Writing the body is tough. As a thing with defined borders (like skin), and further borders within those borders (those we’re socialised to obey) that we dare not trespass against, it’s particularly tough to write the body in an open, curious, and freeing way. In attempting to write my own body, I constantly bump up against roadblocks – attitudes I dare not bend, taboos I fear to breach, assumptions I need to acknowledge before I can move past them and into something meaningful. It’s confronting territory, and possibly the highest stakes thing we can write about – that vehicle that allows us to be.
Compound the difficulty of writing the body by adding the controlling behaviours typically seen alongside eating disorders. The stakes become dangerously high. It’s no small feat, but Australian writer Fiona Wright manages to recreate this tension between control and chaos in her essay collection, Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger. Echoing the open and closed written modes of Wright’s identity as both a poet and a critic, this work manages to strike a balance.
These essays take a variety of stances on hunger, as experienced through Wright’s own anorexia. Essays about travel explore the way encounters with the broader world have informed the author’s guilt and ambiguity towards eating, while other essays consider the ways that eating disorders are portrayed in the work of well-known and much loved Australian authors such as Carmel Bird, Christina Stead and Tim Winton. Wright’s pathology is reflecting in the writing as some of the obsessive detail-oriented thinking that is part and parcel of Wright’s experiences of hunger.
What makes this collection so exciting is Wright’s ability to effortlessly engage with theory, dipping in and out of ideas that might otherwise come across as quite heavy. While the subject matter is hefty, and rightly so (I’m not suggesting anyone approach eating disorders jovially), there’s an element of playfulness about the work. Curiosity is the driver.
There’s no doubt that writing eating disorders is fraught. Wright herself acknowledges this in her essay, ‘In Hindsight’, describing how her fellow patients refer to books like Portia de Rossi’s Unbearable Lightness and Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted as ‘how-to manuals’ and ‘triggering as fuck’ (respectively). As a woman writing on the topic of eating disorders and hunger more generally, Wright must have been aware of the generic specificity of her subject matter. Eating disorder memoir = misery memoir, is the expectation. Cataloguing pathologies and redemptive recovery narratives seem to be the norm for other books on the topic. It’s clear from the get-go that this isn’t the kind of book Wright wants to write. She calls in theory from a number of sources – literary, scientific, historical – and at this point it would be easy to wield these things as weapons in the battle to beat down any possibility of her work being ‘misery memoir’ or ‘sick lit’ – but, with a huge amount of grace, this isn’t what Small Acts of Disappearance does. Instead, Wright holds the theory she employs lightly. That’s not to say that she doesn’t take it seriously, because at times the book feels like a metaphysical and psychological puzzle. Rather, Wright experiments with various sources of possible explanations for the unexplainable, and she does so with curiosity, in a written mode that is distinctly female, and fiercely strong for it. Wright’s uncertainty about that experience is a weapon in its own right.
Small Acts… approaches the body and hunger with the openness of a poet, with the rigour and insight of a critic. It breaks open borders at the same time as it wrangles something unspeakable into a sensible shape.
It would be too easy for a voice like Wright’s to slip between the cracks in the Australian reading climate. Broadly, ours is not a readership (or reviewing culture, or publication culture, or award culture…) that deals well with hybrid forms. We prefer neat boxes. Our nonfiction comes overwhelmingly from older white men and tells our colonial history. Wright is part of a new generation and sensibility among nonfiction writers: the self matters. The small, mundane self matters. Hybrid and experimental styles offer something that ‘historical’ accounts and comfortable generic boundaries cannot. Small Acts is making its mark in the Australian nonfiction landscape, too – shortlisted for the Stella Prize, the work is object of plenty of discussion not only in literary circles but in mainstream publications, too. The dynamic is shifting: It’s okay to write things that tell humble (but deeply important) stories. It’s okay to write things that don’t fit cleanly into genre boundaries. It’s okay to write about yourself. Wright’s work is one of those leading this shift.
Sam van Zweden is a Melbourne-based writer interested in memory, food and mental health. She has written for The Big Issue, The Victorian Writer, Killings, The Wheeler Centre and others. In 2015, she was a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship and Melbourne City of Literature Travel Fund recipient. Her work-in-progress, Eating with my Mouth Open, was shortlisted for the 2015 Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers. She tweets @samvanzweden and blogs at samvanzweden.com.