The evening began with Ann Patchett, author and co-owner of Parnassus Books, asking about her guest’s love for HGTV and then saying, “You write because you want people to understand you, but nothing in the world will make you more misunderstood than writing.” Author, writer, and cultural critic Roxane Gay responded, “You have no control once you let the work out into the world.”
The work in this case is Roxane’s recently released book, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, and, bestselling author to bestselling author, the women were discussing how people have responded to it. That brought them to internet trolls. Roxane described how she deals with them on a continual basis, and how she still feels as though she has only 200 Twitter followers when, in fact, she has over 240,000. She shared that expressing herself in that space opens her up to constant trolling. Many of the offending trolls are men to whom she swiftly responds and shuts down. Roxane’s experience is such that when a woman expresses an opinion in a public space, men are quick to chime in with their own thoughts. “We need a year of man silence,” she said. The audience erupted in laughter.
The Bad Feminist author continued by explaining that her speaking dates are attended mostly by women with a few men added to the mix. Following one appearance in particular, where there had been a few hundred women and about 14 men, a man contacted Roxane on Twitter to express his concern over the gender disparity. I was not surprised. This is the world we live in, where a man finds himself outnumbered in a room full of women and feels the need to broadcast his angst.
There were no stale questions about the writing process, just intelligent discourse laced with humor and wit.
Witnessing their conversation unfold before me, I marveled at Ann Patchett as moderator, at her talent as a conversationalist, as an established peer who can sit opposite some of the most amazing writers in the world and speak their language. There were no stale questions about the writing process, just intelligent discourse laced with humor and wit. She and Roxane volleyed back and forth about the rigors of book tours, and how daunting it can be when people share deeply personal stories at signing tables.
Ann recounted that when she was touring for Truth & Beauty: A Friendship she had one request of her audiences: to please not tell her if they had stories of suicide or depression they wanted to share at the signing table. This resulted in her signing books for eager readers who would look at her and say, “I’m not telling you right now,” for which she was eternally grateful. When one’s soul is bared through their writing there is the natural tendency for those with similar experiences to seek a bond of understanding with that person. Both authors were on the same page about the emotional toll this can take – about being one woman, who has to then process the hundreds of stories they’re told each night after carrying them back to their hotel rooms.
Roxane is not a fan of hugs, but has many stories of people refusing to respect her wishes and instead, taking this as a challenge, wanting to be the exception to her rule. She shared, “People have expectations of women as bottomless in terms of giving and nurturing.” Punctuating that point, in Hunger she writes, “Why do we view the boundaries people create for themselves as challenges? Why do we see someone setting a limit and then try to push?”
“As a woman, as a fat woman, I am not supposed to take up space. And yet, as a feminist, I am encouraged to believe I can take up space. I live in a contradictory space…” – Roxane Gay
As their chat progressed the two women spoke about feminism. “Resist the ways in which we try to conform to the rigid standards of what a woman should be,” Roxane said to the audience. And in Hunger she asks the question, “What does it say about our culture that the desire for weight loss is considered a default feature of womanhood?” She adds, “As a woman, as a fat woman, I am not supposed to take up space. And yet, as a feminist, I am encouraged to believe I can take up space. I live in a contradictory space where I should try to take up space, but not too much of it, and not in the wrong way, where the wrong way is any way where my body is concerned.”
Through the pages of the book, Roxane describes how so many weight loss stories are told at the end of the journey, after a person has lost the weight and looks great, yet there are very few that are told in the middle of the struggle. She depicts what happens between the before and after, in the middle of living everyday life. Hunger is a memoir of her body as it is and she begins the book by pointing out that the story is not one of triumph. This work is palpably vulnerable, devastating, and hopeful all at the same time. Roxane mentioned that she wrote the book to inspire more women like her to tell their stories.
At the close of the authors’ conversation, the room was then opened to questions, and one woman asked Roxane how she handles people who give her unsolicited advice about her weight. She said, “Nobody knows more about diet and exercise than fat people,” and proceeded to provide a myriad of examples of the ways people have confronted her both in person and online about her weight.
I believe this says a lot about society’s lack of generosity when it comes to understanding the pain and struggles others face. In Hunger she writes, “Your body is subject to commentary when you gain weight, lose weight, or maintain your unacceptable weight. People are quick to offer you statistics and information about the dangers of obesity, as if you are not only fat, but also incredibly stupid, unaware, delusional about the realities of your body and a world that is vigorously inhospitable to that body.”
Another woman, a writer, asked how it’s possible to put traumatic events to paper while those events might still bring up feelings of depression or lack of self worth. Roxane encouraged her by telling her to go slow, saying, “You can’t write about the trauma until you are no longer triggered by the trauma,” and shared how she didn’t feel safe to write about her own experience until 30 years after it happened. When asked about how she allowed herself to love again after dealing with the pain in her life, she said, “Sometimes you find someone to see you as you are, and who you are is enough.” All profound answers delivered with sincerity of heart from a woman who has made herself vulnerable to a cruel world.
If you haven’t read Hunger yet because you feel like you might not be able to relate to it as a person who isn’t labeled “super morbidly obese” by the medical community, or think you will disagree with it because of Roxane’s political leanings, or think that reading about someone else’s rape is too unpleasant, or you don’t consider yourself a feminist, these are the very reasons why the book should be read. Her soul is splayed open on these pages for everyone to see. If more people were brave enough to write like this, the world might be a different place, a more compassionate and empathic one, a place that recognizes the heart and soul of a fellow human being before outward appearance. She is all of us.
Side note: I would be remiss in not adding that Ann Patchett and Roxane Gay share a fantastic love and admiration for Beyonce, and even though Queen Bey herself was not at this event, her presence was felt throughout the evening.
This talk was part of the Nashville Library’s [email protected] author series.