Book review: Hunger, by Roxane Gay
The story of my body is not a story of triumph. This is not a weight-loss memoir. There will be no picture of a thin version of me, my slender body emblazoned across this book’s cover, with me standing in one leg of my former, fatter self’s jeans. This is not a book that will offer motivation. I don’t have any powerful insight into what it takes to overcome an unruly body and unruly appetites. Mine is not a success story. Mine is, simply, a true story.
I started reading a few pages of Hunger just to get a taste, as it were, intending to finish up other reading and come back to it. Instead, I inhaled the whole thing in less than a day, and when I was finished, I was so emotionally spent I was on the verge of tears. That shouldn’t discourage you from reading it, rather, let it be a reminder how important this subject matter and what a gifted writer is addressing it.
Writer and professor Roxane Gay has achieved considerable renown in recent years, notably (among other works) for her essay collection Bad Feminist. That’s a poor summary, because she’s a prolific and beautifully sensitive writer on an array of cultural, feminist, and political topics. If you don’t know her, you should. I haven’t read Bad Feminist, and reading Hunger made me feel extremely guilty about that because I think I, and everyone, should be paying attention to what she writes.
At age 12, Roxane was gang raped by boys she attended school with, including one she’d been experimenting with and had strong feelings for, against her better judgment. The event traumatized her considerably, obviously, and she began to eat as a way of insulating herself against a dangerous, threatening outside world.
“For so long I’ve never talked about this. I suppose we should keep our shames to ourselves, but I’m sick of this shame. Silence hasn’t worked out that well.”
Her parents were frustrated; they encouraged dieting. She was unable to tell them the root of the trouble. She’d turned to food not to satisfy the physical hunger it’s meant to assuage, but a hunger that’s not able to be sated no matter what it’s fed. “I know what it means to hunger without being hungry. My father believes hunger is in the mind. I know differently. I know that hunger is in the mind and the body and the heart and the soul.”
This book is a collection of connected essays, some previously published in other forms online, detailing her childhood in a loving Haitian-American family, the trauma that she couldn’t bring herself to confess to her parents, and the resulting struggles that she’s coped with the rest of her life. She touches on issues of sexuality, race, feminism and education, among others, and she struck so many important points so hard that I almost couldn’t get my head around them fast enough. Her writing is simply incredible – so subtly powerful that you hardly realize what hits you. Reading her feels like a gift.
Her handling of eating disorder issues in one form or another, what they stem from and how they intertwine with the rest of one’s life are indescribably powerful. These aren’t written with a self-pitying tone; rather with one of confrontational honesty.
She writes what it’s like to be fat (To be seen while I am eating feels like being on trial), “morbidly obese”, as doctors coldly classify it (As a fat woman, I often see my existence reduced to statistics, as if with cold, hard numbers, our culture might make sense of what hunger can become), and how that affects her place in the world, whether through her own perception or that of others. And unfortunately, the perception of others can have a powerful effect.
“Shame is a difficult thing. People certainly try to shame me for being fat. When I am walking down the street, men lean out of their car windows and shout vulgar things at me about my body, how they see it, and how it upsets them that I am not catering to their gaze and their preferences and desires. I try not to take these men seriously because what they are really saying is, ‘I am not attracted to you. I do not want to fuck you, and this confuses my understanding of my masculinity, entitlement, and place in this world.'”
Lest it sound like the subject matter will bog you down til you can’t get back up, rest assured. Gay’s smart, worldly sense of humor underlies everything, and it’s clear that humor has been a savior in her own life too.
She walks through incidents and decisions from her personal life, examining them with admirable sensitivity and wisdom. Her own understanding, personal as it is, nevertheless feels so universally applicable. If you’re a woman, it makes sense. If you’ve battled self doubt, it makes sense. If you’ve suffered poor, maybe debilitatingly poor, body image and its mental connection, it makes sense.
During my twenties, my personal life was an unending disaster. I did not meet many people who treated me with any kind of kindness or respect. I was a lightning rod for indifference, disdain, and outright aggression, and I tolerated all of this because I knew I didn’t deserve any better, not after how I had been ruined and not after how I continued to ruin my body.
I love how she writes and how she analyzes. I could read her all day.
An absolutely exquisite, important story of a woman and her body and how and why her experiences touch and matter to every single one of us. “I am weary of all our sad stories – not hearing them, but that we have these stories to tell, that there are so many.”
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body
by Roxane Gay
published June 13, 2017 by Harper Perennial
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.