“Writing about the body is a very vulnerable thing. I just didn’t want to do it,” Roxane Gay tells Rolling Stone. “But that is what told me this is what I should be writing.”
Since the release of her 2014 essay collection Bad Feminist, Gay has gone on to become one of the leading voices in the American conversation. Through her fiction, articles, tweets, TED Talk and more, she has helped lead discussion we need to be having in 2017 on everything from race, pop culture, police violence against people of color, gender, sexual assault and more. Her work ethic is also something to behold. This is her fourth book in three years, and that doesn’t count the series she writes for Marvel or any of the other projects she’s juggling, including her teaching career at Purdue University as Associate Professor of English.
With all that going on, Gay recently released Hunger, an unconventional memoir that rejects the common narrative of triumph to instead tell a story without a straightforward ending. It is a book about the human process, which is messy and multifaceted, rather than clean and simple. It is also, more importantly, a book about the body, specifically Gay’s, which she describes as, “wildly undisciplined,” and about the ways in which she navigated, processed and responded to trauma.
For Gay, trauma manifested in a deliberate manipulation and transformation of her own body into a size she once believed would deter the lasciviousness of predatory young men.
“It was definitely conscious,” she says. “I definitely thought, if I’m bigger, I’ll be safer because I’ll be able to fight those boys better. I also thought boys don’t like fat girls.”
This desire to regain control of one’s own limbs after a traumatic incident. Sexual assault is not about sex, but about power. Reclaiming one’s own body, in whatever way that may manifest, is a response to the initial and the reoccurring trauma of assault. In order to survive, we fit ourselves into the world because the world rarely sees or adapts to survivors.
But gaining weight and developing a difficult relationship to food never truly addressed the underlying trauma. Gay says she didn’t begin to truly confront her past until she was in her thirties.
Here, Gay discusses the difficulty of in finally writing Hunger, why her new memoir is not a story of triumph, making herself vulnerable to the public and why she doesn’t believe her literary honesty makes her brave.
Hunger was delayed. It was originally anticipated last year and Difficult Women [Gay’s collection of short stories] came out instead earlier this year. You’ve described the writing process for Hunger as very scary or difficult. Why was it scary to write this particular memoir about your life?
I never really planned on writing memoir. I was actually very resistant to it for a long time. I am actually a private person. The book became delayed because I just dragged my feet and procrastinated and procrastinated and didn’t write the book. June 2016 came around and I was like, well, it’s not gonna happen. But Difficult Women was always going to come out in January 2017.
How did you overcome the fear or hesitation in sharing your vulnerability for a memoir?
I just realized at some point, I really can’t put this off anymore unless I just want to cancel the book, so I just started writing and gritting my teeth and making sure I stuck to my boundaries. I stuck to my boundaries when push came to shove. That helped quite a lot to recognize, “OK, I am writing a memoir, but I don’t need to give the reader everything. I am allowed to save parts of my life for myself.”
How did you set your boundaries?
I was really thinking a lot about the people in my life first and foremost. I want to respect their boundaries and make sure the things that are sacred to me about my relationships stay sacred. So that was a starting point. And also, I thought a lot about necessity and what does the narrative need and what would be gratuitous. That also helped me make a decision about what to write about and what not to write about.
You said you decided what the narrative needed. What sort of things did you hone in on in terms of developing the particular narrative for this memoir?
I kept reminding myself that this was a memoir about my body, so it wasn’t a memoir of my entire life. It wasn’t really a memoir of my writing career or my childhood. It was about my body and the things that happened to my body, both in terms of trauma and weight gain. So having that focus really helped a lot.
In terms of the writing of the memoir itself, was the writing process different or more complicated compared it writing your fiction or essays?
It was very different, but also similar. I said this when I was being interviewed about the World of Wakanda [the Marvel Comics series Gay writes]: storytelling is storytelling. There are similarities, but what was different with memoir [is that memoir] is not autobiography. It’s really about memory and about a very specific period of time. It was more challenging because I had to make myself vulnerable. I wrote about things I feel shy and awkward about. With fiction, I’ve always felt comfortable because I’m making it up and I love that freedom of just making it all up. I’m relatively new to nonfiction.
What does making yourself vulnerable mean to you? How did that manifest in your writing?
I focused on writing about some of the physical realities of my body and the inhospitableness of the world with regards to my body. Also, writing about shame and admitting to shame because for better or worse, people have very specific ideas of me due to my writing and who they think I am. I knew I was writing against that and that can be challenging.
What sort of narratives have people placed on you that you find contradictory to who you are as a writer or person in general?
Not that it’s contradictory, but people often say, you’re so inspiring. You’re so brave. And I respect where that comes from and I certainly respect the kindness, but I don’t think of myself as brave and I don’t think of myself as inspiring. I feel like, in my day-to-day life, I’m a bit of a cynical person, and so it’s always surprising to hear that. It’s not a bad thing; it’s just different. I think the bar for bravery should be higher than she wrote some things. I appreciate it, but I don’t want to claim things of which I am not worthy or not worth for the reasons you might think.
