How Hunger by Roxane Gay inspired me to keep writing

I first saw Roxane Gay on a panel at AWP.  It was a collection of Black women authors talking about the Black female protagonist. At one point during the panel, a few of the panelist mentioned they were children of Haitian immigrants. Roxane Gay was one of the women who talked about coming from that experience.  I’m not sure why that stuck out in my mind because during most of the discussion I was obsessing over the fact that a childhood nemesis was one of the panelists.

For a good portion of the talk I wondered if that could really be Tracy from middle school. And when I realized it was her, I felt the same sense of competition I felt in middle school. Why was she on the panel? When did she get a book published? Consequently, when the panel was done, rather than seizing the opportunity to talk to Roxane Gay, I went to verify if it was in fact Tracy.  It was and she was so happy to see me.  I walked away feeling sort of silly for still harboring adolescent angst.

At the airport a few days later, Roxane Gay was sitting at same gate as my flight back to Atlanta. I didn’t think much of it other than the fact that I remembered her from the panel as the large women whose parents were Haitian immigrants. Again, I had no idea who she was and so I made no effort to talk to her.  I saw her once more as I walked through first class to my coach seat. My only thought being how she scored a first class seat. The next time I saw her was on the cover of the New York Times Magazine.  

I share all of that because even after I realized that she was a big deal, I never read anything that she wrote. Eventually, I loaded Difficult Women on my Kindle. But to be honest after reading one of the stories about two little girls that were kidnapped and molested, I couldn’t finish the rest. By then I had lost my oldest son and my own sadness and grief was all I could carry. So, I decided that though she was popular and well respected, she wasn’t for me. 

Hunger came to me through a good friend. She gushed about it to the pain that I thought perhaps I needed to look at Roxane Gay again.  So, I picked up a copy from the bookstore and downloaded a copy to Audible. One of my guilty pleasures is buying both the book and the audiobook so the  I can read it when I’m in the house and listen to it when I’m in the car. 

The interesting thing about the Hunger audiobook is that it is read by the author. There is something so intoxicating about listening to a book read by the author. I loved Gay’s cadence and tone. Her authenticity came through with every word. This was unapologetically her story, and she claimed it every time she repeated the phrase “my body.” But I think what sold me from the very beginning is when she wrote:  “I wish I could write a book about being at peace and loving myself wholly, at any size. Instead, I have written this book, which had been the most difficult writing of my life, one far more challenging that I could have ever imagined.”  Those words inspired me.

I’ve been working at on a memoir about losing my son for the last four years. It is, as Gay wrote in Hunger, one of the most difficult things that I have ever written. Each time I sit down to write I am faced with painful memories and more often than not there are tears. And on more than one occasion I find myself overwhelmed by full blown sobs. One might question why I put myself through this pain. But as both my therapist and daughter have often reminded me, those memories and feelings are there whether I write about them or not. 

Hunger isn’t an easy read. Gay admits early on that she doesn’t know how to talk about rape and sexual violence when it comes to her own story. She writes: “It’s easier to say, “Something terrible happened.”  I totally get that. When I think about my own story, it’s much easier to say that I am writing about my son’s death than to write about suicide.  

In the last chapter of Hunger, Gay begins by summarizing her story in one 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.”  She talks about her healing and grow, but also the ways in which she is forever changed by the experience…  All things that help to end the book on an up note. But what I found the most inspiring is that through the entire book Gay honors what it means to write your story even when it’s painful. She doesn’t sugarcoat the cost to the writer. But also explains the why when she writes:  

“Writing this book is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. To lay myself so vulnerable has not been an easy thing. To face myself and what living in my body has been like has not been an easy thing, but I wrote this book because it felt necessary.  In writing this memoir of my body, in telling you these truths about my body, I am sharing my truth and mine alone.”

Hunger isn’t an easy book to read but its authenticity offers hope in facing our own truth.  

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