Hunger by Roxane Gay

You know when you first begin a book and you can’t put it down, and then other stuff gets in the way and you set the book aside for a few days, and then you pick it up again and wonder, ‘Was this the same book I was engrossed in a few days ago?’ That. With Hunger by Roxane Gay.

The subtitle of the book is ‘A Memoir of (My) Body’. Gay tracks her physical and emotional state from childhood to the present. An important element of Gay’s story is her gang rape at age 12, something she kept secret for decades. From the time of the rape onwards, Gay used food as ‘safety’, saying that she “…ate and ate and ate to build my body into a fortress.”

I don’t know how things got so out of control, or I do. This is my refrain. Losing control of my body was a matter of accretion. I began eating to change my body. I was wilful 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.

However, she recognises the bind that she has put herself in, stating –

My body is a cage. My body is a cage of my own making. I am still trying to figure my way out of it. I have been trying to figure a way out of it for more than twenty years.

The book is an attempt at the ‘figuring out’. It’s broken into 88 chapters, some just a paragraph long. The first half is devoted to her childhood and early adulthood, and is organised in chronological sequence. The second half of the book uses Gay’s life experiences as a reference point for reflections on weight, the diet industry, body image, fat-shaming, and the practical challenges of being fat in a world that is not designed for obese people. She observes that regardless of what she accomplishes, she will be ‘…fat, first and foremost.’ Although Gay speaks to her experience, the broader message is that obesity is an extraordinarily complex problem with no single cause and no single solution (despite what the lucrative diet industry would have people believe).

Why did I lose momentum during this book? Parts of the second half were repetitive, particularly around her ongoing frustration, that she was ‘…extraordinarily visible but invisible.’ However, I tend to find a message in every memoir I read that stays with me. In the case of Hunger, it was about the deep and lasting repercussions of sexual violence.

‘…I wish I could bury that story, somewhere deep where I might be free of it. But. It has been thirty years and, inexplicably, I am still not free of it.

Trauma leaves a scar. People who have suffered a trauma need comfort. Sometimes that comfort is found in drugs or alcohol. Gay found hers in food. It is simple for people to look at an obese person and say ‘They have no willpower. They’re lazy.’ Instead, imagine if the starting point was ‘What has been hurt?’ or ‘What is frightening you?’

When you’re overweight, your body becomes a matter of public record in many respects. Your body is constantly and prominently on display. People project assumed narratives onto your body and are not interested in the truth of your body, whatever that truth might be.

Did writing this memoir sate Gay’s ‘hunger’? Did it soothe the scars? Was there comfort in the words?

I don’t want to change who I am. I want to change how I look. On my better days, when I feel up to the fight,  want to change how this world responds to how I look because intellectually I know my body is not the real problem.

3.5/5 For me, a book in two parts, one more compelling than the other.

Gay speaks of the food her family makes, particularly Haitian macaroni and cheese, which she always takes to potluck dinners –

There is one Haitian dish I have mastered – our macaroni and cheese, which is filling but not as heavy as the American version…. Instead of being a statement on my family’s culture, this dish, and most other Haitian foods, are tied up in my love for my family and a quiet, unshakable anger.

As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (August 10): Belfast 13°- 21° and Melbourne 7°-14°.

15 responses

  1. I remember finding this very powerful but also very repetitive, as you’ve mentioned. I think the loose essay structure was the problem: she could have tightened it all up a lot with an editor’s help. This is still the only thing I’ve read by her; I keep meaning to try her fiction.

  2. It’s astonishing to me that she thinks its inexplicable that she’s not free of the trauma. How on earth do you free yourself of something like that? I have Bad Feminist in the TBR, I really must get to it.

    • I did wonder if the 12yo part of her thought ‘when is this pain going away?’ / ‘how can I make this go away?’ and that it has continued from there, and that now, despite rational thinking and lots of therapy, there’s still this persistent 12yo voice. Does that make sense?

    • You would think that however her family moved quite often because of her father’s work, and they happened to move right after the rape. I think her parents then put her behaviour change down to ‘not settling in’ and teenage changes. Gay let them believe that and then soon after asked to go to a boarding school where she began putting on weight.

    • Also, she knew the boys – one she considered her ‘best friend’, so part of not telling was tied up in her doubts about her ‘friend’s’ behaviour. This seems extraordinary to adults but kids have a very strong self-preservation instinct that often overrides logic. Furthermore, like any sexual violence, (misdirected) shame is a strong motivator.

  3. I’m having a similar experience with Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women. Memoirs can often have that effect though, IMO. You start off feeling a tremendous about of empathy & interest & curiosity, and unless the author keeps it moving along, it can get bogged down in going over the same territory or struggling to find the point of it all. But I guess that’s life 🤷🏼‍♀️

  4. I think the one thing we have learned about sexual violence is that the victims keep it in. For years and years. For fear of being misunderstood. For not being able to understand it themselves. And this is especially true where the violence involves betrayal, as Gay’s did.

    • I understand the average time before a victim tells what happened is 14 years. A lot of further damage happens in those 14 years, to the victim and the people that they’re in relationships with.

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