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Unruly and Unerring

Jennifer Silverberg
Roxane Gay, Charleston, Illinois, July 2014

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 “self-obsessed,” 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.