Books

Fiona Wright
The World Was Whole

Fiona Wright’s second collection of essays, the follow-up to 2015’s superb Small Acts of Disappearance, is concerned with dark matter. Not the invisible stuff that makes up most of our universe, but those hidden parts of human life made from particles of habit.

Most writers have an aversion to the habitual. It is so life-killing, creativity defying, all that temporal hygiene we practise to make one day just like the next. For those who submit to habit, wrote Samuel Beckett, “yesterday is not a milestone that has been passed, but a daystone on the beaten track of the years”. For him and for countless others engaged in creative effort, habit is a compromise brokered between the self and the world in order to ensure those faculties capable of opening us to fruitful accident or illuminating mystery remain undeployed.

Wright begs to differ, and she does so in ways that enlarge, rather than limit, the space in which creativity may flow. These essays, like those in her award-winning debut, are concerned with the nature and extent of her illness – a rare form of anorexia in which psychological barriers to eating are bolstered by a physical inability to consume certain foods – and how her daily experience of people, place and art is shaped by that radical physiological difference.

But since Wright is first and foremost a poet, she makes her own sense of exile from a “healthy” body into a metaphor that extends into the spatial realm. “I am unhomed,” she writes, speaking of the way in which the body she inhabits diverges from the potential, fuller and undamaged self she imagined she would have, before the illness first took hold a decade-and-a-half ago, during her early adulthood. These essays are, for all their elegance and insight, verve and wit – their deft manipulation of register and intellectual rigour – notes from an emergency that has stubbornly failed to end.

The volume opens with a piece explicitly linking bodies and the spaces they inhabit. The southern suburbs of Sydney known collectively as The Shire – a beachside idyll for the risen Australian middle class, and in recent years a flashpoint for racial tension – is where Wright grew up. She never felt at home there – the facile obsession with beautification that was bound up with the suburban ideal, the social necessity for effacement of difference that dwelling in such places demanded, ran against the grain of her personality and, ultimately, her vocation.

The “suburbs we grew up in were invented, that their creation, at the turn of the last century, was a political act”, she writes, referring to those efforts made by successive governments to ensure the poverty, criminality, dirtiness and potential for social disorder bound up in the inner-city slums of Sydney and other Australian cities were diffused or ameliorated by home ownership on the urban fringes.

These policies proved enormously successful and, indeed, became self-sustaining; we have been a nation of home-owners and incorrigible improvers of our quarter-acre lots. For Wright, however, though she feels a residual fondness for the place where her family lives, such places have become in recent years more of a bulwark against a changing and alien world – a white, ageing island within the larger landmass – as well as a physical analogue to economic forces that permitted certain generations and certain sections of society to get lucky, while others got locked out. For Wright, the Australian suburbs are sites where neoliberalism is captured in an architectural rictus.

She is not so interested in passing judgement here, though, as in providing a picture of what the alternative looks like. Wright finds her place and her tribe in those very inner-city regions which, a century ago, we were encouraged to leave. Newtown, the once raffish, now gentrified portion of the inner west of Sydney where universities and hospitals sit like mediaeval fortresses, lapped about by tidy rows of minute workers’ cottages, has been Wright’s adopted home for many years.

Many of the essays are given over to pen portraits of what a more welcoming, mixed, concentrated, creative polis might look like. For Wright, it is a place of cafes and bars and small parks hidden at the end of terraced streets; it is a place for walking and meeting others, fertile ground for serendipitous encounters. It is aesthetic and political at once, open to eccentricity and difference, protest and debate. And when Wright describes it in her lavish, generous and droll prose, the reader wants to move there too. Few people write as well about the subtropical glamour of Sydney, a city that can be drowsy and electric at once.

The shadow that falls across this sunlit vision is not only gentrification – the mania of property transformation that has mini-skips breeding overnight, the precariousness of renting in a real estate market so febrile and driven by investors rather than residents, the sheer cost of maintaining a toehold in the once-grungy realm of share houses with old sofas dragged onto the pavement – but a recurrence in intensity and seriousness of Wright’s illness.

Obliged to return to hospital as an inpatient, cut off from the daily urban rituals that sustained her, Wright briefly succumbs to dumb grief for the life she cannot have. These are self-lacerating pages and difficult to read: no one deserves to be punished in such a primal way, to be unable to ingest those substances that sustain us. But the drama of this otherwise disparate collection of essays is Wright’s struggle to reframe her existence in such a way that the stale metaphors of illness can be salvaged and used for purposes of survival.

Just as a healthy body may take risks, or a rich person gamble, the (masculine) ideal of the writer disdains habit. For those inside bodies that are different, or damaged, or have lives made precarious in some way by our neoliberal moment, habits of living form a necessary discipline – a way of keeping what Wright calls “small command” over their existence. Wright has made poetry out of her habits in these pages; she’s made a kind of home out of words.  AF

Giramondo, 256pp, $29.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 6, 2018 as "Fiona Wright, The World Was Whole". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: AF