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…

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