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Identity, extemism rouse Paul Engle Prize winner

Roxane Gay accepts honor in Coralville

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By Meryn Fluker, correspondent

CORALVILLE — Roxane Gay got almost presidential Thursday night. She stumped for equal pay, spoke against extremism — because she’s a Libra, she said — and called herself a centrist.

If the author hadn’t dropped a few well-placed expletives, the packed Coralville Public Library crowd might have mistaken her for a political candidate.

Instead, Gay was accepting the Paul Engle Prize from the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature.

A confidante, whom Gay calls “her person,” told her to accept the award with great gusto — using one of those aforementioned unprintable curse words — and for almost 90 minutes, that’s what Gay did.

Coralville Public Library Director Alison Ames Galstad introduced Gay, praising her “grace, wit and punch.”

“Reading her work is like getting a tour of contemporary culture from your smartest friend,” Ames Galstad said.

Gay is the fifth recipient of the Paul Engle Prize, “which includes a one-of-a-kind work of art and $10,000,” according to the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature organization. It selects the winners and awards the honor. The city of Coralville sponsors the prize.

“To know my words reach people means the world to me,” Gay said. “I write hoping to better myself and better the world in some small way.”

Gay participated in a taping of “The Fail Safe” podcast, produced by The Iowa Writers’ House and draft: The Journal of Process. The event that also was part of the nonprofit Iowa City Book Festival, which began Tuesday and concludes Sunday.

The author of the 2014 New York Times best-seller “Bad Feminist” and the forthcoming short-story collection, “Difficult Women,” spoke briefly Thursday evening before spending almost an hour talking with local writer and University of Iowa communication studies doctoral student alea adigweme.

Gay shared her perspective about being what she called a queer Black woman, the daughter of Haitian immigrants and a writer who loudly supports marginalized people.

“You have to accept you have the right to narrate the world as you see it,” Gay said. “The older you get, the less you care about what other people think ... I’m in my 40s now, and it’s awesome.”

Their conversation touched on Gay’s upcoming projects. She’s writing Marvel’s Black Panther spinoff, “World of Wakanda” series, adapting her 2014 novel, “An Untamed State,” for film, and working on “Hunger,” a memoir about obesity set to debut next year. But the theme was identity.

“It was excellent. She’s clearly a very intelligent and also funny, communicative person,” said Ruel Johnson, a Guyanese fiction writer, poet and University of Iowa International Writing Program resident who attended the event. “I think (Gay) is representative of sort of a frontline of linking popular culture with serious themes of diversity, whether it’s feminism or race.”

adigweme, who also is a woman of color and the daughter of immigrants, spoke with Gay about being black in the Midwest. Gay, a Nebraska native and professor at Purdue University, is trying to buy a home in Los Angeles.

“I love the Midwest. This is home. It’s always been home. Sometimes home doesn’t want you,” Gay said before the more than 200 attendees, describing her experiences of seeing Confederate flags and Ku Klux Klan regalia regularly in her city. “You just get to a point in your life where you don’t want to see that every day. ... I’m fine living around people who don’t look like me. I’m not fine living around people who don’t think I deserve to live.”

Levity flowed at the event. Gay treated everyone to a tangent about her beloved Beyoncé — “I worship her. I truly believe she is a deity among us,” Gay said to laughs. She also discussed the moment when her parents finally accepted that she had chosen to be a writer rather than a doctor, as they had wished.

“It took a book,” she quipped. “Ever since then, my dad has become my biggest hype man.”

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