Food for thought in quest for so­lace

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Small Acts of Dis­ap­pear­ance: Es­says on Hunger By Fiona Wright Giramondo, 193pp, $25

These days, nar­ra­tives about food are in­vari­ably linked to ex­cess, be they nov­els that celebrate pome­gran­ate soup or cho­co­late, re­al­ity tele­vi­sion shows fea­tur­ing am­a­teur chefs, cook­books flaunt­ing recipes for 10-course de­gus­ta­tions, or films such as Rata­touille, Julie & Ju­lia and The Trip.

Add to this trend the pad­dock-to-plate move­ment, the mul­ti­tude of lifestyle eat­ing regimes and the rise of cult in­gre­di­ents such as ac­ti­vated al­monds, or­ganic quinoa and co­conut oil, and it’s not hard to con­clude that the West- ern world’s de­fault re­li­gion has be­come un­think­ing glut­tony.

This is one of the rea­sons why it is so re­fresh­ing to read Small Acts of Dis­ap­pear­ance, a col­lec­tion of 10 es­says that dis­cuss, from var­i­ous po­si­tions, the au­thor’s am­biva­lent re­la­tion­ship with food and nour­ish­ment — be­gin­ning with a seem­ingly harm­less diet in her teens and pro­gress­ing, over the years, to se­vere in­tol­er­ances and al­ler­gies, on­go­ing nau­sea, a di­ag­nosed eat­ing dis­or­der and even­tu­ally anorexia and its ac­com­pa­ny­ing men­tal ill­nesses.

Fiona Wright, a doc­toral can­di­date at Western Syd­ney Univer­sity, is an ac­claimed poet, win­ning the 2012 Mary Gil­more Prize for her first col­lec­tion, Knuck­led. It’s ev­i­dent in this first work of prose that her back­ground has served her well. Wright has a gift for com­pres­sion, lyri­cism, and a poet’s ear for rhythm, all of which an­i­mate even the most heart­break­ing pas­sages:

One woman hadn’t had a bath in seven years, and al­ways show­ered in the dark. Another would spend eight hun­dred dol­lars ev­ery week for gro­ceries, and seven hours vom­it­ing each night, the blood ves­sels be­neath her eyes burst­ing with the pres­sure. One had per­ma­nent cal­louses above the knuck­les of her right hand, where they crashed against the back­sides of her teeth ... One would eat un­der­cooked chicken once a month in the hope that she’d get sal­mo­nella.

Small Acts of Dis­ap­pear­ance, how­ever, is nei­ther a mis­ery memoir nor yet another ex­am­ple of “sick lit”, but 10 com­pelling and thought­ful med­i­ta­tions on ab­sences, both lit­eral and fig­u­ra­tive, that haunt the au­thor’s life. The most ob­vi­ous ab­sence, of course, is food, but Wright also writes com­pellingly about the ab­sence of self- aware­ness (in the form of an anorec­tic’s de­nial); the loss of emo­tion and de­sire dur­ing the depths of self-star­va­tion; the grief she ex­pe­ri­ences at the death of a close friend; the dou­ble-con­scious­ness of the writer in so­cial sit­u­a­tions, al­ways an out­sider look­ing in, a silent ob­server rather than an en­gaged par­tic­i­pant.

While all the es­says are grounded in au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Wright em­ploys her eat­ing dis­or­der as nar­ra­tive oc­ca­sion to ex­plore larger con­nec­tions and com­par­isons, from stud­ies of 18th­cen­tury minia­tures to the Sri Lankan civil war, to the Min­nesota Pro­ject (an experiment in forced star­va­tion), to the Ger­man labour camps dur­ing World War II: “... it was dis­cov­ered that hun­gry in­mates are less likely to have the energy to rebel”.

The ob­jec­tive, clin­i­cal ex­pla­na­tions of what hap­pens to the anorec­tic ner­vous sys­tem are both chill­ing and shock­ing: the brain, for exam-

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