Hayley Scrivenor reviews Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body
By Roxane Gay
Review by HAYLEY SCRIVENOR
Roxane’s Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body is an obsessive book in many ways. It’s an obsessiveness that characterises the relationship that I, and many women I know, have with our bodies. It’s also an obsessiveness familiar to anyone who has been stuck on a past trauma or who can’t stop thinking about someone who has hurt them. The memoir centres on Gay’s body. She notes that her BMI places her in the ‘super morbidly obese’ range (9). Gay tells us early on that this will not be a book about weight loss. Hers, she warns, ‘is not a story of triumph… this is not a book that will offer motivation’ (2). It’s worth noting that a visceral account of a violent assault is something the reader will encounter if they decide to proceed past this warning.
The furore around Mia Freedman’s disappointing and insulting written introduction to a podcast where she was to discuss this non-fiction book with Gay, and the subsequent flaccid apology, is well documented outside this review. A book like this, the reaction it gets, does not exist inside a vacuum, and nor do responses to it, including my own. Freedman’s tone-deaf response reminds us how often privilege is not thinking that you have privilege. In Freedman’s case, privilege was reading and professedly loving Gay’s book, a place where Gay shares her experience as a fat, queer, woman of colour, and still carelessly humiliating Gay in a professional setting.
Gay’s memoir centres on a particular instance of horrific abuse that has left an indelible mark on her entire life. She tells us:
One of my biggest fears is that I will never cut away all that scar tissue. One of my biggest hopes is that one day I will have cut away most of that scar tissue (275).
I ran my first creative writing subject at a university in the first half of this year. I wrote and presented the weekly lecture for third year creative writing students and ran the tutorials. It was daunting. Standing at the front of the classroom each week made me empathise with Gay who throws up before presenting her first composition class (97). Gay’s fear is tied to what her students will think of her appearance, and she is relieved to survive ‘fifty minutes of being fat in front of twenty-two eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds’ (98).
Through the weeks of the course I urged my students to strip and to cut until they were left with something that said what they are trying to say in as few words as possible. The only reason any of them so much as pretended to listen to me was my position at the front of the classroom—a question of context. I told my students that they don’t get the benefit of context when they submit their stories. Their readers will not lean in until they feel there are capable hands ready to catch them. Their opening sentences need to be able to cut through the thick tread of an off-road tyre, and every word should be carefully chosen. There were pages in Hunger that I initially itched to take to with a red pen—certain words and phrases are repeated in a way that I initially found grating. Gay tells us ‘During my first two years of high school, I ate and ate and ate and I became less than nothing’ (57). Less than two pages later, ‘I ate and ate and ate at school’ (59). She also tells us ‘I did not go hungry even as I hungered for so much’ (90) and then, on the very next page ‘…and though there were many days I was fuelled by ramen, still I did not go hungry while I hungered’ (91). The words ‘good Catholic girl’ or simply ‘good girl’ pop up at least a dozen times in the text at my count (37, 38, 40, 41, 42, 45, 46, 49, 53, 74, 78, 86).
And yet this is largely a story about the way that the mind turns on and returns to moments of trauma. It’s a question of context. With Gay we know we are in safe hands. Those hands lift us in and out of moments of incredible vulnerability on the author’s part. The repetition of certain words and ideas that I originally found discomforting are reflective of the very thought-processes I recognise in myself. Negative self-talk is inescapable, it whispers the same words over and again. Sentences like ‘I was a good Catholic girl’ have such a huge psychic importance, Gay cannot say them once and move on. When Gay tells us at a certain point of weight loss she feels an unstoppable urge to once again make her body ‘like a fortress, impermeable’ (14) we are told this more than once, because it is something Gay herself must live again and again. It’s a cycle of hope and failure that feels inescapable. When Gay says ‘I often refer to my twenties as the worst years of my life because that’s exactly what they were’ (105) we might think that ‘The twenties were the worst years of my life’ should suffice. But there are shades of difference between the two sentences. Instead of just asserting the fact, Gay refers explicitly to the things she has told people, a subtle nod to the fact that not everything we tell others is true. This is particularly significant when we consider that Gay has not been able to tell her family about something that marked her so indelibly.
