Roxane Gay’s Hunger

9781472151117Roxane Gay’s memoir of body image and sexual trauma is unsparingly honest and confronting. Already a woman I greatly admire for her writing — particularly for the incredible An Untamed State, which is the one constant on my ever-changing list of favourite books — and her unflinching honesty, and take-no-bullshit attitude, I’ve been looking forward to Hunger since its announcement a while back.

And of course it doesn’t disappoint. It was never going to.

Hunger is a gut-wrenching, heart-rending, personal discourse on the brutality of life in a fat body — a queer, Haitian-American fat woman’s body, if you want to be specific — in a world that shames and forgets such people.

Readers would not expect Gay to pull any punches in the telling of her own story, and she certainly doesn’t. Right at the start, she declares that her story is devoid of “any powerful insight into what it takes to overcome an unruly body and unruly appetites.” This isn’t a story about success, but about the eternal struggle she has faced, and continues to face, coping with the fallout of a terrible violation in her youth. The personal demons that haunt Gay stem from a devastating gang rape at the age of 12, which is rendered so starkly here, so incredibly powerfully, it is something I will never forget. It is harrowing, and so Goddamn fucking awful, that a young woman’s innocence and youth could be stolen in such a way. That it’s endemic in our society is shameful.

Moments of lightness — a self-deprecatory humour — punctuate Hunger; genuinely hilarious laugh-out-loud moments, such as when Gay describes her perspective on the “exceedingly thin people at the gym” with their “placid facial expressions” and their outfits which constitute “shorts so short that the material is more a suggestion than an actual item of clothing”; her relationship with her personal trainer; or how when she played soccer as a child, she’d be more focused on the grass than the game going on around her.

Gay’s account of life in a “fat body” struck a chord for me, reminding me of my adolescence as a fat teenager. I should make it clear: my body was of my own making: not the consequence of a terrible experience, just human weakness, and the continual submission to my personal deficiencies. So I can’t pretend my experience was anything like Gay’s, not really; especially in a society where it’s more acceptable for a man to be overweight than a woman. But I am cognisant of the horridness of an existence in a body society frowns upon.  I endured the cruel taunts from those around me, but the most savage always came from my own mind: so many days and nights spent lamenting my body, knowing its condition was my own fault, but unable — well, in my case, unwilling — to do anything about it. At least for a time, until one day something snapped, and I made a decision to do something about my weight, before the situation was taken out of my hands. But how I was then, and what I am now — at my worst I was 120kgs, and my lightest I was 65kgs — has stayed with me. My weight still fluctuates, and if I’m totally honest, my experiences as a fat kid continue to influence — more like haunt — my life today. I run, just about every day, to chase away the memory of my past self.


Sixteen-year-old me

Hunger is about the consequences of being gang-raped when Gay was 12. It’s about being the daughter of middle-class Haitian immigrants and not fitting into the narrative of blackness, and it’s about being a feminist. It is raw and powerful, and essential reading for everyone. It’s a book I won’t forget. It’s a book I can’t forget.

ISBN: 9781472151117
ISBN-10: 1472151119
Format: Paperback (160mm x 232mm x 24mm)
Pages: 288
Imprint: Corsair
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Publish Date: 6-Jul-2017

Review: An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

Untamed StateHaiti is a country of “startling contrasts,” writes Roxane Gay; beauty and brutality bourgeoning impossibly in one place. The same can be said of mankind as a whole, which thrives on disparity tied to gender, race, poverty and class, and is utilized by the weak as an excuse to fall prey to dark desires and the blackness in our hearts. An Untamed State uncompromisingly exposes mankind’s darkness, and forces readers to confront some harrowing truths. It is a challenging read, but a necessary one, and executed with stunning page-turning deftness.

Mireille, her husband Michael, and baby son, have returned to Haiti to visit her parents. Her father is an influential figure in the region, who has worked hard his whole life to build this life of luxury. Because of this, he – and therefore his family – are highly-prized ransom targets. The moment Mireille and her young family step outside her father’s compound, they are attacked.  Mireille is taken, kicking and screaming from her loved ones, as Michael watches on powerlessly. But kidnapping is an unfortunate part of life in Haiti; there are procedures in place for moments like this. Mireille is able to remain a smidgen of composure, knowing she needs to be kept alive for the ransom to be paid, and being her father’s youngest daughter, that’s a given. She’s just got to wait it out. She can do this. She is strong.

Untamed State 2Then we learn: Mireille’s father has declined to pay the ransom. And so begins thirteen days of cruelty and deprivation, during which this young woman is dehumanized by vicious animals masquerading as men; used as their plaything, broken physically and mentally for their amusement. Throughout it all, her father’s betrayal stings the most.

An Untamed State is told in two parts: the before and after. We witness Mireille cognizant disassociation with events, then later, her attempts at rebuilding her life and reclaiming what she lost. But having crushed her humanity, buried its pieces, and coated over it with concrete, is that even possible?

Gay’s prose is penetrating rather than poetic. She doesn’t hold back, bluntly describing Mireille’s treatment and its consequences. The novel is better for it; shying away from the reality would be unjust, and would strip away its potency. An Untamed State will resonate long after the final page is turned. It will make you think and reflect; more than anything, it will make you angry. Because although this account is fiction, Gay has exposed reality. We owe it to ourselves, to our brothers and sisters around the world, to learn these hard truths; and hopefully, together, we can obliterate such horrors from existence. Or die trying.