Broken, bruised and vulnerable
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.