Festival of Books: Roxane Gay and Laurie Halse Anderson destigmatize discussions of rape culture

Times writer Robin Abcarian, left, speaks with authors Roxane Gay and Laurie Halse Anderson at Saturday’s edition of the L.A. Times Festival of Books.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

An entranced audience hunched forward in their seats at USC’s Bovard Auditorium to hear authors Roxane Gay and Laurie Halse Anderson discuss their latest on rape culture. And despite the conversation’s sensitive nature, they laughed. A lot.

“All the time we tell women to forgive — [forget] forgiveness,” quipped Gay, using a different F-word. “I have no interest in [forgiveness]. It’s boring. It’s too easy.”

During a 10:30 a.m. panel at Saturday’s portion of the L.A. Times Festival of Books, Times columnist Robin Abcarian moderated a discussion with Gay and Halse Anderson about their latest books that deal with the repercussions of rape culture.


Gay edited the 2018 anthology “Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture,” a collection of contributors’ essays exploring the spectrum of survival; Anderson’s 2019 memoir, “Shout,” tells the story of her own assault as a 13-year-old through free-verse poetry.

Gay’s been crowned a cultural critic for her New York Times bestsellers “Bad Feminist” and “Hunger,” but her latest, she told The Times, isn’t about her at all.

“[The anthology] has nothing to do with me, and has everything to do with the 29 women and men who contributed their work and had really interesting, nuanced things to say about what it means to live in a world where rape culture is a thing,” she said.

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Contributors of “Not That Bad” include actress Gabrielle Union, who writes about the “stain” her own sexual assault left; Zoë Medeiros, who examines learning to carry the burden of her assault; and a writer called xTx, who penned the essay “The Ways We Are Taught to Be a Girl” — which, Gay told the panel, is one of her favorites in the collection.

Halse Anderson explained why she chose to write “Shout,” her response to the #MeToo movement, in free verse as opposed to giving a clear-cut storyline: “Poetry is writing from the bone marrow,” she said. “It’s just like, ‘Here’s the truth, and it’s either going to punch you in the gut or offer some comfort.’”

The packed auditorium was filled with Gay’s loyal band of followers, who erupted in a roar at the mere sight of her. Even Halse Anderson was in on it.

“The whole point of me being here, you should know, is so I get to sit next to Roxane onstage,” the YA author said.

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Gay’s name on the schedule was the sole reason Edward Farmer, 36, and Kai Love, 35, came to the Festival of Books, which continues through Sunday on the USC campus.

“I don’t even know the names of the other people speaking,” Love said.

When Abcarian asked why it took both authors so long to disclose their rape, they explained that silence is fueled by the deep-seated shame that rape culture instills in survivors.


“I was just ashamed,” Gay said. “Then I wasn’t, thank goodness, and then I wrote a book.”

When it comes to rectifying rape culture, work needs to be done beyond using empowerment slogans on our clothing and bumper stickers, both authors said. It’s about action.

“If you’re going to spend your money that way, then make sure you spend an equal amount of money, and/or time, letting your legislature know that women need to [be heard],” said Halse Anderson, who was wearing a “Got consent?” T-shirt.