Roxane Gay Tells Us About Daring to Be Fat
Real talk about 'Hunger,' the author's unsparing memoir about fatness, trauma, and the body.
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz. Photo by Eva Blue/courtesy of Harper
On a Wednesday night in March, the line to have your book signed by Roxane Gay snaked out of the Philadelphia Free Library and onto the street. Several fans burst into tears while shaking her hand. Packed events like this have become commonplace for the 42-year-old author, who in the span of five years has gone from being a relatively unknown blogger in a tiny town in Michigan to one of the most widely read writers in America.
Gay's immense popularity has as much to do with her talent as her work ethic. She generates books, articles, and concepts faster than anyone, it seems, examining everything from feminism to cooking shows, from Black Lives Matter to the new Beyoncé album. Whether it's her bestselling essay collection, 2014's Bad Feminist, her op-eds in the New York Times, or her outspoken politics—most notably on display when she pulled her book from Simon and Schuster in protest of alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos's then-book deal—Gay has established herself as a voice to turn to when considering the uncomfortable and the incendiary.
Now, the Nebraska-born, Indiana-based writer (and VICE Fiction Issue contributor) is charting new territory: Her own body. Her latest book, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, offers some of her most personal writing yet. The book is unflinching: Gay describes her rape at the age of 12 and her subsequent attempt to become as large as a "fortress" in order to make sure no man wanted to hurt her again. The word "brave" is often employed to describe books like Hunger, but I think the word "bare" might be more apt. Hunger is the result of a writer stripping down, exposing everything, delivering a pound of flesh in pages.
I first met Roxane Gay in 2008, when she published my first short story in PANK Magazine, a literary journal she co-founded. Her edits were strong, and we quickly became friends. Fame has not changed her—in fact, if anything, she has become even more herself. I spoke with her earlier this week about the fat body, society, and closure. Our interview was the sixth of 18 she had scheduled that day.
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VICE: Hunger is an incredibly compelling and intimate book. It is obviously a memoir of body, but also of your life. Did you set out for it to become that as well?
I knew that I wanted to write a book about my body. But I also did not want to write a book about my body. I actually sold Hunger in April of 2014, just before Bad Feminist came out, but I didn't seriously start writing it until August of 2016. As I wrote, these parts of my life certainly became entwined with my body. From a structural standpoint, Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts was a big influence. It was an undertaking to write this book. I just knew this was the book I wanted to write the least, so it was the book I probably should write the most.
How was the process of this different from other books you've written?
I had to negotiate what I would and would not write about. You can't give the reader everything—you have to hold something back for yourself. I was very mindful of that. I tried to not write about my relationships too much or about my family. I don't think you have to cannibalize yourself to tell an important story or to write about yourself.
A key part of the book surrounds your body as being unruly. You return to that word again and again. Why did you pick unruly as the theme for your body?
I actually got that phrase from a writer named Hanne Blank. She wrote a beautiful book called Unruly Appetites, an erotic fiction collection that came out some years ago. I thought the idea of unruliness also applied to bodies that don't conform to societal standards. I really liked the phrase—it felt respectful of different bodies without pathologizing. It felt like a useful term for thinking about fat bodies.
"I've told my parents many times that I'm as over being raped as I'll ever be. But I don't know if I'll ever overcome the ways in which I was treated for daring to be fat."
In establishing that narrative, you do explore the idea of body positivity, but don't seem entirely aligned with that movement either.
I believe in body positivity, but I also know that I struggle with it. I acknowledge that and I'm working on it. I'm a work in progress.
You also talk quite a lot about dieting and the weight-loss industry. You examine Oprah, for instance, losing and gaining weight while owning shares in weight-loss solutions.
I did a lot of research about bodies, fat, fatness, that sort of thing. Even if I wasn't necessarily going to write about it explicitly, I wanted to be informed. I learned some incredibly interesting things. The measure for Body Mass Index (BMI), for instance, is so fucking arbitrary. They decided on 25 because it's a nice, round number. A bunch of generally white men are in a room somewhere making decisions about millions of people. That really was informative and infuriating.
You talk, frequently, in this book about shame. That felt unexpected to me—the honesty of confronting it, of naming it about your own body. Did that offer any relief or catharsis for you?
