Delicious descriptions: Fiona Wright on writing and hunger

Fiona Wright, Small acts of disappearanceIn my recent review of Fiona Wright’s Small acts of disappearance, I focused on her analysis and her experience of anorexia, but, as I mentioned in the review, she was, already, a published writer. An award-winning poet for a start: her poetry collection, Knuckled, won the Dame Mary Gilmore Award for a first collection. Her poetry and essays have been published in several literary journals. Consequently, it’s not surprising that writing makes an appearance in Small acts …

In her essay, “In Hospital”, she writes:

I know now that the impulse I have to starve comes from exactly the same place as my impulse to write: hunger, like writing, is a mediator. It stand between me and the world, between my self and the things that might cause it harm. Hunger is addictive, and it is intensely sensual, pulling the body between extremes of hyper-alertness and a foggy trance-like dream state. And like writing, it lets me stand clear, separate and intact; it lets me stand on the outside. I spent years determined to stay on the outside.

Is this a common experience of writers, that it separates them from the world, I mean? I guess so, in a way, because writers tend to be observers – and it is hard to observe and be part of something at the same time, isn’t it?

In “In Miniatures”, she discusses how the enjoyment of miniatures involves narrowing one’s focus and attending to detail. However, “detail-oriented thinking” is psychologically related to hunger because the malnourished brain becomes intensely focused: the world shrinks, and becomes small enough to handle, to not be a threat. The trouble is, she writes:

detail has for so long been the stuff and substance of my poetry, my craft: the accrual of small, odd things, contradictory things, the things that undercut or illuminate the social world. It has always been detail that I’ve thought makes the worlds we write specific, poignant and, in essence, poetic. And it’s hard to contemplate that my writing, the thing I feel has kept me sane, may very well have been based on nothing more than cognitive pathology.

Hmmm … That “nothing more” is perhaps her being harsh on herself. I suspect that even if “detail-oriented thinking” is part of the anorexic pathology, Wright’s writing comes from a bigger part of herself too. But her fear that in losing hunger she may also lose her writing is palpable.

And then, in “In Group” she writes at length about John Berryman’s Recovery/Delusions, two books in one – his unfinished novel, Recovery, and a collection of poems, Delusions. Recovery is an autobiographical novel about an alcoholic man in a psychiatric hospital. Wright writes at length about Berryman’s character’s experience of group therapy and her own, and in so doing also discusses writing, its impulses and sources. I won’t share any more of this: it’s better that you read her book, rather than my ramblings on it!

Instead, I’ll conclude on one little point. Recovery is unfinished because John Berryman committed suicide while writing it. Wright comments:

the novel simply stops, in a suspension … Part of me thinks this is exactly as it should be: an unintentional but radical inconclusiveness, a denial of the three-act structure that biography is often made to fit …

Novel, biography, the same thing in the context of narrative, I suppose. Anyhow, this reminded me once again of EM Forster’s wish (in Aspects of the novel) for novels to be able to end when the novelist gets “muddled or bored”. Instead, he says, “most novels do fail here – there is this disastrous standstill while logic takes over the command from flesh and blood.”

Wright concludes her essay with her own intriguing idea about “logical and fixed conclusions” versus “the unfixed and uncontainable”, but I’m leaving it here. If you’re interested, you know what to do.

Fiona Wright, Small acts of disappearance (Review)

Fiona Wright, Small acts of disappearanceIt would be a rare person these days, from Western cultures anyhow, who didn’t have some brush with an eating disorder, whether through a friend, a family member, or personal experience. And yet it is one of our most misunderstood afflictions, which is where Fiona Wright’s Small acts of disappearance: Essays on hunger comes in. Wright, born in 1983, is a published poet. However, in her mid twenties, in her first hospital day program for her seriously low weight, she had to admit to herself that she was, indeed, one of “those women”, one of those women, that is, whom she’d always thought were “vain and selfish, shallow and somehow stupid”.

Now, many of you know that I am interested in form. Well, Small acts of disappearance is interesting in this regard. On the surface, it is what it says it is, a collection of essays, but it is also, in effect, a memoir of Wright’s experience of one of medicine’s most mystifying conditions, anorexia nervosa. There are ten essays, the title of each commencing with “in” as “In Colombo”, “In Hospital” and “In Hindsight”. This word “in” has a literal meaning, but its repetition also accentuates that she really is “in” something that she cannot, must not, distance herself from. While there is a loose sort of chronological drive to the essays, the first one, “In Colombo”, does not start at the beginning, not that there is, in these things, a clear beginning. She goes to Colombo as a newly graduated journalist in her early twenties, around three years after what she defines as the formal onset of her condition, but years before she commences any dedicated sort of treatment. It is in Colombo, however, when she thinks “things changed” and her “illness grew more complicated”, and so it is from here that she launches her set of essays exploring this “illness”.

