I had the privilege of seeing Roxane Gay read from her latest book and (wittily) do a little Q & A with the audience. This is the first time I had ever heard her speak or gone to any of her events; although I had seen her work floating around the internet – especially Bad Feminist – I never ended up reading her work until a few months ago, when my friend and I saw her name on an events list and decided to go. I am really happy that I finally became acquainted with her work. Better late than never!
The event I attended was for her latest work Hunger, which is billed as her memoir on her relationship with her body. Before I read this text, I had finished reading Bad Feminist (again, better late than never, right?) and her series of short stories Difficult Women, for my little book club. What I like about Gay’s writing is the grittiness of it and the fact that she depicts trauma in a way that is not spectacle. There is not a lot that is “beautiful” about the things the women are subjected to (or subject themselves to in some cases) in Difficult Women in particular, and yet Gay is able to show the complexities behind human action. And there is something beautiful in Gay’s ability to depict horrific things in a way that draws out empathy from the reader in a way that isn’t voyeuristic – at least for me, at any rate. I knew from reading Difficult Women that Gay is able to handle messy topics really well, so once I saw some more information coming out about Hunger I knew it was something I should read.
First of all, I want to state that I think Hunger is a memoir that needed to exist and I think Roxane Gay’s abilities lend themselves to what makes this a compelling and honest text of her experience in the world. What I was not expecting was the ways that her prose turned the tables on me and made me think about my own body and that way it functions in the world.
I am a small person whose hybrid genetic makeup was thrown in a Yahtzee shaker and ended up manifesting as, in many ways, phenotypically Japanese – even though I am biracial. Most people say I am short (when I am in the United States, at least), I have always fit within the parameters of what is considered thin, and my weight has never fluctuated outside a range of maybe five pounds. I have also never had a fraught relationship with my body when it comes to food and weight. Because of all this, I wondered what would resonate with me in Hunger; I didn’t want to approach the book as spectacle and oogle at the experience of someone whose experience is so different from mine, but I also didn’t know what to expect. But what ended up happening in my reading was a new look at my own body and what relationship I had with it, because when it comes to bodies moving through space, it’s never just about the bodies themselves.
One thing that stood out to me in the text was a moment where she says that food allowed her to
Some boys had destroyed me, and I barely survived it. I knew I wouldn’t be able to endure another such violation, and so I ate because I thought that if my body became repulsive, I could keep men away. Even at that young age, I understood that to be fat was to be undesirable to men, to be beneath their contempt, and I already knew too much about their contempt. This is what most girls are taught – that we should be slender and small. We should not take up space. (Hunger, 13)
This passage, from early on in the book, caught my eye and got me thinking about what my body was doing in the world, why I moved through space the way I did. And I realized that, more often than not, I did want to be unnoticed and to move through life left alone, without calling attention to myself. And my body allows me to do this.
I realized then that my body has always been my ally. There have only been two moments in my life where I felt my body “betrayed” me in any capacity and both of these instances were to my own benefit. The first instance was when I was in high school and I injured the left side of my back and my left shoulder; I woke up one morning without being able to breathe and I was unable to move my arm. To me, this seemed very sudden, so my initial reaction was fear, but also a type of rage. At that point, I played the viola (not the violin) and I was obsessive about my music; I was the girl who was part of two orchestras, a quartet, another chamber ensemble, taking weekly lessons, and practicing two hours a day, everyday. In hindsight, it’s no surprise my body buckled under all this, but at the time I was just angry. Music was one of my escapes and it was one way I was able to prove to someone (who will be unnamed) that I had value and that I was worth something. When I played music, I wasn’t thinking about the Other Things in my life that I never told anyone. I didn’t have to think about anything aside from intonation, technique, and getting lost in the group. Losing that part of my life was devastating, because I never was able to play as intensely ever again, even after physical therapy. Initially, it did feel like a betrayal, because I had lost something that I desperately needed to stay sane. However, once my body broke down, I was forced to confront the reason behind my intensity and why I clung to music so desperately.
A few years later I had my big breakdown, the one that landed me in an epilepsy ward for three days, because I was having non-epileptic seizures and doctors didn’t know why. This second episode was the time when I felt the most betrayed by my body, because I honestly felt I was in a healthy place, and I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. Ultimately, though, the the body never forgets what it had experienced and the mind doesn’t forget how it had to pattern itself to survive. These moments that felt like betrayals were actually instances where my body was signaling to me to get help, that something was deeply wounded inside of me and only persistent work would help me mend.
In the end, my body was my ally, rather than an enemy.
My relationship with my body is different than Roxane Gay’s relationship with her body, which is different from how many other individuals relate to their bodies. However, the genius of Gay’s work is that she is able to cause me, as the reader, to use her unique experience to realize something about myself. I’ve seen many women responding to her writing, and this book in particular, as a voice that reflects their own feelings. In many ways, I think Gay gives voice to how I feel sometimes – but more importantly, she gives voice to experiences that I don’t have, and may never have, but are stories that need to be told.
It took me a while to read her works, but I am happy that I did, because I think I am a better person for reading them, which doesn’t always happen with all the books I read. Hunger diverges from the books I gravitate towards, but I felt strongly enough about it that it warranted a place on the blog.