Hunger for Life: Roxane Gay at Hill Auditorium
Roxane Gay is an endurance performer.
She is a professor, essayist, fiction writer, and cultural critic. Any pair of these things could fill or even overwhelm a professional life, but she does not stop there. As a person who at times fetishizes achievement, I am awed by the sheer quantity of pages that she has loosed into the world. And that is before we consider her Twitter presence or the volume of reading that she does, evidenced by the book giveaways that appear on her Tumblr from time-to-time.
I know that Gay’s smarts help fuel her accomplishments as do her talents, but when I think about her -- like, big picture her -- I just think, "Damn, she works hard. She hustles."
At Gay’s reading for her new book, Hunger, on June 16, I took a seat toward the back of Hill Auditorium and watched the audience file in. I've never been someone who needs an excuse to gawk at and examine other women’s bodies, and I was wondering who would join me to hear excerpts from Hunger, which tells the story of Roxane Gay’s body.
I noticed that I might be the fattest person in my row, and I’m not even what Gay has called "Lane Bryant fat" and can pick up clothes at an Old Navy, no problem. I had expected to see more larger women; after all, according to the CDC, more than one-third of adults in the United States “have obesity.”
Gay has said Hunger was not an easy book for her to write.
It was not an easy book to read, either.
Hunger so resonated with me that my copy of the book is stuffed with so many Post-It notes that it doesn’t quite sit flat anymore.
Like many women, I do not come to this book neutrally. There are 68 pounds between the lowest weight I’ve attained as an adult and my highest weight. I’m the kind of woman who knows that about myself. I’m the kind of woman who has to impose a specific relationship with her scale that's akin to the way courts enforce child visitation schedules: twice a week, no more.
I am also not neutral to very overweight bodies.
These are the bodies of my loved ones. These bodies have created loved ones. As a child, I was pulled into these bosoms, southern kin showing love to one of their few far-flung Yankee relatives. This made me dive into a book like this differently. When your relatives walk through life maintaining, caring for, and being judged for their bodies, you know that fat people are, well, people. This fatness isn’t an abstraction. This could be you.
The lights dimmed at 7:10.
Once introduced, Roxane Gay remarked on the appearance of the theater: “This looks like a spaceship.”
She also told the audience that she loves Literati Bookstore, describing it as generous toward her writing. (Her book Bad Feminist is the store's best-selling book -- ever.) Then she got into the night’s topic, framing the evening. Telling us how the body becomes a public text, and how “people project bullshit on you.” She communicates this idea in her book saying, “When you’re overweight, your body becomes a matter of public record in many respects. Your body is constantly and prominently on display. People project assumed narratives onto your body and are not at all interested in the truth of your body, whatever that truth may be.”
This reminded me of something I saw just before Gay came on stage. I overheard two women talking nearby and one said, “We ran into Roxane Gay and she let us take a picture. Rather reluctantly.” I looked toward the voices and noticed one of the women admiring this photo. Then she put her phone away only to pull it out again and pull up the picture. The next time I peered over her shoulder, I noticed that the photo had been posted to Facebook. I wondered if she was counting “likes.” As Gay said, "[Y]our body becomes a matter of public record in many respects. Your body is constantly and prominently on display."
Other than their words, what do we expect from authors?
Gay then mentioned being in Philadelphia the day before and I thought about how much travel she's doing to promote this book. I wondered how many airport restaurants and airport restrooms -- and how many fan photos she reluctantly took in those places -- she endured in order to engage with her readers at readings.
Gay read a selection from Hunger where she talks about working with a young personal trainer named Tijay. Here she talks about the struggle to exercise, especially when being motivated by someone “thin and impossibly fit.” The concise chapter paints a vivid picture of this struggle, this discomfort. However, when she read this selection, I felt like the audience laughed at the wrong places. I had read the majority of the book and found many parts of it humorous, but not the same things that the others did. Was this collective uncomfortable laughter?
The audience was appropriately solemn when Gay read the chapter about looking for “Christopher,” the boy who lured her into an abandoned structure in the woods so he and his friends could rape her.
