Cath­leen Schine

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Cath­leen Schine

Hunger: A Mem­oir of (My) Body by Rox­ane Gay.

Harper, 306 pp., $25.99

Rox­ane Gay is a writer of extreme em­pa­thy. Her fic­tion and es­says elicit as much shared un­der­stand­ing as they give. Her new mem­oir, Hunger, is the story of be­ing a phys­i­cal woman in a phys­i­cal world that has been shaped for so long by men. And I sus­pect that ev­ery woman who reads Hunger will rec­og­nize her­self in it. For men who read the book, it will be more of a trav­el­ogue. Vade mecum.

The book re­vis­its some of the de­tails of Gay’s life that she has writ­ten about else­where and fills in oth­ers. The daugh­ter of pros­per­ous Haitian im­mi­grants, she had an up­bring­ing that was mid­west­ern, though her board­ing school and col­lege were East Coast preppy. She ran away from Yale in her ju­nior year and dis­ap­peared into a seedy life she does not say too much about. A de­tec­tive hired by her par­ents found her, she came home, and she even­tu­ally got a Ph.D. at a tech­ni­cal univer­sity in the snowy wilds of Michi­gan’s up­per penin­sula. She is bi­sex­ual. She is over six feet tall. She is obese. Gay was gang-raped when she was twelve years old.

The weight came af­ter that. Hunger is Gay’s ex­plo­ration, both per­sonal and the­o­ret­i­cal, of the con­nec­tion be­tween th­ese two kinds of bod­ily shame. Her first book, Ay­iti, a swift col­lec­tion of sto­ries about Haiti, came out in 2011. An Un­tamed

State, a novel about the al­most unimag­in­able suf­fer­ing of Haiti and its peo­ple, ap­peared in 2014. Based on one of the sto­ries in Ay­iti, the novel is beau­ti­ful and bru­tal, an ac­count of a young Haitian-Amer­i­can woman kid­napped and raped for thir­teen days, torn not just from her fam­ily but from her iden­tity, much as Haiti has been. Gay’s fic­tion is blunt, painful, and raw; at the same time, it is al­most del­i­cate with finely drawn emo­tional distinc­tions. The world is a dan­ger­ous place, safety is pre­cious and rare, but even the dam­aged, and even those who cause dam­age, can love.

The same year her novel ap­peared, Gay’s col­lec­tion of es­says, Bad Fem­i­nist, burst onto best-seller lists, and the lyri­cist of cru­elty and vi­o­lence showed her­self to be, in ad­di­tion, a funny and in­tel­lec­tu­ally re­fresh­ing cul­tural critic of the ev­ery­day past­ing women are sub­jected to. She dis­sects the ques­tion of trig­ger warn­ings, for ex­am­ple, with real sym­pa­thy, then ques­tions how mean­ing­ful they are in re­la­tion to her own ex­pe­ri­ence as well as her un­der­stand­ing of the larger re­al­ity:

It is an im­pos­si­ble de­bate. There is too much his­tory lurk­ing be­neath the skin of too many peo­ple. Few are will­ing to con­sider the pos­si­bil­ity that trig­ger warn­ings might be in­ef­fec­tive, im­prac­ti­cal, and nec­es­sary for cre­at­ing safe spa­ces all at once.

The il­lu­sion of safety is as frus­trat­ing as it is pow­er­ful.

There are things that rip my skin open and re­veal what lies be­neath, but I don’t be­lieve in trig­ger warn­ings. I don’t be­lieve peo­ple can be pro­tected from their his­to­ries. I don’t be­lieve it is at all pos­si­ble to an­tic­i­pate the his­to­ries of oth­ers.

In a re­view of Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men, a 2012 book cel­e­brat­ing the new world of ma­tri­ar­chal tri­umph that seems hope­lessly quaint in 2017, Gay again ap­proaches a fem­i­nist de­bate with the dex­ter­ity of com­mon sense:

Dis­agree­ment, how­ever, is not anger. Point­ing out the many ways in which misog­yny per­sists and harms women is not anger. Con­ced­ing the idea that anger is an in­ap­pro­pri­ate re­ac­tion to the in­jus­tice women face backs women into an un­fair po­si­tion. Nor does dis­agree­ment mean we are blind to the ways in which progress has been made.

