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Be Bigger, Fight Harder: Roxane Gay On A Lifetime Of 'Hunger'

Jun 19, 2017
Originally published on June 22, 2017 1:37 pm

Roxane Gay has finally written the book that she "wanted to write the least."

The author of Bad Feminist and Difficult Women says the moment she realized that she would "never want to write about fatness" was the same moment she knew this was the book she needed to write. The result is Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body.

Hunger, she writes, is not about wanting to shed 30 or 40 pounds: "This is a book about living in the world when you are three or four hundred pounds overweight," she explains.

Gay traces her complicated relationship with her weight back to being a victim of sexual assault as a child. "I grew up in this world where fat phobia is pervasive," she says. "And I just thought, 'Well, boys don't like fat girls, so if I'm fat, they won't want me and they won't hurt me again.' But more than that, I really wanted to just be bigger so that I could fight harder."

The memoir is also about living with contradictions: She describes growing up a daughter of middle-class Haitian immigrants, and not fitting into the narrative of blackness. She talks about being a feminist. And she explains why she identified as a lesbian even though she was still attracted to men.

The book is a confession, she says, and "having that kind of vulnerability in the hands of strangers really scared me."


Interview Highlights

On the difficulty of the writing process

When I was writing it I was worried about exposing myself like this, and being this honest. ... That's why I dragged my heels for so long — the book was actually delayed a year because of that, because I just procrastinated and procrastinated because I was just dreading writing the book, while still feeling like this was a necessary book to write.

On being the victim of a gang rape at age 12

I had very little comprehension of what happened to me. I was stunned and I just assumed, "OK, we just had sex." And I didn't realize that there was a thing called rape. I didn't realize that there was a vocabulary to describe the experience, and that it wasn't my fault. I thought I didn't fight enough, I didn't get away, and so I was complicit in what happened. ...

My 12-year-old self thought, "Oh, I must've asked for this." Not in the way that we say, "She asked for it," but I just thought I deserved it because I was that weak, and that gullible and just that easily manipulated by some random boy I thought I knew. ...

To this day, I don't know how I was able to cover up what happened. I just remember sneaking up to my room and doing my best to hide my clothes and to hide myself for as long as I could, to just try and pull myself together, and I did, because I was a really good kid. I did what I was supposed to, and I think when you're a really good kid, you know how to play that role, and you know how to hide that anything is wrong.

On why she kept it a secret from her parents

A secret starts out small sometimes, but then it gets bigger and bigger and bigger, and it becomes scarier and scarier to imagine ever sharing it with someone. So the longer I kept the secret to myself, the more dire the consequences became for me, or the more dire I perceived the consequences of revealing my secret became. ...

I was 12, so my fears were really that I was going to get in trouble and that I was going to go to hell, because I had had premarital sex. We were Catholic, and very devout Catholics. And though my parents raised us with the understanding that god was a god of love, I was really terrified nonetheless.

On the boys spreading their own story

The boys' version of the story was that it was my choice and that I wanted it and that I initiated it. ... The other students in school believed it. I walked into class, I think it was French class, and I was sitting in my seat and the kid behind me tapped my shoulder and said, "You're a slut." And for the rest of the day I realized that pretty much everyone in school knew what had happened — well, they knew the boys' version of what had happened — and that's when I realized, "Now I can really never tell my family, because I will bring this much shame into our home." ...

I didn't engage at all, I just shut down completely. I would go to class and try to hide in class by sitting in the back, and I would just endure the taunts and then eventually, as it is in middle school, the story moved on, but my reputation never changed. I was still an outcast, I was still a loser.

On overeating

After I was raped I needed comfort. ... I felt so weak and I felt so powerless, and I wanted to make myself bigger. And so I would overeat, and I would get quite a lot of comfort from that, and when you are 12 and 13 and 14 and 15 and a sheltered kid from the suburbs, you don't really have access to vices other than food, and so I ate.

On her body image as a young woman

My body was only a problem when the outside world intruded. I was very scared of boys, but I was also a reader and very romantic and very much interested in someone loving me, and so I had those yearnings but I didn't allow them to go beyond this idea of being loved. When I would look at myself I knew I was getting bigger. And I could tell that I was so much bigger than my peers, and I knew that was a problem, at least in terms of social standing, but I didn't feel any self-loathing. I didn't really feel any shame until people in my life forced me to feel shame because they were ashamed of my body, or they were disgusted by my body.

On coming out as a lesbian, even though she knew she was bisexual

When I came out I knew it wasn't the whole truth. I knew that I was also still attracted to men, but I was so scared of me that I just thought, "OK, I'm just going to find some safe harbor here," and so I wanted to be the best lesbian I could so that maybe that would make my attraction to men go away. ...

