How Roxane Gay Wrote An Untamed State

In her debut novel, the 39-year-old has written one of the most unsettling books of the year. And she’s just getting started.

Photo: Chris Strong

Hit me, I’m here for you,” says Roxane Gay, settling into a cavernous red leather booth at the upscale River North diner Dillman’s. This is just the kind of directness that permeates the 39-year-old writer’s debut novel, An Untamed State (Grove Atlantic, $16), out this month. In the dark, gripping book, a woman who, like Gay, is a first-generation Haitian American raised in the Midwest becomes the victim of a horrifying crime.

Written in detached, almost clinical prose, the novel tells the story of Mireille, a young middle-class newlywed who spends 13 days in captivity after she’s kidnapped while on vacation in Haiti. It’s a compelling and at times painful read that addresses the issues of economic privilege, immigration, and sexual assault. “I wanted to explore what it would be like to survive something like that,” says Gay, who teaches at Eastern Illinois University.

In a way, she has; Gay herself was gang-raped as a teenager, an experience she first wrote about in 2012 for the literary site The Rumpus. With An Untamed State she goes deeper, depicting the physical and psychological effects of rape in exacting detail. “My own experiences with sexual violence gave me insight into the aftermath Mireille experienced,” Gay later writes in an e-mail. “That sense of being unmoored from the life you previously [led], and the determination it takes to try and get back to a new normal.”

Born in Omaha, Gay conceived the idea for the novel after hearing her Haitian parents talk of acquaintances with family members who had been kidnapped. Following one such story—Gay doesn’t remember the exact details—she began to develop her protagonist. “Mireille just came to me—a woman who’s this mess of contradictions, but she’s got a good heart and is very strong.”

Though An Untamed State is a work of fiction, Gay admits the subject matter made her nervous. “It’s so hard to write about countries like Haiti because there’s truths behind the misperceptions people have,” she says of the stereotype of Haiti as a dangerous, poverty-stricken place. “But there’s so much more. There are multiple truths.”

Still, Gay doesn’t dwell on the dark stuff. In person, she laughs easily and punctuates her sentences with a well-placed “girl.” She talks with equal assurance about her enthusiasm for pop culture and the lack of diversity in the upper ranks of the publishing world.

In addition to An Untamed State, Gay just finished Bad Feminist (Harper Perennial, $16), a collection of cultural criticism and personal essays, due out in August. And she recently inked a deal for a second book of essays, about weight and cooking. “I try to approach topics from the realistic perspective of people [who] are complicated,” she says. “Sometimes we make bad choices, and sometimes we make better ones.”

“She’s a very brave writer,” says Gay’s friend and fellow author Tayari Jones (Silver Sparrow). “She doesn’t belong in any one camp.”

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