The World Was Whole

The World Was Whole
Fiona Wright

I found out about this book during the hazy final days of editing my thesis, a body of work all about Fiona Wright’s first essay collection Small Acts of Disappearance (2015). My first thought was, ‘Oh no, now I have to go back and mention a book I haven’t read so my research is up to date’. It wasn’t until this year that I felt ready to tackle another essay collection, especially one by an author I’d studied so intensively for a year. Boy am I glad I did. Nonfiction lovers: this is a must-read.

In many ways The World Was Whole acts as a sort of sequel to Small Acts, though the two can still be enjoyed on their own.  At the centre of both books is Wright’s personal experiences living with anorexia nervosa and anxiety. In The World Was Whole, Wright uses her personal experiences to explore the modern world’s relationship with the home. She doesn’t look at the home as just the physical buildings we live in, or the spaces we interact with, but also the bodies we inhabit and how they can represent both sanctuary and uncertainty.

Throughout the essays in The World Was Whole, Wright examines her own life, which is built heavily upon repetition and routine, both of which are upset constantly by the circumstances of her health and finances. Like many millennials, particularly those with unstable financial situations, Wright rents. This means she is almost always on the move from house to house, from space to space. Forever trying to settle in and make these spaces her own, only to be flung elsewhere by circumstances beyond her control. She gets to the heart of the constant anxiety and uncertainty of renting when she writes: ‘I want to be able to get attached to a place, without knowing that my presence there is always subject to someone else’s needs or whims’.

Another strong aspect of Wright’s writing is her exploration of her own experiences of chronic illness. Within literature there is a tendency towards stereotyping the sick, particularly the mentally ill and female, as helpless victims or self-obsessed attention-seekers. Wright brings a strong current of humanity to her writing, showing what her lived experience of anorexia nervosa is like. She isn’t afraid to critique the limitations of Australia’s healthcare system, which often causes a great deal of grief and frustration for people struggling with chronic conditions. Importantly, Wright describes her illness in terms of the constant shift back and forth between getting better and getting worse, and the anxiety and fear that comes with this flux. ‘On the first day in the hospital,’ Wright writes, ‘I curl on my bed and cry for a full hour after every meal, and I keep thinking, I can’t do this, I can’t do this, I don’t think I can do this. I panic at the piece of meat that’s on my plate for dinner, I gulp for breath, great ragged gasps that hurt my sternum and then I sob outside the dining room because I hadn’t realised, somehow, that I’d gotten quite this sick. I’m so afraid of what I’ve done and of who I have become.’

There is a rawness, a brutal honesty, to how Wright writes about her illness that is so important. It’s the kind of writing that gets under your skin, touches something familiar within you and forces you to experience, even for just a moment, what it is like to live with such an illness. The rawness isn’t always shown through pain. There’s also joy. Wright shows the complexity of her life in all its facets, both difficult and special.

Wright’s essays are a delight to read. Often painful, always beautiful, they represent the growing skill and relevance of Australian essayists today. Personal essays like these allow for engaging discussions of issues that affect contemporary society: from poverty to racism and the need for change on a government level. Wright is only one of many Australian essayists using the essay to spark conversation and give readers a new way of looking at these issues by engaging them through the personal, as well as the purely factual. To avid essay readers and newcomers alike, this is a book worth putting on your list this year.


Words and photography by Lisandra Linde

Flights of Fancy and a Writer’s Imagination

Possibilities

A notice pops up in my inbox, something unexpected: a call for applications for a month’s writer’s residency in Granada, Spain, the city I first visited twelve years ago. Suddenly, I am transported there. I can fully imagine myself being the resident writer, speaking my intermediate-level Spanish, participating in local literary events, adding some more to the writing about Spain that I have already done.

