Tag Archives: Women’s History Month

Poet Emily Dickinson was born in 1930 in Amherst, Massachusetts. Although she was not famous during her lifetime—only seven of her almost 1800 poems were published while she lived, all heavily edited—she became known after her death as one of the most influential American poets.

Dickinson grew up in a large Amherst home called the Homestead. The family was well-known and influential in the area; Dickinson’s grandfather founded Amherst College and her father was a state legislator. Dickinson had an older brother and a younger sister, and all three siblings lived their whole lives at or near the Homestead.

Dickinson was very social and active as a child. She excelled at school and went on to complete one year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. She never returned to the seminary after the first year, however; scholars don’t know exactly why, but many point to her poor physical or emotional health. Indeed, Dickinson continued to have health problems throughout her life and became increasingly secluded in her family home, dedicating most of her time to writing, gardening, and caring for her elderly mother.

Despite her poor health, Dickinson kept lively correspondence with many friends and several writers, including literary critic T.W. Higginson, editor Samuel Bowles, and Reverend Charles Wadsworth.

Although she sent out her poetry for publication, its experimental syntax and off-rhymes were rejected by most publishers. Those who did publish her work edited it heavily to reflect literary standards of the time. However, she continued to write prolifically and meticulously stored her poems in a box.

Dickinson’s sister Lavinia discovered the work after her death in 1886 and published many of them in a book in 1890. Dickinson’s complete works were not published in a single collection, however, until 1955. Her work is considered highly influential in shaping the direction of twentieth-century poetry.


Sadly, this is the final Women’s History Month post. We’ve barely scratched the surface of the influence women, authors and educators, have had on the literary and academic community, on the human experience. However, we won’t have much time to be sad, because April is National Poetry Month! Get ready to enjoy some amazing poems and poets with us here on the blog. To give you a glimmer of what that will be like, here’s one of our favorite Emily Dickinson poems:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

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~from intern Joyce Bohling

I was raised on Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. My mother would read the books to me each evening at bedtime. I had the Little House paper dolls and even, once, picked up the Little House cookbook in the children’s section of my local library. When I was getting into my “tween” years, I read Farmer Boy, an account of childhood stories about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s husband, Alamanzo. Of all of Wilder’s books, Farmer Boy sticks most clearly in my memory.

As those who read the books growing up will know, Wilder was born Laura Ingalls in Pepin, Wisconsin in 1867. She had an older sister, Mary, and later two younger sisters, Carrie and Grace. Wilder also had a younger brother, Charles Jr., who died at 9 months of age. Wilder chose to omit her younger brother from her autobiographical Little House series, perhaps because she wrote for a young audience and focused on joyful tales with happy endings.

The Ingalls moved around frequently, migrating to Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, and South Dakota. When her family settled near De Smet, South Dakota, Wilder, age 15, received her teaching certificate and began to teach in a one-room schoolhouse. A family friend named Alamanzo Wilder often gave her rides to and from her family home and the school 12 miles away. Alamanzo and Laura courted and were married in 1885, after which they moved to Missouri to start their own homestead, which they named Rocky Ridge.

In the 1920s, the Wilders’ only surviving daughter, Rose, encouraged her mother to write about her early life. Wilder’s first-person account of her childhood between the ages of three and eighteen, Prairie Girl, was repeatedly rejected by publishers. Wilder, though, didn’t give up. She changed the point of view of the narration to third person, referring to herself as “Laura” and telling the story of the whole family in a way that would be relatable and entertaining to young children.

Wilder’s first book, Little House in the Big Woods, was published in 1932 when Wilder was 65. She went on to publish many more books about her childhood, including Little House on the Prairie (1935), On the Banks of Plum Creek (1937), By the Shores of Silver Lake (1939), The Long Winter (1940), Little Town on the Prairie (1941), and These Happy Golden Years (1943). The story of her husband’s childhood, Farmer Boy, was published in 1933.

Wilder died in 1957 at the age of 90. Her books continued to gain popularity long after her death. They were re-issued with illustrations from Garth Williams in 1953 (the illustrations after which my paper dolls were modeled). A television show based on Wilder’s work called Little House on the Prairie ran from 1974 to 1982, creating interest in the books among my parents’ generation, who, in turn, shared them with me and many children in my generation.

