My dad’s signature greeting to family relatives, friends and people he meets has always been, roughly translated from Tagalog: “Looks to me like you’re getting skinny!” It doesn’t matter if it was the first time my dad has ever seen the person, or if they’ve just seen each other the day before.
Cue a hearty laugh, a grateful smile, a relieved sigh; the greeting always yields the intended effect. At an early age, I knew that being skinny was a compliment. It was a good sign. If one was gaining weight or on the heavier side though, one could expect a frown, a hushed tone, a look that implies shame.
So I knew my dad was on to something: losing weight = looking good = feeling good. It’s a brilliant formula, but only if you were actually losing weight. But that doesn’t matter.
When I picked up Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (Amazon | Indiebound) by Roxane Gay, I only had the faintest notions on what it was about. All I know is that I have to read Gay’s work — from An Untamed State to Bad Feminist (I’ve yet to read Difficult Women) as she’s become one of my favorite writers (in spite of that tweet suggesting Lebron join the Golden State Warriors).
Gay’s book is about hunger in many forms: that adolescent need to fit in and be wanted, a yearning to speak the truth without pain, the comforting solace of food, the promise of safety, to being desired and desiring other bodies.
At the core of Hunger is how Gay has turned to food and literature among other things to keep herself safe, after being raped by a group of boys when she was younger. She didn’t know how to tell her parents for fear of hurting them, so she buried the painful truth and built herself an armor of defense, a fortress for one.
In a culture run by capitalism, the need to cater to the male gaze and the unending dissatisfaction brought about by the media and so many industries to turn a profit come first.
Gay’s experience as a fat woman and as a black woman is at odds with the Western ideal: rail thin, white, sexualized, usually blonde. I found myself in tears so many times because while she is talking about her own trauma and her own experiences, what she writes underlies what most of us go through. As a queer immigrant from the third world myself, I come from a family where fat-shaming is a norm — done whenever there’s a family gathering, a chance to measure up everyone else in the family. Not talking about rape or incest or molestation or sexual assault is also another ugly norm in Filipino culture, and I’ve known so many of my folks who’ve kept their families in the dark about their own traumas.
So I get what Gay was going through, although on different terms.
I was hesitant to write a book review for Hunger because I didn’t want to minimize her trauma. It takes a lot of courage to write about her rape and her struggle with obesity, then share it with the world. And it takes even more courage to finally disclose what she went through with her own family, the same one who has lovingly protected and tried to help her in the ways they knew how.
I have the deepest gratitude to Gay for this book, for her words, for her strength and vulnerability. It is as raw as it is beautiful. It is incredibly powerful, and something that I’m planning to gift my family (and my dad) very soon.
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Pia Cortez is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She runs a book blog called Libromance where she reviews books and publishes literary features with a queer Filipino immigrant lens. She is a contributor at Hella Pinay, an online magazine for Filipino-American women and at New Life Quarterly, a literary magazine based in Oakland, California. She is currently working on her first novel.