A reading of Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body

The spaces our body occupies.


Some months ago when I was on a plane, I saw a big, round fat guy walking down the aisle, and I thought, “Oh no, I’m going to be squished if he sits here,“ and then “Oh no, not here.” His seat ended up being right next to mine. He gave me a small smile and adjusted himself, covering the whole seat and a little more. I noticed he had an extra seat belt that he attached to the regular one. He lifted the armrest. I still had space and I could always use the left armrest. “I hope you don’t mind if I put this up,” he said. “No, I don’t mind,” I said. “The last guy got mad at me for lifting it up.” “It’s no problem,” I assured him. He turned on the AC, because I imagine he was hot. I turned mine on too. His forehead was sweating. We talked for a bit about where we were going and how frustrating it was getting on a busy plane. I always felt like you weren’t safe until you sat down. I could tell there was a feeling of awkwardness, as if the guy didn’t know how I would react because he had been treated unfairly in the past, and I also noticed his bigness was a contradiction to my small frame and the plane in general. I don’t remember if I fell asleep or started reading, but I remember he was a nice guy and seemed happy that he did not have to fight for extra space. I felt guilty about my first thoughts, being greedy about the space I occupied, when in reality I had plenty of space leftover. He helped us remove our bags from the top compartment, and we thanked him. “I’m in the last seat, I might as well,” he said. I thought about how hard it must be for a big person to get on a plane when you have to squeeze into an already crowded space with no leg room.

After reading Hunger, by Roxane Gay I started thinking about how people perceive us in the spaces our body occupies, and how we are openly judged based on the shape of our body. In my case, it often relates to my height, which makes me seem younger than I really am; it gives people a chance to question my authority or role. Much can be said from how we physically present ourselves, but at the end of the day it’s an incomplete picture of who we are. Our likeness is not revealed solely through our body shape, height or size, but also through our personality, and other characteristics that make us unique. But society has always put a larger value on appearance. Our bodies reveal a history about us, and that history is different for everyone, and we should be able to express that truth and find a body shape that makes the most sense for us.

We are the product of a narrow-minded society that sees the ideal body shape as skinny or slender. We have been conditioned to hate our bodies if they do not somehow resemble the ones on commercials or magazines. We often do more harm to ourselves than necessary, as a result of comparing ourselves to unrealistic body types.

​Gay writes that she gained weight as a way to create a fortress, so no one could trespass her, which at the same time made her ashamed because she could not forget her past. Whenever she occupied a space, she was seen for how much fat she carried and not for her abilities or who she was beyond the exterior. She viewed her body through the lens of what she had been taught: that fat bodies were not beautiful or sexy; they needed to be tamed and subject to forced exercise. In a lot of ways her bigness restricted her from doing the normal things skinnier, more slender individuals take for granted. For example, when you’re fat the idea of femininity is often dictated by what one considers safe, so as not to let your guard down and give people a chance to ridicule you if you wear something risqué for example. In Gay’s case she chose to hide her body under masculine shirts or dark clothing. For her, being girly or sexy did not correlate with being fat.

I sobbed because the world cannot accommodate a body like mine and because I hate being confronted by my limitations and because I felt utterly alone and because I no longer need the layers of protection I built around myself but pulling those layers is harder than i could have ever imagined. -Roxane Gay

​Gay’s experience is illuminating, as to what a big person goes through. She puts her heart out there, in an honest way, explaining why she gained weight, and the reasons why it is difficult to loose it, which is not just a matter of working out and eating right. For years, people have constantly reminded her why it’s important to diet or the ways she can lose weight, repeating to her that she must change, which does more harm than good. The cycle of eating, losing and gaining weight can have its own harmful effects, especially if you believe you owe something to the people around you, and if you don’t lose that weight you will inevitably let them down. Most people forget about the emotional aspect of being told over and over that you have to lose weight so others can love you. With that kind of pressure, failure seems inevitable.

I start to crave foods, any foods. I get uncontrollable urges to binge, satisfy the growing ache, to fill the hallowness of feeling alone around the people who are supposed to love me the most, to soothe the pain of having the same painful conversations year after year after year after year. -Roxane Gay

At the end of the day, you can only answer to yourself. The best way to love yourself is doing what your bodies needs, and it’s likely that path is not the one other people envisioned for you, but as Gay acknowledged, she was worthy of love and being taken care of long before she realized it.

Cooking reminds me that I am capable of taking care of myself and worthy of taking care of and nourishing myself. -Roxane Gay

Learning about Gay’s experience was eye opening to the experience of big people and the humiliations they face. Often we cannot empathize, since we’re on the other side of the spectrum, and we think that fat people owe something to society because they’re taking up space and immediately want them to feel guilty for not following what we deem as normal behavior. Despite not knowing their story, it’s common for people to throw an unfair judgment, based on how we have been conditioned to think about our own bodies.