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Philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1956. Surrounded by the Hungarian and Russian Jewish traditions of her family, Butler attended a Hebrew school and took special classes on Jewish ethics. This education was the beginning of Butler’s introduction to philosophy.

In an interview with Haaretz, and Israeli newspaper, Butler said that “I began to be interested in philosophy when I was 14, and I was in trouble in the synagogue. The rabbi said ‘You are too talkative in class…You have to come have a tutorial with me.’ I said ‘OK, great!’ I was thrilled.”

From there, Butler’s interest in philosophy skyrocketed as she delved into work on gender and feminism. She went to college at Bennington College, moving to Yale University where she received her B.A. in 1978 and Ph.D. in 1984 in Philosophy.

Following those degrees, Butler moved on to become a professor at various prestigious universities, including Wesleyan University, George Washington University and John Hopkins University. She has been a professor at University of California, Berkeley since 1993 where she teaches in both the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory.

Most of Butler’s philosophical work has revolved around her theory of gender performativity, first presented in her 1990 book Gender Trouble. Her focus with this book was that gender is an improvised performance. With this book, she made great strides in the realm of feminist, women’s, gay and lesbian studies and queer theory.

As Butler explains in her Book Bodies that Matter published in 1992, “the misapprehension about gender performativity is this: that gender is a choice, or that gender is a role, or that gender is a construction that one puts on, as one puts on clothes in the morning, that there is a ‘one’ who is prior to this gender, a one who goes to the wardrobe of gender and decides with deliberation which gender it will be today.” She is trying to break down the norms and stereotypes that modern society has about gender.

Video: Judith Butler talks about what it means that gender is performative.

Butler has played a large role in human rights activism, including her positions on the board of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York and the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace. In 2004, she was awarded the Brunder Prize from Yale University for “lifetime achievement in gay and lesbian studies.” She won the 2008 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Distinguished Achievement Award for these contributions to the study of the humanities. In 2014, she received a diploma of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters from the French Cultural Ministry. The American Association of Geographers made her an “honorary geographer” in 2015. Butler’s considerable list of honors and acclaimed positions goes on, including nine honorary degrees from various universities around the world.

Judith Butler continues her work on gender performativity and challenges modern philosophical thinking. In recent years, she’s written on post-9/11 “war on terror” rhetoric, Guantánamo, Israel, and police brutality, and is starting to anticipate her eventual retirement from Berkeley. Another project she’s been considering with her friend Ken Corbett, a psychologist and writer, is a new version of Gender Trouble — illustrated, for kids ages 8 to 12.

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President George W. Bush shares a moment with author Harper Lee Monday, Nov. 5, 2007, prior to presenting her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during ceremonies in the East Room of the White House. Photo by Eric Draper, Courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum.

Harper Lee (born Nelle Harper Lee) was born in 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama. After attending the all-female Huntingdon College in Montgomery, she transferred to the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa where she pursued English literature.

Lee spent a year working towards the university’s law degree as an undergrad, but decided that writing was her true passion. At the age of 23, Lee arrived in New York City in 1949. In 1956, Lee received a gift from the family of Broadway composer and lyricist Michael Martin Brown, and they supported her in New York for a year. Lee quit her job and began writing full time, working on a manuscript that turned into To Kill a Mockingbird.

Her first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was published in 1960 and instantly became a classic American novel. In 1961, her novel won the Pulitzer Prize and in 1998, the Library Journal declared To Kill a Mockingbird the best novel of the 20th century. She was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 for her contribution to literature.

But following the success of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee abruptly stopped writing. In a letter sent to Oprah Winfrey’s magazine from Lee, she said that “in an abundant society where people have laptops, cellphones, iPods and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books.” Lee stopped giving interviews and returned to a solitary life in Monroeville.

As Telegraph explains, “that detachment is, clearly, necessary to her. It is the paradox of the novel that it could not have been written by someone in love with literary fame; that the fame it achieved and deserved killed off any prospect of a succeeding masterpiece.” It seems that this fame caused Lee to stop writing, and for decades she published no further work.

Back in 1967, Lee had written a prequel for To Kill a Mockingbird that she didn’t publish. The manuscript for Go Set a Watchman was submitted to Lee’s editor in ‘67, not long after the publication of her first novel. Lee believed that the manuscript was lost, explain that “after much thought and hesitation, I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication.”