I am so fully taken by such a possibility that during the night I start to feel anxious. I worry about leaving home to travel across the world and all that I would have to organise to make that possible, as well as all the things I would miss about home. It plays out in my mind like a movie, drives me crazy, my imagination giddy with anticipation. I toss and turn as my mind wanders in and out of potential scenarios: the long flight alone; the writer’s room near the university; whether I’d be able to make a cup of tea (should I take my thermos?); the weather; the clothes I would  wear; the people I’d meet; the activities, seminars, readings, or various social events. Would my Spanish would hold up? Would Marina, my flamenco dance teacher, be able to recommend a class I could attend?

 

Anxious and willing

Anxiety is both a physical and mental experience. Once I remember to breathe, my thoughts become clearer. All that seemed confusing or impossible during the night seems lighter and more manageable to me in the morning. I remind myself that people travel all over the world all the time, for work, for pleasure – a month here, two weeks there, ten days elsewhere. It’s no big deal. The distance, the time, the different culture.

I have useful conversations about this possible adventure being realized. What an opportunity, if it were to come off, if it all fell into place. I meet with a fellow writer at a local café and we speak in Spanish about the trip. A good thing for me to be practising if I am going to have discussions or readings or give lectures in Granada. In the meantime, I hope for peace, equanimity and courage.

 

Commitments

I have made a commitment. I have written and organised my application. Three people have written letters of recommendation. I send it all in five attachments to Carmen, the contact person in Granada, and I wait for a response. Did she receive it? It’s there in the outbox saying it has been sent, but how can I know for sure? It’s the last month of winter here, but perhaps over there she’s on holiday, escaping the August heat wave?

If I were to be chosen, I would travel across the globe to the south of Spain and spend November in Granada. This is when I could do with more of the subjunctive in English: if I were to be chosen I would take my work about Spain and share it with Spanish writers, readers and audiences. I would risk the exposure this would entail and the possible criticism for it being inappropriate or for misunderstanding their culture. I would risk being misunderstood myself. Or perhaps they’d appreciate it.

I have made a commitment for this experience to throw further light on my work. I have made a commitment to be immersed in the Spanish language, to participate in the cultural life of Granada, as much as opportunity will allow. I have made a commitment to write, to read, to research and to communicate my interests as clearly as possible.

I have made a commitment to sleep on my own in a foreign city, to face the night demons if necessary, to rely on my inner reserves of strength and to remain open. I have made a commitment to uncertainty.

Chances are this trip will not happen.

I am only one amongst many applicants from around the world. I already know I will be disappointed if I don’t go, even knowing I’ll be nervous if I do. I am preparing myself practically and psychologically for the journey. Now that the application has been sent, I feel a sense of space. Along with all the others it will be considered. What will be, will be. I will stay focused. I feel surprisingly neutral.

I turn to face the wind.

I push myself into it, pleased with the effort.

 

What if . . .

I begin to wonder again, what if they don’t approve of what I have written about their country, their culture, their iconic poet? What if they are offended by this work from an outsider to their culture? Sensitive topics, sensitive themes. I’ll have to risk what little reputation amongst friends, colleagues and readers I might have, lay it on the line. Yet in the end this application might be nothing more than a process. Time will tell.

I need not have worried about my application disappearing into digital space. I guessed rightly that the staff had been on holidays all of August, and as it turned out, early September too; and anyway, as Carmen explained to me on the phone when I eventually rang, in her casual, friendly, no-nonsense Spanish way, also the weather had been a pain because it had been too hot. Too hot to do anything.

 

Yesterday’s surprise

Yesterday’s surprise was that I look as old as I am. If in doubt, just see my latest passport photo. See how my face has lost its roundness, see all the new lines and folds in the skin, like a crumpled piece of waxed paper, moist enough, but too thin to resist gravity. Line up all the old passport photos: 23, 43, 63 . . . see how I’ve progressed through the decades from a black-haired, young woman to one of late middle age, happy to have made it this far, but astonished at the changes nonetheless. We like to say that photos are deceiving and perhaps they are, the camera can manipulate, but so can our eyes – our failing eyes – when we look into the mirror in a favourable, softening light, instead of the stark white light that lays the truth bare, reminding us of the ultimate journey we all have to take. I celebrate being here now. I celebrate all that makes life a curious wonder, including my changing self.

