The Backstory: Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay wrote “String Theory,” about life during a 15-month quarantine, the first week of March—before schools and restaurants closed across the U.S. Before we all started staying home. Before masks and talk of a vaccine became part of our daily lives. Back when the number of cases in the U.S. was just over 250, rather than near 3 million.

It seems as if Gay somehow intuited the future—she saw how bad things could get, the long road of quarantine and sickness ahead, but also good parts, the time to reflect on our lives—before the rest of us.

Roxane Gay

Interviewed by Ashley C. Ford. June 15, 2020. Los Angeles, California

Chronicles of Now: It’s now June, and I happen to know that you wrote that story back in early March. Back then, before much of the country was closed, most of us didn’t know just how bad this epidemic was going to get. What made you intuit this was going to be a long, long ordeal?

Roxane Gay: That’s a good question. I think I started to get a sense of how much of an ordeal the pandemic was going to be because we have incoherent and incompetent federal leadership. And I don’t even think we’ve begun to see the extent of what’s going to happen in this country. And so I was thinking about that. Like literally, What is the worst-case scenario when an idiot is president and a pandemic is ravaging the country? So I started from that premise. And then also, the story actually started in a really weird way. 

My partner, she went to Cambodia about a year and a half ago, and a monk gave her this piece of red string that he tied around her wrist, and it’s a good luck–type blessing. And it was a thin piece of string. And it kept fraying and fraying to the smallest, smallest thread. And we would joke about it because it would drive me crazy. I was like, “Why won’t it fucking break? What is happening here?” And she got very protective of this little red string. And so then I decided to write a story about it, and then the pandemic was happening, and so I tried to bring those two things together. I just thought, What would it be like to live with your partner in isolation for a year? And that’s where I took it.

The uprisings were going to happen no matter what because Black people have truly had enough. We are done. This is it.

CON: Yeah. And you took it there.

RG: I sure did.

CON: I was telling someone recently that “String Theory” felt as much like a pandemic story as a love story about loving a person enough to allow them their faith. Even if you feel like, Hm, I don’t know.

RG: Yes.

CON: Back in March, we also didn’t know George Floyd would be killed by Minneapolis police, that Breonna Taylor would be killed in Kentucky. So this has all started an uprising the likes of which this country hasn’t seen in 50 years, to be close. No one could’ve anticipated that. But how much does it surprise you?

RG: This time, I’m surprised. Because so many Black people have been brutally murdered at the hands of police time and time again. And what was so different about George Floyd? I can’t figure it out. In fact I have an essay coming out in the Times where I try to think through this: Why now? And it’s interesting because now everyone is saying, “Read books by Black authors” and “Go to Black restaurants” and so on. And this level of enthusiasm for blackness is probably going to last two or three weeks. And then we’re going to go back to the status quo. And it’s really frustrating. And so this is a bittersweet moment. Like, at least people are paying attention to racism and realizing what systemic racism is. But it’s like an outfit. It’s something that especially white people can put on and take off at will because they don’t have to live with the consequences of it. And so it’s bittersweet, because I look at people saying, “Read these books,” and of course my name gets thrown in with a bunch of other really talented Black writers, and quite frankly, you should’ve been reading us all along. So it’s just—I don’t even know what to make of this moment. But I am very heartened by the same sustained protests. Yesterday in Los Angeles, 30,000 people marched in West Hollywood.

CON: Fifteen thousand in Brooklyn.

RG: Yup, in Brooklyn especially—that one was particularly moving because it was an effort for Black trans lives, which are even more imperiled. And so it’s reminding me of also when Trump was first elected and he tried to push through that shady-ass Muslim ban on travel into the United States, and people immediately flooded the airports in protest. There’s something about this presidency that is inspiring people to take to the streets over and over and over again. And I think he’s realizing that he can’t get away with everything he thought he was going to get away with. And I guess at the end of the day that’s a good thing.

CON: Do you see a relationship between the pandemic and these uprisings?

RG: Absolutely. The uprisings were going to happen no matter what because Black people have truly had enough. We are done. This is it. But people have had a lot of time to sit at home. There’s no sports. There’s no new TV. There are no new movies. There’s no new nothing. And frankly there won’t be until next year. As someone who works in film and television, I can assure you there will not be much new content this year. And so we have a lot of fucking time to sit around thinking about what we think and feel. And I think that absolutely contributed. Besides which, people are scared. They’re angry. They are broke because we have, again, an incompetent federal government. And that is a lethal combination. Plus summer is starting, so people are getting out of school. Like, there’s literally nothing to distract us. Without work, without play, without school, yes, people are going to have the time. And, in many ways, the pandemic, I mean, it is a curse—110,000 people in this country are dead, and hundreds of thousands more are dead in other countries around the world—but it really laid bare just how divided this country is and just how imperiled Black life is. And I’m not grateful for it. But I recognize that it would not have been possible without the pandemic. And so sometimes something necessary rises out of something painful.

