Roxane Gay is synonymous with the personal essay. Her best-selling books, like Hunger and Bad Feminist, have become some of the most beloved commentaries on what it is to be a woman today. As the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have unfolded, her writings about her own experiences have aided in the national conversation and have served as a place for women (and men!) to turn to for advice, comfort, or — in the case of her prolific tweets on everything from Beyoncé’s Coachella performance to reality television — delicious distraction.
But Gay’s newest book, Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture, is a departure from what we’ve come to associate her with. The essay collection, on shelves May 1, is actually an anthology. Gay collected pieces from writers all over the country to create a haunting reflection of one of society’s biggest problems. It’s a problem that pervaded long before the ousting of Harvey Weinstein and his Hollywood brethren, and work on the book began long before the first revelations surfaced.
“This idea came to me years before the Harvey Weinstein news, simply because the way that women minimize their experiences has always been interesting to me,” Gay explained to EW.com.
She noted that when she thought about what had caused her to minimize her own experiences with sexual violence, she realized that she — and many of the women she knows — had often been told: “It’s not that bad.”
“I thought, what an interesting thing to tell someone and what a terrible thing to tell someone,” said Gay. “And I wondered what other people would have to say on that subject. And then I realized that would be a great idea for an anthology.”
The process of creating Not That Bad began with a call to action: Gay set up an account where writers from all over, regardless of their pedigree or professional qualifications, could send in their own essays about sexual harassment or violence. The result was several hundred essays, which took Gay — and her assistant Melissa Moorer — months to comb through. Moorer did a first pass, taking note of trends among the submissions and anything that really stood out to her, and then Gay read each essay herself as well. Beyond the sheer volume, Gay was struck by the honesty and candor shown by these perfect strangers.
“I was really stunned by the level of testimony and by how many women — and men — had such challenging and traumatic experiences with sexual violence,” she said. “I knew that it was widespread, but when you see submission after submission of people writing about these topics, it really starts to bring home just how problematic this culture is — and how far reaching the effects could be.”
As most of the headlines about the book will tell you, there are also a few famous names among the voices in Not That Bad. Notably, Ally Sheedy — who took to Twitter earlier this year to document her traumatic experiences with James Franco — and Gabrielle Union both have bylines. Union’s essay is a reprinting of the op-ed she published in the Los Angeles Times after the rape trial against Birth of a Nation director Nate Parker came to light in late 2016, in which she spoke about her own rape two decades ago and what she hoped to come of the controversy surrounding the film. Gay was so moved by the piece that she sought out Union’s permission to run it in her own anthology.
Sheedy’s essay isn’t about her experiences with Franco, but rather her disillusionment with Hollywood as a whole: The body criticism and emotional abuse she has been subjected to by everyone from casting agents to directors, and how her refusal to participate in the game dragged down her career. Her disturbing anecdotes had caught Gay’s eye before she set out to work on the book.
“I’ve known Ally, from online, for a couple years now,” she explained. “We get along very well and I had read an interview awhile back about why she was working less in Hollywood, and I was really interested and thought she might have something useful to say on the topic.”
The rest of the tome is rounded out by, of course, the many essays from unknown writers. All are introduced by Gay herself, who wanted to let the readers (especially those who may not have read Hunger or Bad Feminist) know that she came to this project because she has experienced much of what is detailed inside the book. While most of the words in Not That Bad come from others, she still holds herself plenty responsible for carrying the torch, admitting that she felt plenty of pressure in putting it all together, painful as each story is to its teller. And she has a few goals for what the book’s release — and reception — might achieve.
“I hope that people read this book and gain a greater understanding of how pervasive rape culture is and how damaging the effects of rape culture are,” she said. “I hope it encourages people not to minimize their experiences, and that it continues to advance the cultural conversation that we’re having about this.”
If Not That Bad has half the effectiveness of Gay’s Twitter feed, that seems quite likely.