The Body Politic

Hunger ECCO. . .

The cover of Hunger

Roxane Gay’s heartfelt new memoir Hunger puts its author’s struggle to write it front and center. The first four chapters start with a variation on “This is the story of my body.” Chapter 2 begins: “The story of my body is not a story of triumph.” Wary of discourses that politicize and often celebrate fat, such as body positivity or queer feminism, Gay presents a sad history of her size. After a horrifying rape at the age of twelve, she became very fat in order to protect herself: “I made myself bigger. I made myself safer. I created a distinct boundary between myself and anyone who dared to approach me.” Gay interprets her weight gain as an attempt to “hide in plain sight” (the phrase recurs often), to conceal her secret. Although Gay stops short of saying this explicitly, her new weight must also have been a way to make her pain concrete and visible, and yet her parents, fellow students, and teachers fail to notice that she is desperately sad: “They saw me plainly while looking right through me.” Even when, more than twenty years later, her parents finally learn of her rape, from a 2014 review in Time magazine, her mother is evasive: “It was enough to talk around the truth rather than stare it down.”

Gay’s reading of her own body as a painful symptom seems to originate not only in the terrible rape but also in a complex family dynamic wherein her fatness has been treated as if it were the message rather than the medium: “My parents, and my father in particular, make inquiries as to whether I am dieting, exercising, and/or losing weight as if all I am is my big fat body. But they love me. This is what I remind myself so I can forgive them.” Gay’s parents are wealthy Haitian immigrants with high-level business and government connections in Port-au-Prince. Reflecting this complex class position, they paid for a bourgeois US education for their daughter, sending her to Exeter and then to Yale, where she dropped out at nineteen. Echoes of that rebellion are faintly perceptible in her 2014 novel An Untamed State. It’s a neo-blaxploitation story set in a lawless Haiti, where aspects of Gay’s real-life rape by white boys seem to have been transposed onto the fictional, thin, and conventionally beautiful body of Mireille. Her white mother-in-law nurses her back to health after Mireille is abducted and brutally raped by poor Haitians and then abandoned by her wealthy businessman father, who refuses on principle to pay a ransom. An Untamed State is illuminated by Hunger; in the light of the latter, the former reads in part like Gay’s attempt to work through in fiction her sense of isolation from her family.

In Hunger’s most striking passages, Gay vividly describes her experiences of moving through a bitterly fatphobic world, where fat people are vulnerable to insult and assault not only by strangers but also close relatives, lovers, and doctors. Even everyday objects are rendered hurtful: “I cram my body into seats that are not meant to accommodate me. . . . I see the pattern of bruising inching from my waist down to my midthigh.” A common perception of fat as a moral failing, combined with an equally widespread ignorance of or even contempt for fat people’s accessibility needs, frequently leaves Gay feeling unable to so much as voice her discomfort. At one point, she visits a clinic where a surgeon recommends brutal and expensive stomach-stapling surgery that leaves patients “nutrient-deprived for the rest of our lives.” She declines, but the anecdote makes clear that the so-called obesity epidemic is a phantasmic problem, conjured up mostly by cultural anxieties; fat people are not offensive to others because they are unhealthy, but because their bodies are, as Gay puts it, “unruly.” Fat people’s mental and physical well-being often becomes collateral damage to a neoliberal conception of the ideal body as both perfectly healthy and subject to endless improvement.

Gay presents these ideas with a light touch. The closest equivalent to the book’s tone is that of a ghostwritten celebrity autobiography: gossipy and full of minute and sometimes banal detail. Although warm and accessible, her prose is also uneven, bland, and cliché-prone. She writes flat, unshowy sentences: When it works, there’s an enjoyable clarity and impassiveness to her delivery; when it doesn’t, it’s mundane and repetitive. But 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. Many of the chapters in Hunger first appeared online on xoJane, GOOD, and The Toast, and are reproduced here almost unchanged. These outlets and Gay’s books share a position: Essentially liberal in their politics, they are cosmetically connected to more radical struggles through an interest in gender and race. This can produce striking dissonances: xoJane runs supportive pieces on Hillary “superpredator” Clinton while also giving a platform to prison abolitionists; on GOOD, a puff piece on a pro-military charity shares web space with reportage on war trauma among Iraqis. These publications are interested in the affective dimensions of capitalist domination—i.e., race, gender, and even ability and class in a limited, identity-based sense—but not so interested in structural critiques of capitalism as such. They believe in survival as a form of political struggle, but not in political struggle as a form of survival.

Gay’s style suits this zeitgeisty blend perfectly, and partly thanks to these outlets she has become a beloved spokesperson on questions of race and gender. She and her publishers might be right in thinking that it’s worthwhile to make simplified versions of critical ideas available and appealing to mass audiences. Yet Gay, an avowed populist, is celebrated in many quarters as if she were producing challenging new political discourse. The Guardian, for example, has described her as “one of those public intellectuals who has come to represent a school of thought,” and the Washington Post has called her “a renowned cultural critic and woman of ideas.” The excessive praise is no mystery. Recently alerted to the fact that its existence is maintained by racialized state violence everywhere from the border to the supermarket, a self-aware segment of the liberal bourgeoisie is newly eager to celebrate black and brown writers who offer a frisson of novelty, itself derived from white-supremacist rule, alongside conveniently unchallenging suggestions on how to overcome that rule: Strive to work with appropriately qualified people of color, avoid impolitely touching strangers’ hair, count your privileges like blessings. Discussing oppression without scaring white people is a difficult tightrope to walk, and Gay manages it with grace, providing some comfort to those who feel otherwise unrepresented in the public sphere and perhaps a gateway to more radical perspectives on race, gender, body image, and so on.

It may be true that, in order to get her message across, a public figure should strive to be relatable to as many people as possible. But what does this rule of relatability do for a writer whose message, whose life experience, is the painful difficulty of relating? The answer is that it tends to compress it into an unsynthesized mass of minor contradictions, leavened by fun observations about TV shows and given gravitas by the undeniable suffering of the author.

Gay experiences her body as a “cage,” a “fortress.” Despite her desire to hide, it makes her a “spectacle.” She herself sometimes notices contradictions in the logic of her self-image, but she skips over them without stopping to unpack. “The body is not a fortress, no matter what we may do to make it such,” she writes, yet a paragraph later the fortress stands intact: “Also, I find it awkward, opening myself up, allowing people to touch, to breach my fortress.” Gay displaces a common fatphobic perception that fat people have wreaked irresponsible ruin on their bodies onto the boys who raped her; fat remains a crime, but she did not commit it.

To Gay, her fat forms a boundary, shroud, or wall around her true self, though she is critical of a similar concept when it comes from Oprah Winfrey: “I think about how fucked up it is to promote this idea that our truest selves are thin women hiding in our fat bodies like imposters, usurpers, illegitimates.” But this, I think, is an inversion of Winfrey’s theory that authentic happy thin people are hiding inside troubled fat women—which seems to me to be similar to Gay’s own perception of herself as a thin, wounded girl hiding behind a protective wall of fat. The misreading once again allows Gay to skim over an open contradiction. “I’ve always been a woman of contradiction,” she announces at one point, albeit about something so trivial it isn’t really worth the admission. These unexamined contradictions mean that despite the book’s confessional nature, it never fully explains Gay’s distinctive sense of her body as the outer expression of an inner wound.

The early promise that this “is not a story of triumph” is upheld, despite Gay’s success as a writer. For Gay, this cannot be a story of triumph because she is still fat. By the book’s penultimate chapter, she is still imagining the happy, married mother she would have been if only she had been thinner, a fantasy life whose advantages over her fat, queer reality Gay is not fully sure of but still feels pressed by. Gay’s painful embrace of normative standards is not only a means of self-wounding but also of saying something accurate about the world: Simple exhortations of body positivity run the risk of eliding the reality of fatphobia. Insisting that pain comes before pride can be a method, however Pyrrhic and paradoxical, of holding the world accountable for its violence.

Nonetheless, this dwelling in pain still risks leaving the sources of Gay’s sadness untouched, because the battle is allowed to take place only on the singular terrain of her body. Her understandably conflicted feelings about how the media has positioned her as a spokesperson for black women in general were clear in her 2014 essay collection Bad Feminist. “I am a bad feminist,” she wrote, “because I never want to be placed on a Feminist Pedestal. People who are placed on pedestals are expected to pose, perfectly. Then they get knocked off when they fuck it up. I regularly fuck it up. Consider me already knocked off.” Hunger is similarly ambivalent about collective struggle: “I don’t know where I fit in with communities of fat people,” Gay writes. “I want to know how they do it, how they find peace and self-acceptance. . . . I am not happy at this size.” How they do it, perhaps, is by engaging in political critique, by understanding individual lives in the context of shared histories, and by pushing back against the presumption that they deserve to suffer. It’s a process. In Hunger, just as in Bad Feminist, Gay tends to read political collectivities as if they required ready-made subjectivities impervious to sadness or shame. That’s the wrong way round: The ubiquity of sadness and shame is what motivates collective political action.

Hannah Black is the author of Dark Pool Party (Dominica/Arcadia Missa, 2016).