CON: I love that your story is about a couple weathering a long quarantine together. They’re having lots of sex. They’re cooking. They’re playing games. But this one partner has this impulse—they want to break that string. They just want to break it. And I’m wondering if you could talk to me about what that string means to these two different characters even though they’re stuck together.

RG: Absolutely. So to one of them, it means that there is life beyond quarantine, that there is something to believe in beyond the moment to moment, the day to day. And for the other partner, it represents, I think, this infuriating thing that should not be sustained, that should not be intact but is intact. And so then it becomes this sort of mildly antagonistic thing. Like, Oh, now I want to break it. I want to prove that that faith is misplaced. So it’s probably that whataboutism that we see happening in the world right now playing out in this interpersonal relationship. But the longer the quarantine progresses for these women, the more the antagonist realizes, Oh, maybe it is time to have a little faith, because we’re stuck with each other, and we love each other, and if this matters to her, then it’s got to matter to me. And so there’s this evolution of that.

CON: If you were writing this story today, June 15, not back in March, how would this story end?

RG: You know, it’s a good question. I don’t know that the story would be radically different if I were writing it today except that it would be very different because so much has happened since March. Every day, something—I mean, the news—I can’t keep up anymore. So I do think the story would end with more action. It wouldn’t just be, like, And then life got back to normal. I think it would end on a note of, We don’t know what’s next, but we know that whatever’s next will inevitably be better than what we left behind because we’re going to leave behind racism and law enforcement unchecked and all of the systemic biases that allow law enforcement to brutalize Black people. So I think it would be more active at the end instead of this sort of passive, Let’s get back to normal.

CON: What has the pandemic taught you? I feel like I’m learning things about me specifically all the time, and a little bit about other people. Are you having a similar experience?

RG: I am. I’ve spent quite a lot of time alone in my adult life, and so I don’t know. I’m in therapy. And so I am going to therapy consistently because for once I’m not constantly on the road. So I am definitely learning some of my—not shortcomings, but the things that I have challenges with emotionally and interpersonally. But I’m also getting to know how I can be as a partner, and what it truly means to share your space with someone. Because when you’re in a relationship and the world is normal, you can become two ships passing in the night because there’s so much external distraction. You can go do this; you can go do that. And it’s awesome. But you don’t have a lot of time to really face each other. And so we have a lot of time to really face each other. And it has been really eye-opening. Because so many people beyond our relationship—and I think a lot of people are dealing with this—are like, “Are you guys still getting along? What’s going on?” I’m like, “We’re fine! We’re having the time of our lives!” And I actually feel kind of guilty about that because the world is falling apart but I get to hang out with someone who is hilarious and funny and smart and interesting. Like, every day I learn some random shit about her. Like, she has a depth of music knowledge that shocks me. Every once in a while, some old-ass hip-hop song will come on, and she knows the lyrics, and I'm like, Whoa. Somebody’s got the range. I did not know this.

CON: One of the things that I keep thinking about is how this time specifically has changed my view of what I want my future to look like.

RG: Oh, absolutely.

CON: It has really changed what I thought I wanted in 10 years, in 20 years—in five years. It’s shifted that for me. And I feel like most people are having that. Only some of us can do something about it, to be perfectly honest. But I think all of us are having this feeling of reprioritization.

RG: For sure. Before the pandemic, I was go, go, go. I was doing—I don’t know, like, 100 events a year. And it was just exhausting. And I was doing it for a good reason, because I have a lot of financial responsibilities beyond my immediate, you know, family. And so when you have family to take care of, you have to work a lot. And so I don’t know that my workload is going to change, but how I do it and what I do is definitely changing. I think I’m going to limit myself to two events a month, which is more than enough. And the world will continue turning whether or not I show up at some random-ass event. It’s okay. I don’t have to do it all. So I’m definitely realizing that. I’m finally getting back to writing, which is ironic because I’m a writer. I’m definitely realizing, and I think my partner is realizing this as well, some of the stuff that we were doing is just not necessary. We don’t have to go out every night. It’s totally fine to just stay at home. This weekend we did nothing but stay at home and hang out with each other because we had company last weekend and we were like, Oof. It was great! We actually loved having our guests. They were family.

CON: It’s just exhausting.

RG: They came for a celebration. But having to talk to other humans and be engaged and social? When they left, we were like, Okay. And this weekend we were like, Oh my goodness. Thank god it’s just us. I just thought, Wait. What on earth is happening to us? It’s always just us. But we’re still finding ways to enjoy it as just us. And so, you know, the axis of my world is shifting, for sure.

