Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

Right off the top you gals, this one is a tough read.

Not tough in the sense that it’s a slog or that you have to push your way through. Kind of the opposite, actually. I was propelled through this book, captivated by it, couldn’t put it down. I usually read on the train on my way to work, but this is the first time I can remember that I would read all day before my shift, read while walking to and from transit, and only put it away when my boss started giving me the side eye. It’s not the writing that’s tough, it’s the subject. This book is about hunger, yeah, but it’s also about suffering and humiliation, about craving love and comfort and acceptance, about never finding it, or finding it and not recognizing it, finding it and losing it, finding it and having it not be enough. This book is about a lot of things and none of them are easy.

When Gay was a small child she went through something horrendous, something that changed her and altered the course of her entire life. I’m not going to get into what the event itself actually is (I tried a couple of times and just…read the book. Gay was there, it happened to her, and she’s a better writer than me anyways), but I will warn you that it does have to do with sexual violence and it’s…very difficult to read. Gay’s great talent as a writer is her voice, her ability to make you empathize and relate to her, to connect with and feel like you understand her. In anything else of hers that I’ve read that’s a strength, and it’s a strength here too, it’s just a complicated one. It hurts to watch somebody you’re connecting with suffer so much.

I’ve never read a memoir quite like this one, one so concerned with the body. It makes sense, it’s what this part of her story is all about. The invasion of it, the effort she went through to change it, the consequences of that change. And she has such an interesting view of the body, one so different from my own. For myself, I see my body and me as one. There’s no difference, no space, between the two. But Roxane constantly refers to her body as a structure separate from herself, as a prison, a fortress, a cage, a cave. Always things that you can either hide or be held in. For her, maybe that’s not that far from the truth. She used food to turn her body into a stronghold. Big, imposing, impregnable, but inescapable as well. Sometimes she loves her body and how strong it is, sometimes she hates the limits it puts on her, but she’s always aware of it, in a way I’ve never experienced. Things that most people take for granted are constant sources of stress and anxiety for her: shopping, going for walks with friends, getting on an airplane, going to events (she tells a story about an event that she had to speak at where there was an elevated stage, about three feet off the ground, and no stairs. After visibly struggling in front of the audience to get on to the stage, eventually having to be helped up by some of the other speakers, she sat on the flimsy, thin wooden chair that they’d placed on the stage for her and heard a crack. She was able to use the strength of her legs to take her weight off the chair enough so that it didn’t break, but she was so humiliated by the experience that she threw up in her mouth and had to swallow it), and even what she can and can’t eat in public. She says to a friend that offers her chips at one point that people “that look like me don’t get to eat food like that in public.”

Which brings me to my next point. Can we please, as a society, just stop being shitty to people about their bodies? The constant comments and intrusions that Gay has to face from people all the time, the humiliations, are unacceptable. No person should be subjected to that kind of treatment. And I know, I know, you say that you’re concerned about their health and whatever, but let’s be honest here, you’re really not. You’re trying to make yourself feel good about your own body, your own flaws, by framing somebody else’s as being worse. You’re putting someone else down to make yourself feel good. It’s what children and bullies do, so grow up and cut it the fuck out.

This book is, without a doubt, one of the rawest and most intimate memoirs I’ve ever read. And so universally human too. I felt myself constantly surprised by how relatable I found it. I may not have experienced the trauma that she has, or lived in the body she’s lived in, or done the things she’s done, but I kept seeing myself in her reactions and desires. Her hungers are the ones we all feel, for food yeah, but also for love and affection and respect, safety and security and comfort. For peace. I hope she finds it.

Recommended for those who like intimate, personal accounts of tragedy, those who like intelligent, sharp takes on difficult things we don’t often talk about, and people who don’t mind ugly crying on a bus full of strangers. Really though, read this book.

VBR

 

