Adapted from a story by The Washington Post’s Caitlin Gibson.

Roxane Gay begins her new book — the hardest she’s ever had to write — by describing what it isn’t.

“The story of my body is not a story of triumph,” Gay writes in the opening pages. “Mine is not a success story.”

Instead, it’s a searing account of the essayist’s lifelong struggle with her weight, which once topped 500 pounds. “Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body” is no weight-loss memoir, she is quick to explain. There’s no tidy resolution here, no willowy woman on the book jacket holding the waistband of her old pants an arm’s reach from her new body.

The resulting book turned into a portrait of resilience in the aftermath of trauma: When Gay was 12, a boy she adored lured her to a cabin in the woods near her Nebraska home, and he and a group of hisfriends raped her.

“They did things I’ve never been able to talk about, and will never be able to talk about,” she writes. “Those boys treated me like nothing so I became nothing.”

For years, she told no one. Food became a vital source of comfort; her doting parents, both Haitian immigrants, were alarmed as their quiet daughter gained more and more weight. “They knew nothing of my determination to keep making my body into what I needed it to be — a safe harbor rather than a small, weak vessel that betrayed me,” Gay writes.

Of all her work so far, “Hunger” is certainly the most vulnerable. Which made it the most painful story to tell, Gay says.

“When you’re fat, your body is not a secret, but you still hold on to secrets; you pretend, of course, that people don’t see you the way you know they see you,” Gay says. “And so to expose myself and this history of my body . . . it’s not something I took any pleasure in.”

Over “Hunger’s” 88 short chapters, she explores the loneliness and pain of her body’s constraints. There is the exhaustion of constant scrutiny, of unavoidable logistical challenges. (How sturdy is a chair? How high the step onto a stage?) She conveys the relentless anxieties that fuel a “constant, destructive refrain”: I am the fattest person in this shopping mall. I am the fattest person on this panel. I am the fattest person in this casino. I am the fattest person.

But she also chronicles her perseverance, her formative relationships, and her ongoing quest for healing and peace. Although she turns a critical eye inward, she has much to say about a culture that glorifies TV shows such as “The Biggest Loser” and “My 600-lb Life” but makes little effort to accommodate larger people or support their physical and mental health.

“I really just wanted to talk about what obesity — no, I hate that word — what fat looks like, beyond what people generally see, where you’re talking about someone who is 60 or 100 pounds overweight,” Gay says. “I wanted to wrest control of that narrative back from the people who have seized it.”

The book offers a pointed retort to the smug strangers who shoot Gay sidelong glances at the gym or gawk as she settles into an airplane seat: Here is everything you could have possibly wanted to know about whyhow and someone comes to live in this body.

As for what it means for her — she’s still living her way into that answer.

“Writing the book has allowed me to just take a hard and necessary look at myself that I had been unwilling to take — at how I got from then to now,” she says. “And to just be honest with myself.”

And has that brought her closer to the peace she seeks?

“We’ll see,” she says. “It’s too soon to know.”


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