Hunger by Roxane Gay (2017)


This is an important book.  I’ll start with that. I started it this morning, finished it by 5:30, and went to her book talk at St. Mary’s College at 7.  My colleague mentioned going to her speaking engagement, so I had a quick deadline to read at least one of her books. I chose her memoir because it’s the only one that was available at our school library.

Why is Hunger important? It’s a story of suffering, and of using food to fill a void created by violation.  But as she makes clear early in the book, violation is “detached” language. So is “incident” and “assault.”  At twelve years old, she was gang-raped by her boyfriend and several of his friends.  Her body was no longer her body, and because she was a good Catholic girl and a straight-A student, she told no one—not her parents, not her friends (she had very few), no one. Instead, she ate. She ate to become safe from men (and boys), figuring the bigger her body, the less attractive she would be, and the less attractive she could make herself, the less anyone would come near her. And the bigger she became, the more she could literally hide inside her body, hide from the shame and guilt she felt, from the confusion that plagued her.

It reminded me why so many women and girls cannot speak up, and it reminded me that a violation of a minute or an hour can take a lifetime to heal—and it may never heal. It reminded me that we so often judge fat people as lazy and undisciplined before ever considering why they are fat, what may have led to a fat body. Her story made me think about behavior, suffering, shame, assumptions, and all the untold stories that surround us.

That said, I thought the first hundred or so pages captured her story’s message: its power, its capacity to make me stop in my tracks and think and to reflect.  But eventually it felt repetitive and wandering, and even a little whiny (which I feel guilty mentioning given the subject and the courage it took to write about it).  At her talk, I was captivated by her story, her honesty, her stage presence, and her responses to tough questions. She offered important advice on writing: on boundaries, and on accepting that we can only write about a subject when we’re ready, and on looking beyond suffering.  We are more than our worst experiences, and as writers, we do not need to delve into the personal—plenty of other topics and experiences are brave, interesting, and worthy of reading.


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