An audience with poet and author Fiona Wright
By the time I meet Fiona Wright at a cafe near her home in Sydney’s inner west, it is a relief to see her: lean yet healthy, round cheeked and smiling. Her eyes are bright, lips plump, hair red and lively.
It was here, among boxes of avocados and crates of oranges, that she sat with her back to the sun and wrote Small Acts of Disappearance, a book of essays about her experience with an eating disorder. Meeting her in the pages of that collection brought with it an intensity, a growing disquiet for her frailty, for her self-confessed desire to suddenly disappear. Food, she tells the reader, is a burden. Hunger is addictive and it is intensely sensual, her safest state. The body grows thin, she says; skin bruises, bones hollow and muscles waste. Organs slow and shrink.
Part of wanting to write the book was to explain the misconceptions around anorexia, Wright tells me, to give voice to those stories. “The assumptions are part of what was so difficult for me. Shame thrives in silence and secrecy, so blowing that open is important. I was unable to recognise the nature of my illness because I carried false assumptions around anorexia. I really thought eating disorders were all to do with appearance and superficiality. Spoilt little rich girls who just wanted to be pretty – that’s incredibly wrong. It’s not about vanity at all.”
The food and body are metaphors, she says; they are not what is really going on. “It’s stigmatising. People think it’s a choice – that it is a self-willed thing. It’s not. You are dispossessed to make choices by the disease.”
Writing the book was a way for Wright to explore the complexity of the disease, to understand the paradox of wanting to shrink from the world, yet become more noticeable. “The desire to take up less room in the world is, I think, something that all women have felt at some point – being told we’re too much, too loud, too emotional, too needy – that paring back as a response. A really underweight body is a strange source of horror in society, and there’s a power to that. ‘Yeah, that’s right, I look terrible and I’ve disturbed your beautiful walk in the park. What are you going to do about it?’ I think that’s all unconscious. The kind of reactions people had made me furious, but I sort of relished it as well. There’s a defiance to it.”
Perhaps, says Wright, it’s also about denying yourself things that you really desire and really enjoy, as a kind of penance, as a way of proving your own goodness or stoicism. Anything that’s not about food and its avoidance, she says, kind of falls away. “There’s a purity of focus, which in some ways is part of the attraction. You’re not actually in the world or in your life. That’s what you lose – you lose touch with reality. It happens so incrementally. It meant that, often, I wasn’t present. I was caught up with all that stuff in my head, driven by that manic, furious energy. It’s a really anxious energy, a constant talk in your head. You’re occupied – just not with anything interesting.” She was always one of those “sensitive children”, she says, and is still very thin skinned, still easily hurt. To be able to step back from that is a really powerful thing. “If you’re not in the world, it can’t hurt you,” she says.
Wright sits lightly on the stool, alert and thoughtful. Despite the subject, she smiles often, finds humour in the unexpected. Her frame is small but her laugh is hearty. Writing, she tells me, is the one thing that has always provided her “uncomplicated joy”. Her poetry has won awards and is published in Australia and around the world. “Writing is always the anchor – the one thing that I was still doing that remained constant.”
There is a strange relationship between hunger and writing, she says. They come from the same place. “Writing for me is very much about making sense of the world, and of organising experience, finding patterns, finding meaning – hunger does that, too.” They both give a kind of distancing, says Wright, and impose structure on your day, a very tight control over at least one aspect of your life. Writing helped her think things through. “There’s a real process in essay writing to pulling things together. It was really helpful, but it’s not therapy. Therapy is therapy.”
For Wright’s recovery the most important thing was meeting people in hospital “who thought like me, acted like me, had similar personalities. I needed it reflected back to me.” When you get better, she says, you’ve suddenly got time and space that you don’t know what to do with. “Your emotions have been tamped down. When they all come back, it’s kind of horrifying.”
“It is still really hard, still trips me up at times when I’m least expecting it,” she says. “It’s ongoing – it ebbs and flows. I’m still working at it, and I think that’s the important thing.” Wright tells me she still experiences fear and terror around food. The body never forgets starvation, or places, or the spaces it has moved through. “The body remembers,” she says.
Her writing is at that weird intersection between fiction and nonfiction now, Wright explains. “It is not quite fiction and not quite real either. It’s got a lot to do with place, and inevitably, embodiment, but ideas of health as opposed to illness. How we think about what it means to be healthy, what makes someone ‘healthy’.”
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 12, 2016 as "Written on the body". Subscribe here.