People who are considered of normal weight are invisible within a crowd. No one will think you are unhealthy. When you are skinny, eating fast food comes with little guilt since you know it won’t be difficult to lose whatever fat it added to your body. You do feel guilty once it starts showing on your stomach thighs or other places, and then you can’t but help but feel sorry for yourself that you had pizza again, and someone will invariably tell you that’s unhealthy. We know. Sometimes forcing a strict diet doesn’t work either, because items that are labeled off-limits are the ones you will secretly end up eating. It’s natural to want to indulge yourself once in a while, depending what foods and to what degree, and it helps working out every so often out of habit, but not solely as a tool of recourse to combat whatever fatty foods you ate.

Exercise should not only be seen as a way to lose weight, but also as a way your body energizes itself and becomes stronger. In order to survive you need food and movement, and that movement can be a variety of things; it doesn’t solely mean going to the gym and working our for hours. (I secretly dislike the gym since it makes me feel like a hamster.) The idea of exercise has been hijacked by those obsessed with perfect bodies and gadgets, which presents a limiting picture for the rest us who are trying to lose weight or gain muscle in a healthy way. Exercise should be about one’s livelihood, health and spirituality. It should not be tied to a narcissistic attempt at perfect body or the “right body type.”

Observing the life of a Peacock


​I found a peacock last year, as I walked around Hacienda Collpa near Cajamarca, Peru. He was wandering around the garden outside a small chapel, which seemed mostly for decoration. The tour guide, who walked us around the Hacienda or ranch the entire afternoon, eventually let us roam free after leading us to a chapel. There were two rows of manicured lawns with cactus, small statues and plants bordering the edges as if to restrict them from anyone ruining the garden.

We were surrounded by mountains, forested areas, and an artificial lake decorated by small bridges and tiny houses.

At the ranch they mostly raised cows for the production of milk, cheese, condescend milk and other derivatives. They are also famous for its named cows that are able to answer to their names. (There was a demonstration where the ranchers were calling the cows by name, one by one, as they walked to their stables, but I was sad to see that if they did not respond they were whipped.) There was one named Esperanza who was my sister’s favorite. It looked the saddest out of the bunch. “She is much older and has seen a lot,” my sister said. I was angered that one of the ranchers was wearing a “Red Skin” jacket. He himself was indigenous, which I found paradoxical. It’s possible that no one told him that Red Skin is considered a racial slur often used to show contempt for Native Americans.

People always get excited about old churches and chapels, but that day I decided not to peek inside. There was a clock a top the door, which seemed painted on, but upon close inspection, I realized it was a real clock with numbers, though it appeared not to be telling the time, since the hands weren’t moving. Below there was an inscription: “ORA ET LABORA,” which is Latin for “pray and work.” The tour guide had mentioned that many of the workers were Christians. By now, I could hear comments from people exiting the chapel about what they had seen inside.

On the side of the chapel there was a shaggy, neglected area near a dry fountain where a peacock pranced around without much direction until I saw it. He seemed to be ignoring the commotion around until he realized he was being watched. He became anxious and walked a little quicker. It didn’t help that some lady said, “It’s a pavo real,” meaning peacock.

I was waiting for the peacock’s tail to spring up, but it never did. I figured with no peahens or females around he wouldn’t want to. The tail wasn’t lengthy enough to drag on the floor, so I assumed it was hidden under the outer wings. It’s normal for younger peacocks not to have fully developed ornamental tails. It’s elongated neck was a vibrant blue, fading into a sea green, whereas the females have neutral, subtle colors, and don’t have the ornamental feathers that spreads out like a fan.

Peacocks don’t have to be killed for their feathers. They shed them regularly and they can be used to make earrings.

Indian Peafowl, which this peacock closely resembled, are native to South Asia, but over the centuries humans have introduced these birds to different parts of the world, including South American where it seems they can easily adjust to the conditions of the Peruvian countryside. While peafowl exist in the wild, it’s an old custom to keep peacocks in gardens as ornaments, as it was usually done in castles and large estates.

I always wonder how peacocks manage to survive. Carrying a giant tail makes them an easy target for larger predators, but I also think it’s unlikely anyone is tempted to eat a bird mostly made up of 60% feathers. Peahens on the other hand can easily become pray. But it helps that they hang out in groups more frequently than the males who are loners; there’s usually one male with a harem of peahens.

