Let’s Talk About ‘Kink’

Bestselling authors R.O. Kwon and Roxane Gay discuss their new work

Photo illustration; Image sources: Simon & Schuster, Reginald Cunningham, Smeeta Mahanti

Kink, a new anthology of fiction edited by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell, explores the world of sexual desire in a way not often seen in literary fiction. Some of today’s most talented and acclaimed writers, such as Roxane Gay, Melissa Febos, and Carmen Maria Machado, delve into topics of love, dominance, submission, BDSM, and more, with stories about women, people of color, and queerness as it relates to sex and desire. The book gives voice to these characters in a way that breaks the boundaries of taboo, celebrating sexuality in both daring and moving ways.

In a time of social distancing, Kink also serves as a much-needed reminder of physical intimacy and touch. It’s an important read, no doubt, but it’s also worth noting that Kink is a fun read. As Gay points out to me, “Things are pretty depressing right now in the world, so I think it’s important to remember that not everything is terrible.”

In a conversation with ZORA, Kwon and Gay discuss the idea of kink for women of color and the ways that this book, aside from being a literary exploration of sex, is simply fun.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

ZORA: I wanted to start by asking what drew you to wanting to publish an anthology about kink and write these stories?

R.O. Kwon: The book came about because I had published a story in Playboy. It’s a version of the story that appears in the anthology, and I was really anxious before the story was published. I have a lot of trouble talking about sex in any public way, which has made editing this or putting this book out into the world especially interesting. But [when the story published] I got so many lovely emails. People just said, “Thank you. It helped me feel less alone.” And I just had the thought: Wouldn’t it be so wonderful if stories like this could exist in a book that could then exist in a library?

Roxane Gay: I thought it was a really interesting project. I am a fan of Reese’s work, and I have written quite a lot of fiction that is erotic in nature, so I just thought, yes, I could pull this off. I think it would be a good fit. And there are so many incredible contributors, so it’s great to be alongside them.

Looking at the authors and the stories in this book, there’s a lot of women, a lot of people of color, a lot of queer stories. I wonder if you can both talk about why it’s so important to hear from these specific voices about the topic of kink.

Kwon: It was central to my imagining of the book that I wanted to have more queer people than not, more people of color than not, and more women than not — or more women than men, at least. That’s important to me in general, with anything I’m spearheading, but especially with a book like this — with Kink — because there hasn’t been a book like this in a really long time as far as I know. It felt especially important to be as inclusive as possible. Of course, it’s one book, so there are limits. And there are 15 stories, which is both an incredible abundance and a very small number. Truly our biggest hope with this book is that it can help open the door to other books that also are interested in desire.

“Of course, the more marginalized we are — I always hesitate to generalize — but the more marginalized one is, the harder it probably is to claim our desires.”

Do you feel that explorations of kink are often seen as more taboo for women of color? And if so, why do you think that is?

Gay: I think in general, absolutely. People tend to think of kink as the realm of white people. And I think there is also a lot of tension around kink and race and ethnicity, especially when you’re thinking about dominance and submission. Black people have quite a history with dominance and submission. So to then willingly engage in those kinds of practices after you were subjugated for 400 years is complicated. I think a lot of people struggle with getting over that sort of mental block. But at the same time, there are plenty of people of color from all races and ethnicities who are involved in kink and who are able to reconcile the challenges of oppression and being oppressed while also engaging in kink.

What do you hope these stories, then, will accomplish for readers, specifically readers who are women of color?

Kwon: I love what Roxane said. Of course, the more marginalized we are — I always hesitate to generalize — but the more marginalized one is, the harder it probably is to claim our desires. There’s more possibility of judgment and punishment for women of color who hope to claim their desires. And so to see those desires out in the world, a book like this can make it more possible for people to honor their desires and honor the desires of others, especially when it has to do with physical desire and consensual activities. That’s one of our great hopes for the book.

I also want to talk briefly about your story, Roxane, or the story that you wrote for the anthology in which we learned partway through that the narrator is intersex, I believe? Do you feel that that changes the dynamics of what we see in terms of power as it relates to kink and BDSM?

Gay: It can, I think. I wrote this story many years ago, and really, it was about surprising the reader because the reader expects the narrator to be one gender, and then finds out that it’s more complicated. There’s a lot of interesting ground to be covered when you think about gender and in-betweenness, and the blurring of identity lines, and power, and how power is given and exchanged.

And you know, the narrator in this story is not intersex, to be clear. The narrator is a woman who is wearing a strap on and playing with gender in that way. I thought it would be great to introduce this idea of the different ways that cisgender women play with gender identity and the different ways that women who have sex with other women have sex. It’s sort of jarring for the reader to read her talk, and then sort of figure it out like, wait, what’s going on there? It’s also kind of sexy, and so I was just playing with all of that.

Oh, I think I was thrown off initially, which is why I at one point thought intersex, but now that I’m hearing you talk about it, it makes a lot of sense.

Gay: Then my story did exactly what I wanted.

“I was really looking at the erotics of power exchange.”

One thing the book does really well is that it shows there is not one definition of kink. Every writer in this anthology shows kink in a different way. In writing your own stories, or just in general, how did you think about kink? What did the word mean to you?

Gay: I don’t know that I was thinking about kink, other than this was a kinky story. I was really looking at the erotics of power exchange. Like, who are the people in this couple? What kinds of secrets are they carrying in their bodies? How are they sharing those secrets with each other through their sex life?

Also, it’s just hot. I enjoy kink, and I enjoy writing about it, and I enjoy thinking about it, reading about it. So it wasn’t even necessarily an intellectual exercise, and I think that’s one of the important takeaways from the book. In addition to whatever intellectual projects every writer was engaging in, it’s also just hot.

Kwon: Yeah, thank you for saying that, Roxane. It’s so true. I was just rereading a few of the stories, and I was like, oh, man, these stories are so sexy on top of everything else. I love them as stories, as fiction, as literature. But yeah, they’re also very hot.

It was important to Garth [Greenwell] and me in thinking about this book that we put some thought into how we phrased emails asking for work. It was really important that we not define kink for anyone. We asked for work that engages with kink in a meaningful way, but kink as defined by the writer. With my own story, I basically just wanted to look at what happens when two parts of a couple want different things. And what can arise from that? In this case, it’s about a couple in which a woman wants something sexually — namely S&M — that her partner isn’t sure he can provide.

Why do you feel that this book is important right now, at this moment in time?

Gay: Things are pretty depressing right now in the world, so I think it’s important to remember that not everything is terrible and that it’s still possible to have an erotic life. I think we all need a little distraction right now. Distraction is good. Writing should entertain, and this is a very entertaining anthology.

Kwon: I would add that I feel as though — especially at the start of the pandemic, but it’s remained true — I as a reader have been really drawn to party scenes and scenes with a lot of touching in crowded bars. My skin hunger extends to what I’m reading, and this book is full of touching, and it’s full of bodies engaged with one another.

Deena ElGenaidi is a Brooklyn-based writer whose work has been published MTV News, Nylon, O Magazine, and elsewhere. Follow on Twitter and Instagram @deenaelg

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store