Author and cultural critic Roxane Gay – whose writing explores feminism, race, body image, her own life, contemporary social topics and fiction – will be the Cornell Senior Convocation speaker for the 153rd graduating class, the Convocation Committee for the university’s Class of 2021 announced May 13.
Gay will give the virtual Convocation address on Friday, May 28 at 8:30 p.m., streamed on live.alumni.cornell.edu. The live virtual Convocation address will be accessible to only Cornell students, faculty, alumni and staff. The recording will be posted on CornellCast by early June.
Following Convocation, the university’s Commencement ceremonies will take place in four installments Saturday, May 29 and Sunday, May 30.
After the seniors endured nearly three semesters of a global pandemic, the convocation committee sought to define the graduating class in order to pinpoint a speaker. The group saw its class as resilient, empathetic, creative, revolutionary and possessing integrity.
Gay, committee members said, blends those attributes. “In her writing, she has embodied authenticity, while shifting the needle of societal change in a certain direction,” said Hassaan Bin Sabir ’21, committee chair. “Roxane Gay has reached great heights being true to her own story and expressing her own voice.”
Sarah Brice ’21, a public relations chair on the committee, said Gay’s combination of inspiration and verity made her a strong choice.
“This academic year has been like no other,” she said. “The seniors sought a speaker who would applaud us and inspire us as we enter the ‘real world’ – motivating us to follow our dreams and create change – but also to be real with us.”
Gay is a contributor to The New York Times and a visiting professor at Yale University. In her newly established online Masterclass, she teaches writing for social change.
Her writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2012, A Public Space, McSweeney’s, Tin House, American Short Fiction and Virginia Quarterly Review.
Gay’s first novel, “An Untamed State” (2014), tells the story of a Haitian-American woman (like Gay) who survives kidnapping. Kirkus Reviews called the novel a “cutting and resonant debut.” That same year, “Bad Feminist,” a collection of Gay’s essays, became a New York Times bestseller. In 2016, Gay wrote Marvel Comics’ “Black Panther: World of Wakanda.” Her “Difficult Women” (2017), a national bestseller, told stories of unforgettable women.
“Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body” (2017) mined her own emotional struggles with obesity to explore society’s shared anxieties. “At its simplest, it’s a memoir about being fat – Gay’s preferred term – in a hostile, fat-phobic world,” reviewer Carina Chocano wrote in the New York Times. “At its most symphonic, it’s an intellectually rigorous and deeply moving exploration of the ways in which trauma, stories, desire, language and metaphor shape our experiences and construct our reality.”
Gay earned her bachelor’s degree at Norwich University in Vermont; a master’s degree at the University of Nebraska; and a doctorate at Michigan Technological University.
“Our class sought a speaker who would not only celebrate with us, but use her own experiences and perspective on the true challenges and opportunities to empower us,” Brice said. “The Class of 2021 is diverse in identity, background, experience – and we believe the graduates will be energized by Roxane Gay.”