$25.99, Harper, 306 pages
Roxane Gay's Hunger is one of the most plainspoken books about trauma ever written. Up until this point, the celebrated writer often explores her gang rape at the age of 12 by neighborhood boys obliquely, in fiction. Rarely has she written about the event as it happened, or its consequences.
Gay felt the need to fortify herself after such a violation and, so, beginning at boarding school in her teens, she ate with abandon. Her parents were confounded, which did not make Gay alter her newfound behavior or confide in her family. At 18, Gay went to Yale, and ran away from it a year later to stay with a man she met on the internet. Rather than tell her family about her rape, Gay came out as a lesbian ( although she continued to date men ) when they pressed her to explain why she'd dropped out of school. At her heaviest, sometime in her mid 20s, she weighed 557 pounds.
Gay writes seemingly unflinchingly about how her body: that she has constant bruises from fitting in chairs with arms, that she cannot buy the pretty clothes she longs to wear and if she makes the attempt to wear them, they feel emotionally constricting. She goes into minute and excruciating detail about a consultation for gastric bypass surgery, having enough room on flights and her two-year flirtation with bulimia. But the stoicism is a mirage: you have to take Gay's words at face value, and since she chooses to leave them unadorned, overall her pain speaks louder.
There are some redeeming narrative arcs. Towards the end of her 20s, which Gay considers the worst decade of her life, she found herself focusing more firmly on writing. In Michigan's Upper Peninsula, she met one of the first men who treated her with respect. Her relationships start out abusive and transactional and get better. At this point in her life, Gay believes more firmly that she can do the work of tearing down the walls rather than building them up.
Gay was splintered by such a horrific event so young, and lost in various ways for so long because of it. Now, she is Roxane Gay, person of incredible talent and acclaim. But that does not inure her to living with trauma, or help her feed the various hungers that have gone unfulfilled because of it. Her ability to distill her experience in so many diverse ways is what will make Hunger a must-read for anyone struggling to sort through their life.