By now, the release of a new book by Roxane Gay has become a cultural event. The New York Times bestselling author is a rare mainstream crossover, both incisive and remarkably prolific, producing boundary-pushing work across a range of genres. She is a novelist, critic, essayist, comic-book author, screenwriter, and memoirist who has proved unafraid to explore and expose even the most upsetting parts of her personal history in writing.
In that latter sense, the 42-year-old Gay’s latest effort might very well be her rawest and most revealing. In Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, out this month, she has crafted a ferocious and unapologetic work about her relationship with her physical self and experience negotiating the world as, in Gay’s words, “a woman of size.” As a child, Gay was the victim of sexual violence, a topic she has mined elsewhere in her writing; here she explains how the incident led her to gain weight as a defense mechanism. “Some boys had destroyed me, and I barely survived it,” Gay writes. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to endure another such violation, and so I ate because I thought that if my body became repulsive, I could keep men away.” At her heaviest, Gay, who is six-foot-three, weighed 577 pounds. In these disquieting confessions and the book’s many others, she conveys her recollections and sense impressions through taut, resonant, straightforward sentences. For that reason, at 320 pages, Hunger is a relatively short book that could take a long time to read.
“Vulnerability is very uncomfortable,” says Gay. “It was difficult to write. But I also knew that the things I was finding most difficult to write were probably the things that are more necessary to write.”
Roughly chronological, the memoir begins with Gay as a girl in Omaha, the eldest child of Haitian immigrants. At twelve, she writes, she was raped by a boy she knew from school, along with a group of his friends. Gay shared a healthy, open relationship with her parents but kept the incident to herself, and her attackers were never caught or prosecuted. She describes how fear of her body’s weakness led her to disassociate and then, later, to overeat:
I was swallowing my secrets and making my body expand and explode. I found ways to hide in plain sight, to keep feeding a hunger that could never be satisfied — the hunger to stop hurting. I made myself bigger. I made myself safer.
Gay was a gifted student, attending boarding school at Exeter and going on to study at Yale. She left college before junior year to pursue a love interest, among other reasons; after a trip through part of her twenties, full of dead-end relationships and deader-end jobs, she details how she found firmer footing in the world of letters, as a writer and professor. Throughout the descriptions of her life, Gay explores a variety of size-related issues with plainspoken wit, including her obsession with weight-loss reality shows and the troubles she has booking airline tickets. (When flying economy, she used to buy two seats and bring her own seat-belt extender, which confused airline employees and caused her frequent humiliation.) Hunger depicts how past trauma has continued to affect her life and, in a wider sense, the ways in which obesity is perceived in American culture. “I do hope that people reading the book have a greater empathy for different kinds of bodies,” the author says, “and think more carefully about how bodies different from theirs are affected by the world.”
Hunger is the second book Gay has released this year; Difficult Women, a short-story collection, hit shelves in March. Given the pace of her output, one might conclude that Gay is a writer in a hurry. She received widespread critical acclaim for Bad Feminist, her bestselling book of essays, which came out in 2014 three months after her devastating debut novel, An Untamed State. She’s adapting the latter into a film with Gina Prince-Bythewood (director of Beyond the Lights), as well as co-writing the Marvel comic Black Panther: World of Wakanda. Gay was to release yet another nonfiction volume in 2018, but pulled it from Simon & Schuster after the publisher signed the alt-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos to a book deal (which was later canceled). She is also at work on two more novels, two more nonfiction books, and an anthology she edited titled Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture. In between, the author teaches creative writing at Purdue University in Indiana — splitting her time between there and Los Angeles — and maintains an active presence on various social-media channels, including Twitter, where she has 210,000 followers. “Yes, I’m busy,” she deadpans.
Fiction was her first love and, she says, still the kind of writing that comes most naturally to her. When Gay was younger, she read authors such as Laura Ingalls Wilder, Edith Wharton, Alice Walker, and Raymond Carver; as an adult, she cites Edward P. Jones, Toni Morrison, and contemporaries including Zadie Smith and the pseudonymous xTx. “These people are all wonderful influences,” she says, “and seeing what they do with storytelling always inspires me. It gives me new ideas.”
Gay’s prose tends to be confident, powerful, and funny — even when describing moments of weakness. If the author’s suffering at times seems incompatible with the book’s humor, well, that’s part of the point. “There are moments that are so absurd, I try to bring out that absurdity,” she says. “It’s OK for you to feel uncomfortable and not know whether you’re supposed to laugh.” Consider, for example, the bitter charm with which she renders her encounters with physical fitness, at one point criticizing herself for her disused gym membership: “Basically, I donate $19.99 a month to their corporate existence and the idea that I can walk into Planet Fitness, anywhere in the country, should I feel like working out.”
Such deeply personal material must engage the instinct for self-censorship, and countering that, Gay says, is part of her process. “I’m always self-censoring, but it’s a question of what I self-censor about. I have pretty strong boundaries about what I will and will not write about, and I stick to them.” That sort of deliberate approach to her subjects leads her to an extraordinarily effective, declarative style. At the start of Hunger, for instance, she level-sets readers’ expectations: “The story of my body is not a story of triumph. This is not a weight-loss memoir. There will be no picture of a thin version of me, my slender body emblazoned across this book’s cover, with me standing in one leg of my former, fatter self’s jeans….Mine is not a success story. Mine is, simply, a true story.”
The author says that one of her purposes in writing the book was to expose the ways in which “fat bodies tend to be public property” — treated by strangers without respect or care. She draws the analogy to women’s bodies in general: “Women have long known their bodies are public property,” she says. “When your body strays from the norm, it becomes even more public.” While heightening sensitivity toward the experience of others is a way to begin effecting cultural change, Gay notes that structural progress is what’s really necessary. “As long as we live in a world where women’s reproductive freedom is debatable, of course our bodies are seen as public property,” she says. Even so, the author believes in the ability of writing to alter perspectives. “There’s something to be said for personal writing that manages to look both inward and outward, so that it’s not just catharsis or therapy that you’re doing, but that you have a greater purpose for referencing something from your life. That’s the writing that people tend to connect to, because they relate and then they start to think beyond themselves.”
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body
By Roxane Gay