Roxane Gay said in a talk on Wednesday that she broke tradition in writing the story of two black women who love each other for Marvel. As her lecture showed, however, she broke tradition long before that.
“I knew what the rules were, I knew that whatever I was going to do, I was going to be breaking rules,” she said.
Gay, associate professor for English at Purdue, New York Times contributor, and best-selling author, published her first comic in November, “World of Wakanda,” a prequel to the “Black Panthers” series. Prior to that, she had written extensively on a variety of issues and across genres, including “Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body” that discussed fatness “from the inside.”
To a packed room, Gay began her talk with prepared remarks before moving into a discussion with Imani Perry, the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies, and, later, a question and answer session with audience members.
She began by talking about the comic, the confusion she initially felt, and her realization that she would be the to lead a Marvel project. Not only that, but Gay would be putting black queer women — the main characters Ayo and Aneka — in the center of the story.
“Comics are a genre that has long been considered a domain of white men,” Gay said. “Rarely are people of color written into superhero narratives, and rarely are women of color written into these narratives, and rarely are women of color writing these narratives themselves.”
According to Gay, this narrative is about two women falling in love, though they are bound to Black Panther, the king of Wakanda. The two are lethal killers, servants to the leader of Wakanda, and their biggest problem, Gay noted, would end up being their love for each other.
“When you’re the first, you have no choice but to be excellent or you will be the only,” she said. “It’s an uncanny burden.”
Despite the burden, Gay explained, it wasn’t in her nature to play it safe. She told Perry that, while growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, she couldn’t play it safe — almost solely because of her identity as the daughter of Haitian immigrants in a Midwestern city.
“Nobody thought that a girl like me could be from the place I’m from. People have this idea about blackness, that it only exists in urban centers, and that it only exists in one form,” Gay explained. “There’s a multiplicity to blackness. And so having always been on this outside looking in, it has always given me the — I don’t know if it was courage or stupidity — to go against the grain when needed,” she said.
At the same time, she tells students in the audience that it’s not their problem to provoke change alone.
“You can’t be constantly woke because you need to sleep,” Gay said.
After the speech, Samantha Adelberg, a graduate student at the Woodrow Wilson School, said this additional emphasis on self-care while pursuing social change is what stuck out to her.
“I think that’s something, as a graduate student, is important to remember and for every student of color on campus to remember on campus. For me, it was a reminder to look out for one another and be a support for one another and take a break when we need a break,” Adelberg said.
The audience reaction was overwhelmingly positive, giving Gay a standing ovation.
“I was very overwhelmed and excited. I experienced a lot of emotions from this program, simply because of the courage and tenacity she had in the delivery and the messages that she talked about, calling out structures and systems even here,” Princeton Theological Seminary student Brenton Miles Brock said.
The talk took place in the Carl A. Fields Center around 7 p.m.