 

Equanimity

Today I have reached the peak on the mountain of equanimity. On the mountain that overlooks our river-city of Hobart, I sit, listen and look around, just one small being; here temporarily, in this ancient, natural world, breathing in the scent of solid earth, grounding myself. My vivid imagination is both a gift and a burden, the weight of some possible scenario carried like a back-pack full of provisions “just in case”. The waiting game is a strange place to be. Things come in their own time. There are people waiting all over the world to take the next step: waiting for permission, for rain, for answers, for love or compassion. Waiting and hoping. Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that ultimately there is nothing to chase after, that we can go back to ourselves and enjoy our breathing. So for now I am here on this solid mountain listening. Listening to the birds and the breeze, absorbing the peace. Equanimity. We come. We go. I am one being in a magnificent universe. Here now, beyond thinking, beyond anticipating. Que sera, sera.

 

Soy escritora (I am a writer)

I am, at this point in my life, able to live everyday freely and as I chose. In our culture people like to say they are busy, that they are active because it tells themselves and others they somehow live a worthy life. What do you do? is one of the first questions we ask people when we are getting to know them. I no longer join the flow of people in the mornings on their way to paid work. For the past 18 years I have been finding my way in the world of books and literature, writing, reading and publishing my work, participating in the literary life of my community. This is how I spend most of my time. Every now and then I still have to remind myself of what this means. One of my first daily activities is to write sitting up in bed, looking out my window at my neighbourhood valley and, with my fine-point pencil, discover the words that are ready to fall onto the smooth, inviting paper of my notebook. Call it a task and it already sounds more acceptable to our culture’s work ethic. Call it work. But I have always wanted my life, this one life, to be more than just a list of tasks that get ticked off every day. I want spontaneity, uncertainty, freedom. The purpose of being a writer is to be a writer which means writing, reading and thinking from morning until night. But also, of course, attending to those “dear tasks of continuance” so affectionately described by Denise Levertov, that keep body and mind together and sometimes spark some unexpected flash of inspiration. The question in Spanish is: to what are you dedicated?  To answer this in English is to uncover another side to the question what do you do? In my life I am dedicated to writing and literature, learning Spanish, learning the art of flamenco dance, creating gardens, maintaining my home, responding to injustice, having good relationships with friends and family, looking after myself. I am no longer the frustrated writer with little time to herself. I am the poet with space and time, my work is out in the world finding places to be. I feel most purposeful when I’m writing a poem or a piece of prose. Who am I still trying to convince? Perhaps my internal critic who tugs at my confidence as I wait to have my application considered by an international panel of judges.

 

Life is what happens . . .

The silence of a sun-lit morning is like a prayer. My eyes drink in its astonishing beauty. These last few weeks I’ve been thinking about death, about life ending or transforming as Thich Nhat Hanh says and how each day of our lives is precious. We have had a significant death in the family, our dear, elderly father-friend. A man with a loving smile and of gentle persuasion. To be the eternal writer-witness, not only of other people, events and things but also of yourself, gives me a serious gaze. I feel the need to smile and laugh more. Every thought, every act, every word carries a signature says the wise monk. Anne means grace. Can I live up to my name?

 

The significance of zero

Today is the day the selection panel will announce their decision. It is still night time in Granada but already it feels like the answer is “no”. I’ve been ahead of myself these last few months, anticipating a time to come that for all intents and purposes is not going to happen for me. On this side of the world we are always ahead of agreed time. And for these last few months I have been, in my mind, three-quarters convinced that I would soon be in the opposite time zone, leaving the brighter, longer spring days here for the shorter late-autumn days there. Now I feel sure I am not going to be making that journey. All should be confirmed by tonight. And all my practical preparation to date will be for naught – the books, the plans, the ideas for workshops and projects. Perhaps not for naught entirely. Zero is a significant number. A chance to begin again.

