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Books Roxane Gay: ‘People don’t know how to talk about fatness’

Author Roxane Gay.

Jay Grabiec

Roxane Gay was 12 when she was raped by a group of boys. She began eating to comfort herself and create a "fortress." With Hunger, A Memoir of (My) Body, Gay uses direct, plain prose to chart her continuing relationship with her body, one that she tries to treat with kindness while publicly exposing it as a crime scene.

She recently sat down with The Globe and Mail's Hannah Sung.

You have a relationship with your body that you recount in great detail. As a writer and public figure, what is your relationship with this book?

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I'm proud of it. It's difficult to talk about, not because of anything in the book but because in general, people don't know how to talk about fatness and so they ask very bad questions and are generally awkward or condescending, so that's a challenge.

I would also imagine that people don't know how to talk about rape.

People are fine with talking about rape. They're not good at it but they are very comfortable with it. They ask bad questions like, "So you were raped, tell me about it." There's a prurience that emerges whenever you're talking about sexual violence and they want to know the who and the why. They want a Lifetime movie. We do, for better or worse, have a general cultural conversation on sexual violence. It's not a good one, but it's there. In terms of fatness, it's not really there.

How do you hope to move the needle forward with Hunger?

I try not to have such grand ambitions, other than to write well. I certainly hope that we have a more expansive conversation on different kinds of bodies. And just treat people with more empathy. Difference isn't a bad thing and someone else's body is really no one else's business.

When it comes to all women, is there anything you can say that Hunger has taught you about us?

No, we're not a monolith. This book hasn't taught me anything about women. It has reminded me that most women struggle with bodies, no matter what their body looks like. It's very depressing, honestly, to see the level of grief so many women are carrying in their bodies. I get lots and lots of e-mails in which people just pour their hearts out to me with just such sadness about how they see themselves and how they're treated. It's unnecessary and it's unfair.

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Do you have any protocols for how you deal with those messages?

I try to listen to them as respectfully as possible because I know people are trusting me with their story but I'm not a therapist. And I say, "Thank you" and "I'm glad that my work resonated with you." And that's the truth. When you write about these kinds of topics, you know you're going to get certain kinds of responses and I respect that, but I also have firm boundaries. I can't carry everyone else's stories in addition to my own in the way that I think people sometimes expect me to.

What are your boundaries when it comes to protecting your friends and family when you write?

I always remind myself that it's my choice to write about my life. Just because people are in my life doesn't mean I have carte blanche to write about them. In general, I write very vaguely if I'm writing about a relationship.

One repeated phrase that I found powerful, and it is a repetition in and of itself, is "I ate and ate and ate." The biggest word is three letters. What was your thinking behind that choice?

I like the cadence of it and also, it was accurate. I ate and ate and ate. I didn't need to dress it up. Oftentimes, when people want to hear narratives from fat people, they want these extravagant descriptions.

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"There I was, on my couch, surrounded by bags of food," and that's just not how it was. It was more just this act of eating all the time. But in a really controlled, weird way.

You've thought a lot about "what ifs." Is there a perfect "what if" that someone could have said to you at 12 or 13 that might have changed your life in a positive way?

I just don't know. The game of "what if" is so futile. I do know that I wish I had told my parents then. I know they would have gotten me the help that I needed. They're very loving, they're very aware, they're not afraid of mental-health professionals, so yeah, I don't know what should have been said but I should have talked to actual adults who cared about me and they would have figured that out.

Why do you think you could tell Time magazine but couldn't tell your parents [about being raped]?

Well, Time magazine pulled it from the book, I didn't tell them outright. It's just easier to put something on the page than it is to have conversations with people that have known you your whole life. Now, my parents definitely knew something was wrong and they had their suspicions but you don't want to hurt your parents, especially when they've been so good to you for so many years. When you start keeping secrets, it's hard to stop.

On the topic of secrets, you know the comedian Hasan Minhaj? One line I loved from him was, "Immigrants love secrets!"

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Yes. That's very true.

Why?

I don't know. I think that we're always thinking that we're protecting each other when in fact, the truth is the best thing for all of us. I started being secretive with my parents at 12 and to this day – it's not that I'm secretive, I'm compartmentalized.

In the book, you mention a devastating moment where you bought some makeup and put it on for someone. And you mention that you still have that makeup in the bag it came in, shoved at the back of a closet. Why do you hang on to it?

I hold on to it as a reminder: Don't let anyone ever treat you like that again.

And you want that reminder.

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Yeah, absolutely. Boundaries are very new to me. I still am not super great about advocating for myself.

Really? It seems so surprising when I read your Twitter.

Well, it's easy on Twitter. Anything is easy on Twitter. Give me a keyboard and I'll have all sorts of things to say. It's much harder face to face.

I'm about to celebrate my 40th birthday. How did you celebrate your 40th birthday?

I was working on my 40th birthday.

That doesn't surprise me considering your output. Are you a milestones kind of person?

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Yes and no. I've been splitting my time between L.A. and Lafayette, Ind., for three years. So I generally celebrate things on a slightly different timeline because if something's happening while I'm in Lafayette or on the road, I just wait and celebrate it when I get to L.A.

Why do you live this split, geographically?

I just do [smiles].

Boundaries.

Mmm hmm. [laughs]

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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