Navigating the body through Roxane Gay’s Hunger

crow pose

Trigger warning: This post discusses harassment, sexual violence, body image, and disordered eating.

I already knew this situation.

I heard his heavy footsteps behind me, his gruff voice calling at me, demanding my attention. He shouted for me to turn around, and he grew angrier and angrier that I wouldn’t, that I wasn’t stopping for him, wasn’t acknowledging his interest. My body was a lighting wire of tense energy.

It wasn’t the middle of the night, but it wasn’t the middle of the day either. There were people out, yet no one was taking up the sidewalk on the last stretch to my apartment building.

He followed me around the final corner, and I sped up, hoping to put distance between the two of us. My keys were already out of my bag and clutched between my fingers, ready. For what? I reached the glass door of the building and hastily swiped my key fob. I entered and walked toward the foyer stairs that would take me up to my apartment. I heard the front door close. Then, I heard the buzzing sound of the gate mechanism stop. I let out a breath. The door was locked.

I heard a loud thud.

I whipped around to see that the man, still outside, had thrown himself bodily against the door in an effort to get my attention. His angry eyes burned through the glass. All I could see was pure rage at being ignored. He banged his fists again with demanding force.

My heart jackhammered in my chest, as I went upstairs and bolted my door. I did not sleep well that night, though I had no real belief that the man would stick around, or be able to find me even if he got in. It was his eyes that wouldn’t let me fall away from consciousness, the frenzied possessiveness I saw there from someone I had never even met.

Hunger

I understand how lucky I am that this is the way that story ends. Too many people, especially women, have stories that end differently. Roxane Gay is one of those women.

Her book Hunger is a lot of things to me. On one level, it is a book about sexual trauma, and the many difficult methods that hurt people use to cope with trauma (overeating being a main one in Gay’s life).

It is also a book about ownership, namely what it means to try and own your body in a world where so many people will judge it, make comments about it, and compare it to other bodies—again, particularly if you inhabit a female shape, or a fat shape.

I was blown away by Gay’s honesty in exploring these topics. She lays out her story simply, without embellishing or minimizing the shame she often feels. I think it takes a lot to share in that way as a writer and a human being.

Hunger mattered to me, because the pursuit of owning my own body is intrinsic to who I am as a woman of color, as a feminist, as a writer, and so much more. It’s part of why I look to meditation and body-oriented practices like yoga to center me in life. Every time I tune in to my physical sensations I learn something new about who I am, what I’m feeling, and what I want.

Trying to be with our own bodies is a lifelong journey, but thanks to Gay, at least we have some snarky tweets to keep us company along the way:

Roxane Gay tweet_small

Header image: Dave Rosenblum via Flickr.

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The Micro-Governments of Infomocracy

Real politics these days is exhausting. And sometimes the utility of trying to keep up with the news — especially in terms of my mental health and energy — is a bit dubious. So, maybe it’s not a surprise that I’ve been thinking about a book that looks at the merits and issues of a completely different vision of governance.

Malka Older’s Infomocracy takes place in a world several years past where we are now. There are few country borders left, and instead former political structures have been replaced by “micro-democracies” of 100,000 people each, who vote as a block called a centenal. Each centenal decides who they want their government to be out of the thousands of political parties that now exist.

For example, centenals where environmental issues are important — referred to as “eco-centenals” — can decide to ban cars from their small geographic area and set up technology that causes car wheels to pop if vehicles enter the area. Another centenal may choose to focus on having really strong transit and infrastructure. Others are headed by corporations, like the PhilipMorris party, in whose centenals of course smoking is always legal.

Central to this new world is the role of the agency Information, a giant bureaucracy which provides up-to-date facts about everything possible  from the current doings and pollings of political parties, to background facts on someone you just sat next to in a cafe. Here’s an example of a tool created using facts from Information:

“Citizens can even see a personalized grid with specific outcomes of each government for them: how much they would pay in taxes, for example, or changes in the funding projected to go to their kids’ schools, or the probability that their local bar will be shut down. [..] It’s a popular tool, and surveys last decade showed that a plurality of citizens used it to decide their vote.”

Obviously, votes can change fast based on the Information updates, and political parties do their best to take advantage of them. There are a lot of relevant references to our current state of media oversaturation, as ads for various political parties frequently pop up on the characters’ vision while they navigate different centenals.

I couldn’t help but see parallels to the way modern-day conservatives use rhetoric and advertising to get the votes of middle America:

“In the first election, Information leadership was naive and idealistic […] They thought that providing data about each candidate government would be enough for people to make informed, more-or-less sensible choices. […] That did not work out so well. The new Heritage coalition of wealthy, experienced global corporates ignored the accessibility of Information, produced their standard glossy misinformation, and not only took the Supermajority but won centenals where, analysts agreed, it was demonstrably not in the interest of the people living there to vote for them.”

