(Harper Collons, 2017)
I had a fiction professor once who said something about memoir writing that stuck with me. The gist of it was that memoirs are difficult because so few people have “earned” the right to tell us about their lives. I wasn’t at an age yet where I felt comfortable disagreeing with smart, talented people, so for a long time, I was wary of memoir. I viewed it as a last recourse for those who couldn’t write anything else. But now, I see his viewpoint as narrow, vapid, and snobbish. People shouldn’t have to earn the right to share their stories. Being alive is work enough.
At worst, you read a memoir and don’t identify with anything in it. At best, you gain empathy and insight into a fellow human being and their way of moving through the world. I’m starting to believe that a healthy diet of memoir reading can make us all better, more empathetic people. No book is this more true for than Roxane Gay’s Hunger.
You might agree with my professor, but there’s no doubt Gay has earned the right to be heard. She is a versatile and talented writer, penning a bestselling book of essays—the well-received and much talked about Bad Feminist—a novel, as well as short stories, erotica, and comics for Marvel. Her fans are legion, and when Roxane Gay writes, the world pays attention. My first introduction to her work was the personal essay “What We Hunger For,” a searing piece that begins as a hilarious analysis of the Hunger Games franchise and, midway, takes a startling turn to detail her gang rape as a young girl. The essay becomes a defense for strong female characters in young adult fiction, arguing that they can teach teenagers how to survive against unimaginable odds.
In Hunger, Gay expands on themes at the heart of that essay. Written in six parts and 88 chapters that read like vignettes, Hunger is not a conventional memoir. It feels like one at times—Gay relates her childhood as the daughter of Haitian immigrants based in Omaha, Nebraska, her high school years as a technical theater nerd, and her rise to prominence as a writer. But the book’s subtitle, “A Memoir of (My) Body,” conveys the real subject. After the horrifying crime that happened to her in a cabin in the woods when she was only twelve, Gay turned to food to cope. She started gaining weight because her body “needed to be a safe harbor rather than a small, weak vessel that betrayed me.”
In between sections describing an “after,” a childhood, adolescence and adulthood enveloped in fear, Gay shares her observations of being a woman of size in a world that is not built for, or has any tolerance of, large bodies. “When you’re overweight, your body becomes a matter of public record in many respects […] You may do whatever you have to do to survive a world that has little patience or compassion for a body like yours,” she writes. Regardless of what you do, people “forget that you are a person. You are your body, nothing more, and your body should damn well become less.”
In short, sharp sentences, Gay tells of encounters on airplanes, at public events, and with friends and family that are deeply shameful and hurtful. These trials, as she documents them, are numerous and unflagging. One particularly impactful chapter is dedicated entirely to her fear of chairs. “Anytime I enter a room where I might be expected to sit, I am overcome by anxiety. What kinds of chairs will I find? Will they have arms? Will they be sturdy? How long will I have to sit in them?” While the writing is some of the most emotionally honest and raw I have ever encountered, with some things, Gay remains fiercely guarded. She speaks only in vague terms about most of her relationships, present and past. Her family makes brief appearances in the book, but not enough to truly get to know who they are. But this makes sense, as the story isn’t really about them. At times, certain phrases recur over and over again, giving the prose a repetitious feeling to maximize its effect: “I did not deserve to be desired. I did not deserve to be loved.”
While Gay prefers the term “victim” over “survivor,” in many ways, this is a book not just about survival, but hope. In the final chapters, we see Gay finally starting to become more comfortable in her body, more willing to embrace a life she has felt, for so long, that she didn’t deserve. In the end, her book gave me not only empathy, but the courage to interrogate my own prejudices and the ways I have been conditioned by society to view weight loss and body types. It’s the best kind of memoir, and will surely linger for a long time after.