Roxane Gay’s first book-length memoir, Hunger, is about space: the space that certain bodies are allowed to occupy, and the world’s response when they are unable or unwilling to fit inside it. In tender, explosive prose, Gay writes of the systemic medical dismissal and the social and sexual ostracism that trail bodies like hers throughout a lifetime. She unpacks over forty years of bodily memories, laying each recollection out to be examined with honesty and grace, shying away from neither her anger nor her shame. Gay’s customary frankness is made all the more impressive by her disinterest in painting herself as brave or special in her experiences; her courage is the sort that enumerates fears rather than hiding them.
Gay’s autobiographical canon is extensive and spans multiple media and genres. Taken together, it forms a kind of thematic series. Her oldest fans have been picking up new installments of her life story for several decades in the form of blog posts, articles in The Butter, and her column in the New York Times. The best of Gay’s nonfiction is distinctly first-person, which makes each publication feel like a holiday mass-email from a distant and fascinating relative. If the events in the narrative of her memoir don’t occur in the writer’s present, as they don’t in Hunger, Gay is still analyzing in the present, as herself — a live performance, or as close to live as a book can get.
Hunger is a meditation on health, on the fear of death, on gender and space, on Blackness and visibility. Roxane Gay lives at the center of these dueling forces as a fat, queer, Black woman, and as a writer and academic whose relentless excavation of these identities persists even when the digging causes her pain. At twelve years old, Roxane Gay was sexually assaulted; this horrific event and its aftermath underscore every detail that follows in Gay’s life story. On that day, Gay’s relationship to her body, to her own self-worth, and to her loved ones was irrevocably altered. Thirty years later, the experience still casts shadows on her considerable academic and career achievements. With determination and an unsparing eye, she probes its impact on her life and physicality, placing each event in the larger context of a culture that continues to punish her for the compulsive eating habit she developed to numb the pain.
The narrative of violence takes the lead in story structure, but it is Gay’s bodily insistence on remaining, on existing, that keeps the reader from spiraling into secondhand depression. Her body exists despite the violence she has weathered — sustained not by a coherent sense of purpose, but by an unending chain of little triumphs, moments of defiance in which Gay’s soul recognizes her body as valuable.
But these quiet victories are narrated with caution; Gay is a skeptic of her own progress, and with good reason. Strangers, lovers, family members, and Gay herself are all chronic participants in the public conversation about Gay’s body, with opinions ranging from disinterest to disgust. Gay views these negative responses as inextricable from the violence that first triggered her disordered eating. “I was marked after that,” she writes of the assault. “Men could smell it on me, that I had lost my body, that they could avail themselves of my body, that I wouldn’t say no because I knew my no did not matter.” In the wake of her trauma, Gay views herself with both hatred and tenderness. The violation in her childhood drew a jagged line between these extremes, separating the flesh-and-blood Roxane from her own personhood and intellect. The adolescent Gay treasured her creative power and cursed what she perceived to be her lack of bodily self-control; her secret was that some atavistic corner of her brain truly intended her body to grow, as she frequently puts it, “armor.” Her fatness is both her punishment for the sin of vulnerability and her desperate protection from the desires of others in a world that seems to have no regard for the laws of consent.
The chapter of Gay’s life that Hunger describes is not a period of time, but a thematic lens through which the author examines the entire length of her memory. The epicenters of Gay’s narrative are her own body (in space) and her childhood sexual abuse (in time), and as the story circles them in ever larger revolutions, Gay answers the questions of an invisible confessor with the raw honesty of one who has already confronted the harshest possible judgments about each of her secrets. The numbered episodes, which range from single paragraphs to multiple pages in length, might be arranged according to the chronology of a single, exhausting conversation. Each section homes in on a single period, incident, or emotion, skating over the rest of the convoluted web of events and people in Gay’s life, and is followed by a section that answers a question from a silent interlocutor: Why? And then? But how could you possibly…? The result is satisfying and intimate without sacrificing the suspense that keeps the story taut; Gay answers each question with just enough detail to sustain the suspense.
Gay’s sentence structures are linear, but her chronography is a spiral, alighting on one period only to revisit the last and foreshadow the next. The narrative progresses, but ponderously, with a pace that allows ample space for reflection and contextualization, a real sense of the weight of Gay’s struggle, and especially for the unwelcome imposition of the past upon the present. This stylistic choice reads as both an imprint of Gay’s genre history and as a deliberate portal between Gay’s writing and her thoughts. Like real memory, the narrative of Hunger can be so circular as to feel redundant; the repetition of certain metaphors and epigraphs occasionally veers into monotony. But, whether or not they appreciate it as a stylistic choice, readers who have experienced trauma will recognize this pattern of present-day anxiety interrupted by past suffering. Gay compulsively relives the old pain and is often too ashamed of her inability to control the memory to process or soothe her own current emotions. As she weathers the cruelty of her peers in adolescence and young adulthood, Gay becomes increasingly inseparable from her methods of self-preservation. Her eating and her miserable acceptance of unsatisfying or abusive relationships are both pleasure and penance; as her body grows, her options (for travel, dating, and existing in public free of ridicule) dissipate; as Gay puts it, “The bigger you are, the smaller your world becomes.”
And yet she writes voluminously. In a cyclical narrative, an ending is not an ending, but a taste of the story to come. Gay concludes Hunger with a note that is less optimistic than it is expansive, acknowledging that as long as she lives, the story of her hunger is unfinished. By telling it, Gay has already subverted her own prophecy; instead of shrinking, her world, and ours, is growing. She writes, “I have presence, I am told… I take up space.” With Hunger, Gay claims the space she must know, deep down, she deserves, and carves out room for other women to stake out our own narratives against the suffocating pressure of a world that wants us ever quieter, ever smaller, ever more satiated.
Lynne Peskoe-Yang is a writer and educator living in Boston, Massachusetts. Her writing on science, science fiction, and social justice has appeared in The Fem and Ares Magazine.