Time, to those of us celebrating birthdays and managing schedules, seems naturally linear. The past is gone and the future lies ahead of us. This is a model of time that Chris Wild, the founder of the online archive of historic pictures The Retronaut, likens to walking. Our experience of moving forward through space a footfall at a time seemingly emphasises that we are moving forward, eyes locked onto what is to come. Following in the footsteps of Walter Benjamin, who reminded us that the reveries of memory animate our present as much as what is ahead, Wild posits instead that ‘time is a remix’, a composite landscape that can be traversed at will in the present moment.
Fiona Wright is a poet and critic possessed of a keen intelligence and a clean, precise voice. Landscape and the ‘hard chemistry of time’ were a feature of Wright’s 2011 poetry collection Knuckled. Physical and exacting in its use of language, it was beautifully sequenced, each poem and section falling to the next in a rhythm by turns plain and oblique. Knuckled invited its readers to consume its verse in a single sitting and rewarded those who did, a pleasure not every poetry volume can promise.
Released earlier this month, Wright’s second book, Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger, steps into a memoryscape vivid with mnemonics that are both deeply personal and at large. Her clarity of voice and eye for the irregular sinew of life are brought to bear on ten personal essays written over four years, while Wright was undergoing treatment for anorexia nervosa. Collectively, the essays offer a strong counter argument to the dubious but commonly-held belief that memoir is a form best left to a writer’s twilight years.
From its opening pages, Small Acts of Disappearance demonstrates that Wright has retained her sense of spatial acuity. The first essay, ‘In Colombo’, breaks open both her method and her story, as Wright’s internship at an English-language newspaper unfolds in light but potent gestures. The Sri Lankan capital is rife with the regulation of public space: guns slung over the shoulders of soldiers, the groping hands of men on public transport, the absence of women. The quieter ordinances of Australian streets – insistent cat-calling; intimidation; the demand ‘Why was she out so late?’ – do not seem so different, though they sit a few notches down on the scale of explicit control. Poverty in Sri Lanka is tenacious in its basic need, to an extent that is inconceivable to most urban Australians.
As the book’s subtitle makes plain, this collection’s unifying theme is hunger: for food, for agency, for the stability found in writing when other supports are loosened or absent. This is deeply personal material, but Wright is a generous writer and draws lines – sometimes fractious, sometimes breaking – to larger communities of people and bodies of knowledge.
Wright’s particular experience with anorexia began with Rumination (from the Latin rumen, or gullet), a physical and psychosomatic condition in which a contraction of muscles around the abdomen causes involuntary vomiting. The initially undiagnosed and still little-understood condition sparked in Wright a need for bodily control, which ultimately led to the further illness of anorexia. Unable to digest the rice and coconut milk of Sri Lankan food, Wright shrinks until her collarbones are ‘angular enough to become individually sunburnt’.
The physicality of Wright’s analysis doesn’t stop at the boundaries of her body. ‘Hunger is only political, only poignant when it is abnormal, when it is usual and strange… (M)y hunger, singular and circling, was (only) a crisis in my hometown.’
Wright’s use of the personal pronoun throughout is grounded and clarifying – weighted to illumination and analysis rather than expression. Wright recognises that her impulse to starve is in some sense a form of shyness, that it ‘comes from exactly the same place as my impulse to write: hunger, like writing, is a mediator.’
Wright finds resonances of her own hunger in sources as disparate as the fiction of Christina Stead and John Berryman, in the sensation of grief, in her escalating need for control. Her shrewd assessments of two (highly unethical) studies on the effects of starvation provoked a desire in me for more information, the better to situate the larger incremental effects of hunger’s slow disaster against Wright’s personal story. To have left me wanting more is not an indication of dissatisfaction; rather, of a reading experience I was reluctant to finish.
In American essayist Leslie Jamison’s persuasive pushback against the notion that writers need to have lived a busy, eventful life before making life their subject, she writes, ‘Wallace Stevens called a poem “the cry of its occasion,” and I think we can’t always set the timeline on our cries. We utter them when they come.’
Small Acts of Disappearance proves once again that Fiona Wright is a writer possessed of a thoughtful voice and a keen subtlety, and a memoirist whose time is now.