The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Lately I’ve been hearing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ name everywhere. It started when his book, Between the World and Me, blew up after it was published in 2015. Everybody had an opinion about it, and most of them were good. Every bookish person I know, bloggers, podcasters, and…what do you call those things again? The ones who you eat burritos with sometimes, and every now and again when you’re quietly reading a book somewhere, they’re also reading a book quietly nearby? Also the name of a sitcom from the nineties that was funny when you were a kid, but now when you go back and watch it it’s reaaaaaally homophobic and of its time…nope, can’t think of it. I’m sure it’ll come to me eventually. Anywho! Every bookish person I know was gushing (what a gross word) about this guy and how important his book is, and more importantly, how good it is. And I see it everywhere. New copies of it are still on the front display shelf of my favourite book store, two years later. That’s gotta mean something.
But because I’m the type of person that I am, and because I buy books as often as most people buy food, I’ve been waiting to find it used and marked down a little in price. The math isn’t hard. I buy cheaper, used books, I get more books. The more books I get, the happier I am. Simple. But try as I might (and trust me, I’ve been looking) Between the World and Me is nowhere to be found. It’s been two years now and I haven’t come across it once. For a book that’s sold as much as this one has, that’s bananas. That means that almost everybody that bought it (at least where I live) got enough out of it, connected with it enough, to want to keep it. That’s incredible. (Either that or they all hated it enough to want to watch it burn themselves. I can’t say for sure which one, but I think the former is a pretty safe bet).
So when I came across this memoir in the used section, I snatched it up. I couldn’t wait. Finally, something of his that I could buy with a clean conscience. After two years of waiting I’d get to see what the hype was about.
And honestly? It didn’t disappoint. I had crazy high expectations for this (see above overly long intro) and I still finished off liking it more than I thought I would. This dude has a hypnotic rhythm to his writing, a lyrical, melodic style that carries you through so quickly that every time I ran up against the end of the chapter I was surprised. He’s a beautiful writer, with a voice all his own. The subject matter was fascinating (coming of age stories always get me, especially when they give insight to a lifestyle and culture that differs this much from the one that I was raised in), but even if it had been about different species of potatoes I still would have stuck with it for the writing alone.
If there was one thing that caught me up while reading this, popped me out of the story every now and again, it was that this book is so specifically set, so deep into the culture and the time that he’s writing about, that I missed a lot of the references. We grew up in different decades, different cultures, across a whole continent from one another. That’s a lot of space, a lot of distance. I’m not complaining, a window into a different life is the whole reason I read memoirs, I just thought I’d give you a wee heads up so you’d expect it. Unless you’re really attuned to the language and pop-culture of the eighties in Baltimore, you’re probably gonna have a time or two where you’re left scratching your head. Which is fine, it’s part of what reading is about. And hey, maybe you’ll learn a thing or two. Reading! Hurray!
So I think I get it now, why all those people kept their books. I’ve read a decent amount of memoirs in my time, but this one left a deeper impression than most. It’s pretty fresh on the mind, but I’m willing to bet that in the next few weeks and months it’ll still be rattling around in there, calling my attention. Or maybe not, it’s hard to know which books will still have an impact on you months or years from now. Either way, I bought a full-price copy of Between the World and Me yesterday, and I don’t feel bad about it at all.
For people who like coming of age stories, people who are interested in Baltimore in the eighties, a window into the lives of people living among the crack boom and uncertainty and violence of that decade, or people that just like to read interesting stories, written beautifully. If you haven’t read anything by this guy, you should really get out there and pick something up.


VBR

PS. His run on Black Panther is really dope. People have been having mixed reactions to it, calling it boring or whatever, but I think most of them just need to relax a little. It’s only two trade paperbacks in at the moment and it’s a bit of a slow burn. I have faith in this guy, and so should you. Just give it a little more time to bloom before you abandon it.

PPS. Friends.

On Writing by Stephen King

I’m going to let ya’ll know, right off the top, that I have a particular and everlasting love of this book. I’ve reread it probably three times now, which is more than most other books, especially considering it’s a nonfiction (I don’t think I’ve ever gone back and reread a nonfiction book before).
The first time I read it was during my very first creative writing course. I was struggling, a lot, I’d hit a wall and I couldn’t seem to push through it. Nothing I was writing was good enough, even down to the sentence by sentence stuff, and I couldn’t seem to get anything on the page that I didn’t just immediately erase. If anybody that’s reading this has ever had that experience before, you know how defeating it can be. To have an idea that your insecurities, disguised as perfectionism, just won’t let you express. I talked to my teacher and he tried to guide me through it a bit, but when that didn’t work he lent me a copy of this book. I don’t know what it was about King’s writing, maybe it’s the matter of fact way that he talks about just putting shit down and editing it later, or the way that he lets you in to his life and the times when he’s had trouble getting back to writing, but it really helped get me over that hump.
The second time was another slump. I’d just gotten out of a bad relationship and I was having trouble getting things out again. I had ideas a plenty, but most of them seemed like hack trash. I was perusing a used bookstore, my normal pick me up activity when I’m feeling a little blue, and I came across this and remembered how much help it had been the last time so I picked it up. Again, even though I knew what was in the book this time, his steady hand and matter of fact explanations about the craft of writing, the bits and bolts of it, his assurance that you’re the only one hindering yourself when it comes to writing (but also, you should really never do this and this and this), really saw me through my slump.
Now it’s become my writing slump ritual. I feel sorry for myself for a week or two, I eat too many pastries and spend hours sifting through musty old book stores, and then I pick up this book, and read it, and remember that the only thing I need to do in order to write again is to want to.

Love,

VBR

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