A Grammar of Home

Anna MacDonald reviews Fiona Wright’s The World Was Whole

Fiona Wright, The World Was Whole.
Giramondo Publishing, $29.95.
Buy direct from the publisher.

In this beautifully curated collection, a follow-up to her award-winning Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger (2015), Australian essayist and poet Fiona Wright considers how to make a home in a precarious world. This is a world with which we are all too familiar, one marked by “unspecified global threat, imminent ecological disaster, increasing workplace uncertainty”. It is a world of serial displacements, in which people are “unhomed” by the machinations of global capital, by environmental catastrophe, by the “everyday injuries” of casualised employment and insecure rental housing. But for Wright, it is also a world made chaotic by chronic illness, specifically a combination of physical rumination —  unwilled vomiting — with severe and enduring anorexia nervosa. The World Was Whole is at once more personal and more political than Small Acts of Disappearance, which focused primarily on Wright’s illness, her experience of being in an unsettled (and unsettling) body. In this new collection, Wright draws on that experience to illuminate other forms of precarity and to investigate new ways of narrating them.

During her first year of university, when she was nineteen, Wright was unhomed by illness. It rendered her body “unsafe… uncertain… a thing I did not know”. The nature of rumination, according to which Wright’s body rejects certain foods, demanded that she learn to pay close attention to “the small details of what I was eating and how my body was reacting”. As she reflects in the opening essay of this collection, ‘To Run Away from Home’, “I think I very soon found reassurance, found some security in those minutiae”.  Wright’s attention to reassuringly small details became a fixation as her restrictive eating developed into anorexia. But it is also via these small details, the matter which makes up the everyday and is too often dismissed as mundane, that Wright has come to explore what it means to inhabit a body, to be at home, in the world.

The ideas Wright introduces in ‘To Run Away from Home’ are developed throughout The World Was Whole. In the book’s first essay, she draws upon the work of phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard, in particular his discussion in The Poetics of Space of “the ‘passionate liaison’ of our bodies and the spaces we inhabit, our homes”. The intimate connections between the body and the spaces we come to think of as home — among them the “habits of movement” that at once shape those spaces and are shaped by them — are invoked again and again in these essays. They are there on a return to the family home, beneath bare feet, in the sensation of carpet “thick and creamy as Greek yoghurt”. They are there, after every move, at every new house, in Wright’s placement of her desk beneath a window, “so I can watch the people walking past, the light shifting, across the day”. They are there in the maintenance of daily rituals — rising early, writing at cafés — in Newtown, Sydney, as much as in Reykjavík or Shanghai. And they are there for Wright, too, upon the return from hospital — a place that imposes upon the body its own routines — in unpacking her bag, vacuuming her bedroom, and watering her garden; in coming home to “the habits I have that shape it and are shaped by it, the small delights it gives me across the day”. Back home, Wright walks through her neighbourhood “just to feel it on [her] skin”. It is, for Wright as for Bachelard, everyday, joyful, and deeply sensual connections such as these that make a home and shelter the thinking, dreaming self who lives there.

But, as the essays in The World Was Whole demonstrate so vividly, the passionate liaison between body and space is fragile and, increasingly, the connections between the body and the home are unsettled. Even before she was unhomed by illness, Wright’s connection to the place of her birth was complicated: “I didn’t feel I fit there. … But what I came to realise, slowly, was that the place didn’t fit me.” This awkward fit is partly to do with the idea of suburbia and the “almost eugenic” association of these spaces with physical health. But it is also a side-effect of European invasion and the violent dispossession of Indigenous Australians. The world Wright describes in this collection is built on stolen land. Her complication of the idea of home is indebted to a kind of ur-unhoming that has severed the connection between settlers and their “old home” — “I don’t have an ancestral home,” she writes, “I don’t think any white Australian does” — and, with the perpetual return of repressed colonial violence, renders their position forever uncanny.

The legacy of invasion is only one of the forms of unsettlement explored in The World Was Whole. Elsewhere, Wright reflects upon the effects of gentrification on formerly familiar places. She vividly captures the alienating consequences of the property market in a city like Sydney where “the median house price is now more than twelve times the median income of its inhabitants”, and she exposes the politics of rental housing in Australia where almost half of renters live under what is officially termed “financial housing stress”. ‘Little Heart’, an essay about being in Shanghai on a writer’s residency, is also about the importance of “rootedness” as “another way of knowing one’s place in the world”. In China, Wright learns of the government’s plans to “relocate ten million people over the next two years, for massive infrastructure projects”, and describes the country’s “floating population” of around 245 million low-skilled workers, who are principally engaged in the manufacture of “Disney toys, and iPhones”, and live in dormitories “far from their hùkou, their official household registry, which gives them access to government services like healthcare, housing and schooling”. Again, in ‘A Regular Choreography’, on a tour of Iceland, driving “through vast and empty flood plains, dusty grey and littered with gibber-like stones”, she repeatedly hears that “there used to be a town here, there used to be a fishing village here; once, my family used to farm sheep here, but it moved, we moved, after the volcano”.

In the face of such radical and far-reaching unsettlement, can we continue to speak of home? Is it enough to return to habits of movement and seek shelter there? The answer, it seems, is yes, and also no. Part of the appeal of Bachelard’s poetics of space, with its celebration of the bodily rhythms and daily rituals of home-making, is that we can carry “home” with us wherever we go. Thus, in Iceland and China, Wright can return to the habits of movement that keep her grounded in Sydney in an attempt to heal the “wounds” of travel. As she describes it:

What I like about [Bachelard’s] formulation is that it’s hopeful, it suggests that even with great distance from or discomfort with any idea of home, the memory of wholeness, of homeliness is always alive somewhere within us, always animating our bodies, even and especially when we’re not aware of it at all.

But not all wounds can be healed, and one of the threads that stitches together the essays in this collection is the desire to understand what happens when the body — that home that is thought to give us shelter — cannot be made comfortable in any straightforward sense, or according to dominant narratives of illness and recovery. The idea of wholeness and of being at home

is more complicated for those of us whose bodies are unsimple, for those of us who have been ill, especially chronically so — for those of us who go hungry. We’re overwritten with different stories, some that contradict, some that complement, and some that simply cannot comprehend the diagrams we carry of that first home, and this process never stops. For those of us who write, for whom inscription is something we do with our bodies, rather than something that is simply done to them, the formulation can never be this clear. I don’t want to go home. And yet I do. I can’t go home, and yet I never left.

For a writer, inscription is another of those habits of movement that give shelter, even in a storm, and Wright seeks to understand her illness as much via writing as via medical treatment. What is clear, however, is that new forms of inscription are required by those whose bodies are unsimple, who feel unhomed and yet retain the memory of wholeness, for those whose person and place in the world have been overwritten and whose stories are repeatedly marginalised by narratives that insist upon a single (simple) trajectory from illness to health, grief to joy, precarity to security and so on.

Towards the end of ‘To Run Away From Home’, describing her own experience, and that of many of her friends, Wright states that “our new normal is a less settled one, less homed, but I don’t think we have, yet, the new narratives and metaphors we need to understand this”. In their attention to the small details that make a home and the everyday injuries that unsettle Wright and those around her, the essays in The World Was Whole work towards new forms of inscription. Here, in prose that at times recalls the traditional personal essay, at others is more fragmentary, and always builds according to a logic of association, Wright has composed narratives that make sense of this “new normal” of unsettlement, and look forward to ways of being — joyfully, in body and in mind, even, hopefully, at home — in a precarious world.