At her heaviest, Roxane Gay writes in her searing new book, she weighed 577 pounds, a number that is hard for her to believe now. At the time, she was in her late 20s. She’s now 42, and at least 150 pounds lighter.
But: “I am not small,” she writes. “I will never be small.”
In “Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body,” (Harper, $25.99), Gay examines a variation of privilege we don’t often consider: thin privilege. She writes openly and honestly about her relationship with her body and the wrenching difficulties of moving through the world when “you are three or four hundred pounds overweight, when you are not obese or morbidly obese but super morbidly obese according to your body mass index.”
“People generally assume that the world fits everybody,” says Gay, who appears June 23 at Books & Books in Coral Gables. “It does not cross people’s minds that the world is not like that.”
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A writer who explores issues of race, violence, pop culture and gender and an associate professor of English at Purdue University, Gay writes in the book that at 12, she was gang raped by boys from her school. Terrified to tell her religious, Haitian-born parents, desperate to be the “good girl” she was sure they wanted her to be, she kept the assault a secret — and began to eat.
“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,” she writes. “Even at that young age, I understood that to be fat was to be undesirable to men. ... This is what most girls are taught — that we should be slender and small. We should not take up space.”
In “Hunger,” Gay also writes eloquently of the painful indignities of being fat: Strangers take food out of her shopping cart and offer unsolicited diet or exercise advice. A doctor writes “morbidly obese” on a chart before even bothering to examine her. Sometimes, chairs are simply too small. Plane travel is cramped and difficult (she buys two seats or flies first class now).
And if you wonder about your own culpability, ask yourself this: Have you ever groaned inwardly upon seeing a fat person walking down the aisle of the plane and stopping at your row?
Reading “Hunger” can be difficult, but — no surprise here — writing it was harder.
“As a writer, I’m ambitious. I like a good challenge,” says Gay, who’s also the author of the novel “An Untamed State,” the essay collection “Bad Feminist” and “Difficult Women,” a story collection. “I find the things I’m afraid to write are the most productive. It forces me to grow as a writer and expand my thinking. That was certainly the case here. The hardest thing was definitely taking a hard look at myself and my relationship with my body over 20 or 30 years. Not necessarily why I gained weight. I understand why. But why I held on to the weight. It’s challenging to write personally about private things. In general I’m a private person. I make deliberate choices about what I will and will not reveal. It’s challenging to put myself out there when I know what the response is going to be.”
The book tour for “Hunger” hasn’t been easy. One particularly tone deaf introduction to an interview with Australian website MamaMia left Gay and her Twitter followers fuming (the website subsequently apologized).
“I’m not sorry I wrote the book,” Gay says, “but I’m sorry I interviewed with that woman.”
Miami journalist Isis Miller, who will be in conversation with Gay, says “Hunger” is essential reading.
“It holds up a mirror to ourselves and our society and the way we treat fat people,” Miller says. “I saw myself in it. We watch YouTube videos of fat people falling down, and we laugh and don’t think of them as human beings with feelings. I think of myself as this liberal, educated person, and yet when I was reading this book I felt so much guilt. How do we talk about this? What’s the right way to address people? I’m still discovering the language.
“Living as women in society we’re constantly told we are not enough, we need to be thinner and prettier and better. This book is a mirror. It’s brutal and raw and visceral, but it empowers other people to step forward and tell stories that need to be told.”
Some of those stories include stories of rape and violence. Gay hopes “Hunger” will encourage more women and men to talk about their experiences.
“We don’t usually come forward — we bury things to our own detriment,” she says. “The more we talk about it, the more we bring it to the light and the easier it is to do something about ending it. The Utopian goal is to end violence. The specific goal is to reduce it.”
As for the way our society views fat people, Gay isn’t sure it will change.
“I think we’re a culture that is compelled to criticize each other’s bodies,” she says. “I don’t know why. It’s kind of ironic given America’s history about independence and freedom to be who we are. But we can only be who we are as long as we follow a certain path.”
Meet the Author
Who: Roxane Gay in conversation with Isis Miller
When: 8 p.m. June 23
Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables
Info: 305-442-4408 or http://www.booksandbooks.com/