Sam van Zweden on “Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger,” by Fiona Wright

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.

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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.

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SAMVANZWEDENSam 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.

 

 

 

 

 

Wangari Maathai’s “Unbowed”

The story in Wangari Maathai’s Unbowed is beautiful and inspiring, but the writer in me kept gagging at comments like “I knew the sky was the limit” and “I knew I could do anything I put my mind to.”  I know the book’s purpose is inspiration, that her audience is looking for her to show how she achieved what she did, that it’s important for her to establish that she’s nobody special, that what she’s achieved is the result of curiosity and perseverance, that anybody could do what she’s done.  That, I admire.  But the crafting of the memoir—which tends more toward autobiography than memoir for me—was like nails on a chalkboard.

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Wednesday Writers to Read: Global Edition

Yesterday, our intrepid Advisory Editor Jim Rogers sent me an article on the Irish essayist Tim Robinson (I’ve written before on how much I adore Robinson), in which Robinson moves into the “third half” of his life, beyond the writing of Aran and Connemara that has consumed and fueled his life for the last several decades.

It is as if, as he approaches his 80th year, Robinson is drawn from the micro- to the macroscopic at a time when most of his peers might be moving in the opposite direction. “My work before was a study of the individual’s relationship to the landscape,” he says. “Now I really want to write about the material individual’s relationship to the rest of the universe, so I am beginning to do this, not systematically but almost following an arbitrary initial set of words.”

I’m trying to be (mentally) supportive, even as everything inside me is freezing at the thought of losing the Robinson work that is so vital to nonfiction, to Irish nonfiction, and beyond. Very few Irish nonfictionists are writing essays. There’s something in the water that leads to memoir, rather than other forms of nonfiction–which fascinates me on many levels.

This article is particularly timely, given the next stage of our In the Classroom initiative. The syllabi bank is growing nicely and it’s giving me the dual reaction of wanting to take all these classes as well as teach them. I’m really enjoying seeing how different people at different types of institutions teach similar classes, different texts. Love it. We launched our weekly blog series on “My Favorite Essay To Teach” and Sarah Einstein’s contribution on Amy Monticello’s “Playing the Odds” was a great way to start.

The next stage is to work on a database list of global nonfictionists. Who is writing nonfiction, outside of the United States? Who should we be reading? Who should we be teaching? Your suggestions do not have to be writing in English; they can be writing in any subgenre of nonfiction. Comment on this post, reply to us on Twitter, comment on Facebook with the name of the writer, country of origin, titles of the books or individual pieces, and a publication date. Multiple entries for a writer’s many works are most welcome. I can’t wait to see how this list grows!

-Karen

Be Still, My Literary Heart: Irish Essayist Tim Robinson Honored by NUI-Galway

It’s just good luck that in the last two days, my two favorite essayists have showed up in my News Feed. One of them comes from Doug Carlson, assistant editor for Georgia Review, who wrote a blog post on the Minnesotan essayist Paul Gruchow. Those of you have visited our About Us page know that our journal’s name comes from a Gruchow quote, so I make no claims to being unbiased when it comes to his work. Also, my Earl Grey tastes particularly good this morning, so I’m full of energy.

This morning, a friend posts an article on Tim Robinson, the Irish essayist, being honored for his work. Very, very well-deserved honors–and again, I make no claims towards any hope of being unbiased. Jim Rogers, one of our Advisory Editors, introduced me to Robinson’s work in 2003-ish and the rest is history. I’ve read everything that man has written and even in rereading, it still sets my world on fire and reminds me why I am a writer. I have his map of the Aran Islands on my office wall (his Connemara map is still folded on my shelf). I visited him at his home in Roundstone in 2007 and even at the age of 75, he still out-hiked me up Errisbeg. (I wished I’d planned better, because he and his wife were preparing for their annual Roundstone Regatta party–and the Regatta was happening the next day, when I was flying home.) I may or may not have turned into a fangirl incapable of coherent speech, but meeting him still ranks very high on my list of favorite life experiences. Nobody does sentences like Robinson.  Continue reading

My Favorite Essay To Teach

I’m in this teaching mindset today for a couple of reasons. Most of all, I’m in the midst of finally being in one place long enough (with internet) to get into the nitty gritty of Assay’s submissions and watching the inaugural issue start to take shape. It’s also the 4th of July, and I’m all by myself in my parents’ empty house, with no plans to do anything 4th of July related (does mowing their lawn count?) and I’m still recovering from whatever bug I picked up last weekend on our trip to visit family in California, so my will to do much more than read and watch Netflix is pretty low.

irish creative writingBut yesterday, our illustrious Advisory Editor Jim Rogers, who edits the Irish scholarly journal New Hibernia Review, asked me to review this book, Imagination in the Classroom: Teaching and Learning Creative Writing in Ireland, edited by Anne Fogarty, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne, and Eibhear Walshe and I’m way too excited about it. As my other hat is Irish, it’s been a particular soapbox that the academic organizations I belong to don’t do much with creative writing or pedagogy. Naturally, there are exceptions here and there, but it’s not part of their larger work. So, I have been very interested in the intersection of creative writing and Ireland (as well as Irish nonfiction, as creative writing) for a long time–so I’m thrilled to see this book. I hope it lives up to my excitement over it. Continue reading