Go Set a Watchman abruptly appeared on bookshelves in July 2015, published by HarperCollins. While some readers were quick to share accolades with Lee about a second novel, others questioned her competence following decades of her reluctance to publish anything.

The New York Times explains that “in May 2013, her name [Lee] appeared in news reports and when she filed a lawsuit accusing her literary agent, Samuel Pinkus, of duping her into assigning the novel’s copyright to his company after a stroke she suffered in 2007 left her with impaired hearing and eyesight.”

While Lee’s mental competency was questioned, the novel had sold 1.6 million copies as of January 2016. In 2015, it also made the US bestseller list. Preorders alone turned it into an instant bestselling novel.

On February 19, 2016, Harper Lee died in her sleep at the age of 89. For members of the literary community, the release of Go Set a Watchman has not diminished Lee’s impact on the literary community. Today, To Kill a Mockingbird is still considered among one of America’s classics.

Video: In 1964, Harper Lee talked with WQXR host Roy Newquist for an interview in New York. For the first time, that interview is now available to listen to online. The interview is the only known recording of Lee discussing To Kill a Mockingbird, among other topics, and one of the last interviews she would ever give.

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Margaret Sanger was a feminist, nurse, activist, writer, and national and international advocate for women’s access to contraception.

Sanger was born Margaret Higgins to an Irish-American family in 1879; she had ten siblings. She studied to become a nurse practitioner and began working toward a registered nursing degree at White Plains Hospital, but her education ended when she was married in 1902. She and William Sanger had three children but later separated, and Sanger remarried James Noah H. Slee in 1922.

While living in New York City with her first husband and children, Sanger became very interested in living conditions for working-class women and particularly the burden of frequent pregnancies and large families on these women.

At that time, a federal law called the Comstock law forbade the distribution of information about sexual health and contraception, which was considered obscene. Sanger repeatedly disobeyed this law, first publishing a column about sexual health in the New York Call titled “What Every Girl Should Know” and later publishing and distributing a periodical titled The Woman Rebel. It was this publication which coined the term “birth control.” In 1914, Sanger was indicted for violating the Comstock law.

To evade imprisonment, Sanger lived in England for about a year until charges against her were dropped. After returning to the United States, she continued to resist the law, opening a birth control clinic. Police shut the clinic down after 9 days, and Sanger was arrested and imprisoned for thirty days.

Despite these setbacks, Sanger’s work was gaining increasing attention and support. Sanger went on to found a medical journal called the Birth Control Review and later the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau. Because even the words “birth control” were considered too explicit at the time, the organization later changed its name to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Sanger continued to advocate for birth control throughout her life. In the 1950s, she worked with the International Planned Parenthood Federation and was a primary advocate for the development of the first birth control pill. Sanger died at 86 years of age in 1966.

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CSU’s own Professor Camille Dungy is an award-winning author of four full-length poetry collections and the editor of three poetry anthologies. Her first collection of literary essays, Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History, will be published in June.

Dungy was born in Denver in 1972, but her family moved frequently around the country when she was a child. She attended Stanford as an undergraduate and later received an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

When Dungy’s first collection of poetry, What to Eat, What to Drink, and What to Leave for Poison, appeared in 2006, it was widely praised. It was a finalist for the 2007 PEN USA Book Award and the 2007 Library of Virginia Literary Award. In 2010, Dungy published two additional poetry collections: Suck on the Marrow and Smith Blue. The collections’ recurring themes include African American identity and history, as well as nature and the human relationship to nature.

Noticing the scarcity of African American writers in canonized nature poetry, Dungy edited an anthology titled Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, which was published in 2009.

In a 2010 interview on National Public Radio, Dungy spoke about the complex relationship the anthology explores between African Americans and nature, saying, “there has always been promise and survival in the natural world” for African American people.

Dungy also collaboratively edited Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade in 2006 and From the Fishouse: An Anthology of Poems That Sing, Rhyme, Resound, Syncopate, Alliterate, and Just Plain Sound Great in 2009.

Dungy’s work has appeared in numerous literary journals and eleven anthologies to date, including The Best American Poetry and The 100 Best African American Poems. She has received fellowships and honors from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, the American Antiquarian Society, Cave Canem, the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, the Djerrassi Resident Artist Program, Yaddo, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Norton Island Artist Residency Program. Her work has received the Dana Award, the Sustainable Arts Foundation Promise Award, and two Northern California Book Awards. She has twice been a finalist for the NAACP Image Award in 2010 and 2011.

