'Bad Feminist' calls 2016 Paul Engle Prize 'awesome and validating'

Roxane Gay, a black woman who identifies as queer, says prize energizes her

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By Meryn Fluker, correspondent

Carmen Sandiego has nothing on Roxane Gay.

Ask where in the world is the Nebraska-born writer — a title barely encapsulating her work as a novelist, editor, essayist, avid Twitter user, Tumblr blogger, burgeoning graphic novelist/screenwriter and associate professor of English at Purdue University — and the right answer appears to be “everywhere.”

“I never want to be limited to one genre or style of writing,” Gay wrote in an interview via email. “I grow more as a writer when I try new, challenging things. Working on diverse projects has absolutely made me a better writer. I keep learning new ways of telling stories and developing character and reflecting my understanding of this world we live in.”

Gay is a TED Talker, frequent podcast guest, No. 1 Beyonce fan and will be in Coralville on Thursday to accept the 2016 Paul Engle Prize from the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature.

“This prize is really designed to recognize someone not just for their excellence in writing — though certainly everyone who has received the award has been a talented writer — but the person who is using their talents and skills and time to go beyond that, to really contribute to the larger issues of the day, to contribute to the world around them,” said John Kenyon, Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature executive director. “This (prize) is really designed to recognize someone who’s going above and beyond and we certainly feel Roxane has been doing that.”

The Aug. 3 announcement naming Gay the prize’s fifth recipient includes a quote from the author in which she calls the honor “unexpected but very welcome” and a reminder “that the dream of writing and having my words resonate with people is more than enough because sometimes, dreams take on a life of their own.”

She elaborated on that statement via email.

“As a writer, the dream was to write a good book and see it published. I didn’t know to dream beyond that so everything that has happened over the past two years has been just amazing,” wrote Gay, whose 2014 essay collection “Bad Feminist” is a New York Times best-seller. “I keep finding that new dreams are coming true — dreams I did not even know I had until they came true. And to be recognized by my professional community, for the work I do to be recognized is just awesome and validating. It gives me some of the energy I need to keep pushing forward.”

Gay, a black woman who has identified as queer, has found great success and visibility namely for the quality of her writing but also because she regularly, and with great skill, illuminates her truth and those of the communities to which she belongs. Gay is reliably skillful and searing, whether in resonant columns about her experiences as a victim of sexual violence or interviews about being overweight.

With the scheduled November publication of “Black Panther: World of Wakanda,” Gay and poet Yona Harvey will become Marvel’s first black female writers.

Gay receiving the Paul Engle Prize may bring attention to diverse viewpoints, but in the author’s view awards don’t engender acceptance for less-visible communities.

“When marginalized people receive such recognitions, generally speaking it’s, again, validation but all too often, that validation is too little too late,” Gay wrote. “In terms of lifting all boats, people do that work, not prizes. While I may be the first in many of my endeavors, one of my lifelong goals is to ensure that I won’t ever be the last.”

The Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature accepts external and internal nominations for the Paul Engle Prize each year, before the organization’s board convenes to review the submissions and select a winner.

In the honor’s brief history, the list of winners is a diverse one, including two women, three men and four people of color. Diversity isn’t an explicit goal, Kenyon said, but is somewhat inherent via the criteria.

“The fact that you have so many people from so many backgrounds winning the award is a testament to the fact that you have so many people from so many different backgrounds doing this kind of work. It’s not any one type of writer,” Kenyon said. “By design in looking at this type of writer to recognize, we’re going to pull from all across the spectrum and it’s been wonderful to do that. We didn’t pick Roxane because she’s an African American woman (Gay is a first-generation Haitian American) or a member of any one specific group. We recognized her because she’s done the work and she’s made contributions to bettering the world around her.”

The Paul Engle Prize ceremony, open to the public and scheduled for 7 p.m. on Thursday at the Coralville Public Library, will open with comments from library Director Alison Ames Galstad. Gay will speak and do a reading before engaging in a question-and-answer session with local author and University of Iowa communications studies doctoral student alea adigweme.

Due to Gay’s tireless work ethic and demanding schedule, she hasn’t decided what she’ll read from during the Paul Engle Prize ceremony.

“I have five events before that one so I haven’t had time to figure that out yet,” she wrote.


What: Roxane Gay will speak with Rachel Yoder at a live taping of “The Fail Safe,” a podcast that explores how today’s most successful writers grapple with and learn from creative failture as part of the Iowa City Book Festival

When: 1 p.m. Thursday ► Oct. 6 ◄

Where: Clinton Street Social Club, 18 1/2 S. Clinton St., Iowa City

Cost: Free

What: Roxane Gay receives the Paul Engle Prize

When: 7 p.m. Thursday ► Oct. 6 ◄

Where: Coralville Public Library, 1401 Fifth St., Coralville

Cost: Free

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