Roxane Gay’s work has been seminal for feminist and fat liberation movements around the world. She draws on her own experiences about trauma, body image, feminist ideals, and Haitian and Black identity. Seeing her talk about her two most popular books Bad Feminist and Hunger: A memoir of (My) Body.
I used Gay’s feminist text in my thesis and I find her works to be relatable and accessible. I think that with any discussions on social theory it is always important to contextualise the work, and whilst Gay’s work is extremely important and fairly universal, it is written within a North American context. I always try to point this out because sometimes people assume that a feminist notion or social discourse does not work simply because it does not work for their specific cultural context. However, with any theory it is important to recognise the cultural limitations it might have and to ask yourself how can you use the theory as a springboard and how can you adapt it to your own social and cultural context.
Gay’s interview for the Literatur Festival in Zurich was a mixture of how and why she writes, feminist theory, fatphobia discussions, her surprising popularity in South Korea, and how to write about trauma. It felt like I was talking with a friend and Gay is an extremely good orator, which is not always a given for literary types. If you ever get a chance to see her in a public interview or lecture, I would thoroughly recommend it.
It is hard to sum up everything that was said, but I feel like there are some standout points that Gay made throughout the interview, which are important for all of us to remember and learn from. Firstly, that good feminism ≠ perfection. Feminism needs to be more inclusive of more women and different types of women. Although, as Gay posits, we are fighting major and complex issues which require complex solutions. When the stakes are high, so too can be the bar with which we use to measure our feminism. This isn’t to say that we should not challenge ourselves and try to do better and be better feminists, rather it means that we should forgive ourselves for not knowing everything and also allowing ourselves to grow. Nobody was born woke.
Secondly, Gay casually stated that when we don’t want to write about something, it is usually the exact thing we should be writing about. And I felt personally attacked by this (insert awkward laugh emoji*). When we want to write about trauma it can be extremely burdensome. It requires time, distance, growth, patience, and boundaries to write about trauma in a healthy way. I hope that I can let Gay’s words help me be more accountable to writing more honestly and giving myself the time to do so.
Thirdly, Gay’s novel Hunger: A memoir of (My) Body (find my in-depth review of the novel in the link) was a transformative memoir for me. Her discussions about her relationship with her body felt personal and yet universal and is a book that I would recommend for everyone. She also talked about her recent decision to undergo weight loss surgery in 2018. Gay said that whilst it was ultimately the best choice for her mind and body, she also felt that other people in the body-/fat-positive movement were betrayed by her decision. Ultimately, whatever someone decides to do for their body should be their own decision to make. Losing weight is both glorified to the detriment of bodies in the mainstream ‘skinny’ media and sometimes vilified in the body positive movement. Women are often damned if we do and damned if we don’t.
Lastly, when questions from the audience came up someone talked about the recent Frauenstreik or women’s strike in Switzerland, Gay talked about the need for accessibility in the movement. Not everyone can strike, and if people do strike and lose their jobs or have other ramifications there needs to be adequate support for those people. Also, diversity matters. Recent reports have shown that foreign women in Switzerland are the most unemployed group with 36%-40% being unemployed, and not all of these women are voluntarily unemployed. Also, even though foreign workers make up around 30% of the Swiss workforce they do over 50% of the lowest income jobs in the country. So if you want to march for rights, check who’s rights you are marching for.
With all of that said, it was extremely amazing to meet Roxane and have her sign my copy of Hunger. The ambience in the Old Botanical Garden in Zurich was beautiful and the poignant discussions backdropped by a summer sunset were divine. I cannot wait for all the amazing things Gay will produce and write over the coming years.
Which authors have you had the pleasure of meeting? And what is your favourite Roxane Gay book? As always, share the reading love.