In Roxane Gay’s memoir ‘Hunger,’ the most difficult truths bear repeating

Heather Scott Partington

Three stars

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body By Roxane Gay, $26.

"Mine is not a success story,” Roxane Gay writes in her memoir, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. “Mine is, simply, a true story.” In what she admits was her most difficult book to write, Gay reveals that her life is divided into a before and after: At age 12 she was the victim of a gang rape, and this annihilated her senses of self, desire and safety. Hunger explores the limits of her comfort about her body, the depth of shame, and how we treat the morbidly obese.

“More often than not, stories of bodies like mine are ignored or dismissed or derided.” Much of what Gay writes is repetitive; she writes around difficult topics, and this opacity—or desire, in some cases, to hold back information from the reader—can undermine a story that is, at other times, bold and confessional. Many of the chapters are meditations on one feeling or another, and these overlap in their ideas and tone. “I have presence,” Gay writes in one of these chapters, “I am told. I take up space. I intimidate. I do not want to take up space.”

Gay’s work is most compelling when she tells specific stories from her life, as she does with her original trauma, subsequent moves around the country, relationships and experiences in academia. The strength of Gay’s storytelling talent shines in those moments; the specific seems more universal when given the weight of detail. When she’s repeating ideas about space or intimacy without grounding them in specifics, she lessens the impact of her otherwise strong voice.

Hunger challenges its reader head-on. Gay writes, “We don’t necessarily know how to hear stories about any kind of violence, because it is hard to accept that violence is as simple as it is complicated.” It seems, here, that the writing of such stories proved equally difficult. But Gay reminds us of her strength as a cultural critic when she takes on attitudes about weight-loss culture: “What does it say about our culture that desire for weight loss is considered a default feature of womanhood?” she asks at one point, and at another, explicates the “taxonomy for the unruly, overweight human body.”

Despite the repetition, Hunger reveals gems of Gay’s signature insight. This is a memoir of wanting and its inverse, denial. Life, as she says, “is generally the pursuit of desires.”

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