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Be Bigger, Fight Harder: Roxane Gay On A Lifetime Of 'Hunger'

Roxane Gay is a novelist and short story writer<em>.</em> Her previous books include <em>Bad Feminist, Difficult Women</em> and<em> An Untamed State.</em> She teaches English at Purdue University.
Jay Grabiec
Roxane Gay is a novelist and short story writer. Her previous books include Bad Feminist, Difficult Women and An Untamed State. She teaches English at Purdue University.

Roxane Gay has finally written the book that she "wanted to write the least."

The author of Bad Feminist and Difficult Women says the moment she realized that she would "never want to write about fatness" was the same moment she knew this was the book she needed to write. The result is Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body.

Hunger, she writes, is not about wanting to shed 30 or 40 pounds: "This is a book about living in the world when you are three or four hundred pounds overweight," she explains.

Gay traces her complicated relationship with her weight back to being a victim of sexual assault as a child. "I grew up in this world where fat phobia is pervasive," she says. "And I just thought, 'Well, boys don't like fat girls, so if I'm fat, they won't want me and they won't hurt me again.' But more than that, I really wanted to just be bigger so that I could fight harder."

The memoir is also about living with contradictions: She describes growing up a daughter of middle-class Haitian immigrants, and not fitting into the narrative of blackness. She talks about being a feminist. And she explains why she identified as a lesbian even though she was still attracted to men.

The book is a confession, she says, and "having that kind of vulnerability in the hands of strangers really scared me."

Interview Highlights

On the difficulty of the writing process

When I was writing it I was worried about exposing myself like this, and being this honest. ... That's why I dragged my heels for so long — the book was actually delayed a year because of that, because I just procrastinated and procrastinated because I was just dreading writing the book, while still feeling like this was a necessary book to write.

On being the victim of a gang rape at age 12

I had very little comprehension of what happened to me. I was stunned and I just assumed, "OK, we just had sex." And I didn't realize that there was a thing called rape. I didn't realize that there was a vocabulary to describe the experience, and that it wasn't my fault. I thought I didn't fight enough, I didn't get away, and so I was complicit in what happened. ...

My 12-year-old self thought, "Oh, I must've asked for this." Not in the way that we say, "She asked for it," but I just thought I deserved it because I was that weak, and that gullible and just that easily manipulated by some random boy I thought I knew. ...

To this day, I don't know how I was able to cover up what happened. I just remember sneaking up to my room and doing my best to hide my clothes and to hide myself for as long as I could, to just try and pull myself together, and I did, because I was a really good kid. I did what I was supposed to, and I think when you're a really good kid, you know how to play that role, and you know how to hide that anything is wrong.

On why she kept it a secret from her parents

A secret starts out small sometimes, but then it gets bigger and bigger and bigger, and it becomes scarier and scarier to imagine ever sharing it with someone. So the longer I kept the secret to myself, the more dire the consequences became for me, or the more dire I perceived the consequences of revealing my secret became. ...

I was 12, so my fears were really that I was going to get in trouble and that I was going to go to hell, because I had had premarital sex. We were Catholic, and very devout Catholics. And though my parents raised us with the understanding that god was a god of love, I was really terrified nonetheless.

On the boys spreading their own story

The boys' version of the story was that it was my choice and that I wanted it and that I initiated it. ... The other students in school believed it. I walked into class, I think it was French class, and I was sitting in my seat and the kid behind me tapped my shoulder and said, "You're a slut." And for the rest of the day I realized that pretty much everyone in school knew what had happened — well, they knew the boys' version of what had happened — and that's when I realized, "Now I can really never tell my family, because I will bring this much shame into our home." ...

I didn't engage at all, I just shut down completely. I would go to class and try to hide in class by sitting in the back, and I would just endure the taunts and then eventually, as it is in middle school, the story moved on, but my reputation never changed. I was still an outcast, I was still a loser.

