Celebrated writer and social commentator honored with Phillips Award

Roxane Gay ’92 addresses assembly, visits classes.

Sarah Pruitt '95
October 27, 2023
Roxane Gay receives 2023 Phillips Award

From her op-ed pieces in The New York Times to her bestselling 2017 memoir Hunger, Roxane Gay ’92 is known for writing with radical honesty, courage and compassion about some of our society’s most difficult and divisive issues. On Friday, she returned to campus to accept the John and Elizabeth Phillips Award, which recognizes an Exonian who has contributed significantly to the welfare of community, country or humanity in their life and work.

“As an author, editor and professor known for your exploration of complex questions surrounding race, class, gender and sexuality, you have become one of the leading social commentators of our time,” said Trustee and General Alumni Association Vice President Una Basak ’90, who delivered Gay’s award citation before an audience of students, faculty, staff and visiting Trustees in the Assembly Hall. “You have earned this distinction by writing about subjects that matter deeply to you, in a way that resonates with millions of readers.”

In addition to accepting the Phillips Award, the Academy’s highest honor for its alumni, Gay visited several classes during her visit to campus. Immediately following the assembly, she sat in on a combined session of REL450: Social Ethics and REL592: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Epistemology held in the Latin Study, in which students read and discussed material from her newly published essay collection, Opinions: A Decade of Arguments, Criticism, and Minding Other People's Business.

The gift of family support

Addressing the Assembly Hall audience, which included several members of her family, Gay dedicated many of her remarks to her parents, whom she says “saw the power of possibility” in her when they made the investment in her Exeter education. “They saw what I personally would not see for decades, honestly — that I have a powerful voice and something to say.”

She spoke of her time at Exeter as “formative, in ways both good and bad.” There was her English teacher, the late Rex McGuinn, who saw something in her “very bad teenage writing” and encouraged her to take herself seriously as a writer. But she also spoke of experiencing microaggressions, and of being often underestimated by adults and peers alike.

After Exeter, Gay went on to earn her master’s and Ph.D. and began teaching at the college level, all with the goal of supporting her writing career. She published her first book, the short story collection Ayiti, in 2011. She was also blogging regularly at the time; writing articles on race, gender and culture for Salon, The Rumpus, The Nation and TIME, among other outlets; and building a reputation for sharp commentary on Twitter, then a relatively new social network.

Building a career

In 2014, Gay was on the tenure track at Purdue University when the success of her essay collection Bad Feminist launched her to a new level of fame. She published her debut novel, An Untamed State, that same year.

“I'm a writer who has achieved some measure of success because I dared to believe that I had the right as a queer black woman to articulate my understanding of the world,” Gay told the assembly audience. “From an early age, I watched my mother confidently expressing her opinions with wit and intellect… . My mother didn't necessarily know it at the time, but she consistently modeled for me what it means to have convictions and the confidence to express them.”

Writing for a purpose

Gay spoke of the “massive social upheaval” our culture has experienced over the course of her career, including a global pandemic, a divisive political landscape, rampant misinformation, proliferating anti-LGBTQ policies, book-banning efforts and multiple wars around the world. “The climate into which I write is incredibly fraught, but I do write, nonetheless,” Gay said. “I write to express outrage or to bear witness or express admiration. I write knowing many people will disagree with me for one reason or another.”

In addition to her own writing, Gay has worked throughout her career to amplify the voices of those who are underrepresented in publishing, particularly younger authors of color. She regularly publishes essays by emerging writers in her newsletter The Audacity, which boasts more than 80,000 subscribers. In partnership with Grove Atlantic, Gay recently launched her own publishing imprint, Roxane Gay Books, with three titles in print by the end of 2023.

“People often call me an activist, but truly, I am just a writer,” Gay said near the end of her remarks. “I am fortunate enough to bring attention to the things that matter most to me. I'm able to advocate for vulnerable communities. I do all of this because 35 years ago, my parents had a big, bold vision for myself that started right here.”