After reading my work, people often tell me I am fearless and assume I have a lot of confidence. In truth, I’m just a writer. On the page, I am opinionated and more than willing to share my perspectives. I’ll even share my life and make myself vulnerable if the work demands it. I am firm in my convictions, and I take risks. But without words, I wouldn’t be that way.
Most of my childhood memories are of books, and the fondest of these involve Laura Ingalls Wilder and the eight original novels in the Little House on the Prairie series. As an adult with an abiding commitment to social justice, I recognize how problematic these books are, particularly in their unabashed racism toward indigenous people. But I also recognize how remarkable it was for books published in the 1930s and 1940s to focus on a young woman, and one who was smart, willful, and interesting.
I loved how adventurous Laura’s life seemed, even though her family traveled by wagon and a trip to town was something of an event. The winters were harsh. Sugaring maple and playing with corncob dolls was considered fun. None of this seemed to faze Laura much. She was a tomboy and had the prairie to explore and chores to do, and there was school and the kids she met there. She was independent and opinionated and a daddy’s girl. Pa loved to call Laura “half-pint,” which made me yearn, desperately, for a nickname.
As Laura got older, she had a clear sense of right and wrong. She wasn’t perfect, but she was willing to stand up to bullies. She was also willing, with time, to love and allow herself to be loved. The details about Laura’s courtship with Almanzo Wilder were so romantic to me because she made him earn her affection. She argued with Almanzo instead of capitulating.
Throughout my childhood I read and reread the Little House on the Prairie books, savoring every detail, every character from Pa to Mr. Edwards to Nellie Oleson. Mostly, though, I savored Laura. As a girl from the plains, the suburbs of Omaha, Nebraska, I very much wanted to be Laura. I wanted to believe my life could be interesting and full. And I was shy, so I wanted Laura’s pluck and moxie. Sometimes I would stare at myself in the mirror and do my best to channel Laura’s spirit before leaving the safety of home to face the world.
I wrote as much as I read. I wasn’t shy in the stories I wrote. I allowed myself to be wild, free. I never reined in my imagination. I wrote versions of myself that were far braver and more interesting than I could ever be. I wrote about girls I hoped Laura would like and respect and maybe even befriend. She was always there on my shoulder reminding me of what was possible with words. She’s there even now.
Roxane Gay is the author of Bad Feminist. Her memoir, Hunger, will be published June 13 by HarperCollins.