Speak Up!: A Graphic Account of Roxane Gay and Erica Jong’s Uncomfortable Conversation

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MariNaomi

September 4, 2015

A trio of us were driven straight from the Atlanta airport to Emory University for the Decatur Book Festival keynote. On stage were rising star Roxane Gay, author of the hit sensation Bad Feminist, and second-wave feminist Erica Jong, famous for her 1973 bestseller Fear of Flying. Before the keynote started, I chatted a bit with my new writerly pals.

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Randa looked it up.

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We discussed what Erica Jong might have to say about the way women of color have been treated in the feminist movement.

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I’ve always believed in speaking up about uncomfortable subjects; I don’t think things will change unless more people do so. On the other hand, I’m emotionally averse to conflict. When I’ve spoken up, I’ve had to painfully break out of my comfort zone in order to do so. More often than not, I do my best to keep everyone happy, even if it’s not in my best interests.

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Pretty quickly, I could see that Randa was cut from a different swath. For example:

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Randa had refused to trade her comfort for another’s, but she’d done so in a kind manner, and both of them had emerged as winners — the woman lost the glare, Randa got to go about her business, and her Twitter followers got to participate in the event from wherever they were. Had it been me, I would’ve turned my phone off immediately, and apologized profusely. My way would’ve only benefited the woman behind me.

The keynote started off cordial enough. Roxane was intelligent and charming, Erica was earnest and filled with inspirational messages. At first. But then came the Q&A. Randa wasted no time getting to the point.

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This is where it got sticky. The deeper they got into a discussion of racial tensions, the more the backgrounds of these two powerful writers became apparent, both their knowledge and lack thereof. Randa had opened a can of worms, which led to more difficult and challenging questions from audience members. She had given us permission to turn this discussion into more than just the ego stroking of a celebrated author.

For the next hour or so, we shifted in our seats, tense and transfixed. It felt like I was witnessing history, a dialogue I’d mostly been exposed to on the internet being brought forth into real life and vocalized by two important people.

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Although nothing got resolved that night, many of us left with new questions to ponder. I left feeling inspired, nervous, frustrated, and alive. The seeds of change had been planted in my mind.

Throughout the festival weekend, that keynote conversation was the most talked-about subject, with a number of articles following, such as this and this.

This would have never been news had the topic not been brought up by Randa. When I first sat down, I wouldn’t have had the nerve to ask that first difficult question, but now I see the chasm between a moment of discomfort versus the greater good.

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The difference is astounding.

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