Food for thought in quest for solace
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-