- Unruly IntimaciesThe Body and the Midwest in the Works of Roxane Gay
The body emerges as the primary site through which to examine contemporary social life in Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist: Essays (2014), Difficult Women (2017a), and Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (2017b). Of particular interest to Gay is the body that refuses to be disciplined with identity itself being an: "expression of the fear of unruly bodies" (2017b, 165). The "unruly body" then in its capacity to account for diverse practices of living as well as regulation articulates embodiment as a racialized, gendered, and sexualized process. Gay's upbringing in Nebraska along with her extensive years living in the rural Midwest and attending and teaching at Midwest educational institutions including Michigan Technological University where she completed her doctoral degree in Rhetoric and Technical Communication; the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, where she completed her master's degree; Eastern Illinois University, where she taught English; and her current position as Associate Professor of English at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, position her well to compellingly write about the region. Readers seeking heterogeneous approaches to intimacy and the social construction of the body will appreciate the contributions offered by all three books. This review considers the body and intimacy in [End Page 117] Gay's writing with respect to social interaction, popular feminism, and the American Midwest.
Gay imaginatively introduces us to the unruliness of the body through the indelible traces of intimacy. With a focus on such topics as emotional deprivation, loneliness, social isolation, trauma, addiction, desire, abuse, psychological and social defense mechanisms, and love among others, the body comes into focus in Gay's writing through the intimacies it encounters. We get to know the body that is always present, never out of mind: "I am never allowed to forget the realities of my body, how my body offends the sensibilities of others, how my body dares to take up too much space" (Gay 2017b, 267–68, 165). The always thought body is unruly in its evasion of external attempts to manage it.
The short stories in Difficult Women offer a conceptual bridge between the memoir Hunger and the political and cultural critique and commentary offered by Gay's essays in Bad Feminist. The stories in Difficult Women collectively demonstrate the reach of Gay's keen talent for writing into and out of marginality while exposing the dysfunction that undergirds normality. For example, the protagonist, Bianca, in the story: "Water, All Its Weight" is followed all her life by an unending flow of water that without fail damages her living spaces and relationships. As Bianca grows older, "the more the stain grew" (Gay 2017a, 25) eventually turning to mold on the ceiling above her bed. Bianca works in an office, goes to public places like the gym, and gets married and divorced further delineating the unruly body circumscribed by unyielding precipitation as both yearning for and haunted by an unwillingness to cede altogether social interaction. The unruly body here labors to survive even as "the watery rot" that pervades its existence persists.
Hunger documents Gay's experience of sexual and bodily trauma and related challenges with body image. Perhaps the only mention of intimacy or the "intimate" in Hunger appears in reference to Gay's attendance at a question and answer session for gastric bypass surgery. As Gay describes, the most inquisitive of the other attendees, a woman who looked as if she did not need the surgery, but took up most of the time: "asking intimate, personal questions that broke my heart" (2017b, 8). This account of the intimate as experienced through social interaction highlights the ways in which one's own bodily understanding can influence and trespass onto the bodies of others.
Difficult Women elucidates intimacy through a dystopic family living in the shadow of a coal miner father, Hiram Hightower, who flew into [End Page 118] the sun and disappeared it in...