“Bodies of all shapes and sizes are complicated, and living in them is complicated. And I wrote a book about those complications,” said author Roxane Gay, speaking at the St. Louis County Library Headquarters on the evening of Saturday, July 8th.
Gay is known as a feminist icon, a cultural commentator, an essayist and short story writer. She’s written multiple novels, is a contributor at several news organizations, and was even, this year, the writer of the Marvel comic book series “World of Wakanda.”
The book she’s currently promoting, however, takes a much more personal turn. “Hunger: a memoir of (my) body,” which came out this past June, tells Gay’s story of living in her specific body: that of an overweight, black woman in America. In the book, she explains how, for her, weight is inextricably linked to trauma: she gained weight precipitously, as a defense mechanism, after a group of boys sexually assaulted her at age 12.
She chose to write about this topic because, she said, “I was thinking about what I wanted to do next, in terms of my nonfiction. And I thought, well, the thing I want to do the very least is to write a book about fatness. And that’s when I knew this is the book I’m going to need to write. Because oftentimes, the things that scare me the most and intimidate me the most are the most intellectually satisfying.” So in the end, she said, “I did end up writing about fatness. And I’m trying to think through how a body is made and unmade.”
Her St. Louis engagement began with her reading aloud from Hunger to the packed, silent room. Although she says in interviews that she suffers from stage fright, she appeared calm and self-possessed, despite the huge audience that had come to the library on a Saturday night to hear her speak.
After reading from the book, Gay began to take questions from the audience--a group which was almost entirely made up of women, of every size and race and age.
People in the audience talked about their own experiences with moving through the world while overweight, and their experiences with womanhood, and even with sexual assault. They also asked questions about her writing process.
When writing “Hunger” and her other books, “I always tell myself no one’s going to read my work,” she said. “That’s how I’m able to put anything on the page.” Her nervousness around her work seems at odds with the fact that Roxane Gay has been a writer her whole life.
Even when she was a child, “It’s really weird, but I would draw pictures of villages on napkins, and then I would write the life stories of everyone living in that village,” she said. “I know! I was so adorable!”
Now, although she is in the middle of a book tour about the more-or-less nonpolitical topic of her own body, the questions inevitably turned to politics--specifically, feminism, based on Gay’s earlier book “Bad Feminist”.
“I’m very encouraged by the current state of feminism,” she said, “Which I know is not the popular thing to say. But I think feminism is doing just fine. Given everything that’s against feminism, the fact that feminism exists at all is wondrous.” However, she hopes feminism will become less theoretical, and more action-oriented, in the coming years.
“I think we really need to see more feminism in action, rather than sitting around talking about feminism and grading each other as feminists,” she said. “We spend more time holding ourselves accountable than holding anybody else accountable, and I think this is something that is unique to women. Because the patriarchy is that powerful, they have us sort of critiquing ourselves all the goddamn time!”
Instead of self-critique, Gay said, she will be focusing her attention “where it really belongs”--which for her, is on the fight for women’s reproductive freedom, among other human-rights issues.
She even turned her attention to local issues: “Like, the fact that there are states retracting the minimum wage!” she added. “Like, seriously?”
The crowd grumbled in response, and Gay said, “I know! Missouri, that’s why I said it. I read the news! And I think these are feminist issues, because it is women and people of color that are disproportionately going to be affected by a minimum wage reduction.”
Ultimately, though “Hunger” isn’t as explicitly a feminist, political book as “Bad Feminist,” it is political in the sense that the bodies of women, especially black women, are always politicized. In a world where being thin and white and male and straight is the standard, Gay asserts that she has a right to be here.
“I hope that society moves to a place of fat acceptance, but we’re so far from that,” she said. “We’re so far. We live in a world where people cannot imagine it ever being acceptable to be fat. So I’m not optimistic. But I don’t think that we have to let that make us feel hopeless, or mired in self-loathing or self-doubt. Just because people won’t get on board with reality, that’s not something we have to carry.”
“Hunger” is a book that, like Gay herself, ends up inadvertently political, despite its apparently innocuous topic. It is both an intimate memoir and a call to change the way we think about bodies, both our own and those of others.