 

El compromiso

How to tempt fate? Name it, decide on an alternative course of action, pretend you are taking initiative,(water the garden so it will rain), make other plans, reach a conclusion, a compromise – only to have fate shout back at you. “But wait!” Wait another week as it extends the question mark over your life for a few more days. Let me just trick and tire you out, it says, deflate your new resolve, stretch it out, beyond the limit. We’re on Spanish time here. In Spanish compromiso means promise not compromise. Beware of false friends. Suddenly I feel tired of it all: of being ahead of myself. The waves of adrenalin have worn me out. I’m ready to go but will I be going? I’m over it. Over it.

 

The Art of Living

This morning, in this part of the world in our little city beneath the mountain it is blessedly quiet. I have slept and woken again. The Earth has turned. Again, I have arrived at D-day, the extended D-day. I’m sure I know the decision already and it’s time to leave this strange land of waiting. Time to let go. For the past three months I have been encapsulated in a bubble of possibility. Time to burst the bubble. Time to become un-encapsulated. This year has been a year of waiting for all sorts of things: replies from publishers, application results, calls from the hospital. The art of waiting involves effort and patience. As does the art of writing. Lorca once proclaimed, “true poetry, true effort, renunciation.” A writer recognises these sentiments. I have learnt that the art of waiting takes me to the present moment, wherein is found the art of living. I smile at the cloud in my tea.

 

Re-viewing

I am not going to Granada in November. As I had strongly suspected by the end, I was not one of the two writers selected out of, what turned out to be, seventy international applicants. Time to relinquish all that build-up. Time to close the file. Time to wind down, to sleep more peacefully. Time to return to my life in this small city with its own concerns. Time to reflect on the power of the imagination and how it can draw you into its intricately, detailed and convincing world, a world that is as big or as small as you want it to be, but a make-believe world nonetheless.

 

November 2018.


Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Words by Anne Collins

anne-collins-photo.jpgAnne Collins’ last book of poems The Language of Water (2014) tells the story of a modern day odyssey. Her two earlier poetry collections are titled Seasoned with Honey (with three other poets, 2008) and The Season of Chance (2005). Her landscape memoir titled My Friends This Landscape (2011) is a collection of prose and poetry. A forthcoming collection of poetry How to Belong will be published in 2019. Her manuscript (prose and poetry) with the Spanish themes is currently under consideration.

 

Fetishising His Own Sadness: The World of BoJack Horseman

Firstly, I must issue a spoiler warning. I can’t really talk about a series like BoJack Horseman without allowing spoilers into my discussion – that being said, they’ll be kept to a minimum.

 

The series’ protagonist, the eponymous BoJack Horseman, is the product of a poisonous relationship, and has subsequently been nurtured by alcoholism, drug abuse, and irresponsibility to become the well-meaning and deeply damaged man-child we all know and… well, know.

BoJack’s emotionally fractured nature is something the series never shies away from. He’s a damaged man (or horse) and he damages all who encounter him. It shows the remarkable complexity of the series that he doesn’t become the antagonist, even despite its recognition of his emotional failures.

BoJack’s insular spiral of self-destruction affects those who love him and he is held to account for this within the show’s narrative. The fact that he was shaped by his success in the care-free days of 1980s/90s excess with the privilege of a TV star is not used as some weak excuse for behaviour no longer tolerated in today’s updated ethics. A cartoon comedy is rarely so brave in delving the depths of the darker elements of humanity, let alone portray so nakedly the complexities of their situation. He is accused of fetishising his own sadness. It’s a heavy accusation to level but one borne out by the series. BoJack is unwilling to move on and points to his own – very real – damages as excuses in doing so.

BoJack is an individual given to disappearances, binges, and self-destructing spirals, in place of any real therapy. His medication is alcohol and his therapy is recklessness. The series holds separately, but equally, that BoJack has good reason for his behaviour but that it is also not necessarily excusable. Whether by deliberate action or mistake, BoJack has become a part of other peoples’ lives and with that comes a degree of responsibility to which he is not equal.

BoJack Horseman - Todd
Todd Chavez: not a gloomy roomy.

