By Angelina Eimannsberger
Early on in her memoir, Roxane Gay tells us, “This is a book about learning, however slowly, to allow myself to be seen and understood.” (5) This might sound like it belongs in the self-help aisle of the bookstore, but Gay has a lot to offer as a cultural critic and writer, alongside some life advice. Her memoir is about her body, about bodies, a brutal and honest and hopeful meditation about weight, gender, sexuality, race, and trauma.
Speaking of an event with herself and Gloria Steinem on the panel, and a dispute around the location of the sign language interpreter, Gay says that this “was a moment when I understood that all of us have to be more considerate of the realities of the bodies of others.” (299) Because the specificity of her body limits where she is comfortable and where she is able to go, Gay understood instinctively that the translator absolutely needed to be in the center, that a good view of her would be more important than a good view of the panel. She was sitting next to feminist icon Gloria Steinem, and yet Gay’s body, so often shamed and disrespected and difficult to deal with, gave her a generosity of insight Steinem didn’t have access to. Gay concludes the anecdote by saying, “I am thankful that my body, however unruly it is, allowed me to learn from that moment.” (29) Her reader, in turn, is thankful that she so thoroughly and at times with brutal honesty shares what she has learned.
Gay’s essay collection Bad Feminist precedes and complements her memoir Hunger, setting up and expanding on some of the insights and lessons. “Bad Feminist” prepares one for the smarts, the breadth of knowledge, and the history of violence of the author. Gay is not afraid of complexity and contradiction and masterfully handles both. Clustered around the author’s large body and its history, the nonfiction narrative of Hunger takes us into the specificity of being a rape victim/survivor, a black Haitian in the US, and a bisexual woman with poetic language and exceptional perception.
The book was published before #metoo and #timesup started trending. It prepares and theorizes these movements. Except for what she calls “the terrible thing,” Gay says, “I’ve never feared for my life. I’ve never been in a situation where I couldn’t walk away. Does this make me a lucky girl? Given the stories I’ve heard from other women, yes, it does make me a lucky girl.” (247) And then she adds, “This is not how we should measure luck.” (247)
Similar to her conclusion in “Bad Feminist” that the choice to wholeheartedly cheer on the television shows Orange is the New Black or Girls, often cited for their feminism in spite of some shortcomings Gay discusses in erudite detail, is a question of what kind of culture we are willing to settle for, Hunger also asks for high standards. Gay writes this book as a testament that she won’t give up on happiness, wholeness, and an end of hunger, in spite of her sometimes grueling, often lonely, overall deeply impressive life story.
Writing, clearly, has been a lifeline for her: “One of the many things I have always loved about writing (not to be confused with publishing) is that all you need is your imagination … As a naturally shy person, I loved the anonymity of writing before my career took off. I loved how my stories didn’t care about my weight.” (261)
With Gay, we witness literature at its very best: letting people read and write their way out of loneliness, desperation, and hopelessness into a connected, supported, loving life. She teaches the reader to be considerate of the realities of bodies, her own and those of others, and gives her personal experience the skylight of sharp societal and cultural analysis that is relevant for any feminist, person with body, and person interested in socialization around obesity and thinness.