On the other side, you have a clear example of the elite liberal archetype through Information, whose wealth, power, and Ivory Tower detachment from the public makes political parties and average citizens dislike those who work there.

You also have the massive party Heritage, which to me symbolizes American Democrats and Republicans alike, who have the incumbency advantage that lets them dominate the political environment. All other players look tiny in comparison.

It was fascinating to see the ways that Information tries to address the potential corruption and scandal of the political system, particularly at election time. Debates, for instance, are audio-only, so that hypothetically voters can’t be overly influenced by the looks, appearance, or mannerisms of any particular party. Some parties, like Policy1st don’t even believe in having candidates. Instead they rotate out various spokespersons so that the policies, and not the leaders, can remain the focus.

I was pretty impressed with the creativity of this world. And it’s been a long time since I’ve read something that does tackle the entire world as its subject matter. Characters fly from Japan to Saudi Arabia to Qatar and beyond as the story unfolds, and you do feel the possibility of what the world would be like without borders in the same way that we have them today.

Then there’s the drama of the characters. We have Ken, who works for the supposedly idealistic Policy1st party, as a sort of spy of the goings-on of other parties. He falls for Mishima, a downright cool high-level expert at Information, with a talent for ferreting out unusual — and often politically illegal — data anomalies, such as those in the big election that is coming up. (It’s just the 3rd election of this new world order.)

We also have Domaine, who provides a strong counterpoint, since he hates the current system and is doing his best to disrupt it.

Overall, there’s a lot of political wonkyness and intrigue, but also suspense, mystery, and a bit of romance.

While it definitely took some time to work myself into the world that Older created here, it was completely worth the effort. I loved seeing Older’s background as an international humanitarian professional clearly influencing the expertise and scope of the plot in Infomocracy.

P.S. Malka is the sister of Daniel José Older; talk about a talented family…

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Octavia Butler and Margaret Atwood Were Ready for a Trump World

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“After everything that happened, I’m not reading 1984, I’m not reading Fahrenheit 451, I’m not reading A Handmaid’s Tale. I’m reading Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. I feel like if we’re looking for any answers or where we’re going, it’s definitely in Octavia’s work.”

That’s what speculative fiction writer Nnedi Okorafor had to say about what book to reach for in the age of Trump.

Having read Parable of the Sower, I recognized some reasons why Okorafor would point readers to Butler’s work. There’s the portrayal of a world where climate change has progressed enough to cause major problems to habitability and economies. There’s the way that people have split off into walled off communities. How countries have shuttered their borders to other nations.

But I was particularly struck by Okorafor’s reference to a character in Butler’s sequel, Parable of the Talents, whose stated goal is to “make America great again.” As a feminist, I was also interested in reading Atwood’s famous The Handmaid’s Tale. So I picked up both.

Ultimately, I agree that Butler’s works seem to resonate more fully with the current times. The unexpected political success of presidential candidate Andrew Steele Jarret in Talents struck a pretty eerie chord with Trump’s win while using the same tagline. It’s an incredibly layered novel with strong themes of power, purpose, community, and religion all coming together in one story.

But I think The Handmaid’s Tale is worth a read too for different reasons. It’s a meditation on gender roles and a purposeful exaggeration of society’s obsession with commenting on and controlling women’s reproductive choices. The world of Atwood’s story feels much tighter to the protagonist as you navigate her fearful and constrained reality alongside frequent flashbacks to the way things were “before.”

The full video from Al Jazeera on dystopian literature in the modern age is definitely worth a watch if you have time:


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Living Alternate Histories with Underground Airlines

Angela Davis

My grandmother once told me a story that stretched the limits of my understandings of racial fear. Years ago she was relocating with her family for my grandfather’s job. They planned to drive to their new home and considered taking a detour through the South as an add-on to their trip.

At this time however, Angela Davis had just been added to the FBI’s Most Wanted list, and the entire country was focused on the story. My grandmother, who is a light-skinned black woman that used to wear her hair in an Afro, was afraid of being mistaken for Davis, particularly in the South, where they perceived greater hostility. So after some deliberation, she and my grandfather decided not to travel through the South after all, bypassing it on their journey.

Now, aside from being light-skinned, I personally don’t think my grandmother looks anything like Angela Davis. When I first heard the story I had a hard time understanding what it would feel like to be alive and black during that period in time. Because of the relatively safer and calmer context I grew up in, it is almost impossible for me to fully relate to that generalized sense of racial fear. To really understand my grandmother’s story, I had to imagine a completely different world from the one in which I came of age. (Though as #BlackLivesMatter shows, racial fear is still alive and well in the world. Unlike my experience, all too many young black people grow up quite aware of it.)

