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

A Case to Answer – by David Bevan

Originally published in 1994, a year after the trial of accused war criminal Ivan Polyukhovich, David Bevan’s book has been republished to reach a new audience with forewords from both the Senior Counsel for the Defence and Senior Counsel for the DPP. Bevan’s role as a court reporter for Australia’s first war crime prosecution spanning from 1990 to 1993, has informed his account of the trial, yet he remains a narrator rather than a figure in his own retelling allowing rather than placing himself at the centre of the legal proceedings. He gives equal weight to both the prosecution and defence, although it seems as though despite his intentions Bevan, seems to sympathise with the prosecution as most Australians are wont to do.

 

A case beginning in the 1980’s, Adelaide resident, Ivan “Ivanechko” Polyukhovich was accused of a mass murder of Jewish citizens of in the village of Serniki, in German occupied Ukraine. Ukrainian himself, Polyukhovich worked under the Wehrmacht during 1942. He was arrested in Adelaide in 1990, four years after The Advertiser released his picture and name to the public and two years after Australia amended the War Crimes Amendment Bill. The next three years were fraught with court cases, appeals and witnesses travelling from Ukraine, Israel and Russia to testify against Polyukovich.

 

Despite there being forty years between the war crime and the trial, among the residents of Serniki there was a strong sentiment and cultural memory of Polyukhovich committing the murders. This truth was further uncovered by the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) set up by the Federal Government.

 

Bevan writes a poignant and harrowing retelling of a tragedy especially when photographs of the victims sit side by side with witnesses’ court testimony. Over time, names have been lost to history but they are not altogether forgotten. The constant repetition of the court proceedings with the cross examination and constant objections really highlighted the gravity of the crimes and gave the audience a small glimpse into the horror of this massacre.

 

Human resilience is embedded through Bevan’s account with stories of pain and loss. He demonstrates the way war ripped apart families and communities through the isolated setting of a Ukrainian village.

 

Despite this, at times it felt as though I was trawling through court transcripts, hearing conflicting testimonies, with quotes from witnesses, descriptions of court video screening from SIU’s original interviews with witnesses and historians evidence. For someone without any legal training and little knowledge at times it became overwhelming and slightly confusing.

 

Bevan also has a view of the residents of Serniki as simple village folk, untouched by modernism and reluctant to adapt to modern life, unintentionally denigrating them as simpletons who come from “primitive place” focusing on the lack of “modern buildings” and population of “children and grey-haired peasants”.

 

Bevan writes a heartbreaking account of a village ravaged by war, relatively unknown by Australian history, despite our role in the trial of Polyukhovich. He has written a book that reveals an important part of Australian and South Australian legal history. Yet its legal jargon and the need to record every legal dispute caused it to drag.

 

Nonetheless it is a must read for those interested in Australian legal history and war crimes.

 

3/5

 


Words by Georgina Banfield

Adult Fantasy

Briohny Doyle

Scribe Publications 2017


Briohny Doyle’s Adult Fantasy is an unflinching examination of the cultural mythology surrounding the wispy notion of adulthood. Doyle is in her early thirties and still plagued by the feeling she’s not a proper adult. She doesn’t have her life together like the thirty-somethings in television sitcoms: her writing career is still in its infancy; home ownership is a far-flung dream; she has no desire to be a mother.

More importantly, Doyle isn’t convinced by this list of adulthood pre-requisites. Adult Fantasy sets out to deconstruct the Western fixation on marriage, reproduction, and home ownership and their relationship to the preconceived idea of a functional, successful adult. These institutions are incised with a steady, expert hand. The misogynistic and homophobic history of marriage, the relatively new sanctity of childhood, the impossibly high (and extremely contradictory) expectations placed on mothers, and the near-impossible millennial dream of home ownership, are all unpacked and examined.

Doyle is particularly interested in the generational gap between millennials and their parents and the generational sledging that distracts from a changing and frightening economic landscape. Doyle uses the distance between she and her father, a working journalist, as an example of both a shifting working environment and misplaced generational sledging. Her father is woeful that his daughter is still studying in her thirties, and cannot simply go to the Advertiser and ask for a weekly column. He sees this as a lack of drive indicative of a millennial work ethic, whereas Doyle is quick to point out the sheer volume of university-educated millennials who are unemployed, underemployed or underpaid. For Doyle, this is a sign that things are not the way her father remembers.

As a middle class, mid-twenties writer, who works in what Doyle dubs a ‘survival’ job, I’ve never had a piece of non-fiction resonate so totally. Doyle does an excellent job of navigating an angst-ridden topic without sounding too self-pitying, or too privileged. She interviews a string of thirty-somethings who have chosen varying degrees of adulthood, including a polyamorous triad, divorced thirty-somethings, and a woman seeking life in a commune.

