Hunger is so raw, poignant and compelling that it hurts to read it.

At the most superficial level Hunger is a memoir about Roxane Gay’s body – specifically her very tall (6’3), very large (200 kgs +) body. Gay details her daily indignities and humiliations as a woman of size moving through a world designed for much smaller people. And if that were all Hunger was about it would probably be enough. But at a deeper level Hunger is really about Gay’s mental discomfort. Her shame, her anger, her guilt and her intellectual awareness of the way those feelings are contradictory to her beliefs, ideas, and values.

  • Gay is an avowed feminist who wishes she were pretty while fully understanding that no woman is ever pretty enough.
  • Gay, an academic with a PhD, understands that to reduce her size she needs to eat less and exercise more yet despite the gyms, the diets, the trainers and the programs she fails to lose weight, over and over again.
  • Gay supports the social movement to accept and celebrate the fat body, although she has little but loathing and hatred for her own.

Early on in the memoir, Gay explains that at the age of twelve she was gang-raped by her boyfriend and his mates. At the time, Gay told no-one. But those boys told all their friends and Gay subsequently became known as the school slut. Once more, Gay told no-one. Gay continued to see the boyfriend, who continued to abuse and humiliate her. Again, Gay told no-one. At the end of the school year Gay’s family moved interstate and she was able to start over at a new school but by then the damage was done. Gay ate for comfort and to deliberately turn her body into a fortress. Her fat became a defence against the cruelty of others, supposedly protecting her from the male gaze. Instead, it opened her up to a whole different form of cruelty, which Gay articulates and examines with exquisite prose that has the precision and clarity of surgery, albeit with none of the anaesthetic.

At its heart, though, I think this is a memoir about Gay’s relationship with her wealthy, loving, lovable Haitian-American family.

Over and again we read about how much she loves her parents and brothers and how much they love her. She wishes her twelve-year-old self had told them what happened and sought their help. That was what I read. But what I heard, in between those lines, was Gay’s anger. Impossible, irrational anger at the parents who didn’t stop the rape from happening or its humiliating aftermath. Anger at the family who never recognised her subsequent suffering. Anger at the family who are constantly worrying about and make suggestions about her weight, The Weight, as if her weight wasn’t part of who she is. In her anger it seems to me that she punishes them.

When I am at the gym I want to be left alone in my sweaty misery. I want to disappear until my body is no longer a spectacle. I can’t disappear, though, so either I have to be graceful in the face of this unsolicited [encouragement from strangers] or I have to ignore it because if I allowed myself to lose control I would let loose so much rage.

At the age of nineteen Gay dropped out of her ivy-league college and, as far as her family was concerned, disappeared for a year. Gay is vague about that year but it seemed to consist of sexual misadventures in share-houses and squats. Her family was, naturally, beside themselves with worry. But even at the end of that period, when Gay hesitantly established contact once more, she didn’t tell her family about the rape. In fact Gay’s family didn’t realise what she’d been through until another ten or more years later, when Gay wrote about the rape in her (excellent) essay collection Bad Feminist. Gay had written about the rape before, in various pieces published online, but her family hadn’t read those. Nor did her family actually read Bad Feminist: they merely read a review of the book in the New York Times, which referenced the rape. Gay notes all this without comment, and seemingly without judgement. But she notes it.

I finished this book – this sharp, illuminating, haunting book – wondering if Gay’s weight was also a form of parental punishment. I wonder if it is her means of failing to be the good girl (as she describes it), of humiliating them via her unruly body (as she constantly calls it). I don’t think there is an answer to that because what this book tells us, if nothing else, is that, well, it’s complicated.