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Roxane Gay. Photo: Jennifer Silverberg/The Guardian
Roxane Gay. Photo: Jennifer Silverberg/The Guardian

Roxane Gay: "Trauma is one of the great equalizers"

The popular writer and activist has just published the essay Writing Into the Wound and is starting a course on trauma literature for social change.

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Trauma is always both personal and social. Everyone has wounds, sometimes so deep that they come back again and again even if you think they are healed. There are also inherited traumas — historical, ancestral, familial — and yet, except for death, there is nothing more taboo in this society than the expression of one's pain and wounds. When in fact, they connect us to others. 

The writer Roxane Gay does not like to be called a brave person for exposing her own personal experiences and struggles and turning them into a book. And she has done so on many occasions, displaying a talent that she masters with sensitivity, empathy, and large doses of truth. A radical act, yes, through which she has confronted us with our vision of feminisms, with fatphobia and the social control of the body, with the multiple traumas that pierce us. 

Roxane Gay wrote about the gang rape she suffered when she was 12 years old and how the wound leaves scars, how those scars, in turn, can become the engine of change through writing.

But it is not therapeutic writing, no. It is not a simple catharsis. It is trauma literature — not about getting rid of a wound (there are no formulas), but about using the writing craft to connect with others and expose what the system tries to sweep under the rug.

After teaching a workshop at Yale on how to write about trauma, Gay has just published Writing Into The Wound, published on Scribd, and is now also leading a 20-session course on writing for social change. 

In a wonderful interview with Monica Lewinsky for Vanity Fair, Gay opens up generously and reflects on her traumas and writing. 

"We are walking wounds, but I'm not sure any of us know very well how to talk about it," says Gay. 

And she continues... Take good note:

Writing “well” about trauma

It is about connecting with the reader. At least in the opinion of Roxane Gay, who believes that when writing about a traumatic event, whether personal, social, or cultural, you need to consider the audience you are addressing. 

"For some people, writing about trauma well means that it helps them work through something. But is that going to be writing trauma well for an audience?" she asks. 

When Roxane published Hunger: Memories of (My) Body, the book she says she had the hardest time writing, she was addressing how traumas like the gang rape she suffered at age 12 run through people's bodies and also how normalized fatphobia is in our society. 

"The past is described in my body. I carry it with me each and every day. Sometimes I feel as if the past could kill me. It is a very heavy burden. In my history of violence, there was a boy. I loved him. His name was Christopher. His name wasn't really Christopher, but I don't have to tell you that. Christopher and several of his friends raped me in the woods, in an abandoned hunting cabin, where no one but those boys could hear my screams," she wrote in Hunger.

"For some people, writing about trauma well means that it helps them work through something."

Surprisingly, Hunger had an impact not only on fat people but on the relationship many of us have with our own bodies. "Being fat is not a crime," she said. 

Even today, many medical schools are taking the essay into account to analyze fatphobia in the medical profession.

Writing about the Other

Respecting their privacy. According to Roxane Gay, although it is quite common, especially in the media, to talk about the traumas and experiences of others based on speculation and without taking into account that we are, after all, writing about a person, respect must come first when we undertake the task of writing about someone. And, in any case, ask the protagonist directly. 

"I never want to co-opt someone’s experience, and so when I write about the trauma of others, I just try to be careful. I try to use common sense. I think, Would I want something like this written about me? Because having had people write about me and do so in inaccurate ways, or just wrong, or offensive—I know how that feels," she says.

Dealing with others' insensitivity

In a society where so often the trauma of others becomes "fodder," an essay or a memoir about a painful experience has many points of being instrumentalized, blurred, or turned into an anecdote by a journalist to gain readers. 

Gay warns that there are no magic formulas for overcoming trauma. As life goes on, even if you have written about it, you find yourself "experiencing" it once again or making decisions dominated by your trauma. 

This is exacerbated when, in publishing something so intimate, you come face to face with the insensitivity of others. 

"Many people assume that when you write about trauma, when you write about marginalisation, oppression, whatever, you write only from emotion".

After the release of Hunger in bookshops, many media focused solely on how Roxane came to weigh 261 kg. This writer has also been inclined to this reductionism to attract the reader's attention.

The author of Bad Feminist had weighed up all the bad headlines and snide remarks that might be made about her before publication, but you can never be too prepared for that. 
However, she admits: "I have no regrets. The book has done more good than not".

Don't minimize your traumas

Traumas, says Gay, "are great equalizers." We all have traumas, but we often tend to minimize them without thinking that an unhealed wound tends to get worse and cause us untold pain. 

This was something the activist and writer learned while teaching the workshop at Yale that would inspire her essay Writing into the Wound when she saw how rawly and truthfully students addressed their wounds through writing. 

It made her think, though she admits she didn't emphasize it enough, how underrated a writer's job is. 

"So many people assume that when you’re writing about trauma when you’re writing about marginalization, oppression, whatever, anything sort of negative, that you’re writing only from emotion. (...)  That writing is a job, and I’m not just doing it to exorcise my demons. I’m doing it to elicit a response from the reader and to accomplish something."

For example, what your limits are and what things you don't want to include, why you shouldn't divulge everything, or what literary mechanics you should follow to get your experiences, reflections, ideas... across to others. 

"You want to think about how you are going to put the reader into your experience, or whatever experience you’re writing about, so they can really understand the impact of it," she says.

Decisions, in short, that Roxane Gay explores in more detail with her students in the Writing for Social Change course that the writer teaches on the MasterClass platform, where through her work she addresses "how to own your identity, hone your voice, write about trauma with care and courage, and navigate the publishing industry. Learn to document and narrate the world as you see it, and to demand change". 

As well as the process of writing, the task of finding an agent or what it means to write as a black feminist, among many others.

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