There are degrees by which each of us must think about our body, and how we pilot it through space. Gender, sex and sexuality, injury and illness, disability, race and size are all factors in how we make our way through the world.
The challenges can be based on how our world thinks about bodies — the way skin color can influence the outcome of a traffic stop, for example — or the way it is built to physically accommodate them (or not), like a steep staircase for a person in a wheelchair.
Roxane Gay’s new book "Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body" is, as the subtitle implies, an intimate story, a report from inside a body she refers to early on in the text as “wildly undisciplined” — a body that comes up the opposite of privileged in most ways. She’s female, black, bisexual, very tall and very fat. Her body was also the site of unspeakable violation, in the form of a gang rape at age 12 to which she links her weight gain (although she is scrupulous in noting that trauma and obesity are not connected by default) and "Hunger" is unflinching and raw in the way it details life in that body, the way she navigates everything from love and sex to airplane seats.
It’s a masterful, vivid memoir, the kind of book you rip through in a day of rapid page-turning, and though it is intensely, almost defiantly personal, it clearly resonated deeply with many. Gay’s live conversation Wednesday (July 12) with New Orleans writer Maurice Carlos Ruffin, originally scheduled to take place at Octavia Books, had to be moved to the St. Charles Avenue Jewish Community Center to accommodate the hundreds of interested readers.
Ruffin’s questions and later, the audience’s, addressed the full body of Gay’s work, which includes a pair of short-story collections, the novel "An Untamed State," the Marvel graphic novel "World of Wakanda," the essay collection "Bad Feminist" and a thick virtual sheaf of criticism and opinion writing for the New York Times, Salon, The Guardian and other outlets, plus her very active presence on Twitter.
He also opened up areas of conversation that blurred the line between Very Personal Questions and discussion of craft, for which Gay’s work and her public persona — funny, self-possessed, plainspoken and, as one would have to be after doing such searching, revealing writing about the self, pretty healthy in its boundaries — are very well suited.
Early on, Gay explored her matter-of-fact use of the word fat, pointing out that “most people use it as an insult, but I use it as an adjective.” She dislikes the concept of “reclaiming” labels, she said, but the way people respond to “fat” can be instructive: the fact that some do acrobatics to avoid using the word to describe her, she said, shows that they’re “deathly afraid of it, like it’s the N-word” — and thus, how disgusted or horrified they might be of the word “fat,” the idea of fatness, and by extension, perhaps, her.
The two writers knew their audience and how to charm them. Interspersed through the entertaining back-and-forth, too, was some serious discussion of craft (including, Gay noted, the misconception that memoir somehow takes less artistry than fiction.) The publication of "Hunger" was delayed for more than a year — cover art was designed three years before it actually hit shelves, she said — while she struggled with how to tell the story. “How do I begin to tell the story of my body?” she wondered.
But when it started working, it came fast: she started writing in earnest in August 2016, and turned in the manuscript six months later.
“I didn’t write for any kind of therapeutic reason,” said Gay, who is 42. But it helped her see herself, the arc of her life so far and the experiences that had defined it. “And it made me say, OK — what do I want the second half of my life to look like?”
Judging by the parts of it that she has made public, it’ll be uncompromising, honest, entertaining and entirely hers.