Surprisingly, peahens and peacocks can fly to the safety of low branches. They may not be able to fly far, but at least they can escape. They also mostly eat ground animals and some crops. In older societies peacocks sometimes served the functional purpose of keeping gardens free of snakes.

Peacocks evolved in such a way that males use their ornate trains in courtship display, raising the feathers into a fan and making them quiver to catch a female’s attention. A well maintained tail is an indicator of a suitable body condition, which points to mating success. Scientists argue that this trait can be accurately explained through natural selection and not simply sexual selection, since females don’t just select males based on their plumage. The selection may also be influenced by other factors. The peacock’s feisty behavior, loud call and its ornamental train have been formed by natural selection. Its plumage serves as a warning coloration to intimidate predators and rivals. This characteristic is often seen in frogs and snakes.

There is a magic quality to peacocks with their vibrant plumage and ornamental fan display, like rare gems with emerald greens, dark blues and shimmery browns. It’s no surprise peacocks are symbolic to many cultures. As the national bird of India, it has been depicted in art, poetry, mythology, and folk music. It’s also a symbol of royalty, often found in throne engravings. The Buddha Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light has peacocks adorning his throne. Peacocks have also been used in early Christian paintings and mosaics. In Buddhism the peacock represents wisdom, and the feathers are used in many rituals and ornamentations. When I was little, I remember hearing that peacocks drank poison so others wouldn’t have to get sick, and as a result had such magical and vibrant plumage.

A reading of Burma Chronicles


 

Burma Chronicles reads off like a journal with various entries to encapsulate singular episodes that developed during Guy Delisle’s visit to this small nation in Southeast Asia. In one of his previous non-fiction graphic novels, he wrote about his travels to the sheltered North Korea. In comparison, Burma had a not so gloomy quality where he goes around pushing his baby in a stroller down the street and interacting with Burmese neighbors, learning about their customs, and finding a group of young animators eager to learn from him. Delisle reveals his curiosity and humor when dealing with elements that are outside his comfort zone or when things stray from the normalcy of western democracies. He travels with a sense of curiosity and inquiry that lead him to peculiar, but enlightening places.

In Pyongyang –A Journey in North Korea, we see that a severely strict society makes it hard for the common people to interact with tourists unless they have official roles, and for the tourists there is always a sense of being under surveillance, especially since the government orchestrates travel itineraries, so workers fear saying anything that might get them in trouble. Still, Delisle always seems to find subtle ways of resisting. Albeit, when Burma Chronicles was published, the country was under strict military rule that clamped down on the press and locked the opposition. (It’s not so different today, even though Aung San Suu Kyi is a government official. She’s a winner of the novel peace prize and a former political prison) The Burmese are aware of the political fights between the generals in government, and they’re not afraid to express their feelings about military rule, of course with the right people, since they still cannot freely march on the streets. Despite poverty in many areas, the common people have a variety of jobs and roles. There are street vendors, plenty of markets, music emanating in different corners, black market goods like American movies, celebrations, funeral parades, and the strong presence of Buddhism and international NGOs.

Powerful panels in Pyongyang –A Journey in North Korea, by Guy Delisle.

Delisle’s wife is on Doctor’s Without Borders mission (MSF) and mostly spends time in a secluded village, so Delisle stays home to take care of their son with the help of a Burmese nanny. When Delisle takes the baby out for a stroll, the ladies of the neighborhood are enthralled with some wanting to carry him, leaving Delisle on the side, as people call out the baby’s name from far away. In another section, after walking around the neighborhood and seeing all the barbed wires and security guards, Guy begins asking himself: why military officers and other rich Burmese need so much protection in a country almost devoid of thieves? The generals are fearful of opposition and squash any rebellion even from other military generals. They fear a coup. Upon speaking to Maung Aye, the friendly guard of the house, he learns that Burmese have started to lose hope; when a dictator dies and everyone thinks the country will change, it simply falls in the hands of another ruthless general.

There are quiet and sometimes melancholy moments like when Delisle meets an old woman who tells him about the 1988 government shut down of the universities. She tells Guy how horrible the country has become. “In my state I got no one to fear, I can speak my mind,” she says. When he visits a Buddhist monastery, he is left alone with his thoughts as he follows the routine of the day of getting up at 3am, taking notice of his steps as he lines up before the last meal of the day at 11 am, and goes to meditate and quiet his thoughts once again. After three days, he feels like he has been there for a month. In the appropriately titled, “The rainy season began suddenly,” there’s a quiet scene of him drawing as he notices rain coming down outside his window. “It looks…like it’s… going to…” The last panel has a drawing of a downpour.