No community has been more welcoming to me, and when I needed community the most, [that] community was there for me. It was like discovering water for the first time, discovering clean air for the first time — to be seen, and to be appreciated and to be thought of as sexy and beautiful, it was just invaluable and I will never, ever forget the ways in which I was embraced by my community as I came out.

On meeting people online in the early days of the Internet

When I look back now, knowing what I know about the Internet, I cannot believe I was not hurt or murdered, but I also have to say, the Internet was a lot different then. There were creepers, but it wasn't what it is today. People were just so thrilled to have this new technology, and it was all text-based, so it was different. I don't know that it was safer, but it felt safer. It felt like it was OK to meet people this way and I also had very little self-regard, so I just threw myself into the face of danger nonetheless. ...

I was able to meet people and have them feel something for me and be interested in me for me before they saw me, and before they might judge me for my body, so that was really seductive.

On looking up her rapist and calling him, but not saying anything

It was creepy. I actually in that moment was like, Girl, what are you doing? and then part of me wanted to say something, and to just scream at him. But I just hung up. ... I wonder all the time, but what the wondering really is, is that I want him to say "I'm sorry." I want him to acknowledge that this terrible thing happened, and that it wasn't my fault, and I want him to know that I didn't just walk it off, and that I was broken for a really long time because of it. And I'm never going to get that.

On the way people write about her weight

The most surprising thing is that in the book I write about what my highest weight was and every single review and article about the book thus far has mentioned it. That's fine, because I put it in the book. ... I think it says to me that there is a bit of salaciousness that people are trying to draw from it, when in fact for me it's a number, it's a truth. But the way people are writing and discussing it, it's like "Oh my god! When she was at her largest." So it is what it is.

On getting trolled online

I would say 40 percent of my trolling is because I'm a feminist. Thirty percent of my trolling is because I'm black, and 30 percent of my trolling is because I'm fat. ... I have so many trolls. The Venn diagram of my trolls would be a circle.

On where she is with her body now

I would definitely like to tear down this wall I've built around myself, because I don't need it anymore. And I know that intellectually, and on good days, I know that emotionally. I don't want to be thin, I want to be smaller, because I just do. I think it makes so many things easier just on a day-to-day basis, and also I have no small amount of vanity, so I just want to be able to find cuter clothes. Sometimes it's really basic things that I would like for myself.

I think getting rid of the fortress is the final step that I need to take in just moving on from this thing that happened to me once. ... I wasn't writing the book to heal myself, but in writing the book I was really forced to take a look at some of the habits I've developed over the years, and I've been able to acknowledge that I don't need these behaviors anymore and I would like to come up with different behaviors that serve me more effectively. I don't know that it will be easier, but I do know that I am in the best emotional and mental space that I've ever been in to at least try.

Radio producers Sam Briger and Mooj Zadie and web producers Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Roxane Gay, has written a new memoir that she describes as, quote, "about living in the world when you are not a few or even 40 pounds overweight. This is a book about living in the world when you are 300 or 400 pounds overweight," unquote.

But the book is about much more than that. It's about the consequences of being gang-raped when she was 12, back when she was thin. She thinks her body size is one of those consequences. It's about being the daughter of middle-class Haitian immigrants and not fitting into the narrative of blackness. It's about being a feminist. It's about starting to identify as lesbian but still being attracted to men. It's about living with contradictions.

Roxane Gay is best known for her best-selling collection of essays, "Bad Feminist." She's also a novelist and short-story writer and has been a contributing opinion writer to The New York Times. She teaches English at Purdue University. Her new memoir is called "Hunger."

Roxane Gay, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like to start by having you read from the beginning of your book. Would you read a couple of paragraphs from that for us?

ROXANE GAY: I'd be happy to. (Reading) The story of my body is not a story of triumph. This is not a weight-loss memoir. There will be no picture of a thin version of me, my slender body emblazoned across this book's cover with me standing in one leg of my former, fatter self's jeans. This is not a book that will offer motivation. I don't have any powerful insight into what it takes to overcome an unruly body and unruly appetites.

Mine is not a success story. Mine is simply a true story. I wish so very much that I could write a book about triumphant weight loss and how I learned to live more effectively with my demons. I wish I could write a book about being at peace and loving myself wholly at any size. Instead, I have written this book, which has been the most difficult writing experience of my life, one far more challenging than I could have ever imagined. When I set out to write "Hunger," I was certain the words would come easily, the way they usually do.

And what could be easier to write about than the body I have lived in for more than 40 years? But I soon realized I was not only writing a memoir of my body. I was forcing myself to look at what my body has endured, the weight I gained and how hard it has been to both live with and lose that weight. I've been forced to look at my guiltiest secrets. I've cut myself wide open. I am exposed. That is not comfortable. That is not easy.

