Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist and Untamed State, spoke to a crowd of hundreds at Francis W. Parker School in Lincoln Park on Monday while promoting her new memoir Hunger.
At the Chicago Humanities Festival event, the bestselling writer and New York Times columnist addressed the crowd with her typical wryness, read two chapters from Hunger, took questions, and paused in interludes to crack jokes. The event was surprisingly upbeat, considering Hunger delves into the raw, vulnerable aspects of Gay’s life, including her struggles navigating the world as a fat person and the aftermath of a sexual assault she suffered at age 12. She writes about society’s perception of fat people as “undisciplined” and the discrimination they face because of it, and why refusing to say the word “fat” (which she views as a neutral descriptor) reveals that person’s belief that “fat” is an insult.
It’s a visceral and often uncomfortable book—one Gay repeatedly has said she felt reluctant to write. Now she’s on tour rehashing its contents on a near-nightly basis. “In general, throughout my writing career, the things I’ve been most afraid of have been the things that have been most intellectually satisfying,” she said.
Here are some key points from Gay’s talk.
On not trying to be a “good” fat person
“It’s hard having to constantly explain yourself, trying to say, ‘I’m a good fat person, and I’m not fulfilling the stereotypes that you have about fatness.’ What I’m trying to do lately is not explain myself. Yes, I’m going to eat that hamburger, and it’s going to be fucking delicious. And if you want to suffer and eat that salad—even though we all know you don’t want to eat that salad—that’s on you.
On exposing fatphobia
“I did an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air recently and, all things considered, it was a good interview. But at one point host Terry Gross said, ‘So what language should I use to describe your body?’ We were not in the same studio, thank God, because my face just went [contorted]. I mean, that has to be asked? And then I get another interview with CBC, and the woman said, ‘Describe your body to me.’ The question didn’t make it on the air. That hurts my soul. They’re not putting their own fatphobia on the air, which would be very illustrative and useful.
On showing her haters what’s up
“There was a woman who wrote a review about my book Bad Feminist, which has an essay called ‘What We Hunger For.’ And she said that when I didn’t describe my sexual assault, she threw the book across the room—she was irritated that I didn’t go into detail. And I just thought, do you know what you’re asking? Do you know what that costs? And so [in this book] I decided to take that one for the team and do it.
“Marginalized people, we don’t have the answers to ending our own oppression. The key thing is to know when to speak, and know when to listen, and to know that sometimes you just jump in. Be willing to make mistakes, and be willing to be corrected when you do make mistakes. A lot of time, people wait for permission and hand-holding to be part of a movement. We don’t have time for that. We need to keep moving.
“You have to be able to take time for yourself. And I don’t mean that in that sort of trite, corporate self-care way, but that you have something for yourself—that you take time off when you need to. Because the struggle is going to go on with or without you. You are only going to be a good contributor when you have the energy to be a good contributor.“