Book Review: Hunger by Roxane Gay

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Roxane Gay is a professor and acclaimed author of the essay collection Bad Feminist, and the short story collections Difficult Women and Ayiti. Her literary achievements have landed her a firm standing among similar writers. Gay’s career is exemplified best with her memoir Hunger, an account of the author’s deeply personal struggle with obesity following a harrowing sexual assault in her early childhood. The book itself, from HarperCollins Publishers, is easily accessible at most public libraries or local bookstores, and its 304 pages will not leave the reader wishing they’d spent their time elsewhere. Unlike most memoirs, Hunger is not merely a retelling of a period of time in the author’s life, but a journey through emotional turmoil and difficult tribulations, which provides readers with lessons to take along in life.
Roxane Gay demonstrates boldness in the events and actions she describes in Hunger, which her tone transcribes into tangibility. She doesn’t shy away from personal trauma or hardship, but rather approaches it with confidence and bravery. She strives to communicate these hardships into the proper words so that her readers can relate more to her story. As she says it best herself, Hunger is not a story of winning, or of weight loss, but “…simply, a true story” (4). However personal the memoir becomes, there is never a sense of intrusion, mostly because of Gay’s tone. The subtitle of the book is A Memoir of (My) Body, and Gay is careful not to leave out any information or description about how her life affected her body. She says that after the rape, she “…felt so worthless” and “…believed [she] didn’t deserve any better” (51), which is difficult to read, but also necessary to read. Gay delivers her story in a way that demands reading, and doesn’t evoke sympathy from the reader, but empathy. Readers may not have experienced the same events that shaped Gay’s memoir, but they know the feelings she expresses and that is a primary reason people gather satisfaction or fulfillment from reading about such personal trauma.
The circumstances Roxane Gay experienced are evidence of her degree of toughness and tenacity, which serve as a model of attainability for readers. In Hunger, Gay discusses topics like sexuality, eating disorders, feminism, and the bias of medical professionals in addition to obesity and rape. Some of these topics may not be suitable for young children or those recovering from experiencing one or several of the previous subjects, which narrows its intended audience. However, Hunger loses none of its effectiveness with people who may not have experienced these things because the same toughness and tenacity applies to such things like walking in public, or going to the gym. Obese individuals may not go to gyms even when making the effort to lose weight through exercise because of a fear that they may be judged or otherwise ostracized. Gay writes about a similar experience wherein she and the woman next to her were engaging in a silent competition to see which of them could last longer on an exercise bike. Call it obstinacy or a greater strength of will, but Gay wins this unofficial challenge. Although she remarks that she felt “…a heart attack was eminent,” Gay says that “…death was preferable to losing” (167). This perseverance hardly comes across as resulting from anything Gay may have experienced, but rather as something innate within her. It is not the traumas that have shaped her as a person to be admired, but the fundamental characteristics of her humanity and personality.
One of the biggest lessons Roxane Gay exemplifies in Hunger is that happiness is not determined or derived from any form of societal perception. Many people may have said to others: “You’re not fat, you’re beautiful,” but the inherent flaw in that statement implies fatness is ugly. This is a concept Gay denounces entirely. She uses the example of weight loss shows, most notably The Biggest Loser, to best argue against this. She says, “The message, though, is the same–that self-worth and happiness are inextricably linked to thinness” (131). Gay chooses to expand on this belief by rejecting convention and rejecting societal expectations, showing that she is not afraid of any further judgement.
Roxane Gay’s Hunger is a work to be admired. Gay is true to her words—she doesn’t end the book with some over-the-top miraculous weight loss, but with everything in the book having been said, such an ending would have come across as fake and shallow. Hunger doesn’t end with a dramatic call to arms or with a demand to revolutionize society, but it provides readers with simple-sounding yet wildly-fulfilling lessons, that though society may judge the human body with an intense glare, acceptance is the first step in having every ounce of judgement melt away. A person beginning to read Hunger should keep in mind that past books reflecting such societal change as this one have the potential to become highly-regarded works of classic literature.