In the “First field visit,” he travels to a secluded zone that lacks medical care with his girlfriend on behalf of MSF. After traveling for hours from the city on different buses, they finally arrive in Mudon, a small village. While his girlfriend is on duty, he goes on bike to explore and finds small cottages with gardens. He notices the system the Burmese have for rain proofing their roofs by attaching dry leaves to the wooden frames. Some of my favorite panels include observations and dialogue that give you a sense of substance and meaning as he makes these small discoveries. In another one, Delisle and his friend get stranded in the rain, and a Burmese family offers them shelter. “We’re served tea and, after some polite chitchat, silence settles in. We all listen to the rain fall.” In another scene, his students take him to an old animator’s house, one who inspired them to draw when they were younger, and he realizes how far away he is, but so close to people who share his passion for drawing.

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Today, Burma is now referred to as Myanmar; the name was previously changed by a military-led government, which was not recognized by international countries. Recently, Burma has been seeing an uptake in democratic reforms since 2008, and switched to a more liberal democracy after Aung San Suu Kyi was released. Though her party won the majority of seats in parliament in 2015, people have expressed disappointment with the lack of transformative reforms. The government, despite having a democratically elected president, still has strong ties to the military, and has not changed its old ways. Reporting laws have relaxed, but it still remains restrictive. The new laws are an attempt for Journalists to follow a set of guidelines and practice “self-censorship.” In 2014, five journalists were given a 10-year sentence after reporting on a new chemical weapons plant. Political prisoners have not been freed and human rights abuses continue, for example, against ethic minorities like the Rohingya Muslim people, who the Burmese government refuses to recognize as citizens even though they have lived there for generations.

I should be staying way from graphic novels about dictatorships in Asia, but I can’t help spot the familiar tactics (the lies!) that are present in this white house administration. Albeit, right now it seems foolish to compare the two, seeing as how we are still a democracy; we vote for our elected officials and there are checks and balances, but even within these bounds there is plenty of “democratic sliding,” meaning there are elected official who are undermining democratic institutions either in speech or action. Some of it might go unnoticed such as small legal changes, while other ones are blatantly deteriorating longstanding democratic values of the free press and rule of law. As of late we have been seeing a rampant criminalizing of immigrants. The scapegoating of one particular group allows the government to conduct unjust raids and on minors and families living in this country. Most recent the white house administration has demanded the voting records of the 50 states as a ploy to fix “voter fraud.” This information is private and should not be shared with the white house. Many experts fear this is being done to purge records or to intimidate and suppress voters. While we wait for the big one, these seemingly benign, yet not so benign actions, will add up.

Dictatorships have always sought to control the message in order to suppress negative stories from the press, which undoubtedly spreads if government policies hurt the public. It’s not that these corrupt governments have a communication problem of relaying what their goals and successes are, but they have political and policy issues, which the media must portray accurately.

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Burma Chronicles, by Guy Delisle.

Cajun Festival under the Oaks


We watched a bit of the music on stage then seeing as how they were not into Zydeco we walked to the trees for shade. I thought the band that wasn’t as good as the ones I heard before, and then suddenly someone’s kid brother went on stage. While he played the accordion alright, his voice was monotonous and it made me feel clumsy and drunk, so I imagine it had the same effect on the Zydeco dancers in the center. We walked around Congo Square where people were selling carved instruments and carved turtle shells and horn skeletons of desert animals. I was thinking about dessert but I wasn’t sure if I really wanted one. There were two guys on horses. A friend asked if they were mules, but the guys said they were not. They looked bigger and more astute than the ones pulling the street carriages along Jackson Square.

Another friend asked if they brought them for other events.

“Yea we take them out to parades and second lines.”

“Is it ok to pet them?”

I looked at their giant black eyes and petted them just in the middle of their head. As my friend petted the horse’s head, she said, “ You can tell they are sad, just from looking at their eyes.”

“They are meant to run free and not be confined.”

They were strapped, waiting, each one carrying a human weighing above 150 pounds. How long had they been there? I thought they might let people ride them, but it was more likely just for a photo-opt, and then I tried to remember the last time I rode a horse. It might have been a few years ago in Brooklyn.

We sat by the staircase in front of the Mahalia Jackson Theater for Performing Arts, which was overlooking the pond. Ms. Jackson, a New Orleans native was often referred to as “The Queen of Gospel.” We decided to go back to Congo Square to get Italian Ices. It was back by the horses. I bought mango instead of passion fruit as I had initially planned, since the lady vendor said it was sour. We sat on a bench directly in front of a competing ice cream vendor. I felt bad since I had stopped there before, but decided not buy.

“Those are too creamy and heavy,” I said.