GROSS: Thanks for reading that. So you write about how difficult it was to write this book. Why did it feel necessary to write?

GAY: It felt necessary to write because it's the book I wanted to write the least. When I was thinking about what to do next in terms of nonfiction, just before "Bad Feminist" came out, I thought, you know, I really would never want to write about fatness. And in that moment, I knew that's something I have to write about.

GROSS: So you write that, at your heaviest, you were 577 pounds. You're 6-foot-3. Since you're going to be talking in part about your body and your body size, I would appreciate it if you would guide me about what language you'd like me to use in terms of describing the size of your body. Honestly, like, I don't - words are so loaded when it comes to body image. And everybody has their own preference for what word they use. So I'd like you to guide me on that.

GAY: I think fat works well.

GROSS: Good. I'm good with that. OK. So I'm sure some people are thinking, like, if you have weighed that much, why didn't you have bariatric surgery? And you have a really interesting chapter in your book about how, in your late 20s, you went to an introductory session with your father. And you both decided you did not want to go through with it. What were some of the risks and the life-changing differences involved with this kind of procedure?

GAY: Well, bariatric surgery is dangerous surgery. In many ways, you realter your anatomy and have your stomach made smaller. And in certain procedures, they take out part of your intestines. It makes you nutrient-deprived for the rest of your life. And the success rate is not great. In the immediate, you absolutely do lose a great deal of weight in a short amount of time. But in the long term, we're still waiting to see just how successful it is.

GROSS: You write that you began to - you know, you began eating to change your body after you were gang-raped when you were 12. I got so angry reading that part of the story. The boy you thought of as kind of your boyfriend set you up for this.

You were on a bike ride with him in the woods. You stopped at a cabin where his friends were waiting to attack you. And your - you know, you thought boyfriend was part of it. You write you didn't know what rape was. So what was your comprehension of what had happened to you?

GAY: I had very little comprehension of what happened to me. I was stunned. And I just assumed, OK, we just had sex. And I didn't realize that there was a thing called rape. I didn't realize that there was a vocabulary to describe the experience and that it wasn't my fault. I thought I didn't fight enough. I didn't get away. And so I was complicit in what happened.

GROSS: You must have asked yourself, why did they choose you? Why did you - what did your 12-year-old self think about that?

GAY: You know, my 12-year-old self thought, oh, I must've asked for this - not in the way, you know, we say she asked for it. But I just thought I deserved it because I was that weak and that vulnerable - not vulnerable - that gullible and just that easily manipulated by some random boy. I thought I knew.

GROSS: You went home. You didn't tell your parents. You must have been emotionally and physically so deeply wounded. Even your clothes must have been a mess. How were you able to cover up what happened?

GAY: I, to this day, don't know how I was able to cover up what happened. I just remember sneaking up to my room and doing my best to hide my clothes and to hide myself for as long as I could to just try and pull myself together. And I did because, you know, I was a really good kid. I did what I was supposed to. And I think when you're a really good kid, you know how to play that role. And you know how to hide that anything is wrong.

GROSS: Initially, what were your fears about what would happen if you told your parents?

GAY: You know, I was 12. And so my fears were really that I was going to get in trouble and that I was going to go to hell because I had had premarital sex. You know, we were Catholic and very devout Catholics. And though my parents raised us with the understanding that God was a God of love, I was really terrified nonetheless.

GROSS: But the boys who raped you - they did tell. They told their version of the story, which was not your version of the story. They told it in school. You had a reputation after that of being a slut. So to what extent were you able to keep a secret when the boys had kind of, you know, told this version - I don't know where that version of the story was, but they told their version of the story. And I guess people in the school, you know, believed it. So...

GAY: Yeah. The other students in school believed it. I walked into class, and I think it was French class. And I was sitting in my seat, and the kid behind me tapped my shoulder and said, you're a slut. And for the rest of the day, I realized that pretty much everyone in school knew what had happened. And - well, they knew the boys' version of what had happened. And that's when I realized, oh, now I can really never tell my family because I will bring this much shame into our home.

GROSS: What was the boys' version of the story?

GAY: The boys' version of the story was that it was my choice and that I wanted it and that I initiated it.

GROSS: And did you speak up for yourself in school, or were you too afraid to engage at all with the story?

GAY: I didn't engage at all. I just shut down completely. And I would go to class and try and hide in class by sitting in the back. And I would just endure the taunts. And then, you know, eventually, as it is in middle school, you know, the story moved on. But my reputation never changed. I was still an outcast. I was still a loser.

GROSS: So where does eating come in with the rape story?

GAY: You know, after I was raped, I needed comfort. And I felt so weak. And I felt so powerless. And I wanted to make myself bigger. And so I would overeat. And I would get quite a lot of comfort from that. And, you know, when you are 12 and 13 and 14 and 15 and, you know, a sheltered kid from the suburbs, you don't really have access to vices other than food. And so I ate.

