By: McKenna Graham, Arts and Life Editor, and Jessica Ricks, Staff Writer
Photo by Brendan Felch; photo illustration by Jordan Stephenson.
Roxane Gay stepped onto the stage in the West Village Ballrooms to applause from an eager audience.
The acclaimed author, New York Times contributor and first black female lead writer of Marvel Comics came to Towson on Thursday, Oct. 5, to discuss her memoir, “Hunger.”
Following an introduction by Center for Student Diversity Associate Director Mahnoor Ahmed, Gay read several excerpts from “Hunger,” which explores her struggles with her body image after being sexually assaulted at the age of 12.
“Books that are the most intimidating, the most terrifying to approach, end up being most intellectually satisfying, and that was definitely the case with ‘Hunger,’” Gay said.
It was a difficult book for her to write, but it allowed her to look back at experiences that shaped her into the person that she is today. It also allowed her to take a hard look at herself, and patterns she had developed, and to realize that it was okay to let down the walls she had put up around her.
“Sometimes we’re marked by terrible experiences,” she said. “And it’s okay to linger in those feelings.”
Gay’s honesty and relatability were aspects of the show that the audience enjoyed. In her talk as well as her books, she didn’t hold anything back. Her struggles aren’t meant to be a success story, but a true story to give people a sense that they aren’t alone.
“On a weird level, it was like I could relate to her in certain aspects,” said freshman Ashley Lawton. “It makes her work better knowing you related to the writing and brings you closer to the author.”
“One of the things I wrote about was how much I hate exercise,” Gay said to the audience. “I think exercise is the work of the devil.”
The first excerpt she read mentioned her personal trainer, TJ, and how his life is fitness; she said he “glows with youth” and enthusiasm, but she pities him as well.
“Not a session goes by that he doesn’t mention some aspect of his diet that makes me so sad for him,” Gay said.
Gay transitioned from talking about exercise to talking about food by mentioning her personal trainer’s dietary habits – “I worry that he doesn’t know about spices… or anything that makes things delicious” – to her own attempts to become a vegetarian without knowing how to cook.
She described her love of The Food Network, and how she learned to cook from Ina Garten’s show, “The Barefoot Contessa.”
“I love Ina Garten so much that one of my wireless networks at home is named ‘barefoot contessa,’” Gay said. “It’s like she’s watching over me.”
Gay highlighted the way Garten handles herself with a self-assuredness in everything she does, not just cooking but as well going to the market and shopping.
“What I love most about Ina is that she teaches me about fostering a strong sense of self-confidence,” Gay said. “She teaches me about being at ease with my body. From all appearances, she is entirely at ease with herself. She is ambitious, and knows she is excellent at what she does, and never apologizes for it.”
Gay looks up to Garten not just because of her poise, but because she “gives permission” to love food, to buy the “good” ingredients to make good food for yourself, and to embrace your ambition and believe in yourself.
When the audience was laughing and applauding at the end of those excerpts, Gay said, “A couple of years back, I decided to look up the ringleader of the boys who assaulted me, because surely that would end well.”
The room went quiet. Gay read, “I looked up this boy from my past. I wanted to know what had become of him… I looked and looked and looked – it became a minor obsession.”
She described how she Googled him daily, how it became a minor obsession, how when she finally found him she couldn’t stop thinking about him – what kind of car he drives, if he has a wife or kids, if he has become a good person, how he takes his coffee.
“I wondered if I would recognize him,” she said. “I shouldn’t have. There are some faces you don’t forget.”
She ended the excerpt by describing a moment one day when she called his office, and his secretary patched her through to him, and she dropped the phone when she heard his voice.
“When I picked up the phone again, he kept saying ‘hello?’ ‘hello?’ ‘hello?,’” Gay said. “This went on for a long time. He wouldn’t stop saying ‘hello.’ It was like he knew it was me, like he’d been waiting.”
When asked if she has figured out from where the desire to know about her assaulter in the present, Gay described it as “protection,” and a little bit of curiosity.
“When someone, for better or worse, has such an impact on your life, I think it’s natural to wonder, ‘Do you even remember?’” she said, describing it as morbid curiosity. “It’s like picking at a scab.”
Gay was also asked about the phrasing or labeling of her as a survivor of assault, and she said she prefers to say she “was a victim,” and that her assault is something that happened to her, but it is not who she is.
In addition to reading from “Hunger,” Gay spoke about “Bad Feminist,” her book of essays looking at stereotypes of today’s feminism.
“People throw around the feminist label every time a woman does something competent,” she said. “Let’s raise the bar for ourselves.”
Despite the public acclaim for “Hunger” and “Bad Feminist,” Gay said her favorite book she’s written so far is “The Untamed State.”
“I think of myself as primarily a fiction writer,” she said. “No one else does, but I do.”
With her wit and sense of humor, Gay kept the crowd laughing throughout her presentation. After the reading and the Q&A, people had the opportunity to have their copies of “Hunger” signed and take pictures with her.
“I love how she brings up things she knew were controversial,” said junior Dena Appleby. “She knows the implications and understands the views of someone else, even if she doesn’t agree. Just because someone has one view it doesn’t allow them to have power over someone else.”
Gay was all about opening up about topics of diverse self-identity, regardless of whether or not people feel comfortable talking about them.
“This is a book about what it’s like to in a different kind of body in a world that is not entirely open to different kinds of bodies,” Gay said.
Gay sets the record straight from the beginning of her talk. The story of her body is not a story of triumph or motivation. It’s not a weight loss memoir either.
Instead, Gay said “Hunger,” is “simply a true story” and one that was “the most difficult writing experiences of my life, one more challenging than I could have ever imagined.”
Gay said that writing “Hunger” forced her to look at her “guiltiest secrets” but she is glad she did it.
“Writing this book is a confession,” Gay said. “These are the ugliest, weakest, barest parts of me. This is my truth. This is a memoir of my body… stories of bodies like mine are ignored.”
Ahmed said that Gay was chosen to speak at Towson because she “has been a leading voice on feminism and body size.”
“Everything Roxane touched upon, from Charlottesville to struggles with body weight, are relevant to our community,” Ahmed said. “We are already having many of these dialogues as a community. Hearing her opinions on it helps us further the ongoing discussions and introduces our students to new perspectives.”