Is Roxane Gay’s ‘Hunger’ a Memoir or a Polemic?
Two writers discuss how Gay’s work engages the personal and the political.
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
“Double Take” is our literary criticism series wherein two readers tackle a highly-anticipated book’s innermost themes, successes, failures, trappings, and surprises. In this edition, Electric Literature contributors Natalie Coleman and Apoorva Tadepalli discuss Roxane Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body.
I n Hunger, Roxane Gay bares all, writing from her innermost depths to come to grips with the nightmares of her past and how they’ve shaped her present and future. Gay has written a truly harrowing and unabashed depiction of what it means to live with and within the body we are born into and tasked to understand.
Natalie Coleman is a writer living in New York. She tweets at @_nataliecoleman. Apoorva Tadepalli is a graduate student of Cultural Reporting and Criticism at NYU. She is from Bombay and lives, of course, in Brooklyn. She tweets at @storyshaped.
Natalie Coleman: Books that deal with weight loss, even if they talk of appetite, often know nothing of desire. Roxane Gay’s new memoir, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body serves as a taxonomy of its author’s insatiable desires: for food and sex, kindness and freedom, love and respect. It is a book about the human need to consume and be consumed, as well as the pleasure — and pain — that comes from indulging. “The story of my life is wanting, hungering for what I cannot have or, perhaps, wanting what I dare not allow myself to have,” Gay writes.
Gay revisits each phase of her life as a large woman, from her lonely years as an overweight adolescent through the unhealthy relationships and eating disorders that shadowed her adulthood. We first see a young Roxane as the happy girl from a loving, middle-class Haitian-American family. The little girl grows up quickly after being brutally gang-raped as a twelve-year-old girl in a cabin in the woods. From then on, Gay made herself bigger: She ate herself into an invisibility that could only come from making herself large and undesirable, as she saw herself. Gay formed her body into a bastion, eating until she felt safe, until her skin stretched and resembled nothing of the girl she once was.
Roxane Gay’s new memoir, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body serves as a taxonomy of its author’s insatiable desires: for food and sex, kindness and freedom, love and respect.
In fragmentary chapters, Gay meditates on the burden of living with her “unruly body” — a term she adopts for its rebellious spirit — and the daily trials of simply existing in a fat body. But ultimately it is a story of her own particular body. As Gay said recently in an interview with Guernica, “This is a memoir, not a polemic, and I’m not a spokesperson for the fat community by any stretch, nor would they want me to be.”
Apoorva Tadepalli: No, she’s not a spokesperson for any community. Her career has kind of been defined by a sort of humble, individual voice that is good at finding fresh ways to talk about the “underdog,” while still remaining relatable. I think the most important and interesting thing to note about Roxane Gay, looking at both this book and her career since it really took off, is what a genius she has been at reading and responding to the conversations of the zeitgeist. She created a version of a good feminist in order to posit herself as a bad one, and this is brilliant because it makes her a trustworthy critic. She is trustworthy when she talks about her body, and the body — her sexual desires; the effects of being touched in certain ways, both violent and not; the significance of clothes and popular clothing in our consumerist culture; the connection between food, cooking, her adolescent shyness and her relationship with her family — because she carefully details very familiar experiences in a very raw and honest way.
In this modest way, she is the perfect Tumblr idol: She’s always been able, as she continues to do in this book, to combine pop culture with feminist theory with teenage girl crazes — and she was talking about identity politics and body positivity when it was still really the conversation of the underdog, or of the socially handicapped, or of the lonely fangirls intimately familiar with the dark corners of the internet. And as this book indicates, that is a space and a conversation she understands very deeply, perhaps instinctively as a cultural critic — and in theory, it is a space and conversation that are imperative to any cultural conversation.
On the other hand, I’m unsure of how I feel about the book given its timing. Much of the book, which critiques beauty standards and rape culture through both cultural commentary and personal history, is both essential and true. But to a great degree, it is also a repetition — of both her own work as well as of the conversations of our time. I think I would have found the book much more moving had I read it five or ten years ago; at this point, I think it is natural for a reader, or maybe it’s just me, to find the language of identity politics — like the use of “patriarchy” or “male gaze,” for example — that she uses to make her statements, a little flat and a little obvious.