And when you write in one genre, people sort of assume that’s all that you do. I don’t just write about pop culture. That’s maybe 25 percent of what I write about, and yet that’s what people think I write about. And I get why. I don’t have a problem with it. I love pop culture, but it’s not the entirety of my work. I think one of the reasons why I write so many genres is just showing I’ve got range.
Is it a lot of pressure or frustrating when people put those ideas of bravery on you?
Yeah, there is some pressure, but I definitely don’t try to perform to it. [When that happens] the work becomes disingenuous, at least for me, and I never want that in my work. I try not to let it dictate how I write or what I write.
In the book, you described your body as “wildly undisciplined,” which I thought was an interesting turn of phrase. What exactly does that mean? Do you think of yourself in this way?
I think it’s more a reflection of how my body is seen. Sometimes you can’t help but internalize the ways in which you are seen and quite frankly, the ways in which you are treated. We see what disciplined bodies are: they’re thin and fit, even though thinness and fitness are not synonymous. When I think of my body and when I look at my body in the context of other bodies and the kind of bodies that dominate popular culture, my body definitely feels wildly undisciplined.
The book isn’t about overcoming or triumph or a clean narrative. When we typically think of memoirs, they’re structured in that manner and this one was not. Was it important for you to not write a memoir that uses similar narrative devices as other memoir?
I think mostly I just wanted to come my own way and to write something. I just wanted to go my own way. I’m always trying to challenge myself as a writer to do something different and to grow. Especially with this work, for me in many ways, I was stepping outside of my comfort zones.
The core of this book is how your relationship to your body changed after you were assaulted in your youth. It’s something people don’t talk about, the after effects of trauma and how trauma can manifest in many different ways. How did you come to that place?
I did what I always do when I write personally: I told myself that no one was going to read it.
Yeah, that’s how I get through all of the writing that I do that’s personal in nature. If I think too much about it, I absolutely will chicken out because it’s terrifying to think of people reading these personal revelations. I just tell myself, “Oh girl, no one’s going to read it,” and that makes it a lot easier. That’s the only way I get through it.
Something else you said in the book was that your relationship to food was connected to changing your body and making it safe for yourself. Do you think this was a conscious decision at the time?
Even then, I sort of understood how fat people were seen and judged and I would not have been able to articulate it as eloquently or somewhat eloquently as I can now. I knew that boys did not like big girls and I did not want boys to like me.
Do you still feel this way in relation to food and your relationship to your body?
Yes and no. I’ve come a long way and at this point, I learned early on that there’s really no size in which you can fend off male attention. And I also came to learn that sexual violence, it takes place within the realm of sex, but it’s not sex. It’s about power and violence and it’s important to recognize that. And with many years of therapy, I have recognized that, ok, you no longer need a physical fortress and the physical fortress doesn’t actually keep you safe. It just gives me the illusion of safety. Some of the old habits linger, but in many ways, I’ve worked through a lot of that.
From a personal standpoint, I can definitely relate to that. I know for myself, after my own trauma, I got really into exercise and boxing and all of these things where I was trying to make myself into a machine. That’s what I said in my head. I’m just going to be able to beat up anyone if I need to. I’m so glad you talked about that in the book.
I think if I had been older, like 16 or 17, I would have absolutely gone that route. I was just so young. Not only was I 12, but I was 12 in 1986, which is really different from 12 today. It’s just night and day. I was super sheltered and super Catholic, and so this was the only coping mechanism that was within my reach at the time. Looking back, I just think, “Oh girl! You should have just talked to mom and dad.” I know that now. I didn’t know that then.
No one really tells you anything.
Especially when you’re the child of immigrants. Like, you know your home life is different than your friends. By that, I mean, I knew we were Haitian and we didn’t do things American kids did. We weren’t allowed to go to sleepovers. We would just hang out with the other Haitians in town every weekend and we had a different frame of cultural reference and so it was just this extra layer of social isolation. Not in a bad way, but just in a different way.
When would you say you began to realize or work through both the trauma and your relationship to your body
I started going to therapy when I was a sophomore in high school because a teacher took me. I started really dealing with it in my 30s, so in the past 10 or 12 years is when I really started dealing with it and even in the past two years, I’ve done more work with my relationship to food. I think I dealt with the trauma in my 30s and got as over it as much as I’m going to get over it, but I didn’t really start to deal with my issues with food until the past couple of years.
Do you think you’ve said or written everything you want to say about your relationship to your body and this time in your life?
I don’t know. I think I’ve said most of what I want to say, but I think that as I consider the stuff I’m doing now, as I think about food and my body and the work I’m doing now, I might want to write about that. I don’t want to write about it in a triumphant, cheesy, I lost weight book. But rather, here’s how I undid 30 years of disordered eating. I might do something around that.