Roxane x Numa: The In-Between

In that odd purgatory between the election and election results, two women, meet for the first time to discuss America, sex work, writing, and more—finding what they share and what they know.

Issue 001

Perhaps best known for her New York Times bestselling books, “Bad Feminist” and “Hunger,” Roxane Gay (RG), is many things. She has a way of consistently surprising you. Not in the exhausting manner of those who consider themselves things to be branded and therefore must amuse you in new ways at all times, but Gay surprises you by revealing more of herself with each project she puts out into the world, with each non-fiction work, with each long Twitter threads, with each Instagram square, and each time she speaks publicly about something new. Gay surprises us with her humanity and how it butts up against her talent.

Numa Perrier (NP) and her rise over the last year may conjure that same sense of surprise, in the refreshing way we experience surprise by discovering new things. In 2012, when the world was shuttering, staggering to keep up with the news of a new normal, Perrier’s first feature film, Jezebel, premiered on Netflix. For many, Jezebel was the first time they had come into contact with Perrier’s work. But, for a niche community of black millennials, Perrier had always been there, as a part of the production team of Black & Sexy TV, a banner under which a line-up of independent web series was released in the early 2010s. So, to some, what has been a year in which Perrier has found a new audience and taken on larger projects may be an introduction. But to those who were listening all along, Perrier is simply following the path.

In the uncertain time, when Americans found themselves in what felt like a political purgatory when votes had been cast, a new President had been chosen, but no official call had been made, Gay and Perrier met via Zoom. They spoke with an ease and familiarity that was surprising in a time of great strain but unsurprising to those familiar with each woman’s ability to articulate humble truths.

Below is an edited version of that conversation:

On the wait and the future of the American Presidency.

NP: At this point, I really feel like they’re just doing it for ratings because we could go ahead and just call this thing for Biden. And every channel is reporting something slightly different. They’re reporting differently so we just keep tuning in.

RG: I mean I don’t think that anyone is desperately looking for votes for Trump because he called all the governors and chewed them out. But it’s like he’s no longer going to be president. Why do you care what he says? He’s going to jail. Biden’s gonna win. It’s a question of what– this is a Haitian word but what bagay dwòl is Trump going to be up to between now and January 20? As a lame-duck president, I think he’s going to wreck a lot of havoc, and of course, Biden can probably undo most of it with an executive order or ten during his first week or first day in office, but Trump is not going to go down easily. He’s going to frame this as fraud even though, from what I can tell, it’s been a meticulous election. And the only people protesting are angry White people who just can’t believe that more people in this country repudiate Trump-ism. But, more people in this country repudiate Trump-ism, and Biden is probably going to win the popular vote by seven million, which is significant. And so I hope that Trump doesn’t get more people killed. I mean, that’s the lowest possible bar. That’s the lowest possible bar. It’s actually shameful that that’s the bar, but here we are.

On being a creator during a time of constant stress:

RG: I mean, it depends on the day. Some days are fine, and I get a lot done and either that’s because something has happened that I feel like I need to respond to, or I am trying to distract myself from the cluster fuck that is the world today. It just depends. But it’s not consistent.

NP: Yeah. It’s definitely not consistent. On the days that I’ve been able to create or feel really good–, I’ve had some great days in the midst of this. I do try to hold on to those and look back on those when I’m not feeling them, and I’ve had some of the lowest days that I’ve ever recalled in my recent history of life.

On the presence of the body in their respective work.

NP: Well, I mean, I can’t escape my body. Body is there. It’s the root. It’s how I walk through the world. It’s how I experience all of the things that are important to me, and my work, like intimacy is experienced through the body, trauma lands on the bodies, experiencing the body, our joy is experienced through the body. My instrument as an actor is my body. And just my beingness as a form of material, it’s my body. So there’s no way that I could ever escape from it. It’s something that I have to confront. It’s something that I enjoy exploring. And it’s always going to be part of the centerpiece of what I do because you can’t escape it. That’s how I’m here.

RG: I think that when you do things that go beyond the norm, I find it incredibly freeing. Because norms tend to serve only one kind of person, they don’t ever tend to serve black women and women more broadly.

I think when you live in a fat body when you live in a black body, you understand what it means to be scrutinized and held to different standards. When you live in a woman’s body as well, so that absolutely informs my writing because, for one, it expands my empathy, and it makes me consider how other people live in their bodies in the world. But I also know that there is not enough literature and also increasingly film and television that centers bodies like mine. And so that is something that I am very attuned to, and that is an absence that I am trying to address and to fill because I think that’s really important. I think that everyone should have the opportunity to see something of their lives reflected back to them and hopefully, I get to do that reasonably we will.

On intimacy and empathy in sex work.

RG: Especially in my 20s, I was very lost, and I was looking for ways to feel like myself despite the pressure I had to be the perfect Haitian daughter, to be thinner, to be less crazy, whatever. And so some of the choices I made were certainly about exerting some kind of autonomy over my life when I felt very little autonomy. And also I just needed a job, and I had no college degree, and nothing pays as quickly with as low a barrier to entry as sex work. You are behind a phone and there’s that safety of remove. It was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. I’ll be honest. A lot of men are just lonely. They’re lonely and sad.

NP: So lonely. So sad.

RG: I would say 70% of the time before any sexual conversation would happen, we would just talk about their lives, and they would just tell me all kinds of things that their partners wouldn’t listen to or that they didn’t feel comfortable disclosing to their partners. And then, of course, they wanted to get off because again, men. But also, it was just incredibly interesting to learn that about men because at that point in my life, I was so afraid of them, and it really demystified men for me. Because I came to realize these guys are not that scary and they’re not that intimidating when I know that they like to cry or they want to be humiliated or whatever their little secrets are. And so it was really eye-opening. It was just kind of awesome for that, for those reveals. I think that’s a piece of it that’s not talked about is there’s kind of a maternalness around it and being able to call and be listened to and have that intimacy with a woman in that way where they can confess things to you and give things over to you that they can’t give to anyone else. That’s such a huge piece of the addiction to those phone lines. There’s still that need for recognition in that way.