When th­ese books came out, Gay was also writ­ing col­umns and re­views for a num­ber of im­por­tant on­line pub­li­ca­tions and lit­er­ary mag­a­zines, tweet­ing grumpily and en­ter­tain­ingly, writ­ing an opin­ion col­umn for The New York Times and, for Mar­vel, sev­eral is­sues of World of Wakanda, a spin-off of Ta-Ne­hisi Coates’s Black Panther, fea­tur­ing el­e­gant, tat­tooed black les­bians fight­ing beefy male vil­lains in Africa on Mon­day and pic­nick­ing in Cen­tral Park on Tues­day. She made head­lines, too, when she can­celed a book deal with Si­mon and Schus­ter to protest their sign­ing of Bre­it­bart editor and scourge of Twit­ter Milo Yiannopou­los. Ear­lier this year, Gay also pub­lished Dif­fi­cult Women, an un­even but im­pres­sive col­lec­tion of sto­ries about abandonment and aban­doned sex, ma­ter­nal pain and re­bel­lious masochism. A few are more pointed than they are sharp, but the best of them are sur­pris­ing and elu­sive, re­veal­ing the beauty of even frail hope.

Gay is clearly a ver­sa­tile writer. At the same time, her fo­cus is pre­cise and does not stray, a pierc­ing glance she can aim in any num­ber of di­rec­tions. And her book ti­tles give us a pretty good clue to how she sees not only her­self, but any suc­cess­ful woman in an of­ten hos­tile world: un­tamed, bad, dif­fi­cult.

A word Gay fre­quently uses across gen­res is “un­ruly.” She is a cham­pion of women who de­mand the right to be as im­per­fect as men. Like her su­per­hero Wakanda war­riors, she el­bows or­tho­dox­ies out of her way. Racial, aca­demic, fem­i­nist, sex­ual, cul­tural, in­tel­lec­tual ex­pec­ta­tions are just so many teacups in the china shop, and she is the calm, unerring bull, one with aim, taste, and panache.

Gay has a no-non­sense rep­u­ta­tion, but no-non­sense does not in­di­cate an ab­sence of re­fine­ment in her thought. In fact, she is ded­i­cated to nu­ance. An Un­tamed State is re­mark­able in its in­sis­tence on re­veal­ing the bru­tal lives of the bru­tal men who kid­nap the young mother, Mireille, with­out ever let­ting them off the moral hook. Her es­says do the same, whether they dis­cuss com­pet­i­tive Scrab­ble, Lena Dun­ham, academia, Jerry San­dusky, or fem­i­nism. She re­jects “an all-or-noth­ing out­look” on the lat­ter. “Some women be­ing em­pow­ered does not prove the pa­tri­archy is dead. It proves that some of us are lucky.”

Hunger is a more per­sonal book than both Bad Fem­i­nist and Gay’s fic­tion. “I do not want pity or ap­pre­ci­a­tion or ad­vice,” Gay writes.

“I am not brave or heroic. I am not strong. I am not spe­cial. I am one woman who has ex­pe­ri­enced some­thing countless women have ex­pe­ri­enced.”

The gang rape was in­sti­gated and led by a boy she loved, who she thought loved her. She has writ­ten about rape be­fore, in­clud­ing a par­tic­u­larly strong es­say in Bad Fem­i­nist called “The Care­less Lan­guage of Sex­ual Vi­o­lence.” De­scrip­tions of gang rape that ap­pear in Gay’s fic­tion—her story “Strange Gods” in Dif­fi­cult Women, for ex­am­ple—reap­pear in Hunger, too, a fac­tual echo of a fic­tional echo of an atroc­ity:

With ev­ery day that went by, I hated my­self more. I dis­gusted my­self more. I couldn’t get away from him. I couldn’t get away from what those boys did. I could smell them and feel their mouths and their tongues and their hands and their rough bod­ies and their cruel skin. I couldn’t stop hear­ing the ter­ri­ble things they said to me. Their voices were with me, con­stantly. Hat­ing my­self be­came as nat­u­ral as breath­ing.

She did not speak of the rape for years, ashamed and blam­ing her­self. In An Un­tamed State, the kid­napped Mireille is plunged into a stunned emo­tional ni­hilism: “I saw the out­line of all I loved but it was far away, the edges blurry. It was not easy but I forced my­self to erase those blurry edges too. I was no one.” Mireille be­comes “no one,” speak­ing of her­self in the third per­son, deny­ing she is the mother of her son:

I was no one so I had lit­tle to think about. I sat care­fully on the edge of the bed and tried to make sense of liv­ing in that cage for the rest of my life, of be­ing meat and bones for a man with cruel ap­petites. I could do it for the child who be­longed to the woman I had been. It was noth­ing at all to make that choice for her, for him, for his fa­ther.

It is a way of pro­tect­ing them, and her­self, from the de­filed, un­clean ruin she feels she has be­come. In Hunger, the nega­tion goes one step fur­ther than “no one”: “Those boys treated me like noth­ing so I be­came noth­ing.”