Dungy’s most recent collection, Trophic Cascade, was released on March 7 of this year. On Sunday, March 5, friends, family, faculty, and students gathered at Forge Publick House in Old Town for the book’s release party, eager to hear Dungy read from her newest collection.

The gathering also honored recently-published poetry collections by Colorado poets Eleni Sikelanios (Make Yourself Happy) and Julie Carr (Objects from a Borrowed Confession).

Like many of Dungy’s previous works, Trophic Cascade explores and illuminates the natural world, but motherhood also features prominently as a theme. As Dungy stepped up to the microphone to read, her daughter clung to the hem of her skirt, not wanting to sit quietly with her father and grandparents while her mother read. In fact, Dungy had collaborated with her daughter in choosing poems about their relationship to read for the event. One poem dwelled on a quiet moment reading books with the infant girl; another answered a “frequently asked question” about whether the author plans to have another child. (She doesn’t.)

Camille and her daughter at the March 7 reading

The collection’s title poem, “Trophic Cascade,” was first published by the Kenyon Review in 2015. “Trophic Cascade” traces the re-introduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park and the interconnectedness of lives and species evidenced by it; the wolves affected deer, trees, bears, birds, weasels, berries, and even insects. Throughout the collection, the reader witnesses again and again the impact one life has upon another.

Dungy has a second publication coming up this year; her first nonfiction collection, Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History, will be available on June 13.

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Luci Tapahonso is a Navajo poet and a lecturer in Native American Studies. Born in 1953, she was raised on her family farm on the Navajo reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico with her eleven siblings. English was not her first language, but rather something she learned second to her native Navajo language, Dine. She learned English at home before starting school, which she attended in the area, graduating from high school in 1971.

Tapahonso was a a journalist and investigative reporter before beginning her studies at the University of New Mexico in 1976. She intended to study journalism there, but met faculty member, novelist and poet Leslie Marmon Silko, who convinced her to switch her major to creative writing. She went on to earn her MA in creative writing, and then to teach.

Silko helped Tapahonso publish her first story, “The Snake Man”, in 1978. Her first collection of poetry, put together when she was an undergraduate, was published in 1981. Several more collections followed, as well as individual poems published in various journals. Her 1993 collection Saánii Dahataal (the women are singing), written in Navajo and English, was the first collection to bring her acclaim and recognition, which continued with her 1997 blue horses rush in. Her book of poetry A Radiant Curve was awarded the Arizona Book Award for Poetry in 2009.

In 2013, Tapahonso was named the inaugural poet laureate of the Navajo Nation. Announcing the appointment at a press conference, Elmer Guy, president of Navajo Technical College, said that the goal of designating a chief poet is “to encourage other Navajo poets, writers, film makers and artists to realize how important their work is to the continuance and growth of Navajo contemporary culture. Luci represents the best of what it is to be Diné, honoring our traditions, while at the same time forming a contemporary voice that speaks beautifully to all people.”

Tapahonso continues to teach; has served on various boards, committees, and commissions; and is a sought after speaker. She received the 2006 Lifetime Achievement award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas and a Spirit of the Eagle Leadership Award for her key role in establishing the Indigenous Studies Graduate Studies Program at the University of Kansas. The Native Writers Circle of the Americas named Tapahonso the 1999 Storyteller of the Year. She has also received a Kansas Governor’s Art Award, and Distinguished Woman awards from the National Association of Women in Education and the Girl Scout Council of America.

 

Video: a 2013 interview with Luci Tapahonso

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Suffragists Protest Woodrow Wilson’s Opposition to Woman Suffrage, October 1916

Earlier this month, we featured Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist and women’s rights activist. Today we are featuring a few other early women involved in similar issues: Lucretia Mott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Stone.

Lucretia Mott

Lucretia Mott was an American Quaker, abolitionist, a women’s rights activist, and a social reformer. Her speaking abilities made her an important figure in these movements. Mott helped form the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. When slavery was outlawed in 1865, she advocated giving Black Americans the right to vote. She was was among the founders of the American women’s rights movement, and remained a central figure in both the abolition and suffrage movements until her death in 1880. Mott’s feminist philosophy was outlined in her Discourse on Women, in which she argued for equal economic opportunity and voting rights. After helping to establish Swarthmore College in 1864, she served as head of the American Equal Rights Association.

