If Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay, whose collection of short stories, Difficult Women is just out, was tired when she gave the early morning opening keynote of Winter Institute 12 (being held Jan. 27-30) at the Hyatt Regency in Minneapolis, it wasn’t evident from the tenor of her tone or message.
Gay's address came just days after she created headlines and more industry introspection when she pulled her up coming book, How to Be Heard, from Simon & Schuster in protest of the signing of a book by controversial Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos by S&S imprint Threshold Editions.
Gay did not mention her decision to pull the book in her remarks. Rather, in a speech that made ample use of the F-bomb, Gay spoke about how she knew she would be asked to talk about diversity, something black people are asked to talk about to offer good white people absolution. She thought, wrote, tossed out, and wrote again, she said as she explained why she dislikes the word “diversity,” which is imprecise and overused.
“It’s a problem seemingly without solution, and here we are talking about it yet again. I’m so tried of talking about diversity,” Gay said. She pointed to the number of people of color who write, but get rejection letters, which they’ve forwarded to her that say “there’s already a Roxane Gay.” “We are many,” she added, ‘but somehow publishing can’t seem to find us.”
Publishers can’t seem to find enough people of color to work in their offices either, nor can bookstores find people of color. “[People] don’t really want to do what it takes, to invest money,” Gay said.
From a very young age, Gay’s mother took her to bookstores: the Little Professor in Omaha, Neb., B. Dalton, Walden, Borders, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million. “Throughout my life, books have been my best friend,” she said. As a child she found sanctuary in reading. In this “rising age of disgrace,” she added, that now she’s trying to offer sanctuary with her writing and activism.
After the election, she thought about language. The election proved that love does not Trump hate. “Language matters, and sometimes, like diversity, it becomes an empty container. We need to get uncomfortable,” said Gay, describing herself as a black bisexual woman, a Haitian-American, a Libra.
The day after the election, Gay was in an independent bookstore. While bookstores have always been community spaces, she said that it is even more important now for bookstores to be community spaces and to be inclusive.
“I’m just a writer,” said Gay. “I don’t have access to magical Negro wisdom that white people don’t have access to. Everything is now political. We have the responsibility to make the political personal.”
Gay called on booksellers to learn from Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, where owner Daniel Goldin reached out to the black community when she made an appearance there so that every face in the audience was not white, and from black bookstores like Eso Won Books in Los Angeles and Source Booksellers in Detroit.
Circling back to diversity, said Gay, “I’m not going to provide the answers or absolution. You can get political. You can get uncomfortable. You are the stewards of sacred spaces. Rise to the occasion. Rise.”
Booksellers responded with a standing ovation. As ABA president Betsy Burton, co-owner of The King’s English in Salt Lake City remarked afterwards, "Gay gave us the kick we need.” It was a sentiment echoed by many booksellers in the audience.
Janet W. Jones, owner of Source Booksellers, was excited to have Gay kick off Winter Institute and to hear her challenge the idea of diversity as the answer. “Her word today is you have to put money behind [inclusiveness], and it takes money. It’s something people need to do,” Jones said.