The other day on the radio, Democratic Congressman Ron Barber spoke about how long it took for him to move through the trauma of being shot at a Safeway Grocery store in Tucson when Jared Loughner attempted to assassinate Gabrielle Giffords. The wounds, Barber explained, are both physical and emotional. He emphasized that the people impacted by the recent shooting in Virginia should seek psychological help. His urging felt oddly naked as it hung in the air. I have grown accustomed to hearing about the traumatic moments of our times, the moments of impact, but not so much the aftermath.
Lately, I’ll be driving or sitting at my desk at work when I suddenly remember something: “Wait, but the world didn’t end after the Pulse nightclub shooting. How is that possible?” I feel cognitive dissonance that time can move forward even though Philando Castile was about a block away from my friend Judy’s house when he was shot to death for having a broad nose. And the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram. It’s not as if rescue was the end of their horror. Each one of these incidents was shattering to a whole host of human lives and yet each slips daily from our grasp. We continue on as normal, tweeting about rompers and who can wear them, convincing ourselves that we’ll collectively survive this brutal moment in history. But more and more of us are walking wounded. And for every unthinkable headline there is a lifetime of aftermath.
What I find so stunning about Roxane Gay’s Hunger is that she is testifying before a society that is plagued by violence that recovery from violence may well take every ounce of courage that a person has to give. And the manifestations of that coping can take on innumerable forms. In a time when the word “healing” feels thinner than ever, affixed as it is to too many pictures of skinny, silhouetted yogis on beaches, we need to reacquaint ourselves with the severity of that process. This book is a generous offering to a society that may not know what to do with it.
I remember the first time I caught wind of Roxane Gay. In Ann Arbor, I saw her read the extraordinary essay, “What We Hunger For,” from the essay collection Bad Feminist, in which she mentions that she was raped in an essay that starts out joking about The Hunger Games. Another time, at a literary event in Seattle, I hovered near a cluster of people smoking, and I inhaled greedily at their smoke because I was pretty sure that that was her voice chuckling softly in the peachy glow of dusk and I wanted a sniff of her lung magic. The image I constructed around her was of a gorgeous badass. A celebrity. Her tattooed arms bore the markings of someone who had reached into the earth, vines climbing up and around her wrists as she yanked at something underground. In my mind, she was the clear victor. Of her own story and of, well, history. When I saw her at another conference in Los Angeles, I was getting something out of my bag and she was walking toward the front of the room and I was in the way and I felt like I was obstructing a red carpet. I nearly bowed my head. I assumed that someone who moved through the world with that much grace felt it emanating from her very center.
Of course, this is not what it feels like to be human. And glamorizing survivors as though they are supernatural beings doesn’t really lend them anything resembling actual support. In Hunger, Roxane Gay invites us to take off the rose tinted glasses through which we see her and really listen to what it feels like to live inside her skin. She writes, “I am tracing the story of my body from when I was a carefree young girl who could trust her body and who felt safe in her body, to the moment when that safety was destroyed, to the aftermath that continues even as I try to undo so much of what was done to me.” While in the essay, “What We Hunger For,” Gay tells her story alongside that of the flashy heroine, Katniss, Hunger is unadorned. As naked as they come.
Gay declares the book “A Memoir of (My) Body,” and in it, she recounts her experience living in a body that medical professionals have labeled “morbidly obese.” Some of the most profound moments in this book are mundane on the surface. For example, in chapter forty seven, Gay goes to the gym. She gets on a bike and realizes that she is in competition with the woman beside her, whom she calls her “neighbor/ nemesis.” She explains, “I knew what was going on. She was challenging me. She was letting me know that however long I lasted, she would last longer. She would not be bested by a fat ass.” Everyday moments like this one don’t feel mundane in the end, though, because they are emblematic of a deeply disturbing cultural norm.
I was reminded of the playboy model who posted a nude photograph of an elderly woman on Snapchat along with the words “If I can’t unsee this then you can’t either.” In doing so, she revealed her own deep obscenity, a character that has been poisoned by judgement. Hunger makes clear that what Gay moves through on a daily basis are toxic waters.
But this book isn’t a litany of society’s uglinesses. This is a memoir about friendship, love, sex, the Barefoot Contessa, artmaking, family, culture and fractured bones. Gay muses on her sexuality, takes us on a double date with her, and if you’re like me you will probably fall a little bit in love with her by the time you are done. But it won’t be because she is a famous author. Nor because she’s cooler than you. And it’s not because of a rosy tint. It’s like that experiment where you fall in love with someone after a period of sustained eye contact: Hunger stares you straight in the eyes. Piercing through every one of your defenses and your costumes. Through every page of raw, unblinking prose, Roxane Gay dares you not to look away first.