Book Review: Hunger by Roxanne Gay
By Ljudmila Petrovic
The first time I read something by Roxane Gay, it was (like many people) her best-selling essay collection, Bad Feminist. Gay had brought us An Untamed State, a novel of sexual violence, race, and privilege. She brought us a series of short stories in Difficult Women. She then skyrocketed to the mainstream with Bad Feminist, a series of biting and intelligent essays exploring what it means to be a woman and a feminist.
But now what Roxane Gay brings us is Hunger, a memoir so beautifully written that you won’t want to put it down, but so raw and painful that you’ll have to. Having read her other work and knowing what Hunger was about, I thought I was prepared for what was in store in the pages before me. But I wasn’t.
Gay writes about unimaginable sexual trauma that she experienced early in her life, how she began to embody her trauma through eating, how she navigates a world that is simply not accepting of her body. I have read countless memoirs and books about eating disorders over the years, but most of them centered on starvation, on thinness as both the initial goal and the inevitable cage. When people talk about eating disorders, they too often talk about anorexia or sometimes bulimia. They talk about starvation and wasting away. They talk about disappearing and restriction. This attitude trickles from the tabloids and books and the inexperienced layperson talking about someone’s diet “going too far.” It occurs at the level of health professionals, of highly educated and trained people. It happens within communities that are focused on eating disorder recovery. To believe that the weight of an individual is in any way an indication of how much they are suffering or how sick they are is dangerous. And Roxane Gay drives that point home with Hunger.
Gay starts the book by warning the reader that it is “not a story of triumph, not a book that will offer motivation.” “Mine is not a success story,” she writes. “It is simply a true story.” Gay is hard on herself here and throughout the book. She is right that it is not a motivational book in the sense that it does not follow the classical narrative that is expected of her. But what Gay writes about, what she makes you feel, are the conversations that are left out. She does not shy away from writing about the shame or her own struggles, but ultimately Gay owns her story and her body. “If I must share my story, I want to do so on my terms, without the attention that inevitably follows,” she writes. “I do not want pity or appreciation or advice. 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.”
It is a raw book, and Gay makes herself vulnerable to the reader. It is difficult to read, and it is uncomfortable but Gay manages to shine the light on conversations that simply are not happening. She makes the reader think about what an eating disorder looks like, she makes the reader look at the world from her perspective, she demands that the reader notice the racism and fat phobia that are present in so many untold stories.
“What does it say about our culture that the desire for weight loss is considered a default feature of womanhood?”
And she describes in painful, heart wrenching, nauseatingly vivid and eloquent technicolour the connection between trauma and disordered eating, how we embody our experiences, how trauma can change a person forever, can change their bodies and their relationships with themselves and others. “I had work to do to make my body bigger and bigger and bigger and safer,” she writes. She writes about the safety of feeling invisible, the safety she had in her body and in food. In essence, the emotional aspect of the narrative is not much different than all the stories we hear from some anorectics of trauma or extreme stress sparking a need to control one’s surroundings through food and body. What is different is how Gay’s story is how it is accepted. I cannot sum up the essence of the memoir even half as well as Gay herself:
“This is a memoir of (my) body because, more often than not, stories of bodies like mine are ignored or dismissed or derided. People see bodies like mine and make their assumptions. They think they know the why of my body. They do not.”
This book is what was missing from our discourse. I cannot imagine how difficult of a writing process Roxane Gay had to face to gift us with this, but she was wrong in some ways to call her contribution anything less than a story of triumph. Perhaps it is not triumphant in a personal sense (only Gay can decide that for herself), but it is a triumph for all those whose stories are not heard. It is a triumph for everybody who has been refused validation or support because their narrative just didn’t fit. It is a triumph for everyone who reads it and can either see parts of their own story reflected back or feel Gay’s story enough to change their way of thinking. This is a difficult book to read, I will not deny that. It is filled with trauma, pain, disordered body eating, self-loathing. No matter what your story, reading Hunger will be an extremely emotional journey. It is painful, it is searing. But it is also an important story to hear.
This body is resilient. It can endure all kinds of things. My body offers me the power of presence. My body is powerful.
Ljudmila graduated from SFU, where she studied psychology and gender studies. She lives in Vancouver, BC and is pursuing a career in counselling, with the goal of doing women-centred therapy.