Emma Rose Smith reviews Small Acts of Disappearance by Fiona Wright
by Fiona Wright
Reviewed by EMMA ROSE SMITH
‘I just saw Fiona Wright,’ says my friend over the phone. ‘At least, I thought it was her.’
A statement that wouldn’t be out of place at a poetry event or around the streets of the inner-west of Sydney. But my friend is not in Glebe or Enmore; she’s been sent for a few weeks, for her own wellbeing, to one of Sydney’s private mental health institutions.
‘I didn’t know whether to say hi or not,’ she says. ‘I mean, you never want to publicly know anyone from these places. What was I going to say: I like your poetry?’
This was about a year ago, before Wright’s Small Acts of Disappearance was published, before any one of its essays featured in Overland or …. My friend and I had read Wright’s poetry, heard her on the radio, seen her do readings. We did not know that she was open about her condition and was in fact researching its details, contradictions, and existence in humans and literature, as the topic of her doctorate.
I still don’t know if my friend would have been presumptuous or not in approaching Wright. I do not have lived experience of these institutions and their social codes; neither can I know how the individual would have reacted to being publicly recognised amidst their very private processes. But I do wish that my friend had by her side at that time a copy of Small Acts of Disappearance.
In one of the essays in the collection, ‘In Increments’, Wright describes the visceral experience of being admitted to a day program for eating disorders. This was years before the longer-stay program where my friend saw, but decided not to greet, her. During the program, Wright is questioned by the doctors for her garrulous attitude. She loses weight, and is kicked out. Desperate, she eats cake every day in an attempt to gain enough weight to be accepted back into sessions. She writes: “I cried a lot. ‘You’re living my dream,’ the dietician said. I smiled, though I wanted to slap her, and hard.”
Each of the essays in this collection covers a different element of illness: as it is seeded in youth; as it takes hold in uncertain times; as it is experienced as a foreigner; as it is treated by various practitioners. Wright also assesses the appearance of illness in fictional and nonfictional writings by writers such as Christina Stead, Carmel Bird, Tim Winton, John Berryman and Louise Glück. Anorexia is rendered with an honesty and humility I’ve never seen before, by descriptions of its contradictions, its inner complexities, its varying effects upon varied humans. It is seen within the context of addiction; of deception; of a desperately certain foundation amidst the life’s uncertainty. In an essay on the miniature, Wright explains the mistaken conflation of smallness with control:
This is a false and contradictory kind of command: the more control we try to exert over our eating and our food, the more our illness asserts itself and the less able we are to operate autonomously . . . We possess the world, perhaps, but in the process we are dispossessed of our own selves.
She was sick, with a denial of that sickness, for several years before the dispossession could be held apart and called what it was.
It would be irresponsible to discuss Small of Acts of Disappearance without an analysis of the societal structures that contributed towards its creation. Wright is capable of accessing healthcare treatments, despite the detriment their price tag has had upon her; however, not all who experience hunger may be able—financially or otherwise—to enter private healthcare. Australian eating disorder treatment in public systems is hard to reach, says Wright:
No state has more than about eight public hospital beds for adult eating disorder patients; these beds are all in locked psychiatric wards, the waiting lists are often up to thirty-six weeks long and only available to the critically underweight and medically imperilled. I had to fight, and fight hard, to get the treatment that I needed.
Small Acts of Disappearance is not social criticism and doesn’t claim to be; but considering the aforementioned limitations, it’s clear that institutional structures are in stark need of reform.
Wright also dissects hunger in the context of her stay in Sri Lanka, where many citizens go hungry without choosing to do so. She notes that the food she threw out in this time could have supported some of Sri Lanka’s homeless population. The disposal of resources is itself a privilege that is met with blankness by those who cannot afford waste. She writes: “In Colombo, my hunger was obscene. It was not predicated on need, on poverty or parentlessness or war, corruption or greed . . . My own denial was something as incomprehensible to my local friends as the hunger they lived alongside was to me.”