Perhaps the clearest example of how BoJack’s contradictory personality is not given carte blanche due to his own likely clinical depression is the relationship he has with resident couch-surfer Todd Chavez. He may be a victim of an abusive childhood home and trying to find a direction in life but he cannot bank on his once-victimhood for a lifetime excusing him of his behaviour to the friends of his present. The dynamic between BoJack and Todd may initially suggest that Todd is useless and a traditional slacker who offers little to the relationship but the series turns that on its head and continues to show the near-homeless Todd as more powerful than the reckless drunkenness of BoJack. He has an emotionally healthy understanding of the world and while he may not seek to reach the heights of success BoJack does, he goes about his interactions with others in a truly open and uncalculated fashion. Todd aims for little other than a good relationship with his loved ones – and, as the series continues – a better understanding of his own self.

BoJack is neither hero nor villain in his own story as he has shown himself unwilling to take control of the direction his life is taking. He is content to be passive in his own story all too often. He gives his agency over to alcohol, partying, and reckless thrills. So, what does this make him? He’s shown too great an understanding of his connection with the outside world to continue his directionless role as passive victim in his own life story and the collective understanding of his failing would surely be too much for him.

BoJack’s social privilege and financial success does nothing to keep away his own personal insecurities. The series uses this base as a perfect point from which to make brutally incisive commentary on the fleeting nature of fame, the predatory values of Hollywood, and the universal fact that depression, anxiety, and the horde of emotional concern they can bring with them, can find us even in the highest castles and the greatest peaks of success.

Princess Carolyn
Princess Carolyn, Hollywoo(d) agent.

The emotional stability of BoJack Horseman is all too often handed over to those close to him who have a stronger emotional maturity. Whether it be occasional lover and agent Princess Carolyn, biographer Diane Nguyen, or Todd Chavez, BoJack is surrounded by people willing to shoulder the burden of his emotional brokenness, not because they are the Hollywood hangers-on the series makes a profession of taking well-aimed shots at, but because they simply care for him. Seemingly unconsciously, BoJack abuses this connection. All these characters get pushed to the side by BoJack and their

diane
Diane Nguyen, biographer.

own feelings go without due care in his pursuit of his behaviours. The result of this is not some damning indictment on BoJack and all he stands for, nor an acceptance of his own moral frailties. The result is to see that BoJack behaves in a certain way for very understandable reasons and is neither to be condemned nor enshrined for his behaviour. His ability to bring such a tight bunch of determined friends around him shows that he is capable of better than he sometimes shows.

At the end of each progressively intense – and emotionally broad –  series, we have pealed back a little more of what makes this man- horse- horse-man, such a compelling character who speaks not only to the complexities of mental health but to privilege, Hollywood excess, and the absolute mess that relationships of all kinds can quickly become. BoJack Horseman forces you to will BoJack to better, knowing he has the ability (if not yet the strength) to do so. It doesn’t forgive him his failings but offers hope he can better himself. Truly, that is a real and grounded hope it offers its audience – there is always room for growth.

 


Words by Liam McNally.

Love, Simon

Greg Berlanti’s film Love, Simon is a heart-warming, coming-of-age tale that teaches us three important lessons: self-acceptance, general acceptance and that when you talk to someone nice online, they aren’t always a Catfish.

 

In all seriousness, this film – particularly in our post-Plebiscite Australia which left many people in the LGBT community feeling alienated – is a necessary, affirmative antidote. The plot follows Simon Spier (Nick Robinson), a closeted gay teenager who, after seeing an anonymous coming-out post on his high school’s gossip page, impulsively begins an e-mail correspondence with the writer who goes by “Blue”. However, their growing friendship (and Simon’s secret) are soon threatened after he leaves his e-mail open on a public computer and finds himself being blackmailed by fellow drama student Martin (Logan Miller) who wants to date his friend Abby (Alexandra Shipp). What follows are a set of hilarious, awkward and tense events as Simon struggles to keep his secret and act like Cupid with his friend’s love lives, all the while attempting to discover who Blue is.