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe was an American abolitionist and author. She published over 30 books, but is best known for her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She wrote children’s text books, advice books on homemaking and childrearing, biographies and religious studies. Stowe began her formal education at Sarah Pierce’s academy, one of the earliest to encourage girls to study academic subjects and not simply ornamental arts. As a student there, Stowe followed the traditional course of classical learning usually reserved for young men. She eventually became a teacher, until her success with Uncle Tom’s Cabin allowed her to write full time. The book was a best seller in the United States, Britian, Europe, Asia, and translated into over 60 languages. Stowe’s writing career spanned 51 years.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was an American suffragist, social activist, abolitionist, feminist, writer, editor, and leading figure of the early women’s rights movement. She helped organize the world’s first women’s rights convention in 1848, and formed the National Women’s Loyal League with Susan B. Anthony in 1863. Seven years later, they established the National Woman Suffrage Association. Stanton wrote some of the most influential books, documents, and speeches of the women’s rights movement. In support of her argument that the Bible and organized religion played in denying women their full rights, with her daughter she published a critique, The Woman’s Bible, which was published in two volumes. She also wrote her autobiography, Eighty Years and More, and many other articles and pamphlets about female suffrage and women’s rights.

Lucy Stone

Lucy Stone was a prominent American orator, abolitionist, and suffragist, and a vocal advocate and organizer promoting rights for women. She supported the Women’s National Loyal League, and in 1866 helped found the American Equal Rights Association. She also organized and was elected president of the State Woman’s Suffrage Association of New Jersey, and spent her life serving the cause. Stone wrote extensively about a wide range of women’s rights, publishing and distributing speeches by herself and others. She was the first woman from Massachusetts to earn a bachelor’s degree, paying her own way through school and graduating in 1847 with honors. She had a career as a public speaker, speaking out about abolition and women’s rights, at a time when women were discouraged and even actively prevented from public speaking. While Stone did live to see the end of slavery, she died 30 years before women were finally permitted to vote.

 

 

 

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Author and cartoonist Alison Bechdel was born in Beech Creek, Pennsylvania, to Helen and Bruce Bechdel. Bruce, her father, operated a funeral home part time, which Alison and her brothers, Bruce and John, called the Fun Home.

At the age of 19, she came out to her parents as a lesbian. A later conversation with her father revealed his intimate past with other men. This discovery brought more questions than answers when Bruce committed suicide shortly after, although Bechdel says “there’s no proof [just] some suggestive circumstances.”

Graduating high school a year early, she attended Simon’s Rock College before transferring to Oberlin College in Ohio. In 1981, she received her degree in studio arts and art history.

Bechdel first garnered success for her comics with the strip Dykes to Watch Out For, first published in 1983 in the feminist newspaper WomaNews. Her comic strip ran until 2008, becoming one of the first representations of lesbians in popular culture. The strip follows a group of diverse characters, most of them lesbians, as they experience life, love and politics. As Bechdel explains on her website, the comic “became a countercultural institution among lesbians and discerning non-lesbians all over the planet.”

Her closeted childhood was the basis for her autobiographical cartoon Fun Home, released in 2006. Fun Home chronicled Bechdel’s childhood, including her father’s obsession with restoring their Victorian Gothic Revival house and her journey to discovering her identity as a lesbian. Fun Home was then turned into a musical in 2013. Two years later, it won the Tony Award for Best Musical. Bechdel was also the recipient of the 2014 MacArthur “Genius” Award.

Bechdel is known for “the Bechdel test” for spotting gender bias in literature or film. To fulfill this test, the work must feature at list two girls/women who talk to each other about something that’s not a boy/man. Only about half of all films meet this requirement, calling attention to the gender inequality still present portrayals of women in literature and film.

Alison Bechdel become a voice for lesbians and the queer community, drawing attention to gender bias and the lives of LGBT people. Her autobiography provided the literary world with one of the first detailed coming out narratives, something that continues to help and inspire others.

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~from Communications Coordinator Jill Salahub

Disclaimer: I’m completely obsessed with Roxane Gay right now. I finally started Bad Feminist recently, which I’d been wanting to read ever since that time a few years ago at a department picnic when I asked Antero Garcia (who at the time was a CSU English department faculty member) about his t-shirt, which said “Bad Feminist.” I didn’t get what I thought was the joke of his shirt, and he explained to me it was a book. I went home and googled Roxane Gay, but it would be two more years before I’d read any of her books.

