Hunger by Roxane Gay is Book 4 of the #20BooksofSummer challenge! @rgay

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay was published on June 13th by Harper Collins. There are 84 chapters over 6 sections. Each chapter is written like flash fiction (about 1-4 pages), but it also feels like she gets writing, is ashamed of her story, and then starts again. It’s effective at showing the difficulty of this book’s contents. Many of the chapters start with the same idea, which creates a poetic rhythm to the memoir. Hunger a long-awaited memoir whose original publication date was pushed back quite a bit (a year, I believe). People are going to read this book and call it raw, honest, inspirational, brave. I argue those will all be thin people who say that. They’ll feel like they understand fat bodies after reading this memoir and feel sad at the lives fat people live. Even Roxane Gay writes that she does not want her fat body to be their inspiration. Her fat body isn’t inspiration.

Roxane Gay is the daughter of Haitian immigrants. When she was 12 and thin, she was gang-raped in a cabin in the woods. After, she eats to make her body both stronger and objectionable. No boy wants to have sex with a fat girl, she reasons, but she’ll be tougher if she eats more, too. Gay didn’t tell her parents what happened, living with her sexual assault alone for reasons she can’t explain. Her family was and is made up of loving, kind, successful, and intelligent people. She went to boarding school and was accepted to an ivy league college. But then she disappeared for a year, developed an eating disorder, and engaged in relationships with women because she felt that women couldn’t hurt her like those boys in the cabin had.

hunger

There’s so much to say about Hunger, but I’ll focus on two attributes that impressed me most. First, Gay’s story is so personal, but she never loses the perspectives of other people who have difficult lives. She notes that although she was gang-raped, many women have worse stories — and too many stories — about sexual assault. When she disappears from home for a year, she points out how broke she was. She is quick to note that she was “broke,” not “poor” because she could always call her parents and make the money problems go away. I appreciated that she her story with respect to others. She also claims that being fat made her more empathetic to the difficulties people with disabilities may have moving in public spaces, like stairs, planes, how fast people are walking, climbing up to a stage, etc., which most of us won’t see with our able bodies.

Second, I was impressed with Gay’s commentary on the nuances of living in a fat body. She desires to make peace with her body, but has never loved it at any size. She wants to work out at the gym without people telling her she inspires them to go to the gym (which we fat girls basically hear as “If this fat heifer can exercise, I sure can!”). She writes:

[The compliments at the gym] are a misguided attempt to reward the behavior of a “good fat person,” who is, in their minds, trying to lose weight rather than simply engaging in healthful behavior.

What Gay references is known as “Health at Any Size,” a movement currently gaining attention. The idea of a “good fat person” is always tied to weight, diet, and exercise. Even well-meaning people can be a problem. Gay points out:

These pretenders will lie, shamelessly, and say, “You’re not fat,” or offer a lazy compliment like, “You have such a pretty face,” or “You’re such a nice person,” as if I cannot be fat and also possess what they see as valuable qualities.

What Gay is doing is educating thin people on the things they do that they feel are positive, but really come from a place of ignorance. Do thin people know that fat people walk close to walls to stay out of the way? They sometimes buy two plane tickets so they can maintain their dignity? That fat people are always aware of whether they’re the fattest person or not at an event? DO they know that fat people get unsolicited dieting advice at the grocery store, that people will remove things from a fat person’s shopping cart? Since Gay is a famous author with a world-wide platform, this memoir could do a lot to help fat activists make progress on being respected in their bodies. Because right now, fat people are not respected. Roxane Gay knows that. She reminds us all of that: “No matter what I accomplish, I will be fat, first and foremost.”

If you’re a fat reader, you’ll see that Hunger can give voice to your experiences. If you’re a thin reader, Hunger is the experience you need.

20 books 2017
This is book #4 of my #20BooksofSummer challenge, hosted by Cathy @ 746 Books.
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57 thoughts on “Hunger by Roxane Gay is Book 4 of the #20BooksofSummer challenge! @rgay

  1. I am impatiently waiting for this to come out in the UK. I almost never pre-order books, but this is one of the rare exceptions. The writing about food and weight in Bad Feminist was one of the strongest aspects of it–and I remember that I had to completely disengage from the book for a while after the section on sexual assault, because it was so well-written and awful. I have been gradually switching to a “health at all sizes” mindset for a couple of years now, so I am really looking forward to reading Gay’s comments. Thanks for your review.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re welcome, Lou. You should really follow this HAES blog, https://daretonotdiet.wordpress.com/

      She doesn’t post constantly, and some of it takes you to her podcasts, but her articles are really smart and helpful. I think my favorite part about Bad Feminist was when she wrote about winning a word game (Scrabble? I’m drawing a blank). I felt that most of the essays wandered around and didn’t have a thesis.