Underground AirlinesReading Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters reminded me of my grandmother’s story because it is also about using the imagination to understand another world. It’s about using the tool of speculative fiction to cultivate empathy for what it can be like as a black person living in a geography of racial fear. The particular context here is slavery.

Underground Airlines is told from the perspective of the main character, who goes by Victor. Victor lives in the modern-day U.S. with one big difference — slavery still exists in four states. He’s a black man who works for the U.S. Marshall Service to help find and return escaped slaves from the slave states. As the story goes along you learn more and more about seedy things that have been going on in the background of reputable organizations on all sides. Victor has to face his own past and what he’s willing to do to keep his personal freedom.

Underground Airlines, though a thriller at its core, explores deep moral questions. Winters leads you to think about what you would do to preserve your own safety in such a compromised society. The people you would betray. Those you would manipulate. Just as interesting is the exploration of corruption among modern-day abolitionists. Winters plays with what the desire to be a “savior” can do to the psyche, and how it can corrupt. He suggests that individual people can begin to matter much less than the cause as a whole. The book is a fascinating look at what happens when who we are collides with who we imagine ourselves to be.

I’d be remiss not to mention Octavia Butler’s Kindred in reviewing Underground Airlines. In Kindred, a black woman is involuntarily trapped in a cycle of going back in time to the plantation where her ancestors were enslaved. The book explores the very real and painful ways in which the institution of slavery corrupts all morals and good intentions. Kindred was a groundbreaking mashup of the modern world and the old establishment of slavery, and Winters’ work follows in that tradition. Constance Grady’s article in Vox captures some important ways that Winters draws upon Butler’s cannon.

I am white, and I wrote this book because I think it is incumbent on white people, white authors very much included, to think about racism, to grapple with racism, and to engage with it.
Ben H. Winters

One of the great strengths of speculative fiction, is that the literal worlds it forces you to consider are often based on real world “what if” questions with current day implications. Just as the world of my grandmother’s story pushed me to expand my understandings of what her life experiences encompass, speculative fiction can take you to a new mental place, to a new body. It can play with your world in subtle ways to make you consider new possibilities and perspectives. We have to leave our entrenched beliefs behind a little when reality gets slightly warped. We don’t always know who we would be in the story.


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Note: I received an advance reading copy of this book from the publisher for review.

Image Source: About.com

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Faith, Fat Chances, and Gentrification

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Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I’m always talking about gentrification, displacement, and diversity. That’s one of the reasons why I was commenting earlier this month in a #DiverseBookBloggers thread about how we need books by authors of color about neighborhood change. Then I happened to pick up Carla Trujillo’s Faith and Fat Chances and found exactly that conversation on the page.

Faith and Fat Chances takes place in a (as far as I can tell) fictional community right outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico called Dogtown that is being threatened by a winery development that would force most of the residents to relocate elsewhere. Just fyi, for anyone who has read What Night Brings, Trujillo’s first novel about a child growing up in a household of domestic violence, Faith and Fat Chances feels like a much lighter read.

Faith and Fat ChancesI didn’t find the book as riveting as I wanted it to be. Some of the characters seemed underdeveloped and the plot moved slower than I’m used to. That being said, I really loved a couple of the main characters, especially Pepa, an older curandera (a type of folk healer) whom all the residents of Dogtown come to with their ailments, both physical and spiritual.

I also enjoyed Tala, a character whose brother is trying to build the despised winery, and who leads the fight to try and save their town. Tala and several other characters fall on the LGBT spectrum, which is great since more books need gender and sexual orientation diversity. Many of the residents of Dogtown are Latino, and the book has lots of Spanglish going on, which felt important to the story voice.

There’s also a healthy dose of magical realism here, which in my opinion usually makes a book more intriguing. Think: a mysterious rain that menaces the town and won’t stop until people get their *ish* together. A few other details like this add some of the humor and lightness to the book.

I can’t help but wonder if Trujillo was interested to write on this subject matter given that she’s a Bay Area local, where the conversation around gentrification and demographic change has been raging for years. While Dogtown’s landscape looks a lot different from that of Oakland or San Francisco, I kept getting eerie chills on hearing the rhetoric of the developers and the mayor of the fake city. It hits close to home.

While I’ve seen a lot of nonfiction, especially online articles, talking about changing neighborhoods, there are fewer fiction books that I’ve come across that really address the topic. One that does come to mind is Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House, a large family drama set in present-day Detroit (great book, go read it!). But I’m hoping that talking about gentrification is a new trend in literature.