Justice for All Presents Roxane Gay
UCSB Arts & Lectures Series Features Pathbreaking Writers and Activists
By Charles Donelan | February 3, 2022
As the second anniversary of the March 2020 COVID shutdown approaches, it’s time to take a deep breath and give thanks for the good things that have come out of the havoc the pandemic has caused in our public life. At UCSB Arts & Lectures, where the so-called “pivot” has been particularly persistent and unpredictable, the biggest lesson learned is one that we’ve known all along, but which has never been more important — we are all in this together.
Over the next five weeks, A&L will present four speakers who exemplify the turn toward inclusion. They come to us as part of the Justice for All series, continuing two initiatives targeting the most challenging divisions in contemporary society. Begun in 2020 as Race to Justice following the George Floyd murder and extended to embrace a larger agenda in 2021 as Creating Hope, the effort arrives in 2022 as Justice for All (JFA). JFA is an attempt to not only address the topic of social justice as a field of study but also encourage collaboration and community across disciplinary and institutional boundaries.
Topping the list of guest speakers in the Justice for All lineup, there’s Roxane Gay, the multifaceted author of Bad Feminist, Hunger, Ayiti, An Untamed State, and Black Panther: World of Wakanda, among other books. Hunger, Gay’s searing memoir of trauma, subsequent weight gain, and the gradual “undestruction” of her life, is the February pick of the Independent’s Book Club, a collaboration with the Santa Barbara Public Library. Read librarian Molly Wetta’s review of Hunger and the Independent‘s exclusive interview with Roxane Gay below.
At UCSB, professor of art Kim Yasuda has established a pilot course through the university’s Discovery Seminars program that links the Justice for All events to work being done by UCSB faculty members. This effort to bring about meaningful exchange across departmental boundaries and to integrate Arts & Lectures’ programming into the humanities and social sciences curriculum represents a signal breakthrough in how UCSB delivers education that addresses the needs and goals of first-generation college students and people of color.
The upcoming sequence of events begins on Thursday, February 10, in UCSB’s Campbell Hall with Cathy Park Hong, the author of Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. Hong’s thrilling and provocative book examines how people today experience so much of life through the lens of “minor feelings,” which she defines as “non-cathartic states of emotion” with “a remarkable capacity for duration.” These “ugly” states of discomfort are the result whenever enforced optimism contradicts racialized reality. Hong’s remarkable range as a stylist gives her essays a mercurial quality that keeps the reader under her narrative spell.
On Wednesday, February 16, women’s rights activist Amanda Nguyen will appear in a virtual event to explain her concept of “hopeanomics,” an approach to social entrepreneurship that emphasizes driving change through citizen-led legislation. Roxane Gay’s Friday, February 25, talk is titled Roxane with One N and will take place at The Granada Theatre. On Wednesday, March 9, the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Andrea Elliott takes the stage at Campbell Hall to discuss her book Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival and Hope in an American City. Justice for All ends its run with a musical coda in April when violinist Jennifer Koh and vocalist Davóne Tines will perform Everything Rises, a multimedia exploration of the immigrant experience.
Hunger: A Memoir of
(My) Body by Roxane Gay
By Molly Wetta, Santa Barbara Public Library
When she was 12, Roxane Gay was taken to an abandoned cabin in the woods by a boy she had a crush on, and she was raped by him and several of his friends. As a response to that trauma, she ate, both for pleasure when there was none and to become invisible and protected, making her body a “fortress.”
Her memoir, Hunger, is about that, but it is also about more than that. It is about the contradictions and paradoxes we, as humans in bodies, negotiate as we live our lives. Because of this, it has much in it that anyone might relate to, even if they have not been a victim or survivor of sexual violence, and even if they have never been “super morbidly obese.” I do not know many people — men, women, or nonbinary — who do not fear the threat of sexual violence even if they have not experienced it, or who have never felt shame about their body and its size or shape.
Gay writes candidly about “the ugliest, weakest, barest parts” of herself in blunt, straightforward prose, chronicling the impacts trauma and her body have had on her health, her relationships, and her sexuality. She explores the cost of what it took for her to survive and the contradictions inherent in continually negotiating that survival in a world that is inhospitable to women, to black women (especially fat black women), and even more especially to fat black women who have opinions. While heavy, this memoir is not without hope or humor. Gay invites us all to revel in our messy selves, in our contradictions, and even in our vulnerable, undisciplined bodies.
Join the Indy Book Club to discuss Gay’s memoir virtually on Wednesday, February 23. Find the link to join at independent.com/indybookclub. Tickets for Roxane Gay’s talk for UCSB Arts and Lectures on Friday, February 25, at The Granada Theatre, are available at artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.
Interview with Roxane Gay
By Charles Donelan
In Hunger, you coin a word for the work of reclaiming your life through writing. You call it “undestroying.” What drove you to create a new term for that process? I was looking for language for the process of starting to reckon with a difficult path and of reckoning with some of the more self-destructive tendencies that happened in my twenties that I write about in Hunger. I came up with “undestroying,” to name that process of facing yourself, trying to reconcile with it, and then trying to make changes. It felt like I was “undestroying” myself because I was undoing some of that damage. I chose that language because other words didn’t feel adequate or accurate.
Sometimes coining a new word is helpful. It slowed me down as I read it. It made me think harder about what you were saying.