GROSS: You write that you thought if your body became repulsive, you could keep men away.

GAY: I did. I just - you know, I grew up in this world where fat phobia is pervasive. And I just thought, well, boys don't like fat girls. And so if I'm fat, they won't want me. And they won't hurt me again. But more than that, I really wanted to just be bigger so that I could fight harder.

GROSS: I'm thinking about all the changes that must have been going on through your body at this time. Most teenagers have very ambivalent feelings about their body as they go through puberty and then learn to live within their new bodies. You know, you have hormonal changes. Your body is going through physical changes. You're becoming more sexual. People start to see you more sexually.

And I think there's a lot of confusion that comes along with that. So you're going through all of that. You're also recovering or trying to recover from being raped. And your body is also changing as a result of this excessive eating that you're doing in an attempt to become larger. So your feelings about your own body must've been so complicated during that period.

GAY: In some ways, they were, and, in some ways, they weren't. I feel like I gained so much weight in high school. And everyone in my life was so focused on my weight gain that I didn't have a lot of the typical body issues or body concerns that you have as a teenager. I didn't even get my period until I was 15. And so I went through, you know, like, the hormonal changes and so on.

But I was so afraid of the idea of sex, that I pretty much just allowed myself to have this fantasy idea of boyfriends rather than to ever think that I was going to be part of the dating world. You know, my body was just expanding. And so that is kind of what I was focused on, whether I wanted to be or not.

GROSS: So you went to Exeter, and then you went to Yale. So you were living away from home during your high-school and college years. Did that make it easier to eat without restriction?

GAY: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Especially during the first two years of high school, I just went crazy with food. And it was amazing to have access to so much food not only on campus but off. And in college, of course, there were even more opportunities because New Haven is a much bigger town than Exeter. And so it just - you know, I lost my mind.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here. And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Roxane Gay, who is probably best known for her book "Bad Feminist." She has a new memoir called "Hunger: A Memoir Of My Body." We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THIRD WORLD LOVE SONG, "SEFARAD")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is short-story writer and essayist Roxane Gay. She's the author of the book "Bad Feminist." Her new book is a memoir about being fat. It's called "Hunger."

You know, you write that when you came home on breaks from high school and then college, you were physically changed. You kept gaining weight. And your parents are both Haitian immigrants who moved to the States when they were in their late teens. And you write, (reading) Haitians love the food from our island, but they judge gluttony. When you are overweight in a Haitian family, your body is a family concern. So how did your parents try to deal with your weight gain?

GAY: They panicked. They just could not imagine what was going on because I had been thin and - or, you know, average. I wasn't - yeah - thin or average for all of my life. And so this was a completely different person in front of them. And they didn't know why. They were savvy enough to know something was wrong, but they didn't know what that something was. And so they tried to make me lose weight. They put me on a liquid diet, which worked. And then I got sick, and that worked (laughter). And then I went to fat camp, and that worked. But each time after, I would regain weight.

GROSS: Because you wanted to?

GAY: Yes, absolutely.

GROSS: You write that your father and your mother dealt with you differently when it came to weight. What was the difference between them?

GAY: My father is an engineer. And he's incredible, and he's very mission-oriented. He's very fact-based. If you exercise and eat less, you will lose weight, and that's it. And so he has always been very concerned with just encouraging me to follow the information, to do what's necessary and to get the job done so that I can go on to live a better life. And that's all he really wants for me. That's all he's always wanted for me.

My mother is more empathetic, I think, because she understands what it's like to be a woman in this world in a body, no matter what size that body is. And so she has always been concerned about my size. And she has always encouraged me to lose weight. But she has allowed for the emotional component.

GROSS: When you were in school in Exeter and Yale, you also felt set apart by race, class and geography. You're African-American. You're from a middle to upper-middle-class family, depending on the year that we're talking about. And you're - you know, you're very educated. And you write you didn't fit the narrative that your classmates had about what it means to be African-American or Haitian-American.

GAY: Absolutely because, as a Haitian American, I did not have a lot of exposure to African-American culture at that time. And so the white students didn't know what to make of me. And they didn't even realize that there were black people in Nebraska (laughter), where I'm from. And so I think I was a curiosity to them at best. But they just did not know what to do or how to interpret my blackness.

And the black students didn't quite know what to do with me or how to interpret my blackness, either because we did not have the same cultural context. And so I know they thought I was strange. And they teased me quite a lot because of it - deservedly so, looking back. But the difference between the white students and the black students was that, even though the black students didn't quite get me, they allowed me to be part of the community anyway.