CON: I love that. That actually makes me really, really happy.

RG: Yeah, it’s awesome. It’s very unexpected. I’ve always lived with this narrative that I am hard to love and an acquired taste, because that’s how I feel about myself. And to have someone show me every single day that I’m easy to love despite my many quirks, it’s awesome. It’s great. Like, Oh, maybe I’m not so hard to love and as much of an acquired taste as I think. Maybe everyone else just didn’t know how to love me properly. I’m not sure. But I’m definitely learning a lot.

We don't know what’s next, but we know that whatever’s next will inevitably be better than what we left behind because we’re going to leave behind racism and law enforcement unchecked and all of the systemic biases that allow law enforcement to brutalize Black people.

CON: How has the pandemic changed the way you consume media?

RG: Early in the pandemic, when I wrote the story, one of the things that drove it was that I was watching the news—well, I don’t watch the news, but I was reading the news 24 hours a day. And I couldn’t get enough. And it was filling me with a bunch of intense paranoia. Like, Oh my god. The world’s coming to an end. And Debbie watches the news. She’s a big news watcher. So paired with my reading the news, I was inundated. And now I’m being very selective. I want to stay informed. And so The New York Times, for once—I mean, in addition to the things they don’t do well, they do a lot of things well—and one thing they’re doing very well is their Covid coverage. It is pretty comprehensive. They’re covering a really interesting range of stories. And so I feel reasonably well-informed just by reading The New York Times and The Washington Post. And that’s it. I’m telling myself every day, I don’t have to read Covid all the time. Because when I turn on the news—at night we watch Rachel Maddow, and she’s so intense, and she picks the worst stories from everywhere. Like, this meatpacking plant in South Dakota—and it’s important to know those stories. But unfortunately, she frames them in such a way that it makes it seem like the world is coming to an end tomorrow. And then you go outside and everything is fine. And so I’m just trying to balance staying informed with avoiding hysteria, while at the same time being deeply concerned, because the curve is going up, and people are acting like we’re past this. And people are like, “I don’t want to wear a mask” even though it really actually costs us nothing to wear the mask.

CON: Nothing. Nothing.

RG: It’s just a piece of fabric over your face.

CON: Momentary discomfort.

RG: Right. I’m worried because people are like, Oh, we’re going to be getting out of quarantine soon. And I’m like, Mmm—not I.

CON: Not I. Yeah, we very recently had a conversation where some friends said, “Hey, we’re all going to start hanging out, seeing each other again.” And we were like, “Well, we’ll miss you. And we wish you the best.” Not sure what else to say.

RG: Whenever people are like, “I just went to the bar,” I’m just, “Well then I will see you in four weeks. You cannot come to this house. Mmm—no.” It’s really shocking. It’s really shocking. And the other thing that has come out is that because we see our friends so rarely, and we even social distance when we’re socializing in the backyard, it’s actually nice to have time with friends and then they go away. We have nice times with friends in these really controlled bursts. That part is also very nice. Because we make the most of it. The time is better because it’s more quality time. Especially because we’re starved of socialness. And I previously thought of myself as a loner. And I am, I guess. But you know, you have these narratives in your head. 

Isolation has shown me that my partner, who’s the extrovert, if she never leaves this house again, she will be fine. And meanwhile, I’m like, “When are we going to go somewhere?” And I’m the introvert who likes to stay in. So it’s interesting to see how some of these notions about ourselves are also being challenged.

CON: I love that. I love that. You know, when I read this, I thought, Oh what a beautiful love story, even though it has such frightening moments and such hard moments. It’s because of that last line—“I could not take that from her. Or even myself”—because of the allowance of this little dream, this gift, this faith, this hope, whatever it is. And I’m wondering, right now, what are you most holding on to? When you think about the future, and you think about, you know, I cannot wait for this moment or to get to do this thing again, what is it that you’re holding onto?

RG: You know, there’s nothing I’m really looking forward to outside of my home, other than being able to hang out with my friends freely and comfortably. I look forward to that. And I definitely look forward to Broadway. I love live theater. So I’m holding out for that. But I’m also holding out that we hold onto this space and this energy that we’ve created between the two of us. I find myself—and that’s the biggest surprise—like, I don’t need to break back out into the normal world. Like, I’m chill with what we have going on here, where I do puzzles every night and we’re working through binge-watching various series and movie franchises, and she’s gardening, and I’m cooking and baking. I hope that when life really starts to pick back up, we remember to make a priority of our quality time the way we have. That’s what I’m holding onto. 

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Listen to the Podcast

Roxane Gay: String Theory

Covid-19 has made us all prisoners of our homes. And at times, our families. If the...

Read the Story