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Roxane Gay On Being A Public Intellectual In The Age Of Social Media

Roxane GayTwitter was made for pithy public intellectuals like Roxane Gay. Nearly 100,000 people follow the author and professor for her perspective on everything from the the 2016 presidential race to her growing obsession with HGTV shows. (She hate-watches House Hunters, like most people.)

Her latest two books—Bad Feminist, a collection of essays on gender, race and competitive Scrabble, and her debut novel, An Untamed State, about the aftermath of a Haitian woman’s kidnapping—were published in 2014. But pairing a high profile with two books in a single year  creates at least one drawback: “The more you’re read, the more ‘crazy’ reads your work.”

Sitting comfortably in front of her audience last month at the University of Akron, Gay, 41, shared that her increased visibility has led to increased harassment online — from racial slurs to death threats. “It’s a very sad commentary on contemporary discourse that I’m not entitled to an opinion that you disagree with and you can’t just say ‘I disagree,’” she said. “It’s ‘I disagree and you’re ugly.’ ‘I disagree and you deserve to die.’ . . . It’s really frustrating.”

The Nebraska-born, Yale-educated thinker almost didn’t write her recent New York Times piece on the student protests at the University of Missouri, because of the hostile response she was sure to follow. In the end, she sent it to her editor and braced herself. “They get under your skin because it’s not just one; it’s hundreds,” Gay said. “All day, every day. Eventually you’re like, I have to say something.”

As an English professor at Purdue University, Gay makes a strong case for student activism and creating spaces where it can flourish. “The idea of safe spaces is so complicated, because the world is an unsafe place and there’s no controlling it. There’s no controlling how people are going to behave in this world. But I can control my classroom, at least to an extent.” She paused. “I work very hard to foster what I think is a productive intellectual environment. It’s safe, yes.”

In November, PEN Center USA honored Gay with the 2015 Freedom to Write award. Her brief speech cut to the chase — her success as a writer is not about being fearless, but about confidence in her voice: “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. Those who disagree with me, often on Twitter, call this arrogance and I am absolutely fine with that.”

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