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      1. Thanks for the link! And I love podcasts, so that doesn’t put me off.

        I *loved* the Scrabble essay. It was by far my favourite part of the book. I play and win Scrabble quite a lot, and I even looked up my local league after I read the book (but they meet on a night when I’m always busy). Reading about it was so much fun. I would 100% read an entire book just about her Scrabble experiences.

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  2. Wow. Such a strong review, and it sounds like a very strong book. I’m absolutely torn between wanting to read it so much, but being afraid to be triggered by the rape stuff :/ I’m so very sensitive to violence in books/movies, and this is a whole special kind of violence. But it seems like a wonderful read.
    And I may be thin, but I have other things that are “wrong” (ahem, society considers them wrong) about me, and I can’t get rid of them lest I have an operation basically or some other unnatural intervention. So I can very strongly relate to words like “no matter what I do, it is FAT what I’ll be” (I might have rephrased that but you get the point)

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    1. She described the rape scene in much more detail in her essay collection, Bad Feminist. If you’ve been reading her work, it all tends to build up to something. I think she does have some assumption that her readers know who she is, at least on the surface. Although people have things with their bodies that are “wrong,” I think one key difference is that society blames fat people for their fat bodies–and vehemently and sometimes violently try to force those people into changing their bodies even at risk to their lives.

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      1. Yeah. The part I hate the most is that they tend to think fat people are the way they are only because they eat too much, when in reality there are so many other reasons that can’t be blamed for, most health and metabolism related. I often defend even people I don’t know if someone calls them “lazy fatso” behind their back.

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        1. Or even if a person IS fat because they eat too much, what makes someone think they have the right to judge another person’s body? It’s less about what we do to our own bodies, which is our business, and more about the decency and respect we do not afford fat people. We make judgments about lots of people for unhealthful reasons, but we do not skewer and scream at them the same way. Roxane Gay talks about/wrote about how people will take food items out of her grocery cart. Even THAT little respect.

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  3. It’s interesting she offers such a balanced view of her struggles, it’s almost like she’s preemptively defending her writing from critics saying she’s being whiny or over-emotional, which is something I think female writers are more aware of because they are criticized for this more often than male writers. For example, telling her story of rape but pointing out that other woman have it much worse. What a painful thing to have to write about, but good on her trying to place her story within a larger context of humanity 🙂

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    1. Yes! I was thinking the same thing! “Oh, she’s totally answering critics before they can make a peep.” Yet, it doesn’t sound petty like that. She’s completely empathetic in her writing, and I think that part hurts, too. Women know and hear about the trauma other women have experienced way, way too much.

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      1. Agreed! And I think women are more sensitive to other people’s problems, I know all the bad stuff in the world bothers me alot more than my husband, for instance LOL not because he’s a dick, but because he has one 🙂

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  4. Well done to her for being to look beyond her own very difficult experiences to put them in wider context. Though I never think knowing that other people may have gone through worse makes much difference – we can only experience our own experiences in the end. And, as Anne has reminded me to say, love the new look! I’ve been meaning to mention it for the last few posts, but always get sidetracked by talking about the post… 😉

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    1. Thanks for the compliment! I like the way the featured image is like a water mark on the home page. I’m not sure that comparing ourselves to others is helpful if we do it excessively (because then we knowingly allow ourselves to suffer because we think, “Oh, well at least I have it better than X, Y, and Z). But I do think if we are intelligent and thoughtful, comparing ourselves to others can help put things into perspective and give us motivation to be stronger or change or do better. This is a small example, and perhaps not the best, but I still remember when I was in 7th grade I weight something like 180 pounds. I was sitting on the sidelines in gym class, lamenting not being much, much skinnier. I said I wanted to be X’s size (a girl who ran by). Then, the girl next to me, who almost NEVER spoke, who weight around 300 pounds, said, “Yeah, well I wish I was YOUR size.” It was a sad moment that made me feel ashamed of myself because I didn’t consider the feelings of the person sitting right next to me. Today, I would have responded much differently (and probably not even verbalized anything negative about my size), but I do know I’m much more aware of things coming out of my mouth that I think are about ME, but effect the people around me.

