Each year my library hosts the presentation of the Paul Engle Prize and I write an introduction to the prizewinner. This year’s event is this Thursday, October 12 and we’ll be honoring Alexander Chee. In the meantime, here’s last year’s introduction.
Roxane Gay is a woman who survived girlhood. That’s true of many of us—more than half of us were girls; many girls are survivors. But few of us go on to write about those two things—girlhood and survival—and the tensions between them, and fewer still do so with the grace, wit, and punch of Roxane Gay.
Gay embraces the very things many of us were taught to reject as too girly. Whether she’s writing about the influence of Sweet Valley High or explaining her love of pink, Gay tackles girlhood and its accoutrements head on—not to fight them or deny them but to acknowledge that they are a part of us, that popular culture, as much as anything, has made us who we are.
But Roxane Gay is more than a celebrant of sugar and spice: she is also someone who knows their dark side. She knows, as she puts it in the title of one essay, both the illusion of safety and the safety of illusion, and she is not afraid to break up those illusions and bring us face to face with the things we would rather not see: the lack of characters of color on television. The casual violence toward women we hear all around us. The actual violence perpetrated on women’s bodies and on black bodies.
Girlhood plus survival: from these things, and from her life as the daughter of Haitian immigrants, a professor, a Scrabble player, and more, Roxane Gay has made herself into a writer of breathtaking fiction and thought-provoking essays. Reading her work is like getting a tour of contemporary culture from your smartest friend, the one who seems to have been everywhere and seen everything and who has come back to put it all together for you.
Gay is the author of a collection of stories, Ayiti; a novel, An Untamed State; an essay collection called Bad Feminist; innumerable essays both online and in print; and a Twitter feed that will have you laughing, cheering, and up in arms. Her memoir Hunger is forthcoming this year, and she will be writing Marvel’s World of Wakanda comic along with poet Yona Harvey. She teaches at Purdue University, where she is an associate professor of English.
“Don’t bother coming back to my world,” the narrator of An Untamed State says to her future husband in an argument. It’s a challenge and a dare, one he ends up accepting, and one you should, too. Once you have stepped into Roxane Gay’s world, you will see things you have never seen, and you will be wiser and better for it.
Each year the Paul Engle Award Committee works with artists at M.C. Ginsberg, who design the one-of-a-kind prize. This year, designers Brigitta Stoner and Ji Young Yoon found inspiration in Roxane Gay’s writing. In an artist’s statement about the piece, they write that their efforts “were combined to create a representation of the thoughts in a woman’s mind. We ask ourselves many questions every day, and often there are conflicts between society and the many internal thoughts and feelings females experience daily.” The piece, as with all past Engle Prizes, includes a small charm in the shape of Iowa, with a diamond representing Iowa City.
It is with great pleasure that we now present it to Roxane Gay—woman, survivor, writer, and winner of this year’s Paul Engle Prize.