The moment I heard Roxane Gay talk about her forthcoming novel Hunger, I made a mental note that I would, of course, read it. The summer before, I’d ravenously read Bad Feminist, her collection of essays, and I wanted to bask in her writing a bit more. Beyond that, however, I was mesmerized by her description of what it would contain: “it’s a memoir of the body,” she said in an interview with Trevor Noah, “my body.”
Roxane Gay is a woman with a large body, and – in discussing Hunger – her voice seemed uncharacteristically reserved, tenuous, gentle. She acknowledged her story involves hunger in a number of ways, and her memoir would explore that.
Anybody who’s ever struggled to live in their body, to love it as it is in a world pushing them to shrink it, will find resonant notes in Hunger. What a thing it is to crave, to try and starve the wrong hungers and feed the correct ones. Fearlessly, or perhaps despite the fear, Roxane Gay explores her own relationship with hunger.
Hunger is a memoir arranged in a series of numbered explorations. Some of them are brief –– a musing about sex in a fat body, a description of foods not allowed in her childhood home –– while others stretch on for a few pages. Many elements of the story are deeply personal to Roxane’s story herself –– her childhood, her family, her traumas, her romances –– but there are also passages dedicated to analyzing facets of our society we have accepted as normal. The Biggest Loser, she makes a case, is one of the most harmful shows ever to be on television. (And, she adds, she was mesmerized by it.)
“This is the reality of living in my body: I am trapped in a cage. The frustrating thing about cages is that you’re trapped but you can see exactly what you want. You can reach out from the cage, but only so far.”
In Hunger, Roxane primarily tells the story of her body in a chronological fashion. She describes her body in her youngest days, its youthfulness and momentum, and acknowledges that it is a body she does not remember. The narrative does jump around a bit, and she does revisit ideas with further rumination as she shares her story. Her view of love, of her right to connection and passion and sex and desire as a fat person, evolves and devolves. There is a push and pull to healing, to accepting the bodies we inhabit, and the structure of Hunger embodies that.
“Because I read so much, I was a romantic in my heart of hearts, but my desire to be part of a romantic story was a very intellectual, detached one. I liked the idea of a boy asking me out, taking me on a date, kissing me, but I did not want to actually be alone with a boy, because a boy could hurt me.”
I was, at times, startled by the vulnerability with with Roxane Gay chose to share details of her life in Hunger. To share her exact weight –– a number she acknowledges is startling –– feels a bit revolutionary, as society often chides us never to ask. This is a guise, she points out –– society has never granted fat people their privacy, their right to inhabit their bodies. She describes instances of unsolicited judgment from strangers, from friends, from family, all obsessed with the ‘problem’ of her body.
This, of course, has placed obstacles between Roxane and her hunger for connection, for romance, for wholeness. Society has continuously pushed her to see her body as a problem, a list of limitations, and she shares no small list of indignities she has had to face as a fat woman. Desk chairs, stages without stairs, booths without the ability to adjust, airplane seats –– all of these rigidly, on occasion, refusing to make room for her to belong.
“Everyone was so worried about me when I broke my ankle and it confused me. I have a huge, loving family and a solid circle of friends, but these things were something of an abstraction, something to take for granted, and then all of a sudden, they weren’t… There were lots of concerned texts and emails, and I had to face something I’ve long pretended wasn’t true, for reasons I don’t fully understand. If i died, I would leave people behind who would struggle with my loss. I finally recognized that I matter to the people in my life and that I have a responsibility to matter to myself and take care of myself so they don’t have to lose me before my time, so I can have more time. When I broke my ankle, love was no longer an abstraction. It became this real, frustrating, messy, necessary thing, and I had a lot of it in my life. It was an overwhelming thing to realize. I am still trying to make sense of it all even though it has always been there.”
There’s a truth in Hunger that will resonate deeply within just about anyone: We all have an ongoing relationship with our bodies, we all have been conditioned to recognize some of our hungers as unearned, and we all know what it is to yearn for freedom from our obstacles. There’s a universality to this message, to the vulnerability of Roxane’s story, to the ongoing (and forever-going) journey of feeling at home where we are.
But, more importantly, there’s a story being told, a story often untold (or, at least, unheard): the story of a person, in a fat body, trying to navigate the world around them and to believe they are worthy of the love and the life they yearn for. That, I think, is where this story will echo with me for the longest.