I often told myself I had no shame about my body. But when I finally started writing the book, I realized I carry a lot of shame and I don't want to. It certainly helped me to have more kindness for myself—to look back at myself and realize I've been through a lot. This body has actually served me quite well for many, many years. And maybe it's time I treat my body better.
There are moments here where you have to revisit traumatic moments—the sexual assault, the bad relationships. Did revisiting these through the context of your body change how you saw those moments?
It didn't change how I saw those events, but it did change how I saw myself within those moments. I was able to recognize the level of vulnerability that I was in when I was 12 and I was being assaulted. Then I carried that vulnerability forward. In many ways, I was an exposed and raw wound. And I allowed myself to finally see that and feel that. In many ways, I had maintained a dispassionate attitude about that. And this pulled back a lot of that dispassion. It was hard to write, because of that. People are going to read this book and see me now. They're going to know things about me that I wouldn't really want them to know. But it felt necessary, nonetheless.
What has it been like to do interviews about the book?
More awkward than any interviews I've done before. I can hear interviewers asking around the questions that they really want to ask. So I guess I just want interviewers to chill out. I wrote the fucking book already. I know what's in it. So let's just talk about it.
I used to be close to 300 pounds, so a lot of what you wrote hurt to read—it took me back to a time when I wasn't fitting in airplane seats. Reading your book really made me think back to that girl and how I still end up being her, even after losing weight.
Exactly. After writing this book, I realized that I want to change my body, but not in the way that you would think. I started seeing a dietician. We don't even talk about food. We talk about behaviors around food. On the first day, she was asking me about the traumas in my life. And I started to list them: "Well, I was assaulted." And then I thought about it longer and said: "Well, being fat." I just started crying because I realized, "Oh God, this is a thing that is never going to leave me." It's not about self-loathing at all. It's because of societal loathing and the ways in which people talk about our bodies and frame our bodies. I just realized that it is a trauma—and that shows how pervasive fatphobia is.
I've told my parents many times that I'm as over being raped as I'll ever be. It's 30 years later. It's not fine, but I've dealt with it. I've gone to therapy, I have worked through those issues. But I don't know if I'll ever overcome the ways in which I was treated for daring to be fat. Honestly, I think it's one of those final frontiers of discrimination. People feel very comfortable being cruel to fat people and talking shit about fat people. Very fucking comfortable.
They think, I'm at work, I'll just fire off a tweet at some woman about how fat she is. It's hard, I think, particularly for men, to handle a woman who can't easily be made into a sexual object.
Exactly. They don't know what to do. They lose their fucking minds. They get confused. "Wait, I'm not getting a boner from you? What are you doing on this planet? You don't belong here! Get out of here!"
"The implication is that if you have a body that doesn't fit, fix your body because they're not going to fix the chair."
This sort of goes back to the idea in your book about being seen as genderless because of your weight.
Being fat means you aren't desirable. So as a woman, you are basically degendered. People also often read fat bodies as male. I was just in Australia and almost every person there called me "sir." And it really drives me crazy because I have huge boobs and they are incredible. So it's like, "Come on. What are you fucking talking about?"
One part of the book that really broke my heart was hearing about the planning that you do when you visit different cities to make sure a restaurant has chairs that will accommodate you. This idea that you couldn't just show up somewhere made me so fucking mad for some reason.
Well, it's either prepare or be humiliated. And I have learned to prepare. The world is not accommodating. I spend a lot my time in LA these days. All the chairs are tiny and super modern and sleek. And that's cute but my ass is not going to fit on those chairs for two hours. When a chair designer is creating a chair, they're creating it for one type of body. And it's not my kind of body. The implication is that if you have a body that doesn't fit, fix your body because they're not going to fix the chair.
By the end of the book, you emerge as this fierce being—open, raw, defiant in book and body. Did you feel that way while writing it?
Partly I did. Partly I was like this is the book of no fucks given. I was terrified to write the book, but when I got to certain places, I was like, "You know what? I'm going to let it all fucking hang out."
One thing that was so interesting about this book is that you don't wrap it up in a neat bow. You don't end it with a declaration of diet or anything like that.
That's exactly why I wrote the book. There is no easy answer for our bodies. There is no closure.
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Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay will be published by Harper on June 13.