Best-selling author Ross Gay ’96 redefines joy in new collection of essays

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Author Ross Gay ’96 was inspired to become a writer by professors at Lafayette. (Photo courtesy of SF Station)

In his new book “Inciting Joy,” author Ross Gay ’96 wanted to correct what he felt to be an immature understanding of happiness.

“I wanted to offer a definition of joy which did not imagine [joy] as ever being separate from sorrow or heartbreak or devastation, and instead offer a definition that suggests that joy is actually what emerges from the way we tend to one another through the midst of those things, which we do not get out of,” Gay said.

A Lafayette alum and Pepper Prize winner, Gay said his life was changed by a presentation on the poet Amiri Baraka that English professor David Johnson assigned him. Gay credits various professors for inspiring him to become a writer, including art professor Edward Kerns.

“I had amazing teachers [at Lafayette],” he said. “I was a painting student there and Ed Kerns was really both an inspiration and an encouraging mentor to me.”

He also said that his friendships on College Hill were formative.

“I read like crazy and I made friends with people who are also invested in making stuff,” Gay said.

Gay has written four acclaimed poetry books: “Against Which,” “Bringing the Shovel Down,” “Be Holding” and “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude.” His first collection of essays, “The Book of Delights,” was a New York Times bestseller.

His second collection of essays, “Inciting Joy,” released in October 2022, touches on topics such as pick-up basketball, death and masculinity. The essay collection examines the concept of joy as something more than singular emotion.

“There’s a kind of pervasive, immature definition of joy that suggests we might not suffer, we might not feel pain, we might not have our hearts broken. There’s a million reasons why it feels to me more and more nefarious … just not true, given that we and everyone we love will die,” Gay said. “Depending on how you relate to that, this might be heartbreaking.”

Gay finds joy in writing about issues, feelings and ideas that fascinate him. He believes positive emotions are important to examine in relation to the negative emotions typically found in poetry.

“The thing that feels really important to me is states like delight are profoundly mysterious. They’re just as mysterious as despair and they might be more mysterious because … those are not states that ever exist, in my opinion, absent the understanding of the brutal opposite,” Gay said.

Gay delves into deep, compelling questions and explores his thoughts on a variety of topics. He cited his essays “Grief Suite” and “Dispatch from the Ruins” as being “wonderful and fun challenges” to write and assemble.

“When I’m writing I have a kind of deep question — a really compelling question — and I want to get into it. So, when I return to the page every day, I’m not like, ‘Oh, I gotta go slog in this thing.’ It’s like, I get to go figure out what I think by thinking about all this other stuff,” Gay said.

In “Inciting Joy,” Gay wanted to make sense of the world around him.

“I was sort of thinking about how we might survive the various collapses that we’re in the middle of [that] I don’t think we will get out of,” he said.

Gay hopes current college students and other young adults will take away the deeper meanings from his essays. One particular essay he hopes this for is “Insurgent Hoop,” which discusses pick-up basketball and the importance of sharing.

“I think that there is this kind of ethos of sharing that runs through the book, and it’s sort of this desire to study and find and articulate these places where there’s sharing — maybe what I would call radical sharing,” Gay said.

Gay said that his discussion of the deeper meaning of pick-up basketball relates on a deeper level to other organized groups and spaces.

“I’m talking about a pick-up basketball court, which really is sort of organized in such a way that the most important thing is that the game carries on, you know. Now that we are able to get together, I think those sorts of observations might be useful to people because I think people might be like ‘Oh, yeah, sometimes it’s like that in the lab’ or ‘Yeah, sometimes it’s like that on this team.’”

“Inciting Joy” is available both online and in bookstores.