GROSS: So when you were in college, you fell in love with theater. I guess earlier than that you fell in love with theater. You went to Yale, in part, because of their theater department. And you worked behind the scenes. Was that a way of being involved with storytelling and with people but also being kind of invisible because you were literally offstage?

GAY: Absolutely. It was a way of being a part of something because I'm not a joiner. I never was. And so I was never really interested in extracurriculars. I did them because that's what you do to get into a good college. But theater is where I found my passion in being behind the scenes because I didn't want to be seen. I just wanted to be useful. And technical theater allowed me that space. It was the - I had - the best memories I have of high school and the first two years of college are connected to theater.

GROSS: I suppose writing gives you that, too - the ability to say what you want and have people look at your work without looking physically at you.

GAY: Well that's what I hoped.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You're too famous now. You can't get away with it.

GAY: (Laughter) No.

GROSS: There's the internet. And, you know, you travel all over, giving speeches. And you're on TV. I mean, people know what you look like.

GAY: They do. You know, one of the many reasons I'm a writer is because I didn't want to be, like, an actor on a stage or on the screen.

GROSS: (Laughter) Too late.

GAY: Whoops.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So how is that for you?

GAY: Oh, it's - you know, I'm afraid of public speaking, so I've had to learn how to do it. And it's gotten much better. And I actually do enjoy doing these events and connecting with audiences because I have a really passionate audience. And it's a privilege to do. I hate doing television not because I'm on television but because when I go on TV, the amount of hate mail and the amount of trolling I get on social media is unbearable. And so I try not to make myself that kind of a target as often as possible.

GROSS: So when you're trolled on the internet and social media, do you think that has to do at all with describing yourself as a feminist? Because there's so much, like, anti-feminist trolling.

GAY: Oh, yeah. Like, I would say 40 percent of my trolling is because I'm a feminist. Thirty percent of my trolling is because I'm black. And 30 percent of my trolling is because I'm fat.

GROSS: I love that you have it broken down into percentages.

(LAUGHTER)

GAY: I do. I have so many trolls.

GROSS: Is there any percent where it's, like, all three?

GAY: Oh, God, yes.

GROSS: They hate you because you're black and feminist and fat?

(LAUGHTER)

GAY: Yeah. The Venn diagram of my trolls would be a circle.

GROSS: (Laughter). My guest is Roxane Gay. Her new memoir is called "Hunger." After a break, we'll talk about sexuality and sexual orientation and the difficulty of travelling in a world not equipped to accommodate her size. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Roxane Gay. Her new memoir, "Hunger," is about what it's like to live in her body hundreds of pounds overweight. She sees her weight gain as a consequence of being gang-raped when she was 12.

You write in your memoir about sexual orientation and your relationships with men and with women. And you started, at some point earlier, identifying as a lesbian. But you write you still had crushes on men. Was sexual orientation confusing for you in part because sexual orientation is confusing for a lot of people but also because you were trying so much to hide and to not be sexual in some ways?

GAY: I think - it wasn't confusing to me in the way it typically is, where I felt, like, angst over being attracted to women or worrying about that. I'm really lucky. Of all the issues I've had to deal with in my life, I've never felt any sort of guilt about being attracted to women. But it was challenging for me in that being sexual was challenging for me.

And so the idea of sex with anyone, regardless of gender, was precarious and kind of terrifying. But men were infinitely more terrifying than women ever could be. So - I mean, at least at the time (laughter). Yeah. So I didn't struggle. But I didn't know how to identify. And so I just thought, OK, I'm a lesbian. And that's good, and that's safe because women are incredible. And I love women, and I'm attracted to them. And I'll never get hurt by a man again, you know?

GROSS: So I want to quote you here. You write (reading) I performed queerness so I could believe this half-truth that I had told everyone, that I had told myself. I marched, was here and queer. I wore an excessive number of pride rings and pins and such. I was passionately militant.

Can you talk about why?

GAY: Yes. When I came out, I knew it wasn't the whole truth. I knew that I was also still attracted to men. But I was so scared of men that I just thought, OK, I'm going to find some safe harbor here. And so I wanted to be the best lesbian I could so that maybe that would make my attraction to men go away and make any of the issues that were surrounding my attraction to men just go away. And so I did a good job of it for a few years. I was really great as a baby dyke.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I was wondering if that kind of passionately militant thing, in spite of your - I don't know - bisexuality at the time? I don't know - do you want to correct me on the language, or is that OK?

GAY: Oh, I think it's fine.

GROSS: OK.

GAY: I mean I identified as a lesbian at the time. And it was true, but it was also not true (laughter).

GROSS: Right. Right.

GAY: So, yeah, I think either lesbian or bisexual works...

GROSS: Right. But I was wondering...

GAY: ...Even though they are two different things.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK. Good enough for me.

