Reneé Pettitt-Schipp reviews The World Was Whole by Fiona Wright

Fiona Wright, The World Was Whole. Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo, 2018. ISBN: 9781925336979

 

Reneé Pettitt-Schipp

 

There are some works that grab you by the scruff of the neck and drag you quite suddenly somewhere else — somewhere known, somewhere fundamentally human, and yet a place that is vastly different from your everyday, both disorientating and unfamiliar. The World Was Whole, a collection of intimate personal essays by essayist, poet and critic, Fiona Wright, is a work that does just this.

I first heard Wright speak at Perth Writer’s Festival in 2019. Wright was sharp, articulate and strikingly forthright about her struggles with both her eating disorder and the mental illness that she developed as a young adult, resulting from a rare and complicated stomach condition. Wright is well known for her candid reflections about her own body and the sickness that has haunted her for over eight years. A collection of essays published in 2015 entitled Small Acts of Disappearance detailing the author’s lived experience of disordered eating and anorexia, won both the 2016 Nita B. Kibble Award and the Queensland Literary Award. Building on this work, The World Was Whole is ostensively a collection of essays that centres on Wright’s ongoing struggle of living with chronic illness, yet this collection is ultimately a series of reflections about home.

Through her unapologetic and unflinching gaze into the fraught spaces she often inhabits, Wright seems to be asking a series of questions both of herself and the reader: Is our first childhood experience of home our real, our definitive home? How can we be at home when our houses do not belong to us, forcing us to be transitory? Can we find ‘home’ through our non-human connections with the world? And a central, repeated and deeply confronting theme — what happens when we cannot be at home even within our own bodies? It is this quintessentially human longing for home, a will to authentically and comfortably inhabit our corporeal existences and belong in the world, that Wright so skilfully taps into, drawing us in to connect with the unique territory she inhabits. We may never know what it means to be so ill at ease in our skin, but we do know what it means to want to be at peace with ourselves and our world, to have a place to belong, an anchor in place and time. On this theme Wright reflects:

That the body and the home are linked is nothing new … the physicality of the body, unthinking, untameable, animal, is important primarily because it is the thing that carries, or houses, our rational, remarkable minds — it is the home, that is, for who we are. (6)

Yet for Wright, we learn, disease ‘unhomed’ her (14), a phrase that made me flinch, caused me to catch my breath. The World Was Whole reads as a slow and shifting journey between grief and acceptance as Wright slowly come to grapple with the idea that she may never be well, may never reacquaint with her former health-filled self.

While The World Was Whole is cohered by Wright’s reflections on her ongoing struggles with illness, through her embodied experiences, we also encounter so much more through her lucid lens. The World Was Whole touches on themes of feminism and domesticity, urban planning and design, racism and the Cronulla riots, consumerism, friendship, displacement, vulnerability, interdependence, pet ownership and the joy of eating peaches. The work takes us through the streets of the inner and outer suburbs of Sydney, to Shanghai, the Surf Coast of southern Victoria as well as the volcanic world of Iceland in the spring. In the Chapter on Iceland titled ‘A Regular Choreography’, Wright steps into her own, esteeming the ordinary need for rhythm and routine against what Rita Felski names as the ‘vocabulary of anti-home’, as our contemporary global world privileges change and uprootedness over the desire to settle and sink roots:

But standing still, or moving in repeated tiny orbits — this is how we connect with, and cope with, the much more ordinary existence that is really the stuff of so much of our lives; and our habits are how we attend to it, pattern over it and shape it — unspectacularly, perhaps, but beautifully, gently, and in a continual and immanent present. (161)

Of all the strange ironies, my review of The World Was Whole was originally intended to be submitted in January, however due to becoming chronically ill after handing in my doctorate, it was months before I could return to finish reading Wright’s work and think about how best to review it. What shocked me most about my illness was not just everything I could no longer do, or only do with extraordinary effort, but how incredibly lonely that struggle became. ‘Illness is a state we do not think of as everyday’, Wright says, ‘but it affects those of us it impresses upon every single day’ (5). Those impressed upon, those with chronic disease, Wright tells us, add up to twelve million people in Australia, with mental health conditions being the second most prevalent form (184). Chronic illness means you occupy the world in a fundamentally different way from others, even those you love the most. Sometimes people understand you and sometimes they do not. Sometimes people believe the challenges you face on a daily basis and respond with heart-warming acts of empathy, but when your illness is not obvious, often they do not.

When I returned to Wright’s collection six months later, a larger, far more empathic space had been carved out in me, yet still at times I found points of resistance to the difficult world she presents so openly to the reader again and again. My own resistance reminded me of an article I read early in my doctoral research (I no longer know the title or author) about the ongoing challenge Disability Studies faces to receive funding and credibility in Australian universities. The author argued that a huge amount of prejudice exists in the Arts and Humanities because of a cultural resistance that stems from our unconscious fears of our own corporeal natures. We are happy to study race in universities because the suffering of others that white readers witness in these works will not become their own; a white person can relax in the knowledge that they will never suddenly and unexpectedly become black. Yet we are all so dependent on the physicality of our bodies, bodies that will inevitably at some point fail us. This is where Wright’s story becomes all of our story, and this is where her steady gaze becomes an offering, a difficult gift. If we can respond unflinchingly to Wright’s honesty about her body, if we can seek out those places in us that resist the telling, then we may find we come back to ourselves and others with more tenderness and care, and in doing so, truly honour our own bodies as well as the diversity within our communities, for it is our bodies and our communities that ultimately offer us a home.

 

 

Reneé Pettitt-Schipp’s work with asylum seekers in detention on Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands inspired her first collection of poetry, The Sky Runs Right Through Us. This collection was shortlisted for the Dorothy Hewett manuscript prize as well as the 2019 CHASS Australia Student Prize. In 2019, The Sky Runs Right Through Us also won the Greg Crombie ‘Work of the Year’ in the Humanities Research Awards, as well as winning the WA Premier’s Literary Award for an Emerging Writer. Reneé now lives in WA’s Great Southern.

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