In Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, Roxane Gay explores the interconnectedness between her rape, trying to feel safe in her own body, and gaining weight. Gay writes: “This is a book about my body, about my hunger, and ultimately, this is a book about disappearing and being lost and wanting so very much, wanting to be seen and understood. This is a book about learning, however slowly, to allow myself to be seen and understood.”
Gay holds nothing back. As she says: “I’ve been forced to look at my guiltiest secrets. I’ve cut myself wide open. I am exposed. That is not comfortable. That is not easy.” She isn’t hyperbolizing here—this memoir digs deep into her self and her body. As a reader, I was initially uncomfortable being drawn into such a personal story, but Gay handles this intimacy well. She lays it bare without giving gratuitous details—she says it’s still hard to talk about. I can see why. It’s hard to read about the terrible thing that was done to her and how she’s still healing from it, but it’s important to read in order to understand Gay’s narrative throughout her memoir and the effect that these things have on women on a societal level.
Simplicity and repetition mark Gay’s prose; this makes the book easy to read and acts as a counterbalance to the heavy topics of rape and abuse. She often uses short, simple sentences to tell her story and draw readers into her thinking and feeling—for example, the quote a few paragraphs above makes use of concise sentences. Gay doesn’t dance around the point; she tells readers clearly what she wants us to know (or what she doesn’t want us to know). Beyond the sentence level, Hunger’s chapters are short—often a few pages—and tightly focused on one idea.
Gay uses repetition poetically, and she spins a linguistic shorthand throughout the memoir. Nearly every chapter ties into her “thesis” of hunger, whether she’s talking about gaining weight, eating, wanting more from relationships, wanting to heal, or trying to live life in her body. Few chapters do not come back to this main idea of hunger.
“I found ways to hide in plain sight, to keep feeding a hunger that could never be satisfied—the hunger to stop hurting.”
She returns to the phrase, “or I do” throughout the first section before (and after) she tells readers the details of her rape. I read this phrase as communicating a paradox: Gay both does and does not understand why things happened, why she reacted a certain way, why her defense mechanism was to eat and eat and eat. This repeated phrase reminded me that it is not always so easy to point to cause and effect, to draw a line of causation from one thing to another.
“I don’t know how I let things got so out of control, but I do.” (6)
“I don’t know how things got so out of control, or I do.” (13)
“I do not know why I turned to food. Or I do.” (53)
This repetition also gives readers a bit of insight into her writing process: She has to keep forcing herself to dig deeper—she pushes herself to write her truth and doesn’t settle for anything less.
Tone and subject shift in second half of Hunger
I’m undecided about my thoughts on sections four and five, in which Gay writes short chapters about what it’s actually like living as an overweight person, whether that’s a few pages about air travel, anecdotes about not fitting in chairs, or shopping for clothes. These topics are not quite as deeply connected to her emotional thesis of hungering and healing; they explore her day-to-day life instead of diving deep into her emotional story. For me, it was jarring to jump from pages about rape and emotional abuse by lovers into “Some people try to offer me fashion advice,” but I recognize that these chapters are intentionally included to lighten the tone.
And these chapters do serve as repetition: We hear again and again how people don’t respect overweight people and ignore the challenges they have. This serves to reinforce Gay’s longing for acceptance, for being okay with her body, and for other people being okay with her body, too. This repetition highlights of the minutiae of everyday life for Gay and helped me empathize with her and consider how I treat and even think about overweight people.
Despite the shift in tone in sections four and five, I admire how even on the surface level, Gay isn’t afraid to explore uncomfortable topics. She tells readers what it’s like for an overweight person living in our society—what it’s like on planes, how she has to shop for clothes, and how often people don’t think about their choice of chairs for her at events. She doesn’t hold back or soften the truth for readers. Gay is vulnerable here, even in the “lighter” moments of the memoir when she’s not discussing horrific memories of her rape or the emotional turmoil it caused her for years.
Vulnerability in Hunger
It is precisely in this vulnerability—whether in deep, dark emotional secrets that she’s kept inside for years or in candid conversations about navigating today’s world with an overweight body—that Gay stands out. Her courage is admirable, and her ability to write about such experiences so concisely and so clearly is stunning.
Perhaps most importantly, Gay forces us to look deeper than the surface level and try to empathize with people, especially those who aren’t in a position of power or socially accepted—women, minorities, overweight people, the queer community. She shows us that people are complex creatures who sometimes don’t understand themselves; we can’t assume to know their narratives; we must listen to them and come to them with compassion rather than judging or assuming.
This is a particularly important message considering the time frame of Gay’s memoir in the midst of #MeToo and a politically divided nation. Gay tells us in the second chapter that this book is about her learning to be seen and understood, but it also asks us to consider how we see and understand those around us. That’s not to say that this book is didactic or that Gay sets out with a political agenda (quite the opposite—it’s a personal, confessional work), but rather that this is a text that has power and works beyond its pages.