Roxane Gay Draws Blood

To read Roxane Gay is to also feel, in an odd way, like you’re reading yourself at the same time. More than most contemporary “public intellectuals” (I put those words in quotes, not because Gay is neither public nor intellectual, but because the term doesn’t encapsulate the sum total of what she does), her essays are not “hot takes,” but are like the thorns of a cactus that looks beautiful from a distance (she’s a hell of a prose stylist, after all) but draws blood when you get close. When you finish one of Gay’s essays, you see something of yourself that usually stays on the inside.

Her books—including the novel AN UNTAMED STATE and the essay collection BAD FEMINIST—have always had a habit of drawing blood, but HUNGER: A MEMOIR OF (MY) BODY seems like the culmination of her work thus far. Maybe it’s no accident, then, that this book was the hardest of all of her books to write (she tells us that up front). It’s a book in which Gay simultaneously engages in self-assertion and self-erasure, a notion that lingers in the book’s very subtitle, with the word “my” encased in parentheticals. Take that pronoun out and the clause makes no sense; yet, at the same time, Gay seems to be suggesting that she prefers we look away.

Seeing and being seen is central to this work. By now, after interviews and press coverage that range from the incisive to the shame-on-you obscene, you may be aware that this is a book about Gay’s lifelong struggle with her weight. “The story of my body is not a story of triumph,” she tells us at the beginning. “This is not a weight-loss memoir.” Instead, it’s a book that, in part, details Gay’s past and present as an overweight woman in America—all of it traced back to a moment of sexual assault in her childhood that has led her to become part of a paradoxical group of people in America: the “super morbidly obese,” who become figures of contempt and invisibility at the same time.

But this is not just a memoir; it’s also a work of cultural criticism, taking the best qualities from Gay’s essays that appear in The New York Times, Slate, The Rumpus, and pretty much everywhere else, and using these qualities to illuminate not just Gay’s own body but all bodies (again, that subtitular erasure of “my”). Her authorial eye looks not just inward but also outward, to Nightline, to The Biggest Loser, to the industry of U.S. clothing stores, creating a panoramic view of what it means to be overweight in America and how the larger culture responds. In a way, the recent book HUNGER reminds me of the most is Belle Boggs’ terrific memoir THE ART OF WAITING, which was not only the story of her own infertility but also the story of how infertility has been represented in culture throughout history.

HUNGER may not be redemptive in the way that average readers may expect—as Gay promises, there’s no “before/after” bullshit here—but it is deeply redemptive, and moving, and one senses the catharsis of writing a book like this. By the end of it, Gay has said something far deeper about herself than just laying bare a litany of physical information: she has written a book that shows, as though in real time, the process one undergoes to wrestle, and eventually inch toward comfort, with the difference between one’s inner sense of who one is and one’s outer reality.

I started this brief review by mentioning that Gay forces the reader to read her/himself at the same time, so what can I say? I am somebody who, at various points in life, has bought into all the negative stereotypes surrounding overweight people. I have occasionally made fun of these people behind their backs. I have also struggled with my own weight my entire life—and am currently overweight (the heaviest I’ve ever been)—with periods of gain nearly always attributed to some traumatic experience I haven’t otherwise known how to process. But because I am male, I’m also aware that my own heaviness exists without a ton of stigma attached to it: men are allowed to be fat but women are not—this much hypocrisy teaches and re-teaches us every day. Without understanding the inside of somebody, we never unlearn this; thus, HUNGER is an important book, aesthetically and culturally.

I’m going to stop just short here of calling Gay fearless, because everyone calls her fearless, and it sounds like a bit of a cliché. Instead, I’m going to say that the key to her greatness is a different quality—one that’s on display all over HUNGER: vulnerability. After all, fearlessness does not always breed empathy. Vulnerability does.

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body Cover Image
$25.99
ISBN: 9780062362599
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Harper - June 13th, 2017

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