Cultural critic discusses societal issues in her new book
Roxane Gay, best-selling author of Bad Feminist, visited St. Mary’s campus on February 7 to sdiscuss her latest book, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. The talk consisted of two parts: “An Evening with Roxane Gay,” and a question and answer session.
Janice Cervelli, president of St. Mary’s College, opened the evening with a speech about the divisiveness in our society today and the unwillingness to confront it. “We tell ourselves we need a conversation—an ongoing dialogue,” she said. “The events of tonight are part of that dialogue.”
She went on to say that Roxane Gay “is the conversation starter we need,” calling her “unapologetic” and “unafraid.” Gay is known for the social criticism and feminism in her books, as well as for her opinion columns in the New York Times, which critiques modern culture. As a Haitian American, she also addresses problems of racism. Her latest book, Hunger, is a memoir about the struggles of body image and the aftermath of assault.
Despite these heavy topics, Gay began the evening with a friendly, joking manner that continued throughout her talk. She expressed surprise at the full auditorium, commenting that there must be nothing good on TV on Wednesdays. Clearly confident with an audience, Gay engaged the crowd with excerpts from her novel Hunger.
Gay spoke of her self-proclaimed “fatness,” wondering, “Where do you belong when you don’t fit anywhere?” Her story tells of her disdain for sports and her discomfort in the doctor’s office (“where nothing fits”), but also of her love for cooking, especially for others, which gives her a “sense of self and self-confidence.”
The excerpts, though humorous and sassy, addressed darker parts of Gay’s life story. When she was twelve years old, she was sexually assaulted. She described the aftermath of this attack, saying that she thought if she “got bigger,” then no one would want to assault her.
This incident, Gay said, changed her life and still haunts her years later. She chose to write about this painful subject because she wants people to be aware of the effects of assault. “People want to see that you survive trauma and that’s that,” she said. “I wrote about after.”
Writing helped her through darker times. Gay said that it has given her “the kind of control I haven’t felt in other aspects of my life … on the page, I am in charge.” She gave advice to aspiring writers, saying, “Know up front what you will and will not write about … save some of yourself for yourself.”
Gay also shared advice about body image and diversity challenges after a question prompted her.
For young women facing weight problems, she advised them to “resist policing and do the best you can,” emphasizing that everyone has their own body struggles to deal with. For young people of color, especially at a majority white university, she said, “You are equal, and you have to believe that … It’s not you—it’s the world that’s the problem.”
Concerning diversity on campus, Gay stressed that universities should involve not only “active recruitment but also active retention.” She gave the example of hair salons, questioning where African American women can get their hair done on campus. Most important, she said, is a diverse faculty so that students feel they have mentors to which they can turn.
In one question, Gay was asked if she feels obligated to the women who are inspired by her and how she responds to the pressure. Gay answered that she usually tells them not to look up to her too much: “People tend to put you on a pedestal … then they knock you down when you don’t live up to that.” However, she added that she is humbled by the support and does not take it lightly.
In the end, she said, “The greatest thing I can do for anyone, including myself, is to be myself.”
Monica VanBerkum is a sophomore anthropology major and theology minor living in Cavanaugh Hall. She wishes South Bend would plow the East Bank Trail so that she isn’t knee-deep in snow when she tries to run. Contact Monica at firstname.lastname@example.org.