If you’re a millennial stuck by the casualisation of the workforce and impossibly high rental prices, I would encourage giving this book to your parents. If you’re the parent of a millennial, who’s path is taking a different one to your own, I would suggest reading this book and then giving it to your millennial to make them feel less alone.

 

5/5 stars


Words and photography by Riana Kinlough

Adult Fantasy is available for purchase here.

Don’t Fear The Essay: A Simple Guide to a Complex Form

When I say I’m writing my thesis is on the Australian essay most people recoil in horror, usually muttering something along the lines of ‘why would you do that to yourself?’. No doubt when they hear ‘essay’ they get flashbacks to assignments, rubrics, grading percentages and – perhaps most terrifying – bibliographies. This dreaded form of essay – the kind we’ve all suffered through for the sake of our education, be it high school or university – is the academic essay. But when I say essay, that isn’t what I’m talking about.

There is another kind of essay, a far less bristly, terror-inducing essay. It belongs to the growing realm known as creative nonfiction and it has something of a cult following amongst nonfiction writers in Australia, and the world. So what is an essay? Who writes them and which ones are worth reading? And most importantly– should you try your hand at writing one?

What is an essay?

An essay is a piece of prose, relatively short in length, which seeks to discuss a subject. Unlike its brother, the dreaded academic essay, this sort of essay is less interested in concrete facts or answering a question and more on the act of contemplation or discovery.

Let’s unpack this a little. The basics of an essay are a subject and the author’s take on it. For example, in a personal essay the author uses their own experiences to discuss a subject. Essay writers can draw on anything to discuss a subject – from science to history to literature. As long as the essay looks at a subject in some way (usually without a definitive conclusion or ‘answer’) it is an essay.

In his book Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: The Art of Truth American novelist and critic Bill Roorbach put it perfectly when defining the personal essay in particular: ‘A personal essay is never only an idea, but an idea illustrated with experience, an idea juxtaposed to competing ideas, and exposed to emotion’.

Alongside the personal essay you have all kinds of essay – the lyric essay, essays as literary journalism, nature essays, political essays. What they all have in common is an interest in open discussion, contemplation and the author’s own unique voice.

By now you might feel a little overwhelmed, but don’t worry: it’s not as complicated as it sounds. Essays can be a lot of fun, both to read and to write. It’s a form that can take a little getting used to but which is open to interpretation and experimentation.

Where can I find essays?

Many literary magazines and websites publish essays, such as Overland, Kill Your Darlings and The Lifted Brow. Black Inc. published an anthology of essays annually from 1998. However, their 2018 collection of Best Australian Essays will be the final collection, as announced earlier this year. Single-author essay collections are far more common in America than in Australia, but there have been a few Australian collections in recent years. One of the most notable is Fiona Wright’s Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger (Giramondo, 2015). Like most Australian essayists Wright’s shorter pieces can be found in publications like Meanjin, Island, Overland and more.

Why write essays?

Essays are a unique form of prose that allows writers to explore their experiences and interests in new and interesting ways. There are no concrete rules for the essay and experimentation is encouraged amongst most creative nonfiction writers. Because of this, it is a versatile form which can be adapted to personal writing styles and can cover subjects as big as world politics or as small as the dynamics of a household.

The essay emerged courtesy of a renaissance Frenchman called Montaigne, and it has been considered a form of the elite for some time but it is definitely not as exclusive today. Many essay writers are primarily writers of fiction or poetry. The benefits of writing essays as well as your main form of writing – whatever it may be – is that it gives you the chance to develop a very different set of skills. The essay forces you to think about things from multiple different angles, using your own experiences alongside factual evidence in order to consider things outside the realm of absolutes.

Should I write an essay?

Definitely. The essay is something I would recommend to all emerging writers. It is a unique and interesting form worth trying your hand at. If nothing else, it will get you thinking differently about the world around you. You might find that trying your hand at this form will challenge you and help you develop some new skills that can enhance your everyday writing.

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Some recommendations:

– Fiona Wright, ‘Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger’, Giramondo, 2015.

– Jessica Friedmann, ‘Things That Helped: Essays’, Scribe, 2017.

– Leslie Jamison, ‘The Empathy Exams’, Graywolf Press, 2014.

– Roxane Gay, ‘Bad Feminist’, Harper Perennial, 2014.

 

Works consulted:

Bill Roorbach, ‘Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: The Art of Truth’, Oxford University Press, 2001.

 


Image from Thought Catalog (https://thoughtcatalog.com/)

Words by Lisandra Linde

lizLisandra Linde is an Adelaide-based writer of fantasy and creative nonfiction. She is currently working on her honours thesis on women’s mental illness narratives and the personal essay at Flinders University. She tweets at @KrestianLullaby