I finished Fiona Wright’s collection of essays, Small Acts of Disappearance, a week ago. I enjoyed it while I was reading it. Actually, ‘enjoyed’ is not the right word when you’re reading about someone’s experience with anorexia… Rather, I was interested and engaged. But now, a few days out, the guts of Wright’s message evades me. What parts of her story have lingered?
There are ten essays in the collection, each examining the author’s battle with anorexia at different stages of her life, and in relation to broader concepts about hunger and size. For example, an essay about her time in hospital sits alongside an essay about how Australian authors have used anorexia in their stories.
The stories aren’t chronological but the link between each – hunger – is clear. Wright’s multiple takes on hunger is certainly the most striking element of the collection. Without trying to garner sympathy, she matter-of-factually tells of the seductive and addictive feeling of hunger, as well as exploring its biological, historical and political manifestations –
“My hunger, and its rules, have been with me, always, for almost all of my adult life…. I still don’t know who I am without my hunger; without its structures that support me too, its scaffolding.”
The essay about Wright’s time in Sri Lanka as a fledgling journalist, In Colombo, stands out. During her stay, she contrived ways to avoid eating, and at the same time was writing articles about the extreme poverty in Sri Lanka –
“Hunger is only political, only poignant when it is abnormal, when it is usual and strange: in a place where hunger is so prevalent, one hungry child with an imaginary cricket bat was just a colour piece in the weekend section of a newspaper. But my hunger, singular and self-circling, was a crisis in my hometown.”
I was particularly intrigued by the essay In Miniature, which drew on studies of 18th-century miniatures and scaled replica houses to examine a person’s sense of size. I was equally fascinated by In Berlin, in which Wright referred to the Minnesota Starvation Experiment and the experience of prisoners in German labour camps during World War II to explore the power of hunger –
“The body never forgets starvation. I think of my grandfather, still keeping old, but repairable watches, promotional DVDs from Sunday newspapers, recycled pieces of string inside his cupboards, having come of age in the Depression.”
There are advantages to choosing essays to tell her story. By incorporating external elements – from referring to the stomach as a ‘nerve centre’ in the body to exploring the German use of food as cultural identity, Wright deftly steers the collection away from the ‘misery memoir’ or ‘sick-lit’ zone. However, as potentially stand-alone essays, key concepts must be repeatedly established, which can make the language seem repetitive and can read as a tiny, tiny bit self-obsessed (I’m looking at you, essay about a friend’s death).
I guess my main problem is this: I have no real sense of where Wright’s journey will end, or in fact, what direction it’s taking – surely there is no such thing as a ‘recovered anorexic’? Like any addiction (whether it’s hunger or drugs), it’s a lifelong battle and Wright’s essays indicate she remains teetering on a precipice.
“I’ll always remember the particular intensity that malnutrition brings on, I know that I miss it still.”
Wright admits to being afraid of living ‘sub-clinically’ and acknowledges that she misses the simplicity of her illness. Her hunger protected her from other emotions and surrendering hunger also meant re-engaging –
“I still watch undiseased eaters having dinner and wonder at their thoughtlessness, their ease.”
But despite her honest, forthright and beautifully put-together words, I’m not convinced she has re-engaged. Yet.
3/5 Strong but repetitive.
Will it win the Stella? I don’t think so.