Listening to Roxane Gay is a little like listening to the voice of the internet - dryly funny, pop culture-astute, versed in the latest controversies about avocados and the apocryphal sordid past of Lena Dunham's dog.
But where the internet is shallow, Gay has depth, which was on display in a wide-ranging conversation hosted by Octavia Books and conducted by emerging novelist Maurice Carlos Ruffin. In the cavernous yet disturbingly fluorescent auditorium at the Jewish Community Center July 12, Gay spoke about blackness, sexual assault, feminism, being from Omaha, tattoos, comic books, personal healing and the body image issues that are at the center of her recent, much-anticipated book Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body.
[jump] In her remarks, Gay said she was surprised by both the difficulty of writing the book, and by how it has healed her.
"I didn't write the book for any sort of therapeutic reason," Gay said. "[But now I think] what do I want the second half of my life to look like? How do I want to feel in my body? ... I realized I was holding onto the weight, in many ways, out of resentment."
The book, which was written in just six months, deals with Gay's sexual assault at age 12 and her use of food and weight gain as a way of sheltering herself in the aftermath of that trauma. It's written in a straightforward, almost austere style (what Gay calls her "cadence"), which can make it seem more revealing than similar literary memoirs. The prose is unflorid and she doesn't lean heavily on dialogue and reconstructed scenes. In some ways it's almost more kin to a piece of cultural criticism than the narrative memoirs which have been so popular in recent years.
But it's still an intensely personal work, and some of Ruffin's later questions for Gay addressed what may be the book's most challenging aspect: the frank depiction of her rape by a group of young men, an event that shattered her for many years. It makes one wonder how strange it must be for her to see that history, hardbound in people's hands on a book tour, and how strong she must be to be able to put that out into the world (and, ostensibly, in front of her attackers).
"What [they] did had repercussions, and those repercussions linger now; I don't think they realize ... just how long it damages you," Gay said. "I feel like [my attacker] took control of my body, and I tried to take control back."
It also was interesting to read a memoir that deals so much with Gay's physical form and to still be surprised by her presence. Her height in particular is imposing, but Wednesday night her salt-and-pepper hair was dramatically brushed straight back, and her charming, nasal-yet-melodious voice resonated throughout the auditorium. She wore a pink-and-blue plaid shirt rolled up at the sleeves, revealing her tattoos.
Gay took a moment to dish about her recent absence from the New York Times, where she was regularly a commentator. She said she's felt blocked in that area of her writing since the presidential election, and she also criticized the hiring of broadly maligned conservative commentator Bret Stephens as a regular Times columnist. But she floated the possibility of a new advice column for her at the Times, and also mentioned her forthcoming book TV Guide and an upcoming feature in the fashion magazine InStyle.
With her appearance, Gay seemed true to the reputation she's honed in her books and on social platforms such as Twitter and Tumblr. Her intellect and her take-no-prisoners sense of humor is matched by her humanity and her deep understanding of the "broken places."
"When a break heals inside you ... there is a new strength where that wound was," she told the audience.