Self-proclaimed ‘bad feminist’ Roxane Gay writes not only from her position as a woman of size (her term, 272) but as a woman of colour. The strength of this book is the access it provides to the internal monologue that we otherwise don’t get to hear. It is lived experience, writ large in all its glorious and obsessive, detail. Gay leaves space for the contradictory nature of our desires in her sentences that are subtle riffs on one another, and in her equivocations. She tells us that ‘What I know and what I feel are two very different things’ (15). Gay’s use of brackets is also notable as it allows us to hold two opposing thoughts in our heads, a kind of doublethink we all experience:
I (want to) believe my worth as a human being does not reside in my size or appearance (15).
I had (and have?) this void, this cavern of loneliness inside me that I have spent my whole life trying to fill (44).
I saw Roxane Gay at her appearance at the University of New South Wales in the lead up to the Sydney Writers Festival. She is a funny and compelling interview subject. There are flashes of the same dry wit I saw on stage on display in her book.
Every time I watch a yoghurt commercial I think, My god, I want to be that happy. I really do (italics in original, 123).
This is a popular notion, the idea that the fat among us are carrying a thin woman inside. Each time I see this particular commercial , I think, I ate that thin woman and she was delicious but unsatisfying’ (italics in original, 126).
Aside from these flashes though, the book can be tough going. The reader gets a sense of Gay’s hopelessness, of the difficulty of her position as someone who strongly believes that women are valuable beyond their bodies, while struggling to genuinely ‘feel’ feelings of positivity about her size in a society openly antagonistic to fat people. People feel entitled to comment on Gay’s body and even take food from her trolley (143), and there is the physical discomfort that is her constant companion in public space.
In the opening pages of the book, Gay tells us:
‘This is a book about my body, about my hunger and ultimately, this is a book about disappearing and being lost and wanting so very much, wanting to be seen and understood. This is a book about learning, however slowly, to allow myself to be seen and understood.’ (3)
This wording reminds me of the flow of Sara Ahmed’s sentences throughout her book Living a Feminist Life (2017):
Feminism is wherever feminism needs to be. Feminism needs to be everywhere (4).
In her book, Sara Ahmed highlights the connection between remembering and sharing experiences, and the work of feminism:
Feminist work is often memory work. We work to remember what sometimes we wish would or could just recede. While thinking about what it means to live a feminist life, I have been remembering; trying to put the pieces together. I have been putting a sponge to the past. When I think of my method, I think of a sponge: a material that can absorb things. We hold it out and wait to see what gets mopped up. It is not that memory work is necessarily about recalling what has been forgotten: rather, you allow a memory to become distinct, to acquire a certain crispness or even clarity; you can gather memories like things, so they become more than half glimpsed, so that we can see a fuller picture; so you can make sense of how different experiences connect (22).
The strength of Hunger is the way in which it allows the reader to connect their own experiences with those of Gay. It speaks to the way we all feel that we are being watched with derision by those around us (which is not to detract from the very real discrimination that Gay experiences). The surprise Gay feels to discover that she really is loved, that people see her positive qualities and her growing awareness of same remind the reader to be kinder, to others but mainly to themselves. We can always empathise with the essential disconnect between the idea that we are worthwhile and are loved, and the subsequent feelings that we deserve to be punished for the incredible hubris we display in simply living our lives in ways that strive to be free from abuse. With this book, Gay carves out space for the insurmountable thoughts and emotions she discusses, allowing us to see what she deals with on a daily basis. We get to see a fragility that throws Roxane’s strength into an even sharper relief. As Gay asserts ‘I am stronger than I am broken’ (35). It sounds like a reminder, both for Gay and for the reader. It’s a reminder that we are not our bodies, but we live in them, and we could all be much kinder to ourselves and others.
Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life, Durham, Duke University Press 2017.
HAYLEY SCRIVENOR is a writer and PhD candidate. She is the director of Wollongong Writers Festival, which runs in the final weekend of November every year.