There is, then, an idiosyncratic sort of chronology or narrative arc, which provides a structure for what is essentially a set of thematic essays. Linking them are some recurring threads, in addition to the condition itself of course. One of these relates to the paradoxical and perverse nature of the condition, and another to language. I’m going to be perverse and start with the second of these, language. Wright, being a writer, loves language, so as well as writing the book in her own gloriously clear and evocative language, she also shares the “new” language she learns. There’s the language of treatment (“In Increments”), for example, which she describes as “a jargon, that language that speaks only to the initiated, that carries with it its own definition of inclusion”, and the language of group therapy and recovery (“In Group”). She considers the implications of the language, of how it normalises the way the initiates communicate. Group language and behaviours, she explains, mean sufferers can identify each other, like it or not, outside treatment.

In my opening paragraph I suggested that anorexia nervosa is a misunderstood condition. Wright herself had believed that “those women” were vain and stupid. However, through years of treatment she comes to realise that the very opposite is true, that anorectics (her label) tend to be people (men and women) “who think too much and feel too keenly, who give too much to other people”. She says of the women she met in treatment that they were “some of the bravest but also most vulnerable that I had ever met”. The awful thing, the challenge for treatment, is the condition’s perverse and paradoxical nature. No matter which way you look at it, there’s likely to be a contradiction. Sufferers “fear death” and yet let their bodies destroy themselves; their desire for control often triggers the illness, but the illness, the hunger, wrests control from them and takes over; they want anonymity while their emaciated bodies draw attention to themselves; the pain of hunger numbs other pain; and, so on. Hunger, she writes, is addictive, heightening the senses, creating a feeling of “hyper-alertness”. It “feels so good” that “even now” on the road to recovery, she can miss it. Wright’s analysis of the psychology and pathology of eating disorders is clear and authentic.

While much of the book chronicles her personal experiences, Wright supports her impressions/findings with knowledge gleaned from reading and research. This gives the book a gravitas not usually found in the “sick-lit” (sub-)genre, to which this book may or may not belong, depending on the breadth of your definition. She describes the Minnesota Hunger Experiment, which was conducted during World War 2 on conscientious objectors to ascertain the physiological and psychological impacts of extended periods of starvation or malnutrition. She analyses fictional characters who exhibit disordered eating in novels by Christina Stead (For love alone), Tim Winton (Cloudstreet) and Carmel Bird (The Bluebird Cafe).

She also devotes an essay (“In miniature”) to miniatures, which themselves have a contradictory nature. They unsettle our perception, she writes, while also attracting us. So, she interrogates her love of miniatures from childhood, teasing out of this a pathology that desires to be small and that likes clear boundaries. She writes:

To be miniature, then, is to occupy space differently, and especially, pointedly, to have a different occupation of public space. We disturb it with our discrepancy, even as our smallness means that we occupy less of it. I think sometimes that the drive to hunger, the drive towards smallness, is about precisely this: we feel so uncertain, so anxious about our rightful place in the world, that we try to take up as little of it as possible. It is a drive to disappear that can only ever succeed in making us more prominent, more visible, because it makes us as different and offensive on the outside as we so often feel we are at heart.

And then, scarily, she describes how the crafting of miniatures takes “real skill, exceptional care, and time”. Oh dear. Hunger, she says, “narrows the world so minutely and completely” that it brings the world “back under our command”. But, “it is a false and contradictory kind of command … We possess the world, perhaps, but in the process we are dispossessed of our own selves.” It is a long way back, and as she makes clear in her book, she hasn’t yet quite worked out how to live “a full-sized life”.

I’ll close, logically, with her last essay “In Hindsight” which, in another structure, could have been the opening essay because in it she looks back, back, back to origins. In hindsight, she sees aspects of her childhood and adolescence that contained hints of what was to come. All along she’s told us that her disorder had a particular physical trigger when she was 19 years old, but here, in the last essay, she writes:

I’ve resisted telling this other story, I think, because I don’t want to hear it myself.

And then she exposes all those early signs, with such heart-breaking, self-exposing honesty. I’m not surprised Small acts of disappearance has made it to the Stella Prize shortlist. Wright offers us a clear-eyed, analytical but moving insider’s view of a devastating and still mystifying condition. It’s a gift of a book.

awwchallenge2016Fiona Wright
Small acts of disappearance: Essays on hunger
Artarmon: Giramondo, 2015
ISBN: 9781922146939