GAY: Just to be clear - not for you, for the audience.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So - but I'm wondering if part of the, like - you know, you went so kind of all out in your, you know, marching and passion and militancy - if it was in part to be part of a community because you felt like such an outsider. And you're such a not-joiner. But this is something you could join with and identify with and feel comfortable in and not be excluded from because of body image.

GAY: Absolutely. Absolutely. I have to say no community has been more welcoming to me. And when I needed community the most, community was there for me. It was like discovering water for the first time, discovering clean air for the first time - to be seen and to be appreciated and to be thought of as sexy and beautiful. It was just invaluable. And I will never ever forget the ways in which I was embraced by my community as I came out.

GROSS: You write that, during this period, you naively thought that, with women, you might be safe. Were you not?

GAY: I was - no. I mean, I was safe in that I was never assaulted by a woman. But, I mean, there are different kinds of safety. And it was naive and ignorant of me to assume that women would never hurt me, that they would take good care with my heart. But the reality is that you never know until you know how someone is going to treat you in a relationship. And I had a long run of bad relationships.

GROSS: It sounds like you took a lot of risks in those relationships, too, putting yourself in situations. And I don't mean this as criticism (laughter).

GAY: Oh, I don't take it as criticism.

GROSS: But putting yourself in situations like, you know, traveling to meet somebody who you knew from the internet and kind of not knowing enough about them beforehand.

GAY: Yes.

GROSS: I mean, traveling long distances, like traveling halfway the country.

GAY: No, I flew across the country.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Yeah.

GAY: Yeah. You know, when I look back now, knowing what I know about the internet, I cannot believe I was not hurt or murdered (laughter). But I also have to say the internet was a lot different then. I mean, there were creepers. But it wasn't what it is today.

People were, like, just so thrilled to have this new technology. And it was all text-based. And so it was different. I don't know that it was safer, but it felt safer. And it felt like it was OK to meet people this way. And I also had very little self-regard. So I just threw myself in the face of danger, nonetheless.

GROSS: Well, the fact that the internet was text based - that gets back to being able to communicate without having to be visible.

GAY: Absolutely.

GROSS: So you could meet somebody and bond with them before physically appearing.

GAY: Absolutely. And I'm a writer, so I'm more comfortable with words. I send very romantic emails. Like, I'm really good...

GROSS: (Laughter).

GAY: ...When I have a lot of text at my disposal. But, you know, I was allowed - I was able to meet people and have them feel something for me or be interested in me for me before they saw me and before they might judge me for my body. And so that was really seductive.

GROSS: But what was it like when you'd show up at their door or meet them in a restaurant for the first time, and they would see you? They would see your body.

GAY: Well, I was really careful about who I met. And I was also clear about what I looked like before I ever met anyone because - we didn't have this language back then - but I wasn't going to catfish anyone 'cause I wasn't going to put myself through that. So, in general, it was actually not bad. I actually don't have any horror stories about that.

GROSS: Good.

GAY: Yeah.

GROSS: (Laughter). So you write, (reading) I let men, mostly, do terrible things to my body. I let them hurt me because I'd already been hurt.

How does that fit in with wanting to be large so that you wouldn't - so that you'd have more size, more power and more protection and that so also men wouldn't find you sexually attractive and wouldn't assault you?

GAY: I was a mass of contradictions. But, also, there's a difference between consensual and non-consensual encounters. And so I enjoyed being able to consent to doing things with men. I enjoyed being able to say yes and no. That was really important to me when I was younger. It's still important to me, but back then it was everything to me.

And I loved that sense of control and the way it made me feel alive in my body in a way I didn't feel any other time. I was so disconnected from my body throughout my teens and for most of my 20s, really. And then I would have these encounters, these moments with people where I did feel very connected to my body. And I also felt very in control, even if it didn't seem that way.

GROSS: My guest is Roxane Gay. Her new memoir is called "Hunger." We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Roxane Gay. Her new memoir, "Hunger," is about being gang-raped when she was 12 and how that led to her becoming fat. She kept the rape secret from her parents.

When did you actually tell them about being raped when you were 12?

GAY: They found out from Time magazine.

GROSS: Was a feature story about you?

GAY: Yes. Right before or right around when "Bad Feminist" came out, Time wrote an article about me. And that's when my father found out. And then he and my mom talked about it. And she acknowledged that she knew, that she - I don't know how or when she found out. I think one of my brothers might have told her. And so recently - like, 2014.

GROSS: Oh, wow. That's really recent.

GAY: Mhmm.

GROSS: What was it like to have them know and have them find out through a magazine, as opposed to you telling them?

GAY: Uncomfortable. I feel bad. Certainly, like, I knew it was going to come up. And I didn't know how to talk about it with them. And so I just was passive about it. And in many ways, it was good that they knew. And I know that my dad was hurt - rightfully so because he would've - you know, he said, why didn't you tell us? We would've done something. We would've gotten you justice.

