Roxane Gay takes up space. In your brain, on the page, on Twitter — and she wants you to know it too. In the Bad Feminist essayist’s newest book Hunger, Gay tackles her own complicities and insecurities, tracing her life as a black fat queer woman through the events that have unfolded over the course of her life. From the beginning, it’s clear that Gay isn’t going to give us the traditional tale of redemption or the traditional happy ending, which she tells the reader within the first couple of pages. Instead, she is focused on making the reader understand what the story is not. “This is not a story of triumph,” Gay says from page one. “Mine is not a success story. Mine is, simply, a true story.” Her starting paragraphs set the tone for the rest of the memoir, both in their honesty and in their structure. Gay is definitely an essayist at heart and not your typical narrative writer; nor is her exploration of her own life typical. She lays the foundation of the book in her childhood innocence, her rape, and everything afterwards. In this way she effectively lays out the real effect of trauma — it is not simply the act that is impactful, but everything that comes afterwards. Throughout the book, the reader is brought to understand Gay’s understanding of the real reason behind her weight gain and loss, her chaotic twenties, and the events that brought her moments of clarity in between. The book’s resolution is not necessarily a happy ending, but a process of coming to a bittersweet understanding and almost acceptance. Hunger is a memoir framed around the body and the ways in which understanding it can both cage us and set us free.
Gay’s strongest appeal in this book is her word choice and candor. She doesn’t care about the way in which the reader views her exploits, but rather seeks to be understood by a society that seems to be against her whatever she does. Her writing presents an enticing and distinct before and after; tracing her lifetime down to a single event that takes place when she is very young — rape. Every word of the memoir afterward is shadowed by the inciting incident and the ways in which it shaped her life and, more importantly to Gay, her body. She is actively interrogating the impact that society and the events of our lives have on the body, and, in turn, the way in which a person’s body creates their reality in society. She never shies away from the reality of her body and its perceptions, often taking on uncomfortable topics with her true feelings. The book is pushed forward by not only the reader’s curiosity about Gay and the events around her rape, but also her obvious inner conflict. Gay tells the reader, “What I know and what I feel are two very different things”(17). She often tells us what she knows on an intellectual level about the way she presents herself — how she should feel as a ‘feminist’ and how she does. This is an incredibly brave stance for Gay to take, given that her best known work is literally called Bad Feminist. I respect her a lot for that.
Hunger is a book that is aware of the importance of structure, no matter how untraditional, down to the sentences and word choice. Gay refuses to allow the reader to escape from her reality through short, direct chapters and sentences. In chapter 5, which reads more like a poem than an essay, she blatantly tells the reader what has happened, “Before I was raped. After I was raped” (12). Gay’s writing often uses repetitive sentence structure to hammer down her points; “I believe” and “I want to” in short compact space on the page (17). Her words feel as if she’s really speaking to us at a confession with urgency. She never wants to reader to slip away from her truth, so she presents it bluntly. When Gay speaks about her relationship with her body, she often uses words like “unruly” very purposefully to draw attention to societies assumptions about her; often using simple sentence structure that incorporates strong descriptive words with clear connotations. Her word choices like ‘unruly’ and ‘normal’ and ‘ravenous’ and ‘tolerate’ snap the reader back to attention and show us her personality. Gay doesn’t want us to think of her as perfect; she wants us to see her as wholly human. She is also unwaveringly honest, admitting to the reader her disdain for exercise and opinions of the fatphobia of shows like the Biggest Loser, which makes her an excellent cultural critic. Her ability to face societal problems to their roots and break them down in understandable ways is what made her famous in the first place.
This book is incredibly abnormal in its structure, which was more enjoyable at times than others. It reminded me (loosely) of Between the World and Me by Tahansi Coates, which is an extended essay and letter to his son about being black in America. In many ways the book felt more like an extended essay or multiple essays together than a memoir and I’m hesitant to even call it that or put it in the genre at all. I understand that she tells the reader her story, but I’m not sure she has enough narrative structure and scenes within the book that I can label it a memoir. While it does have consistent themes, and the content works together, it doesn’t trace the events of her life close enough for me to feel that it fits well into the genre. Gay uses her own body and story to connect to greater social issues and point out the ways in which those issues or concepts caused events in her life. In Hunger, those bigger topics seem to be the point of the book — they’ve shaped her and she’s evaluating the effects. A memoir feels like it should always be the other way around; an individual’s narrative is at the center with minor attention paid to the larger societal structure. This isn’t necessarily a bad aspect of the book; it makes it unique and works well for her content. I’m just not sure it’s a memoir. By the end of the book, I often felt that Gay had strayed too far from her main points, which made it difficult to finish the entire book. Overall, I would rank the book as one of her best pieces of work and one of the most unique books or essay collections I’ve read this year. I’ll be interested to listen to whatever she has to say in the future.
Kathryn Poe is a college student living in Columbus, Ohio. This piece was written as a class assignment.