We heard thunder, and looked over at the boy who was an expert on these matters, to see what he would predict. It was drizzling now and the thunder sounded not too far off. I tried to peek past the Oak tree branches to see lightning. There were a few droplets falling. “It’s probably not going to amount to much more than that,” he said. I wanted to take a photo, but I felt silly as I often do when taking photos alongside anyone.

Surveying in the summer


Excerpt

When did I start surveying? It feels so long ago. The summer has dragged on for too long, and there’s no winter coming. I’m not sure if I ever wrote about my surveying experience with Fund 17. I might have mentioned it in passing or if something drastic happened while I was out there. But for the most part, I’ve been going out into the street, knocking on people’s door since May. At first I walked closer to St. Bernard, passing streets like Roman, Annette, New Orleans, Aubry―side streets that I usually never biked or walked through except for Roman. I felt out of place most of the time. A girl wearing a teal shirt with Fund 17 written on the front and a clipboard. At first I didn’t have a shirt, since we were just getting started, but they gave me a name tag. Walking alongside broken sidewalks and underneath palmetto trees, I saw abandoned homes, loose houses about to fall, houses that had let themselves go to nature with weeds growing in and out. But there were also blocks with colorful houses that people lived in or homes that were being fixed, and sometimes a person would be sitting on the porch waving at me. In most cases when I knocked no one answered, and that was because no one was home, they were sleeping (if it was early afternoon), or the house had been abandoned. One time on Roman I stopped by a house and knocked a couple of times. I noticed one of the windows were broken. A car stopped by and the girl inside told me the people had left for several months. In some instances neighbors would say, “No one has lived there for a while.” Whenever someone asked me what I was doing, I told them I was doing surveys for a non-profit that gives one-on-one assistance to small businesses owners. Some people were interested and asked for more information, so I talked to them and gave them a flyer. They didn’t have a business, but they were interested in starting one or knew someone that would. People were usually friendly and said hello. Here and there I got stares as if saying, “ You sure you want to be walking around here.” On those quiet streets behind St. Bernard, I often shrank thinking something could happen to me. Sometimes there was no one around, not a single person on their porch, not a sound except for crows. I was happy when someone answered the door even if they did not want to answer the questionnaire, they were there, others had a story about starting a business that never took off, or they did have one but they never called it that. “Oh you mean that.” It was just something they did on the side like fixing cars, construction or selling food at festivals. I was happy to see families or hear music on the street, because then I knew I was not alone.

Update: The earth needs to cool itself


How does rain form after a couple of hours of being incredibly hot? I went outside to buy cereal and I was met with an oven at the lovely hour of 9 in the morning, quickly as the air was denser and lustier, and it crept up to my head. Hours later the sky couldn’t take it anymore and slowly it began drizzling until it rained inconsolably, as if it had exceeded its capacity. As a friend once told me the earth needs to cool itself.

Characters


Lady in pink

A lady wearing white sandals with white socks enters the Japanese bookstore; she hopped out of a cartoon—a missing person’s ad, wearing a pink, pink suit and blond short hair, through the door she walked, talking to someone, debating with herself “if so, if not, if not, why?” “But why?”

Bulbous eyes

​Her bulging eyes throw tears. Big tears. She doesn’t want her mother’s arms. She just wants to walk alone on a moving train. And to strangers who want to help, she says “No!” I won’t be put down. I’ll yell if anyone else tries to help. Now she’s calm with her big quiet eyes, eating her chocolate as if nothing ever happened. She’s watching the time go by like a good girl. No one would ever know how she was just five minutes ago.

Old suits

A group of old guys playing cards. What are they playing? Encircled around a table, and in the middle is a deck of cards. Each player takes a card. Their words sound Italian. Two are wearing suits, gray and brown. The others have slacks and white button ups shirts that have been loosened at the top. It’s summer. The fancy one wears a blue, silvery suit with a handkerchief in his pocket. Another friend approaches, and they greet him informally– maybe it’s slavic.  Their voices are sometimes murmurs; old men of the sea, who speak about how much fish they would catch, and they have a slight crag in their throats.  The last friend, sits on the outskirts of the circle, watching the game intently.

Natural Wonder

My view is straight but hopeful

that no other had ventured this far,

gone down the narrow trails

and found wide escapes

 

The blue glides down a deep fall,

watching it clash into soft mossy rock—

a force of echoed

waters,

in a violent rapture

of thunder and wind

 

dispersed white mist

creates houses of colors,

disappearing air

that the sun molds

 

The distant eyes of a girl,

canoeing onward

upon frothy waves

 

If she made the passage,

the gulls would greet her ears,

heavy murmurs

of life she’d gone through