I saw Roxane Gay last February at the American Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Washington, D.C. It was cold and gray that weekend, and I wore wool the whole time. I was walking with my friend Austin, making our way out of the conference hotel and into downtown D.C., and all of a sudden, Austin whispered, “Roxane Gay,” and he pointed with his gaze.
I knew what Roxane Gay looked like, of course—I’d seen the pictures online and in her books’ jackets. But nothing prepared me for Roxane Gay in the flesh, just a few feet away from us, leaning against a wall and smoking a cigarette. She was dressed in dark colors, denim and black, and though I’d sensed nothing a moment before, I now felt her presence like a spirit in the room with you when you’re sleeping. I gasped. She was the woman who’d written the stories that broke me down, made me weep, made me remember for years afterwards. She was a legend, a literary goddess, and here she stood, smoking a cigarette and leaning against a wall, just a few steps away from where we walked. We hurried past, not the type of fans to gush or hug or be a bother, but I was chilled for the rest of the night, stunned by what I dared to feel coming off of her: this latent power, warm like the sun.
I couldn’t believe it: Roxane Gay’s Hunger was on the shelf, and no one had snapped it up yet. I love our library, especially when it feels like no one goes. I checked it out, tucked it into my bag, and had it open by lunchtime, sandwich and lemonade forgotten. “We should not take up space,” Gay writes on page thirteen. “We should be seen and not heard, and if we are seen, we should be pleasing to men, acceptable to society. And most women know this, that we are supposed to disappear, but its something that needs to be said, loudly, over and over again, so that we can resist surrendering to what is expected of us.”
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body is Gay’s courageous, beautiful, terrible story of her coming-of-age, her sexuality, her roaring twenties and fumbling thirties, her rise to fame, and always her body, her body, and her hunger. The book feels like you’re reading someone’s diary. It feels, uncomfortably and blessedly, like an invasion. This is the best, rawest, most troubling, most healing kind of memoir there is, and it’s the kind I can’t yet make—she tells us everything, she lays her life bare, she opens her heart and dares to let us take it. The intimacy of this book is a revolution, and should be required reading for all women and men, all mothers and fathers, all teachers and civil servants. Everyone who resides in a body in this world owes it to herself to read Hunger.
In her memoir, Gay divides her experience into the before and the after – the innocence and then the fall from grace that followed a trauma I won’t describe – read the book, Bad Feminist, or other reviews if you really want to know. Or, just take a guess. You’re probably right. Anyway, Gay swallows the worst day of her life like an edible secret, and everything falls apart – her confidence, her blossoming physical beauty, her open trust in her family. Food becomes a way to hide, the weight a disguise that renders the body invisible, genderless. Gay’s short chapters span the topics of cooking and food preparation, breakfast and binging, flying on planes and sitting in too-small chairs, and, of course, the weight-loss reality-TV shows that populate most networks. In one of the book’s most poignant passages, Gay describes Rachel Frederickson, the Season 15 Biggest Loser winner who weighed in at 105 pounds on live television. “In the two months after her big reveal,” Gay writes, “Frederickson gained twenty pounds and reached, apparently, a more acceptable but still appropriately disciplined size….those of us who deny ourselves and discipline our bodies know better. Rachel Frederickson was doing exactly what we asked of her, and what too many of us would, if we could, ask of ourselves.”
Reading Hunger was a little bit like reading Americanah, by Chimanada Ngozi Adichie—the reading process was also a process of learning how it is to be black in America, or, in Gay’s case, to be too big in America—for armchairs, for planes, for the public’s comfort. The stories she tells break my heart and smack me in the face, because of how little I’ve seen, and what I’ve been willing to ignore—in airports, in college, and even in my own classroom. Chairs that don’t fit, clothes that are always too small, doorways that are always too narrow. Strangers who take food from your grocery cart and put it back on the shelves. Nurses who wince when they weigh you. After a while, it all gets internalized, “and then I start to hate myself for my unruly body that I seem incapable of disciplining, for my cowardice in the face of what other people might think.”
In the end, Hunger is a story of triumph, even if the book isn’t framed that way. “I often wonder,” Gay writes at the close of her memoir, “who I would have been if this terrible thing had not happened to me, if I hadn’t spend so much of my life hungering so much.” And by the very end, she’s asking her reader to look within: “Does anyone feel comfortable in their bodies?”
I closed the book this morning, tears in my eyes, and I thought about the day I’d seen Roxane Gay standing outside the Marriott Hotel in downtown D.C. I thought about the experience I had at that conference—all the walking, the standing, the waiting, the sitting, and how easy it was for me to fit. I thought about my own body and the times I’ve hated on it, run it ragged, dragged it too far, pushed it to make it thinner, starved it. Beat on it. All the ways I’ve hated my body over the years.
I can still feel the way the writer’s strength hit me like a warm gust of wind, though she hadn’t looked at us, hadn’t moved at all. In fact, if Austin hadn’t said her name, I might have walked right past without noticing the tall, denim-clad woman smoking a cigarette by herself.