By Chelsea Wolf
Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2017.
Chelsea Wolf, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, reviewed Roxane Gay’s memoir Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (Harper), which is among the final five selections in the category of Autobiography for the 2017 NBCC Awards.
I want to tell you about my skin or rather, the scars that pepper my skin. I haven’t been able to stop talking about them, writing about them, and photographing them since I read Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay. My wounds are self-inflicted, but not in the way that you think. They’re the result of 20 years of picking at the little red bumps, otherwise known as chicken skin, that riddle my body. Picking at myself started as a kind of self-soothing after my father left and eventually morphed into a way of saying, “You marked me and now I want to mark myself even worse.” They are a way of letting people know that while I can’t always say what happened to me, I can wear it on me always. Or, in the words of Roxane Gay, “I am going to keep telling them even though I hate having the stories to tell.”
Hunger has been described as brutal and it is a beautifully brutal read. In just over 300 pages, Gay ruthlessly takes the reader through the events of her childhood that led to her significant weight gain, the subsequent dieting- weight loss - weight gain cycle she has been in for over 20 years, and the ways in which she moves through a world that is not only made for thin people but hates fat people.
At the age of 12, Gay was gang-raped by a group of boys, including a popular boy she loved and trusted. Not wanting to bring her shame to her parents, hard working Haitian immigrants, she turned to food. “I was hollowed out. I was determined to fill the void, and food was what I used to build a shield around what was left of me.”
Soon after, she entered a private high school in New Hampshire, away from the watchful eyes of her parents, where she gained 30 pounds in two and a half months. During the summers, she would attend weight loss camps or subsist solely on liquid diets, always at the suggestion of her well-meaning parents. She would return to school thinner and to praise from her classmates, only to be overcome with anxiety about the dangers of her shrinking body. Always she would gain all of the weight back and then some. This cycle continued into her college years, even when she left Yale in her sophomore year to move to Arizona with a man she met on the internet during what she describes as her “lost year.”
At her heaviest, Gay weighed 577 pounds. She discloses this number early in the book with a frank honesty, as if to say, “now that we’ve gotten that out of the way…” She has succeeded in making her body a “fortress,” a “cage.” Gay convinces herself that if she makes herself as big as possible, she will no longer be attractive to men, thus keeping her safe.
Interspersed with her own story of her “unruly body” are observations on how women are taught to hate their bodies from a young age. Between the celebrity endorsed weight loss commercials, the idea of the “revenge body,” and gossip magazines criticizing or praising women based on their weight, women are inundated with the notion that what we are is never enough, even when it is too much.
Hunger is not your typical survivor story. Even the title, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, alludes to the fact that this story isn’t hers alone. Gay doesn’t consider herself a survivor, instead preferring the word victim, explaining, “I don’t want to diminish the gravity of what happened. I don’t want to pretend I’m on some triumphant, uplifting journey.” I sat with this explanation for a while, rolling the words around on my tongue before swallowing, hard. The way one does with the truth.
Gay lays herself bare in a way that most writers aren’t capable of doing. It is not just a memoir about the body but about the ways we learn to protect ourselves after trauma. At one point, Gay wonders about the person she would have been if the day in the woods had never happened. “When I imagine this woman who somehow made it to adulthood unscarred, she is everything I am not.” And that’s the scariest thought, isn’t it? To imagine who you could have been without your trauma?
Roxane Gay gave me permission to look at parts of my life and say out loud, “this is not okay.” She gave me permission to imagine a life where I don’t need to tear my own skin apart in order to not feel my father’s hands on it.
What Roxane Gay has achieved in writing “Hunger” is not only taking back her body, her story, but giving a voice, or some sense of courage, to other struggling women, both survivors and victims. We are all trying our best, to rewrite our story not for what it isn’t but for what it is, one body, one scar, one truth at a time.
Chelsea Wolf is a writer and musician living in New York City. She is an MFA candidate in Nonfiction at The New School. When she is not working on her memoir, she enjoys short walks on the beach (weak ankles), binge-watching "Law & Order: SVU,” and wrangling feral cats. Performing under the name Noie, she recently released the EP “Blue Devil Fits,” which can be streamed at SoundCloud.com/Noiemusic. Her musings can be found on Twitter @ChelsWolf