I’m almost done with Bad Feminist. It rests on my kitchen table, and anytime I sit down there, I read another essay or two. I know I’m late to the party, but this book is brilliant in the way that it merges academic critique, pop culture commentary, and personal experience. The only “failure” of the book is that I can’t sit down with Gay at my kitchen table after I read any of it to talk with her further. To say it is “thought provoking” doesn’t even begin to cover it. The book was a New York Times best-seller, and a Time magazine reviewer called it “a manual on how to be human.”

I just finished Difficult Women and An Untamed State, and am almost done with Ayiti. They are on my Kindle, which I use mostly to read in bed at night after my husband and dogs are asleep. Over the past month, I’ve spent many a night falling asleep in its glow because I try so hard to stay awake, want so badly to keep reading even as my body shuts down. Difficult Women in particular had a haunting effect on me. Days after reading a particular story, I’d still be thinking about it. There were a few of the stories that held me in such a fugue that when I got to the end, I momentarily couldn’t remember what I was reading or who had written it — because I’d been so thoroughly IN it, lost in the story completely.

Harper Collins says of her upcoming Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body,

With the bracing candor, vulnerability, and authority that have made her one of the most admired voices of her generation, Roxane explores what it means to be overweight in a time when the bigger you are, the less you are seen. Hunger is a deeply personal memoir from one of our finest writers, and tells a story that hasn’t yet been told but needs to be.

And finally there is World of Wakanda, a spin-off from Marvel’s Black Panther title, making Gay one of the first black women to be a lead writer for the publisher. She’s also published multiple essays, stories, commentaries, and articles in various publications and collections.

Roxane Gay is an American feminist writer, professor, editor and commentator. She was born in Nebraska to Haitian parents. Her family moved around a lot when she was younger, so she found solace in books, started writing when she was four. “I was a loner, shy and awkward,” but she was close with her two siblings, two younger brothers, and had a happy childhood. It ended with a violent sexual assault by a group of boys when she was 12, a subject she’s written about both in fiction and non-fiction. She says that what happened, “was as bad as you might expect. I came home a completely different person.” In her 2015 TED Talk, Gay said,

There was an incident. I call it an incident so I can carry the burden of what happened. Some boys broke me, when I was so young, I did not know what boys can do to break a girl. They treated me like I was nothing. I began to believe I was nothing. They stole my voice, and in the after, I did not dare to believe that anything I might say could matter.

But — I had writing. And there, I wrote myself back together. I wrote myself toward a stronger version of myself. I read the words of women who might understand a story like mine, and women who looked like me, and understood what it was like to move through the world with brown skin. I read the words of women who showed me I was not nothing. I learned to write like them, and then I learned to write as myself. I found my voice again, and I started to believe that my voice is powerful beyond measure.

Through writing and feminism, I also found that if I was a little bit brave, another woman might hear me and see me and recognize that none of us are the nothing the world tries to tell us we are.


Video: Roxane Gay’s TED Talk, “Confessions of a Bad Feminist”

In her mid-teens, she went to an exclusive boarding school, where a teacher saw in her writing both a promising talent and a very troubled person. He facilitated her getting help and encouraged her as a writer. “He taught me craft, and he also taught me discipline. He told me to write every day. I was very impressionable, and so I write every day.” Gay wrote erotica in her early 20s, before shifting to literary fiction and non-fiction as she completed her graduate degrees and started her teaching career. “Although she obviously wishes the rape had never happened, she knows it has shaped her as a writer. ‘I don’t think I would have a fraction of the fierceness in my writing if I hadn’t had to endure that, and the aftermath,’ she says,” (Roxane Gay: meet the bad feminist).

For Gay, writing is a way, “to think through what it means to be in this world.”

I definitely write to reach other people, but I write for myself first. I don’t mean that in an arrogant way. It’s just that this is me trying to make sense of my place, and how did I get here, and why am I so lucky in some ways, and so unlucky in others? So it starts with me, and then I move beyond the self, as much as I can.

As an adult, besides being a teacher and a writer, and a popular speaker, Gay is also a competitive Scrabble player.

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