A couple of years ago, during the height of the Spiralizer gadget craze, Roxane Gay posted a picture on Tumblr of a cyclone of zucchini strips she’d just rendered. It was a swirling green and white nest of health, curled by the blades of her trendy new kitchen tool.
To that cluster she added cherry tomatoes, basil, scallions, olive oil: a bowl full of summer.
At the time, Gay was writing her new book, “Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body.” The “zoodles,” their creation and consumption, were part of her determined effort at self-care. For nearly 30 years, Gay used food to cope with an act of violence done to her before she was out of puberty, before her body had a chance to blossom gently and unbruised.
As she writes in “Hunger,” turning her 6-foot, 3-inch frame into a fortress by “eating and eating and eating,” was a response to the gang rape. Pound by pound, she built a soft, thick mass of armor to protect the sweet bits of her soul that were left. In a collection of staccato chapters, she shares how she forged the shield. It is a deeply honest witness, often heartbreaking and always breathtaking.
As a cultural critic, Gay is a master of the call-out, mincing no words when taking on misogyny or racism. In “Hunger,” she singles out the twisted way the culture frames obesity. Those with “unruly bodies” are not treated as people worthy of respect, but more like walking, talking objects, masses of flesh that must be reduced, fixed and groomed to be seen, heard and loved. Whether it’s an episode of “The Biggest Loser” or a person’s own family, she writes, the obese are barraged by messages that scream, Try harder, then maybe you’ll matter.
That message smothered Gay as her body grew. From her time at Exeter Academy to a short stint at Yale to her hard-earned success as a writer, the message that she needed to lose weight to matter has been relentless. She’s sick of it. Her fury, humiliation and exasperation sprawl through “Hunger.”
Even so, she’s weary of a body she built in response to a crime. Her fight against it is constant. Throughout her early 20s, as she continued to gain weight, she seemed to will episodes of self-sabotage. Her choices damaged her already fragile dignity. Becoming a phone-sex worker, as Gay was for a short time in Arizona, in and of itself isn’t an illegitimate choice. But sleeping with strangers is a dangerous way to numb the soul. Gay did that. She wasn’t shown much kindness.
That period, which included a brief stint with a woman in Minneapolis — during winter, no less — she calls her “lost years.” She didn’t believe she deserved better.
Self-doubt and loathing become a corporeal presence that hounds her and at times overwhelms the reader. There are few chapters or even pages where Gay doesn’t criticize herself. By the middle of the book it felt relentless, so much so that I wrote in a margin, “Lord, help her find peace.” I hadn’t become insentient to her pain, but I had become weary of the self-flagellation. As she writes early in the book, it is not a tale of triumph.
Yet, there are moments of light in “Hunger.” At her lowest points, her family stepped up to show her love. Thoughts of those quiet, persistent acts gird her in dark times. And the memory of a working-class man in Michigan who loved her, wanted to have children with her and build a life with her is bittersweet but enduring. He was gentle with her fragile body.
“Hunger” is about Gay’s craving and the way the culture denies it. It is a clear-eyed assessment of a life crippled early. Gay is one of our most vital essayists and critics. She is a woman in the middle of her life. With “Hunger,” she is fighting for the “good girl” who trusted a terrible boy. She’s trying to gather the crumbs of the child’s sweetness, in the hope the woman might be nourished and sated, if only for a moment.
Rosalind Bentley, a reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, is a former writer for the Star Tribune.
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body
By: Roxane Gay
Publisher: Harper, 306 pages, $25.99.
Event: 7 p.m. June 15, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls