time, which contains two essays. The first is “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” exploring race in American history. [Also check out Ta-Nehisi Coates 2015 book Between The World and Me, which also gives “the talk” to his young Black son. Coates writes Black Panther comic material with Gay too.]

The second, longer Baldwin essay, “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region of My Mind,” focuses on his youthful experiences in the Christian church, where he says, “whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” The book’s title is taken from the Black spiritual, “Mary Don’t You Weep,” which says:

“God gave Noah the rainbow sign, / No more water, the fire next time.”

Gay promises to turn up her heat on the culture as well.

Check out upcoming Chicago Humanities Festival programs, including:

Dr. Joy Buolamwini on Artificial Intelligence and Discrimination on 11/12
RuPaul’s Drag Race Star Ginger Minj with Chef Anne Burrell on 11/15
The Second Dream: La Monte Young on 11/16
Montgomery and the Blacknificent 7 on 12/3

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Karin McKie
Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.