of (My) Body
By Roxane Gay
306 pp. $25.99
For nearly 30 years, Roxane Gay used food to cope with an act of violence done to her before she was out of puberty, before her body had a chance to blossom gently and unbruised.
As she writes in Hunger, turning her 6-foot-3 frame into a fortress by "eating and eating and eating" was a response to gang rape. Pound by pound, she built a soft, thick, mass of armor to protect the sweet bits of her soul that were left. In a collection of staccato chapters, she shares how she forged the shield. It is a deeply honest witness, often heartbreaking, and always breathtaking.
As a cultural critic, Gay is a master of the call-out, mincing no words when taking on misogyny or racism. In Hunger, she singles out the twisted way the culture frames obesity. Those with "unruly bodies" are not treated as worthy of respect, but more like walking, talking objects, masses of flesh that must be reduced, fixed, and groomed to be seen, heard, and loved.
From her time at Exeter Academy to a short stint at Yale to her hard-earned success as a writer, the message that she needed to lose weight to matter has been relentless. She's sick of it. Her fury, humiliation, and exasperation sprawl through Hunger.
Yet she's also weary of a body built in response to a crime. Her fight against it is constant. Throughout her early 20s, as she continued to gain weight, she seemed to will episodes of self-sabotage. Becoming a phone-sex worker, as Gay did for a short time in Arizona, isn't an illegitimate choice per se. But sleeping with strangers is a dangerous way to numb the soul. Gay did that.
Self-doubt and loathing hound her and at times overwhelm the reader. There are few chapters or pages where Gay doesn't criticize herself. By the middle of the book, I was writing in a margin, "Lord, help her find peace." I hadn't become insensitive, just weary.
Yet, there are moments of light in Hunger. At Gay's lowest points, her family steps up to show her love. And the memory of a working-class man in Michigan who loved her and wanted to have children with her and build a life with her is bittersweet but enduring.
Gay is one of our most vital essayists and critics. With Hunger, she is fighting for the "good girl" who trusted a terrible boy. She's trying to gather the crumbs of the child's sweetness in the hope the woman might be nourished and sated, if only for a moment.
This review originally appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.