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      1. Yes, I think when we’re kids we tend to be less aware of other people’s feelings in general and gradually become more empathetic as we grow up. Though of course some people never learn that lesson.

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  5. I’ve been looking forward to this book for a long time – I’m glad to hear that it did not disappoint. I really admire the fact that she is able to speak so honestly, but never attempts to speak on behalf of others and silence their voices. Great review! Oh, and I love the new layout as well. 😊

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    1. Thank you! I try to keep an eye open for fresh new themes. I think I’ve changed the theme 3 times in 4 years. Keeps people surprised? Okay, probably not, but some themes do look dated very quickly. When does Hunger come out in Australia?

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  6. I’m glad to hear this one made such an impression on you. Your thoughts remind me a lot of those backhand comments that well meaning people give to a marginalized person that immediately make me squirm. Those “You speak so well for a ______.” These comments always feel more self-serving than anything else. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

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    1. At the college where I teach, a student group decorated one of the hallway cork boards (those huge things colleges and high schools have) with images of people with different disabilities, and each one ended with “I’m not your inspiration, I’m your _______” (classmate, coworker, etc.). Every time I went by that board, I thought more and more about what it means to be inspired. Like, we call Holocaust survivors “inspirational.” What are they inspiring in us? Kindness? Strength? Are we really just saying we’re happy that what happened to them never happened to us and we can’t believe they survived? I’m not sure, but I feel like the word “inspirational” is one I’ve been slowly removing from my thoughts and vocabulary over the last two months…

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      1. How true. Not everyone with a disability or any kind of marginalization wants to be someone’s inspiration. Sometimes it’s just a matter of survival or being seen as a whole person instead of someone to have pity on. People aren’t here for you to learn some kind of lesson in kindness. Food for thought for sure.

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  7. I’ve always been fat, and so I think I can really connect to some of these experiences. Especially the going to the gym part. I have no problem with exercising but the struggle is in finding a private space to do so! But I don’t think I’ll read the book though.

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    1. Would you not read it because the content could be too upsetting?

      I’m part of a group on Facebook led by a dietitian who uses the Health At Any Size approach, which I love. Just yesterday there was a conversation about trigger warnings on the posts people share. Some people want a TW for the word “obese,” for example, so we were trying to figure out what IS triggering. In the end, people agreed it didn’t matter, than a TW is there to give people the choice to read or not and know what to expect. So, I now see that this book could be triggering in many ways: sexual assault, fatphobia, eating disorders, some physical abuse

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      1. Yes, I do expect the content will be at least a little triggering. Especially, since I’m still struggling to manage my weight. I’m just too close to the material at this point.

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  8. Great review! This sounds like a great read. I’m not really familiar with Roxane Gay, but I’ve been seeing her name around my area as she is speaking at an event locally (ha ha – I just noticed that it is part of a series of author events that my local bookstore calls “Nasty Woman” series ). I’m not sure I’ll be able to hear her speak, but I’ve added this book to my TBR list. Thanks for the recommendation!

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    1. You’re welcome! I first heard of Roxane Gay when I went to AWP, a huge writers and writing program conference that has lots of speakers and panels, and a book fair, of course! Gay’s first-ever book, Ayiti, a short collection of short stories, was on sale for $2 because the press accidentally printed all of the pages front and back, instead of starting a new story on the right side of the page. It was a small press that has since closed, but small press books were totally my scene (and still are, but these days I’m trying to go through my TBR, which will include small and big press books). She late came out with Bad Feminist, which I didn’t like half as much as everyone else. https://grabthelapels.com/2015/06/29/bad-feminist/

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  9. There has been a big storm over here (Australia) because a popular women’s website – which is attempting to gain traction in the US – prefaced their interview with Gay by describing their preparations, including will she fit in the office lift and so on. Gay had no problem saying what she thought of this, and good on her! Here’s a link to the whole story
    https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jun/13/roxane-gay-labels-mamamia-cruel-and-humiliating-will-she-fit-into-the-office-lift

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, God, I saw that! How stupid of them! You don’t stick out your little flag of look-how-thoughtful-we-are and expect to be patted on the back. Just consider the comfort and happiness of ALL of your guests! Sheesh, people. Also, can I just say that I’m still impressed that people on the other side of the globe can talk about the same experiences as me? I didn’t grow up with the internet, so I’m still impressed by it.

