Why reading Roxane Gay is good for me


Dear Rebecca:

I did something unusual to start 2018: I decided to go to “reading list zero.”

What this involved: Clearing the stack of books I’ve been reading but failing to finish the last few months, and instead picking up a book or two I’d never cracked before. Part of me feels guilty about this, but starting the year with a clean reading slate feels really good. (I may return to the older books at some point, but the clean slate feels really good.)

The two books I’ve picked up are both, incidentally, by women of color. One is “Kindred,” Octavia Butler’s classic novel mixing science fiction and antebellum slavery. The other is “Hunger,” by Roxane Gay.

I’m more than halfway through “Hunger,” and I’m so glad I picked it up. Gay’s story is about growing to be a “super-obese” woman as a defense mechanism after being raped as an eighth grader. That’s not an experience I’ve had, but — as you know — my body has been broken and unruly since undergoing diverticulitis surgeries in 2011. I’m awkwardly shaped, I can’t exercise like I did prior to the injury, and the result is … kind of gross.

So: Even though I’m not a woman of color, even though I’ve never been sexually assaulted, I’ve found catharsis in Gay’s memoir.

I get this:

No matter where I am, I wonder about where I stand and how I look. I think, I am the fattest person in this apartment building. I am the fattest person in this class. I am the fattest person at this university. I am the fattest person in this theatre. I am the fattest person on this aeroplane. I am the fattest person in this airport. I am the fattest person in this city. I am the fattest person at this conference. I am the fattest person in this restaurant. I am the fattest person in this shopping mall. I am the fattest person on this panel. I am the fattest person in this casino.

I am the fattest person.

This is a constant refrain and I cannot escape it.

This is powerful and true.

My original aim today was to dismantle this piece asking if “feminism ruined The Last Jedi,” a question posed, in part, because the author believes that trying to shove women into the heroic parts usually played by men somehow is unnatural and ill-fitting.


Roxane Gay does not need my white guy validation — would probably refuse it if offered on those terms. But reading literature that comes from other perspectives and experiences, by women of color, is good for me. Where there are differences, it helps me see the world from a different angle. But it also reminds me of the commonalities.

Reading is good. Reading outside your own experience is good. I’m a better man when I do it.


One comment

  1. A thought: since you’re starting your reading list fresh, what if you spent 2018 consciously choosing books — fiction and nonfiction both — by writers who were not white men?

    I know my first reaction to this thought experiment was “but what if I miss a really IMPORTANT book?!?” But chances are that missing that book will open space for another, equally important book that i wouldn’t have read if I hadn’t actively sought it out.


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