Roxane Gay is the brilliant author of the New York Times bestseller, Bad Feminist. She holds a prestigious position as a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. She’s a novelist, a short-story writer, a professor, and a voice that untold numbers of devoted fans clamor to hear. She comes from a close, loving family of thin, stylish, and accomplished Haitian immigrants.
She is also “super morbidly obese,” an actual official category that includes people who are three or four hundred pounds overweight. Her new book Hunger is her riveting memoir of life as a fat person.
“No matter what I accomplish,” writes Gay, “I will be fat, first and foremost.”
Each of the eighty-eight chapters of Hunger are short. Gay’s writing style seems to say: I’m telling you this story straight. I’m not going to dance around it.
Roxane Gay wishes she had told her life-shattering story a very long time ago.
At age 12, when she was little and cute, her boyfriend brought her out to a remote cabin where he and his friends gang-raped her. She wishes she had shared her account with her family, her friends, or anyone else who would have listened and told her that it was not her fault and that she was not alone.
“I don’t want to be defined by the worst thing that has happened to me,” Gay tells us. “At the same time, I don’t want to be silent.”
She also does not welcome the predictable responses to stories like hers.
“I do not want pity or appreciation or advice. I am not brave or heroic. I am not strong. I am not special,” she writes. The real travesty, she notes, is that the experience of having been raped is “utterly common.”
“I began eating to change my body… 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,” writes Gay
Now, decades later, Gay hungers for a different, smaller body. She’s tried in many ways to achieve that, but like everyone else who is overweight, she is up against powerful biological, physiological, and psychological forces that make significant and lasting weight loss unlikely. Gay does not point to those impediments. Hunger is not a book of excuses.
It is not surprising that people can be insensitive, presumptuous, and cruel toward those who are fat. Still, the stories are shocking. For example, when Gay was in boarding school, a resident faculty member imitated her “in a game of charades by widening her arms and waddling around the room” until someone guessed her name. In supermarkets, strangers remove from her shopping cart items they don’t think she should have.
“I have gone to an emergency care facility for a sore throat and watched as the doctor wrote, in the diagnosis section, first, ‘morbid obesity’ and, second, ‘strep throat,’” writes Gay.
To people who are fat, the most ordinary tasks of everyday life such as walking, fitting into seats in restaurants and airplanes, and finding clothes that fit are a challenge. The psychological trials — such as the withering gaze of others, and trying to enjoy a meal in public without judgment — make things harder.
Writers of the most successful television series are masters at the art of the cliffhanger, and some authors are very skilled in this art too, ending each chapter in such a way that readers just can’t help turning the page to the next. But Hunger has no cliffhangers. It doesn’t need them. The writing, the thinking, the insights, and the story are all so compelling that no verbal gymnastics are necessary – readers just keep on reading.
Hunger is not, as Gay cautions at the outset, the standard tale of triumph over adversity, with the author emerging at the end as her newly thin self. But Hunger is a triumph of a different sort. Gay wrestled the story of her body back from those who would tell it for her. She tells her own story in her own way. It is a unique story. And, in its humanity, it is also universal.
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body
Harper, June 2017
Hardcover, 307 pages