I mean, he really cares about me. My parents both love me, and I love them. And so, you know, it was challenging. But I think it also helped them to understand me more. We don't talk about it a lot. We just - we talk every day, but we don't talk about that. And - because I don't want to at this point. It's been 30 years.

GROSS: Do you think they're going to read your book?

GAY: I asked them not to.

GROSS: To protect them?

GAY: To protect them, yeah. There's nothing in the book they can't know. But I wouldn't want to know what my child went through. I mean, I would want to know, like, the broad strokes. But I wouldn't want to know the details.

GROSS: You face some difficult issues because of your size when you're traveling and when you're on stage. And you write about that a little bit. Can you, like, describe some of the uncomfortable things you have to deal with when you're, for instance, traveling?

GAY: Well, as you know, air travel is - you can't curse on FRESH AIR. Air travel is...

GROSS: No, but I can understand why you'd want to at this point in the conversation.

(LAUGHTER)

GAY: You know air travel is just a nightmare these days. And the seats, especially in coach, are increasingly smaller and smaller. And so when you're overweight and you fly, you always have to deal with the person next to you. And you want to lift up the armrests so that you can sit comfortably. But then you're encroaching on someone else's seat, and it becomes a whole thing.

And so you have to buy two tickets then. But when you buy two tickets, which the airline prefers that you do - and, certainly, the other people in your row prefer that you do - the airlines are ill-equipped to even deal with that. And so it's this constant series of frustrations and humiliations.

GROSS: In what way are they ill-equipped to deal with it?

GAY: So when you're boarding, you have two boarding passes. And, generally, the gate agent is completely mystified as to why you have two boarding passes. I have had 90 percent of the gate agents, when I've bought two tickets, stare at me and say - why do you have two tickets? - knowing damn well that if I had bought one ticket, and someone complained on the flight, they would tell me to buy the second seat. And then once your board, they do the headcount. But there are - you know, there's one empty seat. But it's not empty...

GROSS: Right.

GAY: ...Because I've purchased it. I've purchased it simply so I can raise the armrest without dealing with anyone else's nonsense. And so then there's always this delay as they try to figure out. And they sometimes come and talk to you and say, is there another passenger coming? And it's just like, you can't have it both ways. You can't demand that fat people buy two tickets and then demonstrate absolutely no grace or tact when we do what we're supposed to do according to your rules.

GROSS: You're a feminist. And you write...

GAY: I am.

GROSS: ...(Reading) I'm a feminist, and I believe in doing away with the rigid beauty standards that force women to conform to unrealistic standards. And you also write, (reading) I'm not comfortable in my body. Nearly everything physical is difficult. So - and you say, as a fat woman, you're not supposed to take up space. But as a feminist, you're encouraged to believe you can take up space - so, again, more contradictions you have to deal with.

GAY: Always. I mean, you always want to be the best version of yourself and the best feminist you can be and as inclusive as you can be in your thinking and in your behaviors. At least for me, that's something I want. But it's really hard when you are also just human, and you are dealing with the world as it is and not as we would like it to be. And so I absolutely believe that people should be able to live in this world free from harassment and cruelty at any size and that people should be allowed to be healthy and happy at any size. But I struggle with it sometimes. I absolutely do.

GROSS: You've Googled your rapist, the boy who took you to the cabin where you were gang-raped. You even called him in his office - but not spoken but heard him pick up the phone and say, hello, hello. Why have you done that, and do you have any idea what his life is like now - like, if he's married, like, what he's doing?

GAY: I don't know much about what his life is like. I know what he does, and I know where he works - where he worked last time I Googled him, which was a few years ago. So I don't know what his life is like, but I can imagine. And, you know, one day, I just thought, where is this man?

And I wanted to know. I just all of a sudden wanted to know. And I felt like I needed to know for my safety. And it was like a little, weird panic moment. And then I just wanted to know - just out of curiosity, like, how did your life go on when you tried to end mine? And so I consulted Dr. Google. And...

(LAUGHTER)

GAY: ...Dr. Google came through.

GROSS: What'd it feel like to hear his voice and to make this indirect connection with him?

GAY: It was creepy and I, actually, in that moment, was like, girl, what are you doing? And then I almost - like, you know, part of me wanted to say something and to just scream at him. But I just hung up.

GROSS: Sounds like the beginning of a thriller.

GAY: Doesn't it?

GROSS: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

GAY: Lifetime movie coming next month (laughter).

GROSS: Don't you want to know what impact it had on his life, and if - I'm not suggesting you actually call him and ask. But don't you wonder what impact it has on his life and if he thinks about it and if it haunts him and if he feels bad, if he has any idea what a horrible thing he did?

