Author: Roxane Gay
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Harper (June 13, 2017)
Embarrassingly, it was a couple-three years ago when I first learned about Roxane Gay. My initial impression was, “I’d love to meet her. We’d definitely be friends!” I hadn’t read any of her work, but based on her pictures, the stoic presence, and eyes that looked as if they knew something I didn’t, I was enamored by the thought of hour long debates over endless cups of strongly brewed coffee. Then, in a magazine I have since forgotten, I read her thoughts and the world opened. She had written on subjects that made the main stream quiver: rape, weight, and feminism, politics, life, death, and love. I liked that. But I must admit, besides those few articles, a couple of short stories, and a half dozen YouTube interviews, I had never read her books, even as Bad Feminist became the must read among friends and critics. It didn’t take long before I knew I was missing something magical. I started from the end to prepare my beginning. I started with Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. I wasn’t ready!
Gay’s Hunger reads like a diary, journaling beyond the mechanical lyrics often found in innumerable memoirs which simply seek an audience or make a personal point to confess how deleterious one’s life had been. Yes, Hunger does this, too, but I was not absorbed into or by the sorrow, just the many paths along Gay’s trek. It exposes, a few pages within, the bottomless cavity of the heart and confessions of the soul. Gay lets the reader in; allows them to absorb the emotions (read “secrets”) that she had kept at bay for years. She forces her audience to rest the book on their lap, look at their reflection and say, “someone really understands.”
“Writing this book is a confession. These are the ugliest, weakest, barest parts of me. This is my truth. This is a memoir of (my) body because, more often than not, stories of bodies like mine are ignored or dismissed or derided,” she writes.
She opens to the world her personal Pandora’s box, releasing the demons she had grappled with since she became the teenaged victim of a heinous and irreversible violation, revealing that Hunger is a double entendre, revealing that the violation eventually becomes self-imposed. To find solace, security and, perhaps, meaning in that horrendous crimes perpetrated against her — she turned to food. This form of comfort or discomfort is real; a place where temporary pleasure eventually and inevitably becomes a far greater and more painful boulder lodged in one’s soul. The other thing Gay does is explain why– why food became her shield. She states:
“Losing control of my body was a matter of accretion. I begin eating to change my body. I was willful in this. Some boys had destroyed me, and I barely survived it. I knew I wouldn’t be able to endure another such violation, and so I ate because I thought that if my body became repulsive, I could keep men away.”
This reveals a sad reality enveloping and consuming Gay. To be dehumanized so deeply that she wanted to morph into something she felt would be viewed as vile and grotesque is the essence of that sad, honest reality. Gay has the reader realize how little society knows of (or willfully acknowledges) the tribulations and horrific endeavors that led (or lead) to people, deemed obese, feeling that hiding within themselves is their only form of solace; how that thick unattractive ‘cover’ is the only sure answer. For years she wandered as if searching for something, falling into empty arms, ulterior motives, and unkept promises. She lost herself in southwest towns and a literal northern wilderness where she eventually (it is casually implied) finds her stronger self. I soon understood, that sympathetic thoughts or words, or the benefit of a brief but comforting exchange, empathizing with what envelops these men and women whose bodies are morphed into unfair but equally awe-inspiring monuments was not forthcoming. But with each page, I was hoping, perhaps against hope, for a complete resolution. There was none. She hadn’t lost the battle, but resolution remains a work in progress. Gay writes:
I am as healed as I am ever going to be. I have accepted that I will never be the girl I could have been if, if, if. I am still haunted. I still have flashbacks that are triggered by the most unexpected things. I don’t like being touched by people with whom I do not share specific kinds of intimacy.
So, Roxane Gay, in a few thousand masterfully manipulated words takes us on this magnificent journey into and through a world that we may otherwise opt not to acknowledge. We eagerly and willingly ride shotgun with her as she locates (but does not confront) her violator, sitting outside his office like a maniacal stalker. We completely understand. Still, she puts it all on the table, unapologetically and unexpectedly. For this reason (and a dozen or so more) it is easy to get lost in Hunger; easy to change her crutch of food into the personal crutch that secretly holds you together; easy to become Roxane Gay. Hunger is a thinker’s memoir that, at some point, becomes extraordinarily relatable to every reader. Yes, a few years ago, when I first learned of Roxane Gay, I thought we’d be great friends. After reading Hunger I think she’s already family.