Gay had regarded Christopher as her friend -- and as more than her friend. She described herself as crazy for him. This made me consider age 12. It made me grateful that I can’t even remember who I was crazy about during that time. This could have happened to me. This could have happened to my friends. Maybe it did.
Roxane Gay challenges her reader to think. I expected to think about my own relationship to my body, my weight. I did that. But I also thought about ways that I have been terrible to other people, remembering two incidents in particular where I intentionally said something hurtful to other women that had to do with their weight. I knew what I was doing when I did these things.
A woman of fluctuating weight myself, I know that if you’re overweight any unkind statements about one’s weight can push someone into a spiral of doubt. I am intimately familiar with this. And I used the weight of this poison to deliberately sucker punch someone who I felt had wronged me. Both of these incidents happened over 10 years ago, but Hunger made me remember it.
Gay challenged me to think about the ways that I am a part of the problem.
Hunger isn’t just about the details of Roxane Gay’s body. A body doesn’t exist on its own. It is about things that were done to this particular body both by others and by herself. It is about the things that hurt, both purposely and accidentally. It is about what it means, the reality of moving through the world in a body that is simultaneously pathologized and ignored.
The reading portion of the evening was brief, leaving the rest of the evening open to a question and answer period. Gay was asked about her tattoos and what book that she would recommend to the audience. Answer: Lower Ed by Tressie McMillan Cottom.
She was asked why the original publication date was moved: “This was a book I didn’t really want to write," Gay said. "I procrastinated.” It wasn’t until August 2016 that she really dove into the task. “I think facing yourself is really hard to do."
Gay was also asked her opinion on Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale. She didn’t watch it. After the cast said that the adaptation wasn’t a feminist work, she wasn’t into it. She was asked about her love for Los Angeles, about her writing on the juxtaposition between the feelings she had walking through the world as a fat person and the reputation that L.A. has for being a difficult place to feel good about one’s personal appearance. “Everyone’s so self-absorbed; they’re not worried about me.”
The audience questions went on -- and they went in. They inquired about how the intersection of fatness and blackness functions for her, whether she feared retaliation writing about the rape she experienced, what she thought about the first season of The Bachelorette to star a black woman, and a pair questions from thin allies who wanted advice on what they should do.
“Y’all are fuckin’ trippin’ with these questions,” Gay remarked.
Too many articles about Gay mention that she doesn’t like hugs (including, now, this one) from fans, but her willingness to take this many questions suggests that she is open in a way that many people never could be. She regularly faces trolls on the internet, yet she opens herself up time and time again. She wrote this incredibly intimate book about difficult topics and she will cross the country talking about it. Yet the hug thing always comes up. Unwanted hugs are weird. What makes someone want to press her body onto another person when the other person doesn’t want it?
Again, what do we want from authors?
Hunger is about more than hunger. It is about more than Gay's body. It is about more than sexual violence.
It is about our society.
It is about ownership. It is about possession. It's about what we ask for from others -- what we’re willing to give and what we’re willing to take.
It is as much about the reader’s appetites as it is those of the author.
I looked around Hill again, acutely aware of the clubs to which I do not belong. I don’t belong to the plus-size club. I don’t belong to the tattoo club. And I don’t belong to the my-dress-doesn’t-incontrovertibly-cover-my-ass club.
I do not feel inconspicuous in this crowd. I overheard someone tell a friend that I was talking notes. Someone else asked me who I was blogging for. A third person asked me if I’m a journalist.
Here I am stricken by just how much we ask of authors. We want their words, all of their words. We drink them thirstily. And then we demand of them another service. We want them to be our mirrors. It is as if their stories do not matter to us unless we can convince ourselves that they are telling our stories. Never mind the time they spent, the soul they spilled to learn this craft, this telling -- we want more. We always want more. Our appetite is insatiable.
“This book isn’t all fun and games, it’s about me reconciling my past,” Gay said.
Are we all here contemplating the body? What passes our lips? What enters us? What we let in? What we keep out? How we erect boundaries and how permeable they are?
The questions never end. Life is about endurance. So is Roxane Gay.
Sherlonya Turner is the manager of the Youth & Adult: Services & Collections Department at the Ann Arbor District Library. She can be found diving head-first into all sorts of projects over at sherlonya.net.