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Hannah Black on Roxane Gay


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In the just-released summer issue of Bookforum, Hannah Black reviews Roxane Gay’s soon-to-be-published memoir Hunger, which is about Gay’s experience of being fat in a world that reviles fat people. Black commends Gay for her courage to speak openly about her weight, but finds that Gay’s liberal politics blind her to the systemic nature of fatphobia and make her too wary of collective political struggle. Here’s an excerpt from the review:

In Hunger’s most striking passages, Gay vividly describes her experiences of moving through a bitterly fatphobic world, where fat people are vulnerable to insult and assault not only by strangers but also close relatives, lovers, and doctors. Even everyday objects are rendered hurtful: “I cram my body into seats that are not meant to accommodate me. . . . I see the pattern of bruising inching from my waist down to my midthigh.” A common perception of fat as a moral failing, combined with an equally widespread ignorance of or even contempt for fat people’s accessibility needs, frequently leaves Gay feeling unable to so much as voice her discomfort. At one point, she visits a clinic where a surgeon recommends brutal and expensive stomach-stapling surgery that leaves patients “nutrient-deprived for the rest of our lives.” She declines, but the anecdote makes clear that the so-called obesity epidemic is a phantasmic problem, conjured up mostly by cultural anxieties; fat people are not offensive to others because they are unhealthy, but because their bodies are, as Gay puts it, “unruly.” Fat people’s mental and physical well-being often becomes collateral damage to a neoliberal conception of the ideal body as both perfectly healthy and subject to endless improvement.

Gay presents these ideas with a light touch. The closest equivalent to the book’s tone is that of a ghostwritten celebrity autobiography: gossipy and full of minute and sometimes banal detail. Although warm and accessible, her prose is also uneven, bland, and cliché-prone. She writes flat, unshowy sentences: When it works, there’s an enjoyable clarity and impassiveness to her delivery; when it doesn’t, it’s mundane and repetitive. But a critique of her style would be elitist and pointless—her many fans love her regardless, and her work does not ask to be read as literary. Many of the chapters in Hunger first appeared online on xoJane, GOOD, and The Toast, and are reproduced here almost unchanged. These outlets and Gay’s books share a position: Essentially liberal in their politics, they are cosmetically connected to more radical struggles through an interest in gender and race. This can produce striking dissonances: xoJane runs supportive pieces on Hillary “superpredator” Clinton while also giving a platform to prison abolitionists; on GOOD, a puff piece on a pro-military charity shares web space with reportage on war trauma among Iraqis. These publications are interested in the affective dimensions of capitalist domination—i.e., race, gender, and even ability and class in a limited, identity-based sense—but not so interested in structural critiques of capitalism as such. They believe in survival as a form of political struggle, but not in political struggle as a form of survival.

Gay’s style suits this zeitgeisty blend perfectly, and partly thanks to these outlets she has become a beloved spokesperson on questions of race and gender. She and her publishers might be right in thinking that it’s worthwhile to make simplified versions of critical ideas available and appealing to mass audiences. Yet Gay, an avowed populist, is celebrated in many quarters as if she were producing challenging new political discourse. The Guardian, for example, has described her as “one of those public intellectuals who has come to represent a school of thought,” and the Washington Post has called her “a renowned cultural critic and woman of ideas.” The excessive praise is no mystery. Recently alerted to the fact that its existence is maintained by racialized state violence everywhere from the border to the supermarket, a self-aware segment of the liberal bourgeoisie is newly eager to celebrate black and brown writers who offer a frisson of novelty, itself derived from white-supremacist rule, alongside conveniently unchallenging suggestions on how to overcome that rule: Strive to work with appropriately qualified people of color, avoid impolitely touching strangers’ hair, count your privileges like blessings. Discussing oppression without scaring white people is a difficult tightrope to walk, and Gay manages it with grace, providing some comfort to those who feel otherwise unrepresented in the public sphere and perhaps a gateway to more radical perspectives on race, gender, body image, and so on.

Image of Roxanne Gay via Chicago magazine.