If we are to utilise intersectionality in our reading of Wright’s essays, we must ask: How do class, education, whiteness, heteronormativity, ability, and other social factors influence mental health? How do they influence our capacity to access care, and feel safe doing so? How might someone of different circumstances experience anorexia or another hunger disorder? Wright notes, but does not try to speak for, the myriad embodiments of anorexia beyond her own. “Illness is a foreign country,” Wright declares in ‘In Group’. “We do things differently here.” And the natures of ‘hunger’ range as widely as that of the people who live alongside it.
Small Acts of Disappearance changed my ways of understanding food, vulnerability, and control. Midway through grocery shopping, I remembered Wright’s descriptions of the textures of food, “choking up in my throat, as glutinous as craft glue.” I thought twice about buying rice. I decided to try not to use the word ‘binge’ in casual conversation. ‘In Hospital’ mentions the shock Wright received encountering mainstream usages of sickness discourse, after finishing an eating program. “A waiter brought a brownie to my table with my coffee and called me ‘naughty’.”
I thought of my older sister the dietician, who conversationally agrees that most of her professional counterparts live with an eating disorder. I hate the way she stands in the family kitchen monitoring how much we serve ourselves for dinner, or expresses disgust if one of us buys an ice-cream. It occurs to me that although I have been hurt by my sister’s judgement, it may not have had much to do with me per se, but me as embodiment of how easy it is to become a size 10; how she conceptualises that being-ness as a fall from grace. There is no easy way of telling how my reading of Small Acts of Disappearance will change our relationship, but I hope it equips me with the grace to respond to her criticism with something other than anger.
Wright herself had misconceptions about the control of food: “I couldn’t see myself as one of those women—I thought that eating disorders only happen to women who are vain and selfish, shallow and somehow stupid; it took me years to realise that the very opposite is true.”
If one of the key joys of literature is that it allows us to empathise with individuals that we would have otherwise dismissed or thought badly of, then Wright is dizzyingly successful. Just as it’s clear that she, the writer, is progressing away from the fear that her illness makes her one of ‘those women’, so am I, the reader, learning that my opinion about my sister is irrelevant. It’s now awkwardly clear that while my sister’s anxiety manifests itself in the stomach, mine does so elsewhere, and should be understood with no more or less gravity.
I read these essays as a poet, and also as someone with lived experience of other kinds of obsession. From both perspectives, Wright’s clarity and generosity of expression contribute towards the rendering of a resounding text. Within the urge to sate curiosity, to seek causes and convenient vocabulary, the reader encounters sentences built with years of thought: “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 space within the world, that we try to take up as little of it as possible.”
Wright speaks eloquently of the ways we choose hunger. As a way of exercising agency in the midst of life’s pandemonium. As a reduction of the inelegancies of the self, its clumsy inaccuracies. As a method to focus. (“I still find it so difficult to think, to write, to work, after I eat; how my thinking feels so much sharper, more vivid, when I’m hungry.”) Wright’s ending essay, ‘In Hindsight’, contains the undeniably clear announcement: “When I was hungry, I felt alert and intense and alive along every inch of my skin, and I felt unassailable.” It is not difficult to apply these reasonings to other methods that we utilise to get on with our lives: exercise, medication, meditation, sex, alcohol; any number of the superstitions and rituals that we engage in to best let our creative projects blurt out from within us. All methods are flawed; but sometimes it’s the closest thing we’ve got to something that works.
EMMA ROSE SMITH writes manic poetry, smelly-lady nonfiction, and fiction that overuses the word ‘ululate’. She is often mistaken for a vegetarian. Her chapbooks and zines, including ‘Goonbag Mystic’, ‘Fingerbang’, ‘Pull Out the Pop-Schlop’, and ‘Pink Bets’ are available from her lounge room. She is starting a collaborative literary index of events and submissions (http://spokensydneystories.