GAY: Of course. I wonder all the time. And, you know, what the wondering really is is that I want him to say, I'm sorry. I want him to acknowledge that this terrible thing happened and that it wasn't my fault. And I want him to know that, like, I didn't just walk it off and that I was broken for a really long time because of it. You know, and I'm never going to get that.

GROSS: Why don't we take a short break here? And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Roxane Gay. Her new memoir is called "Hunger." And she's also the author of the book "Bad Feminist." We'll be back after this break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS SONG, "THE CHILD WITHIN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is writer Roxane Gay. She's an essayist and short-story writer. Her new book is a memoir about being fat and how she intentionally put on a lot of weight when she was 12 after she was raped and kept getting - she kept getting larger and larger. And this is a very reflective book about what it means to be fat but also what it means to be fat and a woman and a person of color in America. Oh, and she writes about how she put on the weight to feel protected and to make herself undesirable to boys so that she wouldn't be attacked again.

How much of a reaction have you gotten so far to the book, and what is surprising you, if anything, about the reaction you're getting?

GAY: The most surprising thing is that, in the book, I write about what my highest weight was. And every single review and article about the book thus far has mentioned it. And that's fine because I put it in the book, but I don't feel like that's coming from - I think it's interesting that every single piece has done that. I really do.

GROSS: What does it say to you? I mean, I mentioned it, too, at the beginning of the interview.

GAY: You sure did.

GROSS: Yeah.

GAY: I think it says to me that there is a bit of salaciousness that people are trying to draw from it, when, in fact, for me, it's a number. It's a truth. But the way people are writing and discussing it, it's like, oh, my God. When she was at her largest - so it is what it is.

GROSS: I mentioned it because - to give a sense of what it is we're talking about - that it's not - people use fat to describe so many things. Like, I asked you early on, what word should we But fat can mean, like - people say all the time, oh, I'm fat, you know (laughter)?

GAY: Actually, that is - that's the other thing that surprised me - is how many people in their responses to me identify as fat that I would not...

GROSS: Yeah, right, exactly.

GAY: ...Identify as fat.

GROSS: Right.

GAY: So yeah, absolutely.

GROSS: So I think some people are using that number just to give a sense of - what do we mean? Like, what do you mean when you say you're fat? What do you mean? And at one point in your life, you meant that number.

GAY: Yes.

GROSS: So when you wrote the book - and it sounds like it was really hard for you to write this for several reasons - what were you worried about when you were writing it in just dealing with your own thoughts and when it was published? What were your concerns?

GAY: When I was writing it, I was worried about exposing myself like this and being this honest because I knew that if I was going to do it, I was going to be truthful. And I wasn't going to hold back because that was the only way to really write the book I wanted to write. And so having that kind of vulnerability in the hands of strangers really scared me.

And that's - you know, that was the same fear I had about publishing the book. And that's why I dragged my heels for so long when - the book was actually delayed a year because of that - because I just procrastinated and procrastinated because I was just dreading writing the book while still feeling like, this is a necessary book to write.

GROSS: At the end of your book, you write, (reading) I no longer need the body fortress I built. I need to tear down some of the walls for me and me alone.

Can you elaborate on that about what walls you'd like to tear down?

GAY: Well, I would definitely like to tear down sort of this wall I've built around myself because I don't need it anymore. And I know that intellectually. And I'm - on good days, I know that emotionally. And it's not - I don't want to be thin. I want to be smaller because I just do. I think it makes so many things easier just on a day-to-day basis.

And, also, I have no small amount of vanity. So I just want to be able to find cuter clothes. Like, sometimes, it's really just basic things that I would like for myself. And I - you know, I just - I think getting rid of the fortress is the final step that I need to take in just moving on from this thing that happened to me once.

GROSS: Do you think it'll be easier to move on now that you've written about it, and it's out there? It's not a secret.

GAY: Oddly enough, I do. I did not anticipate that when I wrote the book. It wasn't - I wasn't writing the book to heal myself or anything like that. But in writing the book, I was really forced to take a look at some of the habits I've developed over the years. And I've been able to acknowledge that I don't necessarily - I don't need these behaviors anymore, and I would like to come up with different behaviors that serve me more effectively. And so I don't know that it will be easier. But I do know that I am in the best emotional and mental space that I've ever been in to at least try.

GROSS: Roxane Gay, it's really been wonderful to talk with you. Thank you very much.

GAY: Thank you so much, Terry.

GROSS: Roxane Gay's new memoir is called "Hunger." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be writer Sherman Alexie. His new memoir is about growing up on a reservation in Washington state where poverty and violence were routine. It's also about how he got off the reservation and his conflicted feelings about his parents. And it's about his brain. He had brain surgery when he was five months old and again in 2015. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.