NC: I agree with you there, in that when Gay shifted into politicized discussions of feminism and body positivity movements, it wasn’t persuasive. There’s almost the sense that — for anyone who’s read Bad Feminist, or even Gay’s Twitter feed — we’ve covered this territory with her before as a reader. But still, I think Gay transcends the Tumblr feedback loop of self-affirmation. Though she may speak to the interests of the community on Tumblr — who seem to regard her as a divining rod of all that is feminist — I found the memoir free from the public figure we’ve come to (think we) know. This book is an exposure, a flash bulb illuminating the corners of Gay’s mind, the closed doors, the rough edges.
Gay’s writing can feel deflated by an overuse of cliché and repetitive phrasing, though I agree with how Hannah Black addressed this in Bookforum: “A critique of her style would be elitist and pointless — her many fans love her regardless, and her work does not ask to be read as literary.” As a reader, I don’t need literary language to fathom the shame Gay feels when she is introduced to a family friend who has never met her and sees reflected in their eyes the disbelief that Gay could come from such a fit, beautiful family. Even from her own blood, she is relegated.
Roxane Gay created a version of a good feminist in order to posit herself as a bad one, and this is brilliant because it makes her a trustworthy critic.
For me, much of the memoir’s honesty lies in the prosaic description of favored, and sometimes heartbreaking, memories, like when Gay describes how her mother spent hours smoothing out her angular, little head with the steady stroke of her hand. Toward the end of the book, Gay searches for her assailant online, finding his social media profiles and job title. She learns everything about the person he became and even calls him at the office, hanging up after a long pause of charged silence. This need to find him, to see the man he became, was a moment of clarity for me when I realized that this book is a way for Gay to acquit herself from the ensnaring memories of her past.
Later in her life, when Gay became a successful writer, she attended a literary event in New York during her book tour for Bad Feminist. The venue, Housing Works, where she was scheduled to be on a panel, had no preparations for Gay’s size. As the event began, she suffered through a humiliating attempt to raise herself onto the raised stage platform, requiring help from another panelist. “To tell the story of my body is to tell you about shame,” she writes, and this shame is one that many large women and men will find familiar, the shame that accompanies the literal navigation of a fat body.
At times, the act of reading Hunger can feel like an imposition, as though you are spying on Gay as she whispers secret shames to herself in the mirror. These revelations can be harrowing, like the details of her years spent binging and purging her meals, when her hair began falling out, her knuckles sliced by the points of her teeth. But sometimes the whispers read more like a personal mantra, repeating endlessly phrases like “I ate to get bigger, to become invisible” or “to hide in plain sight” which, after each appearance on the page, lose their potency.
AT: Hannah Black’s comment is really interesting — it does describe Gay’s style, which is very plain-spoken. While at times this plainspokenness slips into stylistic carelessness — like the paragraphs where every sentence begins with “I”, or where the same adjective, like “awkward” or “cruel” is used multiple times in the span of a few sentences — there is something extremely likable about her, both as a person and as a narrator, and maybe this is because the two are not very different. Almost every review of the book praised in particular its honesty, and this is connected to the straightforward tone and the “mundane” descriptions, which are riveting.
She is, for example, very invested in cooking — like, the enthusiastic, over-descriptive, joyful kind of invested. I couldn’t put the book down while she was talking about Ina Garten’s cooking show, the tips Ina offers, the specific brownie she makes for a group of construction workers, the fact that she loves rhetorical questions, or Gay’s own experiences with cooking, using Blue Apron, and the step-by-step process of making her first meal (cannellini bean and escarole salad with crispy potatoes). These details, sometimes several pages of them, speak for themselves and only strengthen the connection she trying to make between her relationship to cooking and the broader theme of hunger. “When the potatoes were ready, they went onto a baking sheet and I drizzled them with olive oil, salt, and pepper. They baked at 500 degrees for twenty-five minutes and my kitchen got unbearably hot,” she writes.
“I began thinking about the melancholy of cooking for yourself when you are single and living alone. One of the many reasons it took me so long to learn how to cook and learn to enjoy cooking is that it often feels like such a waste to go to all that trouble for myself. Dinner would not wait for melancholy, so after rinsing and draining the beans, I softened a yellow onion, then assembled the salad, adding tomato, the beans, the lettuce, the dressing, all served over the crispy potatoes.”
