Roxane Gay is a very good writer – and across so many disciplines. She’s prolific too, or it seems that way at least – online journals, fiction – long and short, essays, comic books, memoir. Sometimes she blends memoir with fiction, the essay form being creatively stretched, other times she writes with such a frankness, a matter-of-factness, there’s an alacrity to her prose, it doesn’t so much dazzle but it is often (still) spellbinding, the honesty and simplicity. She’s an engaging writer – and it’s interesting to find her writing with such heartbreaking poise over such heartbreaking issues here, since, it seems, she sought out the anonymity of forums – to begin with. Through that, through finding a vice for her voice and a way to voice vice she has become a celebrity; public intellectual, recognisable – important.
Hunger is a memoir that addresses more than one issue – the title allowing for more than one reading of course. Hunger houses the story – or stories – of the weight that Roxane Gay has, at times, struggled with. Most of the struggle is in refusing to be defined by it.
She tells us, early on, that even at 6 ft 3in she weighed, at her biggest, a quite staggering 577 pounds (“…at one point, that was the truth of my body.”) She says she does know and doesn’t know how it happened. She was a comfort-eater, she was building her armour, the aim was to hide from the world, to be unrecognisable, to be unattractive, to be hidden within herself, a shield around her. At 12 years old Roxane Gay was gang-raped. Readers of her other work – particularly Bad Feminist, the essay collection that sky-rocketed her fame) know this already. But here she tells the story of not only that ordeal but the butterfly effect, the ordeals that continue, that attempts to combat that atrocity, to distract, to hide, to be reborn in some sense.
As with her other writings Gay remains a gifted, engaging storyteller. She has a brilliant way of explaining something so deep, hurtful and horrific and yet you can on some level detach enough from the story to applaud the writing; its sincerity, it’s shape – “Something terrible happened”, she explains. “That something broke me”. She tells us the details of her rape, the background (it was a boy she thought she was in love with – and his friends…) and then this, all at once sad-beyond-words and the very perfect words: “They were boys who were not yet men but knew, already, how to do the damage of men”).
Gay takes fat away from being (just) a feminist issue – she looks at fat as ‘her’ issue, but considers it in the broader context of judgment, of hypocrisy, of discrimination.
There are painful and telling vignettes, of support groups where the overweight and super morbidly obese scan the room for comfort; just to find someone they are smaller than is the cold-comfort, a small, silent victory.
As well as being comfortable in her skin – aware of health risks, acutely aware of how difficult it can be to operate in the world as super-sized person – Gay’s story is one of hope and heart; she documents her move into writing and the solace sought through that activity. To a career as teacher, as published writer, as speaker – and then back to the difficulties, frustrations and judgments that come along with that.
Hunger is a powerful book. Devastating – it would be understandable if this was deemed too uncomfortable for some readers but I found huge heart in this. I found beautiful, honest writing. I found a story, rather than an attempt at having the answer. A journey. A life.