The author of Bad Feminist and Hunger has strong words for incels, harassers in publishing and diet gurus
Born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1974, Roxane Gay is an author, essayist, New York Times opinion writer and associate professor of English at Indianas Purdue University. She has published a novel, An Untamed State, two short story collections, Ayiti and Difficult Women, the New York Times bestseller Bad Feminist (which Time magazine described as a manual on how to be human), and a memoir, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (Corsair, 8.99), released in paperback on 7 June. It deals with Gays rape at the age of 12 and the lifelong consequences of her decision to make her body as big as possible as a form of self-protection. She is also the author of Marvels Black Panther: World of Wakanda and will publish her first YA work, The Year I Learned Everything, later this year. She lives between Indiana and LA.
From your early forays on to internet messageboards to writing this book, it seems as though language was a key part of processing the trauma of your childhood rape. Did writing offer control?
Definitely. I think writing always gives us control over the things that we cant actually control in our lives, so taking control of the narrative of my body as a public space was absolutely helpful in terms of thinking about my relationship to my body.
Did you encounter personal revelations as you were writing?
It started as a process of writing what I know to be true and it became a process of revelation. I was able to make some realisations about myself that previously I hadnt made and it really forced me to confront my relationship not only with my body, but with food. I mostly saw how unkind I had been to myself when my body has actually gotten me through quite a lot in life. And recognising that, in many ways, I was holding on to the weight for the wrong reasons and the only one that was really hurting was myself.
There is some difficult material in the book regarding the effect the attack had on your sex life, particularly when you write that you have to think about your attacker if you want to experience pleasure during sex. What kind of responses have you had to that section?
I actually havent heard anything about that specific part. I wasnt thinking about the reader when I wrote that. I was simply writing my truth.
That revelation felt connected to the chapter about quitting Yale to move to Arizona, which alluded to some complicated sexual encounters. Could that be the kernel for another memoir?
No, that will not [laughs]. As long as my parents are around that will not become part of another memoir. I never thought I would write one memoir, so I cant say Im never gonna write another, but I have no plans to. I dont know that I have anything more to say about myself.
You do lots of different kinds of writing fiction, memoir, essays, columns, graphic novels, television. Is there any you do and keep private?
No. I think that sharing the work with the world brings closure to the process of any given book or piece.
When you published Hunger in June 2017, nobody could have foreseen the conversation about rape culture that would arise following the Harvey Weinstein allegations. Has that changed the tenor of discussion around the book?
No I toured this book before all of that came out. I think its definitely going to shift the tenor when I tour the paperback in June, though.
Have you been encouraged by this conversation?
I have. It has been also frustrating to see the ways in which people are dismissive of what has come out, but in general I am encouraged to see women and men coming forward about their experiences with sexual violence. And were starting to see at least some public reckoning. I dont know that the justice system has caught up yet, because unfortunately in the US theres a statute of limitations. But its been a long time coming. Its up to us to make sure that this conversation does not leave the public sphere any time soon.
Youve said there are Weinsteins in publishing. Have you seen this reckoning hit your field?
No, weve got a long way to go in publishing frankly, in all realms. With [the allegations against] Junot Diaz, that door is starting to open and itll be interesting to see what more comes out, if anything. Im not even interested in this happening publicly. It just needs to happen.
You recently tweeted about the so-called incels, the internet subculture whose members refer to their inability to find a romantic or sexual partner as involuntary celibacy. Girls are taught that men will lay claim to their bodies. Why arewe culturally resistant to teachingboys that they dont deservesex?
Thats just the way it is. We have to change that and we have to teach both young men and young women about enthusiastic consent. And that a woman can say no at any time and it may suck, but you still have to listen to that no. Until we get there, were gonna continue to see things like in Santa Fe, where a young woman rejected a man and he went to school and killed her and nine others. No one is guaranteed love or affection and I dont say that callously, because I think that love and affection and sex are important and that everyone should have their shot. But the men that cant get laid, theres a reason. Its because theyre sociopaths and nobody wants them, and Im not gonna cry for them.
Whos your literary hero?
I love Zadie Smith. Shes incredible and the chances she takes in both her fiction and nonfiction are just superlative especially NW.
Whats on your bedside table?
Im reading The Stand by Stephen King and Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, a fantasy book grounded in African tradition about three young people on a quest to restore magic to the nation of Orsha.
Im in the middle of Family Trust by Kathy Wang, Ivy vs. Dogg: With a Cast of Thousands! by Brian Leung, about this small town that elects a youth mayor and things go awry, and America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo.
Are there any genres you avoid?
Oddly enough, I dont read a lot of nonfiction or much self-help. Theres nothing wrong with it its just not for me.
You wrote an essay about getting weight-loss surgery to reduce the size of your stomach in January. How are you feeling?
I feel fine. Ive definitely settled into a routine. Its been four months so Im still learning a lot and there are still a lot of changes, but I have definitelyadapted to those changes.
Are they the changes you hoped for?
I just hoped for a change.
You often discuss the pernicious influence of diet culture, which publishing perpetuates. Should there be more regulation on the messaging and medical integrity behind books about diets, food and bodies?
Absolutely, but I couldnt begin toknow how to begin to implement that. The diet industryis predicated on the notion that fatness is unhealthy and that everybodys fat. And thesethings are untrue. And I think people need to recognise that a lot of the so-called medicalstudies about fatness are actually paid for by diet companies and weight-loss drug manufacturers. We have to follow the money more carefully and look at context. Until we do that I think a lot of people are going to continue to buy into these damaging notions that are perpetuated by diet books and diet programmes.
Hungerby Roxane Gay is published by Corsair (8.99). To order a copy for 6.99 go toguardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99. Gay will make her debut UK appearance in conversation at the Southbank Centre on 10 December
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