NP: Well I think my early days as a cam girl was definitely my first entry point to filmmaking and I didn’t realize that until many years later. I mean, that’s where I learned about cameras, that’s where I learned about lighting, that’s where I learned about framing, that’s where I learned about the set design. I really can connect everything back to that. But it’s also where I learned how to connect with people without being in their physical presence. And all of those things are things you need in life. But it’s crazy how I was 19 when I was a cam girl. I learned all these things about myself about men, for sure, but also it opened my eyes to desires that I had and my own fantasies, and my own world of play. And it’s just something that I can never leave behind. It’s always going to be part of my work, even if I tried to close that door. And even if I didn’t connect it to today, back then, there’s no way I would have connected those things. I thought, “Oh, this is a secret life. This is a survival mode for me. This is something I’m not going to share with people.” But really, all of it adds up to everything that I know now and everything that I’m interested in now, and where all of my talents are now. It’s all connected. But it’s crazy. It took a gap and me making a film about it for me to really put those things together.

To echo that, though, what you’re saying about empathy, I want to echo that, that tying that in with sex work is really active empathy.

RG: Oh Lord, it is. My God.

NP: Sex workers are the most empathetic people on the planet. [Laughter] And yeah. I think there is no better way to expand your empathy than to really understand and bring in the deepest needs of someone–someone’s deepest desires.

RG: I think that sex is the lowest barrier to entry in terms of intimacy because people automatically conflate sex and intimacy even though they are not necessarily things that are going to go hand in hand. But it’s sort of with that low barrier to entry, it makes people feel like, okay, intimacy is possible here, and it allows them to make themselves more vulnerable. And, so I think it’s just a starting point.

NP: I mean, I think that was very well said. [Laughter]

On their shared Haitian heritage.

RG: I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska and I’ve spent most of my life, up until four years ago, I lived most of my life in rural places, where there were no black people. And it’s really challenging to do that. I’m fine. It’s fine. I think that you can probably survive anywhere, but I also think that the bar should be higher than survival. And, so in writing about my Haitian identity and in finding ways to connect to the Diaspora, it’s a way of creating a space where I might belong even a little. And, I know that I don’t fully belong. But that’s okay. I mean, it’s so much better than feeling like I don’t belong in Charleston, Illinois where I have my first teaching position or in Hancock, where I went for grad school, or even Omaha. I’m very proud to be from Omaha. But we were the only black family in our neighborhood for many years, and then one other family moved in, and there’s something about when there are only two families you can’t be friends because then you will scare all the white people around you into thinking that you’re going to Nat Turner them. And so, the pull [to Haitian heritage] is just about community and belonging. I’m also very proud to be Haitian-American. My parents raised us with a very crystal clear understanding of who we are and that our ancestors were free. And I think that does something for you. I think it gives you a confidence to know that your ancestors freed themselves from slavery. You don’t have the same psychic burden. Haitian people are remarkably confident despite [laughter] so many reasons why we shouldn’t be. So yeah, I think it’s all part of that.

NP: Yeah, I definitely was not raised with anything at all [laughter] that would help me to feel closer to being Haitian. I had to find those things for myself and then again reuniting with my Haitian family; my Haitian mother, traveling to Haiti with them and building a relationship– a mother-daughter relationship as an adult was also at the same time building a relationship culturally with Haiti and discovering so many things that are—-so many ways that I am so Haitian that no one else would have been able to recognize or tell me that that’s where this comes from. Whether it’s just genetics from my mother to the way I laugh to the things that I’m interested in to the way I even write, the way I approach telling a story. I feel all of those things are things I had to discover as an adult as I continue to kind of form myself into the woman that I am today. But I’m very proud to be Haitian. At the same time I acknowledge that I don’t totally belong, but I don’t feel like I belong anywhere. And I’ve, for the most part, stopped searching for a sense of belonging outside of the small family that I’ve created for myself. But I’ve found my own way to tie in my feelings and my sense of culture, and my sense of having this dual identity between American and Haitian. But really I just keep it moving [Laughter]. And I try not to have too much resentment. I think one of the biggest barriers between me feeling close to Haiti is language. I’m not a fluent Creole speaker, and I think that that will always be a barrier for me, not being able to communicate with the people who I do look like and that I do share a bloodline. So that’s something that I’m always kind of tangling with as well, but I’ve pretty much accepted it as this is just part of the texture of my life. I’ll always have this kind of fragmented beingness around Haiti, but I can still hold that pride at the same time, and I can still allow that to continue to flow into my work however it’s going to.

On their shared American experience and the friction of being a Black person in America:

RG: Does any black person feel American?

NP: Again, I don’t feel like I really belong here either. The only thing that ties me I feel is that I love and I speak, and I write in English, which has so far dominated this country. And because I have such a love for and grasp of the English language, that’s the one thing that creates that tie. There’s nothing else for me that creates the tie. I always feel like I’m just here making the best of it, finding my own happiness, finding my own way but never like it’s mine or like I can trust it in any way. I don’t feel that. But I don’t know if there is a place that exists where I would feel that trust and that welcome.

RG: [Black people] are Americans. We’re here. We built this country. Any wealth that this country has achieved is on our backs, and so we are as American as anyone else if not more American, whatever that means. And so I don’t think the question is, will we ever feel American, but rather will we ever be accepted as equal citizens in a country where we are equal citizens?


Thelonious Stokes, an Introduction


The Center