I read over a hundred books this year and now that I’ve come to the end of it I find that Hunger by Roxane Gay is the one book that has stuck with me the longest, and has changed me the most. It’s the one book I want to write about tonight, as my last post in 2017.
I was lucky enough to hear Roxane Gay speak this year when she came to my hometown for a reading. She was warm, empowered, strong, confident, and most of all she felt aware of all these things about herself. She had a supreme graciousness toward others, and a patience, especially with those readers and fans and people in the crowd that night, some of whom seemed overpowered by their own hurt and in need of someone who would listen to their stories and understand. Roxane Gay was able to listen. She was able to say exactly the right thing. Her strength and presence were extraordinary.
And then there is this book. As I read it, the strong confident voice I listened to at the reading seemed to completely shrink into a hesitant and cautious voice, one that was afraid of its own conclusions. I believe Roxane Gay when she writes that this book the hardest thing she has ever tried to write. Because what I experienced, while reading the book, is that it was nearly too hard for Roxane Gay to write her story. The writing felt guarded and circuitous and almost stuttering. The strength and confidence I felt from her when I heard her speak fell away toward silence and hurt. And I thought as I read: Where is the strong confident person I saw on stage?
But here’s the thing: Now I’ve come to realize just how strong it was for Gay to write exactly this way about her past. Maybe she had no choice. Extreme honesty seems to be the core of who she is. The book demands faith and acceptance from the reader at all times. It doesn’t take care of the reader. Indeed it forces the reader to take on the role of patient loving listener. The reader is asked to take care of the writer, rather than the other way around. It’s as if, through the act of reading this book, you’re being patiently guided to become the kind of person who can listen to another person’s trauma, and understand.
The novel feels like a watershed of sorts, written before #metoo, and apart from it, but pointing toward this extraordinary change in our culture, where women in future might begin to get angry and speak out against those who abuse them, rather than feeling shame and punishing themselves and their bodies for what happened to them. So quite unexpectedly and for all the reasons above I find myself tonight realizing that Hunger by Roxane Gay was my personal Book of the Year.