“This is a memoir of my body”
Hunger is my first Roxane Gay book and my introduction to the author. She emphasises in the first chapters that this book is not a diet book, or a self-help book. This book does not justify morbid obesity as healthy, nor does it provide excuses as to why the author is not thin. Gay definitely emphasises the great shame that comes with being overweight from the pressures of society and beauty standards, to the health distresses, and the many side-effects of being obese. The author specifies that this book is a memoir or a history of her body. Alongside, she writes reflections and thoughts she has had about weight in general. As I was taking notes for this review, I kept wondering: how could I possibly criticise a book that is the history of a person’s body? It feels awfully personal, especially when the author is so pleasant and such great company. The best I can do is tell you what it’s about.
Roxane Gay discusses in the early portions of the book the most traumatic event of her life (and body) where she was physically violated by a group of young boys at the tender age of twelve. The humiliation and trauma alone resulted in her silence for years to follow. The shattering experience and undoing of her world would have been subject to discussion. It would be her word against theirs—she would have to experience the judgement passed on women who come forward as rape victims as they are immediately questioned, doubted, and accused of lying. Women who step forward to report a crime, and instead of being aided, supported, and promised justice, they are discussed as if their testimony is debatable. Gay writes that even “the medical community is not particularly interested in taking the pain of women seriously.”
What follows is a series of chapters focusing on the struggles Gay had with weight as she used her body as its own fortress. She writes:
“I could become more solid, stronger, safer…if I was undesirable, I could keep more hurt away.”
She describes the experience akin to being trapped in a cage where you are safe, but cannot move freely.
“The frustrating thing about cages is that you’re trapped but you can see exactly what you want”
For years the author struggled with trying to become conventionally attractive, and simultaneously trying to protect herself. What I found particularly uplifting was her description of the refuge she found in books. Certain books she said “offered a vocabulary” for her to understand what happened to her and gave her the knowledge/relief that being raped was not her fault.
She also focuses several chapters critiquing television shows like The Biggest Loser, and Revenge Bodies, the conversations in the medical community, and the way society as a whole perceives overweight bodies in discussion, books, and mainstream media.
Most importantly, she writes about her family and the people around her who claimed that they only bring the topic of weight up on a constant basis because they ‘care about her.’ No one focused on her Ph.D., on her books, or on her successes.
“I became resentful that the only thing anyone ever wanted to focus on was my body…People project assumed narratives onto your body and are not at all interested in the truth of your body…your body is the subject of public discourse.”
What I find particularly interesting is that Roxane Gay took the history of her body and critiqued the people who put her body in public discourse, under observation and discussion, as if it was a text, and in the process, she wrote this book which is in itself a text.
I hope that people who read this book don’t go in with a closed mind, and prepared to judge. I hope readers come to this text willing to understand the story of one person’s body.
I would also recommend two non-fiction companion books to this:
The first is a philosophy-heavy text by Elaine Scarry called The Body in Pain – in this book Scarry writes an analysis of physical suffering and its relation to the numerous vocabularies and cultural forces that confront it: literary, political, medical, religious. It particularly focuses on how physical pain destroys language, and how every individual experiences pain differently on a personal level, where pain can never be shared, described, or conveyed in its entirety.
The second is Dr. Gabor Mate’s book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. He is the first doctor who worked with heroin addicts, alcoholics, and overweight people and asked the question: why don’t doctors take a moment to understand WHY some people are more susceptible to addiction than others.
I found that Roxane Gay’s personal narrative in Hunger provided the most perfect story to support the philosophy-heavy Scarry book, and the medical book by Gabor Mate.
Many thanks to Harper for sending an ARC for early review. Hunger will be published on June 13, and is available for pre-order on Amazon.
Roxane Gay’s other Works:
Links to Some of Roxane Gay’s Lectures: