In Hunger, she repeatedly juxtaposes an inherent, internal conflict: the survival mechanism of making herself bigger in the years following her rape and the ways in which that very act has made her life difficult in a new way. In one revealing section, Gay describes the kinds of exhausting considerations that she makes daily because of her size—from googling event venues to see if there are stairs, to worrying about airport seating, to dressing in mostly jeans and cotton shirts, to wondering whether a restaurant’s chairs will have arms that will pinch her. The catalog of small anxieties that interrupt her days is moving, even as it highlights the ways the world doesn’t accommodate women like Gay.
Her descriptions of violence are both specific—down to the scent of the beer on the breath of her rapists—and omnipresent. Trauma reverberates through the short chapters, even as she appears to accept what happened, and to rebuild. There are countless permutations of the sentence, “When I was twelve years old I was raped and then I ate and ate and ate to build my body into a fortress,” and descriptions of herself as “a mess.” She relies on the repetitive descriptions of her rape and her brokenness in a way that might in other circumstances seem gratuitous, but which in Hunger serves to give readers some emotional insight into the unrelenting nature of trauma.
Woven into this repetition is a ruminative preoccupation with strength, in all its varieties. In a 2012 article for The Rumpus, Gay wrote that she is “always interested in the representations of strength in women ... and what it costs for a woman to be strong. All too often, representations of a woman’s strength overlook that cost.” What makes Hunger emotionally resonant is her ability to make the cost of survival—her moving forward from the rape and the challenge of her size—so transparent.
Gay occasionally nods to her identity as a black woman—for example, describing growing up Haitian American, or noting the white classmate who hurled “affirmative action” at her as an insult when he was not admitted to the school of his choice. But she leaves for just a few moments her explicit comments on the ways that black women’s bodies are read in popular culture—which result in some of the most powerful lines in the book. “Black women are rarely allowed their femininity,” she notes at one point, when talking about how people misgender her because of her size. And when she says that she doesn’t want to allow her body to dictate her existence, part of that determination involves negotiating space as a black woman in places that she describes as “inhospitable” to blackness.
Observations such as these help make Hunger a gripping book, with vivid details that linger long after its pages stop. In addressing unwieldy topics such as weight, sexual violence, and trauma, Gay’s takeaways are many and her ending impossible to classify as a destination. And by writing this memoir she’s exposed imperfections—in culture, feminism, and herself—that require any claims to humanity and dignity to make room for inconsistency. She doesn’t try to reconcile how her critiques and failures intersect in ways that might seem contradictory; she allows herself to fall short of those aspirations and forms her own conception of her body and of healing. She began her memoir by warning that it would not inspire motivation, though her ability to reject society’s judgment of and contempt for overweight people, while being vulnerable enough to admit that she struggles with body positivity, inspires hopefulness nonetheless. Hunger is arresting and candid. At its best, it affords women, in particular, something so many other accounts deny them—the right to take up space they are entitled to, and to define what that means.