I give such a long quote because I think that this sort of ritualistic, visceral experience of the world that she shows us is really powerful, and very inspiring, in terms of both writing style as well as life. It makes very clear, without explicitly saying so, that she is grappling with self-care and productivity, and social attitudes towards these things. She does the same when she describes clothes, her love of fashion, the cuts and colors and styles she likes — and also what getting dressed feels like for her, the “performance” of it, how she has two wardrobes (one for her everyday clothes and one for the clothes she doesn’t have the courage to wear), how she enjoys staring at her dress slacks and not putting them on — and the vivid, precise moments when clothes are put on. “My throat constricts. The clothes shrink. Sleeves become tourniquets. Slacks become shackles.” It is an exhausting procedure and very intimate to read about. And then finally when she says, “Sometimes, I decide on an outfit and leave my bedroom. It’s a mundane moment, but for me it is not,” something about it just makes complete, immediate sense and almost glows.
The act of reading Hunger can feel like an imposition, as though you are spying on Gay as she whispers secret shames to herself in the mirror.
NC: I really enjoyed reading Gay’s description of her wardrobe and the struggle with finding clothing she’s comfortable with. The dearth of wearable, stylish clothing for large women has been well covered, but Gay’s writing pinpoints the small moments when your desire for the way you want to look doesn’t comport with reality. She wishes to wear beautiful clothing: patterned shirts in unique styles, dresses in brilliant colors. As you mention, she has a separate wardrobe filled with dream garments. I, too, keep around two or three pieces of clothing that I adore, but can’t wear — fitted lace dresses that scold me from the corner of my closet, reminding me that they are unattainable for my current body. Gay wants to feel pretty, she wants to feel comfortable in lipstick and low-cut tops. “Fierce vanity smolders in the cave of my chest,” she writes. “I want to look good. I want to feel good. I want to be beautiful in this body I am in.”
I think you’re right about Gay’s attempts to practice self-care. For years, the act of eating was time to binge, to control what was going on around her. It wasn’t about nutrition or feeding the body. It was an act of pure desire, followed by immediate shame. For her, eating was temporarily filling, but ultimately unfulfilling, a never-ending cycle of disappointment. To break her unhealthy eating habits and replace them with patient, organized eating marked the beginning of Gay’s effort to restructure her life around health, rather than the fulfillment of a hollow desire.
For so long, the desires of Gay’s body have been on the horizon line, forever unattainable and just beyond her grasp. She punished herself for her trauma, finding intimacy in the arms of people who were bad for her. “For far too long, I did not know desire. I simply gave myself, gave my body, to whoever offered me even the faintest of interest,” she writes. After her rape, Gay became forever detached from her own skin. Her body was removed from who she was: a frame to live in, but not to live a life in.
AT: That’s a good way to phrase it — that tension is really what drives the book. The life that she lives in her body is often defined by the ways in which she can take ownership of it — “take my body back,” as she calls it. One of my favorite chapters is the one about her tattoos. She has several, and they don’t have particularly significant meanings, which I think is interesting because, as she points out, tattoos are more about the experience of getting marked than they are about the actual design that you then have on your body forever. The experience is a very specifically and strangely amorous one, because of what she calls the “controlled surrender” of it. These moments of willingly turning herself over to a stranger for them to inflict pain on her as they will are some of the interesting ways that she deeply explores her body’s needs and the possible ways of creating a life inside her body. “Here, in the middle of my life, I would do things differently if I had to do it all again, but I would still have tattoos,” she says, and we get a sense of the imperfect intimacy she has created with herself over time that the book sort of turns on.
The life that she lives in her body is often defined by the ways in which she can take ownership of it — “take my body back,” as she calls it.
This is also what makes her myriad relationships significant in the book. When she moved to Michigan she started playing poker at a casino, and one of the men there followed her home once, and then again and again, standing on her porch and talking to her through her screen door while she stared out at him from inside, and it took her a long time to realize that he was not stalking her but trying to ask her out, and longer still to realize, after they started dating, that he wasn’t going to hurt her. This is how many of the characters in her life function in the book. We understand her, and the way she struggles with and sometimes denies herself happiness, through the people around her who sometimes hurt her and sometimes don’t — and vice versa.