I’m going to go on to another word choice. This word isn’t new, but it appears equally essential in your vocabulary, and that’s “unruly.” Could you explain what you mean by “unruly” as a concept and as a way of claiming space? Yes, the term “unruly” is a way of thinking about bodies that don’t follow the typical rules and aren’t what people expect — bodies with shifting boundaries. And I just thought that “unruly” was an all-encompassing word that didn’t negatively place a value judgment.
I felt that with “unruly,” you were sidestepping a lot of unnecessary conflict and shame and letting things be. For me, that is helpful.
I want to return to unruliness, but now I am curious about how people respond to your work. To initiate that topic, congratulations! Your work is incredibly popular. You are a hit! When you go online or give lectures now, do you find that people share many of their own experiences with you? They do, which is one of my work’s more unexpected side effects. I guess it never occurred to me that people would respond in the way they have. Often, people will share different things that they’ve experienced. And they’ll also share how my books have affected them, which is always, and in many ways, very gratifying to know. It’s good to know that someone out there has connected with something I’ve said and wants to tell me about it. It’s not something I ever take for granted.
One thing I immediately noticed about the book was the prevalence of the first person singular — many of your sentences involve the word “I.” Was that something you thought about? You’ve said in the past that the book was hard to write. In what way was that so? It was hard to write because it required a level of vulnerability that I remain very uncomfortable with. And I didn’t think too much about the audience when I was writing it beyond just being worried about how people would respond to the book. That was certainly something that made me very nervous. But yeah, I didn’t let it, or I tried not to let it keep me from doing what I thought I needed to do with the book. And so I just kept thinking, how can I write a book that is different from some of these other books that engage with fatness but are frequently written from a perspective about addressing weight loss and where weight loss is the goal? And that isn’t really, that wasn’t where I was at the time. And so, I just tried to write my story as best I could.
One aspect of the book that I loved unconditionally was that you knew how to come back to a center that was not judgmental and that was not ashamed. It impressed me that you could find that center so consistently. Thank you. It’s always great to hear how people engage with the work. So I’m glad to hear that.
You operate in a lot of different genres. I do.
Are you satisfied with the forms currently available to you? Are there things you haven’t done yet that you want to do? I’m very satisfied with all the things I get to do. At the same time, it’s like, I don’t know that I’m ever totally satisfied with what I’ve done. But I have no complaints about my ability to explore different genres and write in different fields and things like that. Now I do it to varying degrees of success, which is, of course, to be expected. Right now, in addition to my books, which I am continuing to work on, I am trying to get better at writing for film and television, which is challenging. It’s very different.
How so? While I don’t find writing for film and television to be as hard as writing books, getting something made is very challenging. When you write a book, you get feedback, but it’s not as much and doesn’t have as much effect as the feedback you get from the studio, the network, or your producers, which is a lot!
I told you I was going to come back to the idea of being unruly and to the topic of rules. In your 2014 book of essays, Bad Feminist, you reprinted a list of numbered rules called “How to be friends with another woman.” I found your rules funny and charming. Could you tell me how you came to write that list? Sure. That one was a lot of fun. I wrote it while I was in graduate school, getting my Ph.D., and I had an incredible group of friends at the time. We’re all still friends. And I was just grateful for it. And so, I was trying to think about the nature of our friendship. And what were the qualities of our friendship that made those relationships work so well? And a lot of it requires just accepting each other, being human, and not being petty. And so I thought, well, let me make some more.
They are the Rules, and they are different from “the Rules for capturing the heart of Mr. Right.” True. I’d like to think my rules are better intended. [Laughter.]
What do you think of the phrase “extremely online”? I think that that phrase gets tossed around quite a bit. And I think it’s sometimes a way of just saying, “This person talks too much. This person has too many opinions. This person is too involved in being aware of the world.” But I also think it’s a great descriptor for people who are active on social media versus people who aren’t. Like, I guess my parents are online, but they’re not “extremely online.”
As a society, what are we manifesting at the moment? When you look around — not necessarily when you reflect on your own life — and you see how people are struggling, either with the pandemic or in Black Lives Matter, or the Me Too movement, what strikes you? (I do realize that this is an impossible question.) I think that we’re manifesting a couple of things. I believe we are demonstrating that the world is changing, that the world has actually changed. And it’s time for everyone to recognize that and get on board and grow the hell up. I also think that we see quite a lot of resistance to the fact that the world has changed. For example, I never thought that we would see book banning becoming popular again, which is incredibly disturbing. And we’re seeing Roe v. Wade on the verge of being overturned.
So we’re seeing two things. We’re seeing the last gasp of resistance to progress, and it is a very powerful last gasp. And we’re also seeing a lot of progress and understanding that people are hopefully more evolved, more accepting of difference, and things like science, and believing that women are people who deserve to have their bodies not to be legislated. So a lot is going on, and it’s a complicated time. And then, of course, we throw in a pandemic. And that’s where you start to see that everything isn’t okay. I think the pandemic is the mirror showing us something very ugly. And I think we have to recognize that.
Thank you. I love what you’re doing. I live for these opportunities to connect with people who have interesting thoughts and are putting them on paper. You’re welcome. And thank you for such thoughtful questions. I appreciate it.
Is there anything more you would like people to have in mind when they come to the presentation you’re giving for UCSB Arts & Lectures at the Granada on Friday, February 25? Yes. Talking about social justice doesn’t mean that you’re humorless, so people should expect both. Courteous conversation, but also fun!