HUNGER: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay. Harper, 306 pp., $25.99.
Roxane Gay — a wise, sonically beautiful voice in her TED talk and in print — is an intoxicant to a broad swath of readers. They pore over her Tumblr, quote from her collected essays in “Bad Feminist” and sign up by the hundreds of thousands to follow her musings on Twitter.
Gay is also a magnet for contempt — laced into the comments below her TED talk, delivered widely by internet trolls, even strangers in the street. Their words — often aimed at her body — have a street corollary, again from strangers:
“I am shoved in public spaces,” writes Gay, who is 6-foot-3. “People step on my feet. They brush and bump against me. They run straight into me. I am highly visible, but I am regularly treated like I am invisible. My body receives no respect or consideration or care in public spaces. My body is treated like a public space.”
So, a paradox: Time magazine can declare 2014 the year of Roxane Gay, and the writer, 42, can experience her body, around the right people, as “strong and powerful and sexy.” But she can also declare it “a cage of my own making.”
Her new book, “Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body,” reflects on how she came, by her late 20s, to weigh 577 pounds. That fact, for too many folks, obliterates all else — her education at Exeter and Yale, her film and TV agent, her professorship at Purdue, her sly wit, her novel “An Untamed State” and the flavor of her cultural criticism. Early in this searing, smart, readable and sometimes unbearable memoir, Gay writes, “I am determined to be more than my body — what my body endured, what my body has become. Determination, though, has not gotten me very far.”
That droll last line is delivered by the only connoisseur of pop culture capable of reveling in the absurdities of “The Bachelorette” without any cheap shots at its fan base. Gay is generous, and in this new book, she tries to be a bit generous toward herself. It has taken most of 30 years.
When she was 12, Gay went bike-riding with a boy she believed was her boyfriend. He lured her to an abandoned hunting cabin and raped her. Then he held her down while his buddies raped her. She had no understanding or context for this crime. For 25 years, the Catholic-school daughter of Haitian immigrants told no one. Instead, she ate.
“I made myself bigger,” she writes. “I made myself safer. I created a distinct boundary between myself and anyone who dared to approach me. I created a boundary between myself and my family. I became of them but not.”
Goodreads lists 18 titles under “Fat Girl Memoirs.” “Hunger” does not belong there. Likewise, Lindy West has blogged memorably and cheekily about fat-shaming. But Gay is a quantum apart, existentially and politically, because of her gravitas, her grace and her embrace of complexity. “Hunger,” like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” interrogates the fortunes of black bodies in public spaces.
More “often than not, stories of bodies like mine are ignored or dismissed or derided,” she writes. “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.”
Much of “Hunger” ponders appetite, physical and bisexual. Gay has had what she calls her “seedy episodes” — she writes of self-destructive sexual encounters and a gig as a phone-sex worker, but these choices reverberate from the horror of that hunting cabin. Nothing seems gratuitous; a lot seems brave. There is an incantatory element of repetition to “Hunger”: The very short chapters scallop over the reader like waves.
Memoir — a view through the narrow aperture of self — can be as forgettable as the flotsam of Instagram, but “Hunger” has the power to disturb and linger. Consider Chapter 59, a quick dissection of the ways chairs in classrooms and theatres and restaurants become instruments to punish the unruly, fat body — Gay’s body. In 11 taut paragraphs, she delivers a master class on chairs with arms that raise full belts of bruises, and bouts of public humiliation.
This book raises questions about what we refuse to notice, and who is made invisible. “Hunger” should find its place at the table.