 

The film (and for the record, the book) avoids the melodramatic tropes that are usually expected from the young adult genre. The anxieties of coming out, even while being sure that you’ll be accepted by your friends and family, are addressed alongside the strong message that only the person coming out has the right to determine when and how they do it. To allay your unspoken fears: no, this film does not go the pot-holed John Green route and suddenly have a character die with an unlit cigarette in their mouth – it has some heart-breaking moments but ultimately keeps a tone of warmth. No character is necessarily a “side” character – each possesses their own quiet complexities. His best friends Leah (portrayed by 13 Reasons Why’s Katherine Langford), Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) and Abby are very likeable and we find ourselves wanting a deeper glimpse into their lives and thoughts. Even Martin has a heart of gold and genuine adoration for Simon and his friends (if there was such a thing as wholesome blackmailing, he has found it). I must also mention Natasha Rothwell’s performance as the drama teacher Ms. Albright who is guaranteed to make you howl with laughter.

 

What separates it also establishes this film as a future classic is the underlying mystery: who the hell is Blue? You will be spending the entire film as Simon does: seeing a potential Blue in any male who interacts with him. It is hilariously akin to how we fantasise about crushes; usually over the most minimal interaction possible. This worker at the café smiled at me while handing me my change – so I guess he’s the love of my life then. We naturally become so invested in this mystery that every time Simon finds out a guy isn’t Blue, we feel the same spear of disappointment being thrust through our hearts. I know what you really want: to know if there is a great pay-off to this mystery? To which I will reply, rather pettily, that if I had to suffer with not knowing then so do you.

 

There are people who will disregard this as a “gay movie” but this is a film which anyone can relate to. The universal messages of self-acceptance, friendship and awareness that people are struggling with things you don’t know about are always relevant – and necessary. And even though this film does centre upon a young man accepting his sexuality; this is ultimately a film about friendship and love. It is an important film that a lot of young people will take comfort in who find themselves relating to Simon’s situation.

 

If a film can make an ice-hearted cynic like myself write such syrupy tripe like “friendship and love” – well then you best be sure it is a damn good movie.

 

Love,

Well at the very least: Tolerance,

Me

 


Words by Jordan Early.

 

Mental As Everything

Mental as Everything charts the breadth of two talented musicians’ personal experiences with mental health. Immediately impressive due to the significant talent of Damon Smith and Adam Coad, the performance only grows in strength as it continues. The depth of meaning and feeling charted by their assortment of songs and open discourse with the audience is something quite special. The show possesses something that cannot be fabricated by any amount of skill or talent – it has something intimate, understanding, and very, very true about it.

Exploring the effects and impacts of depression, anxiety, OCD, panic attacks, and bipolar disorder, the performance tackles its issues with humour, earnestness, and truth. It’s a show with a message and while that message is definitely front and centre of the show, it doesn’t fall into preachy territory that could undercut its own meaning. It succeeds entirely in formulating an experience that both delivers a message and entertains. Thought-provoking theatre at its best, Mental as Everything is a valuable show. Sadly, the run has finished but hopefully the Smith and Coad will return before long to offer more of this show.

Almost confessional in its honesty, Mental as Everything ticks every necessary box to be a marvellous and worthy experience. Both Smith and Coad offer us an insight into their own respective lives, giving specific examples of the way they interact with mental health daily.

The performance features a range of new and familiar songs that are used to expertly weave a musical exploration of mental health issues. Songs of their own composition mix perfectly with other more familiar songs like Trent Reznor’s Hurt (the Johnny Cash version) to form a perfect song-scape of mental health exploration.

With its wonderful balance of music, truth, and a message to share, Mental as Everything is simply necessary viewing. The chances of any given individual having their own experience with mental health is very high and as Smith and Coad say in their performance, we live in a transitional period. It is becoming easier for individuals to acknowledge a struggle with mental health without being harshly judged, but this performance plays its own part in pushing for more significant movement on that front.

Not only all those worthy, important issues, but also this show exhibits the most exhilarating shoe-on, shoe-off sequence you are ever likely to see.

 


Words by Liam McNally

4½ stars.