R&B music filtered through the ballroom, mixing with the scuffling of shoes against hardwood as people rushed to settle in before New York Times bestselling author Roxane Gay made her entrance. Once Gay stepped onto the stage, chatter quickly silenced and then burst into applause.
On Wednesday, Oct. 18, local Black-owned bookstore Kindred Stories hosted a talk with Gay and Rice English and Creative Writing professor Kiese Laymon. Though Laymon dropped out before the talk due to health complications, an employee from Kindred Stories served as an interim moderator, speaking with Gay about her newest book, an essay anthology titled “Opinions: A Decade of Arguments, Criticism, and Minding Other People’s Business.”
Gay opened her discussion by celebrating her mother, to whom she dedicated the book
“Throughout my childhood, she had no qualms about expressing her opinions, and proudly so,” Gay said. “It always was astonishing to me that she didn’t care, that she stood up for everything that was right and every opportunity that she could. And to see someone do that as an immigrant — and we were in Omaha, Nebraska for the most part — it took a lot of courage to do that.”
Gay said her mother encouraged her and her two brothers to speak their minds, especially during family time around the dinner table. She and Gay’s father listened intently as their children spoke about their days at school.
“They took us seriously, and they took our opinions seriously,” Gay said. “And that was certainly the foundation for deciding, ‘Why not share my opinions?’”
This is exactly what she sought to do in “Opinions,” a series of nonfiction essays from over the course of 10 years. Gay covers topics from culture wars to modern feminism in the same honest voice that made her previous books classics for disillusioned young people.
Gay said she sidestepped working on her main project at the time, a book now set to come out in 2025, to compile her best essays into “Opinions.” Topics like feminism and racism are recurring themes throughout all her work, and she said she will continue to write about them because “bigotry is repetitive.”
“I just think you get to a point where you see so many young people — and sometimes not so young people — being brutalized, harmed, often killed and leaving a wake of destruction behind in those communities,” Gay said, “that you have to say, ‘Enough. Let’s stop trying to appease moderates.’”
When the talk opened to questions from the audience, Gay was asked how to form and share strong opinions. Her main advice was altering the inner monologue keeping us from expressing our thoughts — changing “why me?” to “why not?”
“A lot of people ask me, ‘How do I find my voice?’” Gay said. “I’m like, ‘You don’t have to go anywhere. It’s already there. You just have to sort of get out of your own way.’”
While Gay emphasized the importance of sharing strong opinions, she acknowledged that there are specific times and places where it is appropriate to do so.
“There are worse things than missing the moment, because the world will go on without you sharing your thoughts on this thing,” Gay said. “Just because something isn’t said on social media doesn’t mean that people aren’t having conversations, perhaps in more intimate settings.”
She emphasized the importance of being willing to learn and having the humility to stay quiet until you understand what is actually happening.
“I have gotten more hate mail in the past 10 days for not saying anything [about the Israel-Hamas war] – even though I actually have said plenty – than I’ve ever gotten in my whole life,” Gay said. “It has actually just made me double down, so to speak: No, I’m not going to say the wrong thing, and more importantly, the uninformed thing.”
Instead of attempting social media activism, Gay said she has been reading books about the history of Israeli and Palestinian relations, recommending “My Promised Land” by Ari Shavit.
“Whenever something happens internationally, I traditionally say, ‘That’s not really my area of expertise,’” Gay said. “Last Sunday, I thought, ‘Well, no it isn’t, but you can actually do something about it.’ So I went and got some books and am trying to learn more.”
“The way that I recommend that people sort of help make the world a better place is at the community level,” Gay added later. “Look for mutual aid organizations or local nonprofits that have good track records of knowing how to spend the money that they get, and see how you can contribute to their efforts. Because almost everything begins at the local level.”