ROXANE GAY Hunger. Reviewed by Michael Jongen
The gruelling honesty and intense focus of Hunger invite self-reflection in the reader.
Roxane Gay has a gift for observation and the ability to articulate her thoughts into beautiful writing, no matter how ghastly the revelation. That she can find humour or hope in the most diabolical predicament is what elevates this raw and at times painful memoir. Hunger can be a hard read. Although the deft, sparse writing is compelling, it is necessary to stop, digest, and process throughout the book.
As Gay tells the story of her body and her relationship with it, the book can feel like a dialogue between author and reader. She breaks down her history and reveals much in her effort to seek the truth and convey the lessons she has learned. She lets us into her worst thoughts and her less appealing traits.
Yet Hunger is also a joyous read and provides insight into an intellectual mind, as well as the story of her supportive family and her efforts to find love.
The memoir is divided into seven sections, and we begin with Gay asserting that her life has a before and an after. Those who know Roxane Gay will realise that she is referring to her rape at the age of 12:
What you need to know is that my life is split in two, cleaved not so neatly. There is the before and the after. Before I gained weight. After I gained weight. Before I was raped. After I was raped.
She asks if we need to know her weight in order to know her story. She tells of attending a weight-loss session with her father while she was in her 20s, and observing that the other overweight woman in the session was there because it suited her husband. She reflects how people saw her body before they even considered who she was, and outlines the humiliation of BMI and the measurement for morbidly obese people. She explains why she is writing her story:
I am tracing the story of my body from when I was a carefree young girl who could trust her body, and who felt safe in her body, to the moment when that safety was destroyed, to the aftermath that continues even as I try to undo so much of what was done to me.
Gay expands on that in the second section of Hunger, including describing her rape and its impact on her behaviour and attitude. This is hard to read as she talks of her efforts to hide who she had become and what had happened from her parents.
She describes turning to food as she became more withdrawn from her family. Aged 13, Gay went to boarding school, where she revelled in the freedom to eat away from scrutiny, believing that by making herself bigger she could make herself safe: ‘Food offered comfort when I needed to be comforted and did not know how to ask for what I needed from those who loved me.’
Her writing about her school years is fascinating. We are treated to her lack of sporting ability, her feelings towards physical exercise and the confession that books, reading and daydreaming are what she loves best. Gay plays out being a good student and a good daughter, while becoming increasingly self-loathing. She is unable to escape memories of ‘boy bodies crushing my girl body, hurting my girl body’ and becomes convinced that she deserved everything that happened to her. She talks about becoming detached from her body, eating too much and only really paying attention to losing weight when her parents nag her enough.
The teenage Roxane chooses to go to Yale and study theatre. Backstage responsibilities and being useful are a balm. She marks the summer when she turns 19 as being the beginning of her lost years. A gift of a computer from her parents introduces her to the Internet. Going online, she ‘… didn’t have to be the fat, friendless loser who couldn’t sleep …’
She describes her personal life during her 20s as an unending disaster. In short, sharp sentences she outlines the humiliations of being overweight. Her body is on display and she endures comments from strangers who project their own anxieties onto her.
She writes about hating her body: how she feels weak not being able to control herself and how people perceive her. She talks about denial and equating her self-worth with the state of her body. She says that she does not want to change who she is but she wants to change how she looks. On a rough day when she forgets to separate herself from her body, she forgets how to inure herself from the world’s judgement.
Gay argues that she lives in a world that tolerates the open hatred of fat people. She supports the fat acceptance movement but has not yet found a sense of peace as to who she is. She looks forward to the time when she can shed her protective mass: ‘I want to move freely, I want to be free.’
I enjoyed reading about her tattoos and the power they gave her over her skin. I take joy that anorexia was not for her and that she became a vegetarian so that her eating was less harmful. That she learns to cook to better care for herself. That she has a supportive family and has found and lost love.
For me this book exemplifies Ranganathan’s Laws of Library Science – that books are for use, every reader his or her book and every book its reader. Hunger’s gruelling honesty and intense focus on the story of one individual and her decisions invite self-reflection. Is this memoir a self-help primer or a work of existential philosophy? ‘I often wonder who I would have been if this terrible thing had not happened to me,’ she says.
Gay posits that it will not be enough for her simply to lose weight; intellectually she realises she has carried many years’ worth of baggage that would remain even if she woke up thin. Nevertheless, she can imagine a thin Roxane whose life may not be perfect, but who is at ease.
But would a thin and at-peace Roxane Gay still be the formidable intellectual and academic whose insight and essays contribute so much to our understanding of modern life?
Roxane Gay Hunger Corsair 2017 288pp $32.96
Michael Jongen is a librarian who tweets as @michael_jongen and microblogs at http://larrythelibrarian.tumblr.com
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