On overeating

After I was raped I needed comfort. ... I felt so weak and I felt so powerless, and I wanted to make myself bigger. And so I would overeat, and I would get quite a lot of comfort from that, and when you are 12 and 13 and 14 and 15 and a sheltered kid from the suburbs, you don't really have access to vices other than food, and so I ate.

I didn't really feel any shame until people in my life forced me to feel shame because they were ashamed of my body, or they were disgusted by my body.

On her body image as a young woman

My body was only a problem when the outside world intruded. I was very scared of boys, but I was also a reader and very romantic and very much interested in someone loving me, and so I had those yearnings but I didn't allow them to go beyond this idea of being loved. When I would look at myself I knew I was getting bigger. And I could tell that I was so much bigger than my peers, and I knew that was a problem, at least in terms of social standing, but I didn't feel any self-loathing. I didn't really feel any shame until people in my life forced me to feel shame because they were ashamed of my body, or they were disgusted by my body.

On coming out as a lesbian, even though she knew she was bisexual

When I came out I knew it wasn't the whole truth. I knew that I was also still attracted to men, but I was so scared of me that I just thought, "OK, I'm just going to find some safe harbor here," and so I wanted to be the best lesbian I could so that maybe that would make my attraction to men go away. ...

No community has been more welcoming to me, and when I needed community the most, [that] community was there for me. It was like discovering water for the first time, discovering clean air for the first time — to be seen, and to be appreciated and to be thought of as sexy and beautiful, it was just invaluable and I will never, ever forget the ways in which I was embraced by my community as I came out.

On meeting people online in the early days of the Internet

When I look back now, knowing what I know about the Internet, I cannot believe I was not hurt or murdered, but I also have to say, the Internet was a lot different then. There were creepers, but it wasn't what it is today. People were just so thrilled to have this new technology, and it was all text-based, so it was different. I don't know that it was safer, but it felt safer. It felt like it was OK to meet people this way and I also had very little self-regard, so I just threw myself into the face of danger nonetheless. ...

I was able to meet people and have them feel something for me and be interested in me for me before they saw me, and before they might judge me for my body, so that was really seductive.

On looking up her rapist and calling him, but not saying anything

It was creepy. I actually in that moment was like, Girl, what are you doing? and then part of me wanted to say something, and to just scream at him. But I just hung up. ... I wonder all the time, but what the wondering really is, is that I want him to say "I'm sorry." I want him to acknowledge that this terrible thing happened, and that it wasn't my fault, and I want him to know that I didn't just walk it off, and that I was broken for a really long time because of it. And I'm never going to get that.

On the way people write about her weight

The most surprising thing is that in the book I write about what my highest weight was and every single review and article about the book thus far has mentioned it. That's fine, because I put it in the book. ... I think it says to me that there is a bit of salaciousness that people are trying to draw from it, when in fact for me it's a number, it's a truth. But the way people are writing and discussing it, it's like "Oh my god! When she was at her largest." So it is what it is.

On getting trolled online

I would say 40 percent of my trolling is because I'm a feminist. Thirty percent of my trolling is because I'm black, and 30 percent of my trolling is because I'm fat. ... I have so many trolls. The Venn diagram of my trolls would be a circle.

On where she is with her body now

I would definitely like to tear down this wall I've built around myself, because I don't need it anymore. And I know that intellectually, and on good days, I know that emotionally. I don't want to be thin, I want to be smaller, because I just do. I think it makes so many things easier just on a day-to-day basis, and also I have no small amount of vanity, so I just want to be able to find cuter clothes. Sometimes it's really basic things that I would like for myself.

I think getting rid of the fortress is the final step that I need to take in just moving on from this thing that happened to me once. ... I wasn't writing the book to heal myself, but in writing the book I was really forced to take a look at some of the habits I've developed over the years, and I've been able to acknowledge that I don't need these behaviors anymore and I would like to come up with different behaviors that serve me more effectively. I don't know that it will be easier, but I do know that I am in the best emotional and mental space that I've ever been in to at least try.

Radio producers Sam Briger and Mooj Zadie and web producers Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey contributed to this story.

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