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The Making of ‘Unruly Bodies’

A preview of a month-long anthology from Roxane Gay and Medium on what it means to live in a human body today

On April 3, Medium launched an anthology edited by the bestselling author Roxane Gay. The collection is at times intimate and brave, with 24 of Gay’s favorite writers responding to the same prompt: “What does it mean to live in an unruly body?”

I spoke with Gay and a handful of the contributors for Unruly Bodies, including Carmen Maria Machado, Kiese Laymon, and Randa Jarrar, about their essays and the project.

The Medium collection, says Gay, builds off her 2017 memoir Hunger, a blazingly honest account of her life so far, told through the history of her body. In Hunger, she writes about her roots as a Haitian American (she is technically both but sometimes feels like neither identity fits exactly); about the abuse she experienced in childhood; and the reality of being large in a world that makes space only for the small, taut, and beautiful. Her memoir is brave and painful in its candor.

“In Hunger, I focus explicitly on what it means to be fat without a weight loss narrative attached to it,” Gay explains. “Generally body-based memoirs are about some sort of journey of completion and some sort of triumph. Hunger is really just about what it means to live in this body right now.”

Photo of Roxane by Jay Grabiec.

Gay’s frankness is contagious. With Unruly Bodies, two dozen writers and Gay herself tackle the question of what our physical bodies mean in a time when gender, race, sex, consent and more are hot-button topics, central to the national discourse around identity and politics.

“I want our culture to be more open to and more accepting of different kinds of bodies,” says Gay. “Unruly Bodies is an extension of Hunger in that I wanted to open up a conversation about bodies with more people.”

A video trailer announcing the writers contributing to ‘Unruly Bodies.’

“I could make the argument that all bodies are unruly,” says Kiese Laymon, author of the book How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, whose Medium essay explores race, history, violence and gun culture. “I think that we do a lot to police the kinds of bodies that stick out of the norm. We don’t like to talk about the violence we do to those bodies that, on the surface, are not supposedly normal, which in this culture means cis, hetero, white, and thin. There’s obviously violence inherent in a culture which makes particular kinds of bodies seem unruly.”

Laymon’s essay is a searing personal response to that culture. It’s also about why he doesn’t own a gun. “There are certain kinds of bodies in our culture that people assume are harmful,” Laymon says. “Big black bodies are perceived as being the epitome of violence. I’ve never done anything that a cop has accused me of doing. I’ve had police drag me out of cars and pull guns on me for reasons that they should not have. I feel like a gun because I’m treated as a gun — I’m treated as a threat.”

For many of the Unruly Body writers, the idea of having control over one’s own body is central. For Carmen Maria Machado, whose essay will be published in the second week of Unruly Bodies on April 10, it’s about accepting that our efforts to control our bodies are usually futile.

“You know when people try to take in wild animals and they get bitten or attacked? What did you expect?” says Machado. “I think that’s a useful way to think about the body: People who really try to beat their bodies into submission, they’re the same as those people who try to keep a tiger as a pet: You’re gonna get bitten real bad, you’re gonna get fucked up real soon.”

Control for Randa Jarrar, the author of Him, Me, Muhammad Ali, is something altogether different. For Medium, Jarrar writes about her experience becoming pregnant while in an abusive relationship as a teenager—a relationship she kept secret from her Palestinian parents.

“It really took until now, now that I feel completely in possession of my body, for me to be able to write this,” Jarrar says. “It’s been really painful to look at and to write about. Who wants to spend their time remembering so many awful things? But I think that’s what writers do; writers take stock. We try to figure out what happened through language. We try to make sense of violence through the structure of an essay or a story or a book — we use history or we use historical details and these facts to try to make sense of human behavior, which is really difficult to figure out.”

She continues: “I’m a lot kinder to myself now, and I know my own strength. But I also know what bad things people are capable of. My experience has made me very hard, and unyielding, and overly protective of myself. I’ve had to learn how to negotiate ways to be vulnerable that are healthy for me rather than constantly being at high alert.”

When I first read the collection, I didn’t expect to be chewing on the essays days after the fact. I didn’t expect to go back over and over again to re-read that line I liked or to connect dots between two essays that just sit so well next to each other. But that’s the beauty of this project: The individual stories stand out on their own, but in aggregate, their power is amplified.

“Unruly bodies — and the art made by people who inhabit unruly bodies—can make the world better,” says Laymon. “They can make the world more vulnerable, make the world more able to accept its own unruliness.”

And when that happens, none of these bodies feel quite so unruly after all.

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