Even many years later, when she was fi­nally able to pub­licly ac­knowl­edge the rape, she pre­ferred to say, sim­ply, “Some­thing ter­ri­ble hap­pened.” Be­fore it hap­pened she was a good Catholic girl cher­ished by her par­ents. She stud­ied hard and read Lit­tle House on the Prairie and Judy Blume and wrote sto­ries about vil­lages she drew on paper nap­kins, a pretty girl who wore over­alls some­times, some­times pretty dresses, and smiled into the cam­era for pho­to­graphs. Af­ter, she stopped smil­ing. She hid her body in men’s clothes that were too big. She gained weight, a huge amount of weight, a “fortress,” to

guard her ter­ri­ble se­cret and to pro­tect her from some­thing ter­ri­ble ever hap­pen­ing again.

Much of the book is about how that pro­tec­tion be­came a prison, how it car­ried not only the toxic mem­ory of the rape, but its own new tox­i­c­ity, the shame of be­ing fat. And not just fat but obese. And not just obese but mor­bidly obese. And not just mor­bidly obese but “su­per mor­bidly obese,” the med­i­cal term, Gay ex­plains, for some­one as over­weight as she is.

For women who are celebri­ties, Gay points out, “the less space they take up, the more they mat­ter.” Thin­ness is vis­i­bil­ity. But for Gay, af­ter the rape,

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. I ate and ate and ate in the hopes that if I made my­self big, my body would be safe.

She got big­ger to fill the empti­ness, but also to dis­ap­pear. She got big­ger to pro­tect her­self. She got big­ger to protest:

I was not fat and then I made my­self fat. I needed my body to be a hulk­ing, im­per­me­able mass. I wasn’t like other girls, I told my­self. I got to eat ev­ery­thing I wanted and ev­ery­thing they wanted too. I was so free. I was free, in a prison of my own mak­ing.

She gained a hun­dred pounds, then another hun­dred, then another hun­dred. “In some ways, it feels like the weight just ap­peared on my body one day. I was a size 8 and then I was a size 16 and then I was a size 28 and then I was a size 42.”

Gay thought the rape was her fault. The sub­ject is still so alive for her that in this mem­oir writ­ten in care­fully straight­for­ward lan­guage, the some­thing ter­ri­ble is al­most hid­den in the fa­mil­iar, mat­ter-of-fact ca­dences of a child’s fairy tale. The com­fort­able sense that you have been down this story path be­fore com­bined with the fan­tas­ti­cal, star­tling un­re­al­ity of it is un­nerv­ing, as it is meant to be:

In my his­tory of vi­o­lence, there was a boy. I loved him. His name was Christo­pher. That’s not re­ally his name. You know that. I was raped by Christo­pher and sev­eral of his friends in an aban­doned hunt­ing cabin in the woods where no one but those boys could hear me scream.

What matters, she writes, what is “even more a trav­esty” is that “this kind of story is ut­terly com­mon.” That re­al­iza­tion, un­der­scored by the book’s di­rect style as well as by chap­ters on cook­ing shows and re­al­ity TV shows, is part of what gives Hunger its power. Con­fes­sional mem­oirs of­ten seem to spring from a hope that when a writer shares a painful ex­pe­ri­ence, read­ers will not only be in­formed, they will be in­spired to over­come their own pain. But Gay is not here to con­fess. Nor does she in­dulge in the prom­ise of im­prove­ment or even in­spi­ra­tion. There is no suc­cess­ful ther­apy or diet or life-af­firm­ing med­i­ta­tion prac­tice in Hunger.

Hunger is a walk in Gay’s shoes, a record of the pri­vate pain of the end­less and end­lessly mun­dane in­con­ve­nience of travel through a world set up for peo­ple who move through the world dif­fer­ently than you do. Feel em­bar­rassed squeez­ing down an aisle in an air­plane when you’re a black woman who is six feet three inches tall and weighs over five hun­dred pounds? You do now. Feet ache? Can’t fit in a chair at a restau­rant? Gay’s sig­na­ture im­pa­tience, at her­self and oth­ers, is ev­ery­where in this book. One of the most lib­er­at­ing fea­tures of her writ­ing is her ad­mis­sion of, and in­sis­tence on, her right to ir­ra­tional anger. “I am hy­per­con­scious of how I take up space and I re­sent hav­ing to be this way, so when peo­ple around me aren’t mind­ful of how they take up space, I feel pure rage.” It angers her and it bores her:

The list of bull­shit I deal with, by virtue of my body, is long and boring, and I am, frankly, bored with it. This is the world we live in. Looks mat­ter, and we can say, “But but but . . .” But no.

There are the phys­i­cal dis­com­forts, but there are also looks and whis­pers, ex­pres­sions of dis­gust and of course names. There is sham­ing, and there is shame.

