Today I noticed how every time I see a small child with a crisp packet in their hands, I have to keep myself from judging the parents. There's nothing like the smell of crisps to transport me back to my own youth: the greasy combination of oils and strong chemical tastes; the fizzy drinks that came along with them; that deep, desperate feeling of being sluggish and fat and gross.
I wasn't fat, but I grew up in an environment where being fat, feeling fat and the desire not to be fat have always been topics, and I suppose like most females on this planet I feel some level of societal pressure not to be ‘fat'.
It makes me feel strange and guilty using this word to refer to myself, having just read Roxane Gay's Hunger. I'm very aware that I have never been fat, or even overweight. While my personal feelings about my body may be one thing, I have never experienced life in a society that sees me as fat. There are so, so many experiences that I haven't had, that I can barely imagine anyone else ever having (like strangers removing items from a food cart that they disapprove of – my mind is still reeling from that one). Hunger is an important (and rare) record of those experiences, and the emotions that go along with it.
But there's a lot more in there to unpack – there is sexual assault, race, and the ever returning topic of (self-)worth, and the struggle to feel deserving: of love; of respect; of care, from oneself and others.
In a beautiful interview with Jenny Zhang for the Rookie Podcast, Roxane Gay has talked about those struggles, and the persistent feeling that haunted her since her teens: ‘This is all there is? How disappointing.' There's a beautiful, comforting moment during that interview where both of these wonderful, talented people talk about that loneliness, the feeling that life just might not be for them, something that can persist over years and years no matter how much work we put into dealing with life. Others feel like this too. Awesome people feel like this too.
Apart from the many other things it does, Hunger chronicles, with incredible honesty, one person's journey with those feelings. Sometimes the chapters are hard-hitting (there are a few about relationships that are particularly hard to read); sometimes they are hesitatingly gentle (like the one about cooking a Blue Apron meal and the attempt to nourish her body well). Overall, it is a journey – a very long, hard journey with some ups and many downs.
I cannot properly review this book without being more open than I want to be or am able to be. Which in a way is a shame – as she writes, sharing our histories (of violence) is important: 'It informs how I move through the world. It informs how I love and allow myself to be loved. It informs everything.' And by sharing our history in our own words, we gain control over them.
But I am not that brave, and that's just how it is.
But I can tell you, who is reading this, to read this book, and be inspired – to be better and kinder to your fellow humans; to be better to yourself; to tell your own story. We need more books like this, especially in times of the #MeToo movement when finally, someone is listening. We need more people to come forward and remind us that life is messy, and painful, and that everyone is fighting some kind of battle. And only if we know what these battles are, and all the many shapes they can take, and that they can be a massive part of us without defining us – then we can move through the world with open minds and be compassionate, and kind, and considerate to each other. That's the world I want to live in.
Author: Roxane Gay
Publication date: June 2017