Bro­ken, bruised and vul­ner­a­ble

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Fiona Wright’s

Rox­ane Gay’s Hunger is at times a dif­fi­cult book to read, which is ex­actly why it is im­por­tant. It is an ac­count of liv­ing in an aber­rant body — a fat body, a black body and also a fe­male body — and of the in­dig­ni­ties and in­juries, as well as the vi­o­lences, large and small, that such bod­ies en­counter on an al­most daily ba­sis.

The ma­te­rial it­self is con­fronting, es­pe­cially be­cause the Amer­i­can writer lo­cates the be­gin­ning of her prob­lem­atic re­la­tion­ship with food in re­sponse — while inar­tic­u­late, con­fused and hurt­ing — to the sex­ual vi­o­lence she ex­pe­ri­enced at the hands of a group of lo­cal boys at the age of 12.

“‘My body was bro­ken,’’ she writes (and this phrase re­curs al­most as a re­frain across the book). “I was bro­ken … I was hol­lowed out. I was de­ter­mined to fill the void, and food was what I used to build a shield around what lit­tle was left of me.’’

This kind of lan­guage — sparse and sim­ple but also beau­ti­fully rhyth­mic and pre­cise — is typ­i­cal of Gay’s style across the book. The chap­ters are short but are res­o­nant be­cause of this. They build by ac­cre­tion — in the same man­ner as Gay de­scribes her­self as form­ing and shap­ing her body — and are struc­tured in sec­tions al­ter­nately the­matic and chrono­log­i­cal. The book’s shifts be­tween the po­lit­i­cal and the per­sonal are con­stant and in­escapable, and Gay is able to tell her story and ex­plain the choices she has made in do­ing so.

The most ob­vi­ous, and most chal­leng­ing, of these choices is her in­sis­tence on writ­ing about shame, and the fault that she can­not help but feel is hers for be­ing un­able to change her body, for ‘‘al­low­ing’’ it to be­come large and un­ruly in the first place.

“To tell the story of my body is to tell you about shame. Of be­ing ashamed of how I look, ashamed of my weak­ness, the shame of know­ing it is in my power to change my body and yet, year af­ter year, not chang­ing it.’’

While Gay ac­knowl­edges that she un­der­stands, on an in­tel­lec­tual level, that her shame and blame are not de­served, it is still deeply af­fect­ing, deeply sad­den­ing, to read such pain- ful and self-lac­er­at­ing lines. But to leave them out, of course, would be dis­hon­est, and a dis­hon­our­ing of her emo­tional re­sponse to her em­bod­i­ment.

Be­cause such are the con­se­quences of en­coun­ter­ing fear and dis­gust so of­ten in the world, where ‘‘the open ha­tred of fat peo­ple is vig­or­ously tol­er­ated and en­cour­aged’’. Gay writes openly and frankly about hav­ing strangers of­fer her di­etary ad­vice or re­mov­ing items from her shop­ping trol­ley, or re­fus­ing to sit next to her on planes, and of doc­tors dis­miss­ing her un­re­lated health con­cerns to fo­cus only on her weight. She was up­set while on tour in Syd­ney in May when Mia Freed­man, founder of the Ma­mamia web­site, men­tioned the chal­lenges of ar­rang­ing an in­ter­view with the au­thor, such as whether she would fit in the lift. Freed­man apol­o­gised.

Gay is can­did about the ways in which the built en­vi­ron­ment pre­cludes her from many so­cial set­tings: the rigid arms of chairs in restau­rants and the­atres, for ex­am­ple, cause al­most con­stant bruises on her legs. These de­tails and in­ter­ac­tions are not of­fered voyeuris­ti­cally but as a means of call­ing at­ten­tion to ‘‘how other bod­ies, of dif­fer­ing abil­i­ties, move through the world’’.

Other es­says in the book deal with re­al­ity TV’s por­tray­als of fat bod­ies and its prom­ises of trans­for­ma­tion; learn­ing to cook, shar­ing meals with her Haitian-Amer­i­can fam­ily; clothes shop­ping and fash­ion; in­ter­net trolls; and per­sonal train­ers and gyms. Gay’s char­ac­ter­is­tic com­bi­na­tion of hu­mour and anger make these pieces en­gag­ing and provoca­tive by turns.

Not all of Gay’s vi­gnettes are this suc­cess­ful or sen­si­tive, how­ever. Writ­ing about more eas­ily recog­nis­able forms of dis­or­dered eat­ing, she is ‘‘full of envy’’ of the anorexic bod­ies she sees in a TV spe­cial, ‘‘be­cause these girls have willpower’’. The truth is the anorex­ics are ev­ery bit as pow­er­less in their re­la­tion­ship with food as she is.

More prob­lem­at­i­cally she writes about con­sult­ing the in­ter­net for in­for­ma­tion on how to make her­self throw up af­ter eat­ing, and then out­lines some of the tech­niques she learned there. Such in­for­ma­tion is dan­ger­ous, and un­eth­i­cal to share.

None­the­less, the force of this mem­oir comes from the fact that it is ‘‘not a story of tri­umph’’. It is not an ac­count of over­com­ing ad­ver­sity or even com­ing to ac­cep­tance, but of sim­ply ac­knowl­edg­ing what Gay calls ‘‘the fe­roc­ity of my hunger’’, the com­plex­ity of iden­tity and per­sonal his­tory and the body that holds them both.

Hunger is a book about vul­ner­a­bil­ity, and es­pe­cially bod­ily vul­ner­a­bil­ity, de­spite and af­ter at­tempts at im­per­vi­ous­ness and in­vi­o­la­bil­ity. It is about ac­count­ing for, rather than com­ing to terms with, the in­juries — but also the ca­pa­bil­i­ties — that aber­rant, dif­fer­ent and dis­or­derly bod­ies carry in the world. most re­cent book is Small Acts of Dis­ap­pear­ance: Es­says on Hunger.

Rox­ane Gay

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