Her list of or­di­nary, po­lite words, once in­no­cent, neu­tral de­scrip­tions, reads, per­haps, as old-fash­ioned eu­phemisms tainted by pity or con­tempt: “round, curvy, chubby, ro­tund, pleas­antly plump, ‘healthy,’ heavy, heavy­set, stout, husky, or thick.” Her list of dis­parag­ing words used to de­scribe a fat woman in im­po­lite com­pany, most of them an­i­mal words like “pig,” “cow,” or “ele­phant,” has a more con­tem­po­rary, fa­mil­iar ring, maybe be­cause women are more likely to use them about them­selves. “God, I’m such a cow” is a far more com­mon ex­pres­sion, I’d wa­ger, than “I am ro­tund.” Tax­on­omy, words that limit and de­fine, ex­presses what for Gay is a phys­i­cal, not just an ab­stract, con­fine­ment:

This is the re­al­ity of liv­ing in my body: I am trapped in a cage. The frus­trat­ing thing about cages is that you’re trapped but you can see ex­actly what you want. You can reach out from the cage, but only so far.

As a woman, “as a fat woman,” she writes, she is not sup­posed to take up space. “And yet, as a fem­i­nist, I am en­cour­aged to be­lieve I can take up space.” She lives “in a con­tra­dic­tory space.” That is ex­actly where she thrives as an es­say­ist.

In a bril­liant chapter full of both de­spair and steely per­sonal strength, Gay goes with her fa­ther to get a con­sul­ta­tion at a clinic that spe­cial­izes in gas­tric by­pass surgery. A psy­chi­a­trist talks to the room­ful of prospec­tive pa­tients about

how to deal with food once our stom­achs be­came the size of a thumb, how to ac­cept that the “nor­mal peo­ple” (his words, not mine) in our lives might try to sab­o­tage our weight loss be­cause they were in­vested in the idea of us as fat peo­ple.

As she eyes the other pa­tients, mea­sur­ing her­self in re­la­tion to them (big­ger than five, smaller than two), the doc­tor ex­plains that af­ter the surgery they will be nu­tri­ent-de­prived for the rest of their lives, they won’t ever be able to eat or drink within thirty min­utes of eat­ing or drink­ing, their hair will thin, and they “could be prone to dump­ing syn­drome, a con­di­tion whose name doesn’t re­quire a great deal of imag­i­na­tion to de­ci­pher.” Af­ter a grue­some film show­ing de­tails of the surgery, her ashen fa­ther asks Gay what she thinks. “‘This is a total freak show,’ I said. He nod­ded. This was the first thing we had agreed on in years.”

Gay’s fam­ily, their de­vo­tion and con­fu­sion and well-mean­ing blun­ders, stand in to some ex­tent for the reader— they are sym­pa­thetic by­standers, in­ti­mately in­volved, yet sep­a­rate:

When you are over­weight in a Haitian fam­ily, your body is a fam­ily con­cern. Ev­ery­one—sib­lings, par­ents, aunts, un­cles, grand­moth­ers, cousins—has an opin­ion, judg­ment, or piece of coun­sel. They mean well. We love hard and that love is in­escapable. My fam­ily has been in­or­di­nately pre­oc­cu­pied with my body since I was thir­teen years old.

One of the ca­su­al­ties of her weight is her own pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with her body:

I think, I am the fat­test per­son in this apart­ment build­ing. I am the fat­test per­son in this class. I am the fat­test per­son at this univer­sity. I am the fat­test per­son in this theater. I am the fat­test per­son on this air­plane. I am the fat­test per­son in this air­port. I am the fat­test per­son on this in­ter­state ....

I am the fat­test per­son.

Gay de­scribes her­self as “self­ob­sessed,” but she has writ­ten a mem­oir that never slides into nar­cis­sism. On the con­trary, the move­ment of her thought and prose is open and ex­pan­sive. Gay writes of extreme obe­sity with such can­dor and en­er­getic an­noy­ance that her frus­tra­tion with her­self and with the world around her at­tains uni­ver­sal­ity. She writes about rape and its af­ter­math with such wounded, in­tel­li­gent anger that a crime we are used to see­ing pri­mar­ily in sen­sa­tional form on tele­vi­sion be­comes our re­al­ity as well as hers. That is a very gen­er­ous act.

Is Hunger an an­gry polemic? Is it an apolo­gia? Is it a con­fes­sion? Is it so­cial com­men­tary? TV crit­i­cism? A col­lec­tion of mag­a­zine pieces? Self-help musings? A tell-all by a lit­er­ary celebrity? A mem­oir of sex­ual abuse? Hunger is none of those things and a lit­tle bit of all those things, but mostly it is true, so true it some­times feels al­most com­mon­place; and it is un­com­fort­able, so un­com­fort­able that one re­al­izes it should not feel com­mon­place to any­one, ever. This is not a lurid, con­fes­sional mem­oir, though it is meant to shock read­ers into con­scious­ness, I think. Hunger is, in­stead, thought­ful re­portage about a coun­try we pre­tend we don’t know, one where women strug­gle ev­ery day for dig­nity, safety, and sim­ple el­bow room.

Rox­ane Gay, Charleston, Illi­nois, July 2014

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