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  10. Great review. This does sound like an emotional but powerful read. What happened to her in the cabin breaks my heart. I can’t imagine what it is like to go through something like that and have to keep it to yourself. I like what you said about the book being for everyone whether fat or thin. Definitely a memoir that I would like to read someday.

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    1. Yes, especially since many of my blogger friends are from different counties with cultures that have some pretty ruthless opinions about fat people. It’s still unclear why she kept her rape to herself. She went on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah and said the same thing. The book suggests she was a good Catholic girl who was incredibly bright, so she possibly felt shame that she was doing things (kissing? sex?) with boys before she was raped. She was scared to tell.

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  11. Sounds like such a powerful and very intimate memoir, I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to write it – your description of the “starting over” gives a feeling. Appreciate, too, your insights on how her work might be interpreted or misinterpreted- excellent review

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    1. Thanks so much! I think the most difficult part was making sure I DID write a review and didn’t just dump in a bunch of quotes I felt were important–and there were a lot of those–that would speak for themselves. Quotes don’t speak for themselves.

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  12. Wonderful review! I am adding this book to the top of my TBR right now. It sounds like such a powerful and important memoir. I hope it will help others understand how their behaviors–like taking an item out of someone’s shopping cart–are harmful, but I worry that the people who need to understand this lesson the most aren’t likely to read this book.

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    1. Hmmm, that’s a good point. They probably won’t read it. But I’m hoping that people with internalized fatphobia question their beliefs more and stomp down bullies and even fatphobic comments when they hear them. Happy reading!

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  13. I’m so glad you reviewed this one! Gay is actually coming near me on her book tour for this one the first week of July, but unfortunately I will be on vacation 😦 I am so bummed. I would have loved to hear her speak.

    Anyways! This one caught my eye and I’ve been anticipating it for a while. As a former fat woman, I feel like I could view it both as a former fat woman, AND as the “normal sized” woman I am today. While I do not forget my experiences as a fat woman, I’m sure I’m guilty of doing & saying stupid things that are backhanded without realizing it.

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    1. So, so, so many people do, and it took me a long time to realize I can’t say fat people deserve respect and then criticize others and myself behind closed doors. It really starts with me. I’ve of the best ways that helped me so that I could teach others was to surround myself with fat people in my Twitter feed and blog reading and avoid magazines (THEY ARE THE WORST). In college, I remember learning about a study in which people were in a waiting room for a while before speaking to a psychologist. Half the test subjects had women’s magazines left in the waiting area, and half had magazines covering a war (I can’t remember which one). People reported WAY MORE DEPRESSION after looking at the women’s mags to the psychologist than those who looked at war journalism!

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  14. This sounds soooo good! But I always have trouble with books like this. It always seems like the people who need it most, the kind of people who fat shame, won’t read the book, you know? And for people who already struggle with weight, reading about it can just make it more painful. I’m going to have to look into it. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Savanah. I know what you mean. You know who I see as the intended audience, though? Thin liberals. Sometimes they have the best of intentions but don’t really empathize with fat people. Or, they think they get what it means to live in a fat body and that they can support their fat friend by telling him/her how beautiful/not fat they really are, which reinforces the concept that fat is bad.

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  15. I can’t believe someone would take things out of someone else’s grocery cart! Ugh. That makes me embarrassed to be human.

    I haven’t read anything yet by Roxanne Gay, but I keep intending to. This one sounds like a good bet for me. Especially after reading your last comment about how you think thin people should read the book. I have a friend who calls herself fat. I love her and I don’t care if she’s fat. But sometimes I worry that I’ll say the wrong thing to her or in front of her, and I really don’t want to. This book might help me. Thanks for the great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re welcome, Naomi! Another book I have on my #20BooksofSummer list is This is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare by Gabourey Sidibe, another fat African American woman. She is most famous for her role in the movie Precious, though I’ve heard she’s in one of the American Horror Story seasons. It’s not a show I’ve watched, but I know it’s super popular. Anyway, Roxane Gay loves Sidibe’s book, and it almost sounds like they could be companion memoirs!

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