NC: Exactly, and what I loved most about her writing on relationships was her absolute refusal to explain and give excuses for her choice in partner, even when those choices may have been a mistake. When Gay was 19 years old, she came out to her parents over the phone. She was in a relationship with one woman, but vying to be with another, one who treated her horribly. Gay was “a gaping wound of need,” and threw herself into relationships with people who continuously beat her down — even one who criticised the way she walked, breathed, even slept. She admits that at times, she chose relationships that made her into a victim. Coming out to her parents, she thought she knew what she wanted, that she was attracted to women (Gay now identifies as bisexual) but she admits that the truth is always messy, and that she “wanted to do everything in my power to remove the possibility of being with men from my life.”
Her relationships can be very unhealthy, but she doesn’t concern herself with psychoanalyzing her actions. Instead, she writes about her relationships as a reflection of who she was at that time, like a measurment of her growth, and each one reveals a Roxane that is more focused on herself and less on giving herself to others. Gay writes about the need to force herself to feel attracted to anyone who showed any interest in her: the fear that, if she did not reciprocate, she would have lost her only chance to be with someone, to be intimate, to be loved. These admissions define Gay’s suffering: the belief that her self-formed fortress of a body is not so much a protection as it is a cage barring her from genuine love and happiness.
There is something about having an unruly body that withholds you from tenderness, and Gay’s life of abuse is an example of this. Those who see an imperfect body as less — than human, than valuable — often treat that body brutally. Whether you are overweight or disabled or elderly or even a different race, the disconnect between them and your unwelcome, unknown body leads to an unrestrained roughness, dealt physically and emotionally. For Gay, her body is a means of protection, but it has also brought her a great deal of pain in relationships. “Lovers were often rough with me as if that was the only way they could understand touching a body as fat as mine,” she writes. “I accepted this because I did not deserve kindness or a gentle touch.”
AT: Gay’s own tenderness is a really significant part of this book and the narrative voice; we witness acts of violence towards her that shape her tenderness, and we also witness acts of tenderness towards her that trigger her detachment. At the end of the day, the book in many ways is her gentle touch towards herself, and indirectly towards us, that she has craved from others: an attentive and unjudging document of a life.
It reminds me of what she told Guernica about this being a memoir, not a polemic — she is not, as she says, a spokesperson for the fat community and she is absolutely not advocating for thinness; and it’s through her life experience that she challenges our culture’s toxic understanding of “health” and the way we often mix it up with some imagined ethical code for how to live life. And what makes her a likeable and interesting narrator, of course, is not that she can or cannot lose weight but that she doesn’t want to.
At the same time, I think the tenderness of the book, especially the ending — where she talks, among other things, about healing — is also polemical, in a way, maybe unintentionally. “I am as healed as I am ever going to be,” she says, and “doing the best she can to love well and be loved well, to live well and be human and good.” But the fact that her healing has been imperfect and messy is in itself a kind of “perfect resolution,” which I found a little predictable and therefore disappointing. But it’s also a resolution that subtly calls for a better understanding of what healing can be and how self-love can work, and in this way it can be called a “body positive” work too, which is why I think it’s a kind of polemic as well as a memoir. Healing and self-love are important in our culture, and she responds to this, sincerely and acutely. We need kind people who can tell us, and posit to the world, that it is okay to be messy and incomplete, and for our healing to be messy and incomplete, as long as we do the best we can. We’ve always needed that. Understandable, because it’s true — but I don’t think it’s new.
We need kind people who can tell us, and posit to the world, that it is okay to be messy and incomplete, and for our healing to be messy and incomplete, as long as we do the best we can.
NC: Right, because there is no skinny, smiling Roxane waiting for us at the end of the book, drowning inside a giant pair of Levis. Instead, we encounter a woman equally as happy, who also happens to be unchanged physically. The book does not promise a personal revelation, and Gay isn’t concerned with the book’s universal impact. Her personal story isn’t meant to inspire readers to lose weight as some attempt at happiness, but rather Gay is showing us that freedom can come from accepting our own hunger.
At the end of the book, Gay begins the long battle of “tearing down” her walls, as she writes in the final chapter. Her hunger, which will always be a part of her, is no longer something she must succumb to; instead, her desire is the source of her strength.