Our Editor/Founder, Zoya Patel, will be speaking on a panel during the Networking Day on Friday 26 August – to find out more, and see all of the amazing events programmed as part of the festival, head to their website.
Our next Q&A is with Fiona Wright, author of Small Acts of Disappearance, and 2016 Winner of the Kibble Literary Award.
Small Acts of Disappearance is an arresting book that links deeply personal experiences to much broader social contexts – what made you want to tell this story in this way?
I honestly think that this is the only way I could have told the story, because so much of my experience, dealing with and recovering from, mental illness has involved continually reshaping and rethinking the way I imagine its history – which means it’s impossible to get a stable sense of narrative from it, or to pin down any kind of objective facts. I’ve always been resistant to narratives about illnesses as well, because they are too simple, and chart too clear a progression, with too beautiful or perfect an ending, when the reality is something far messier, and far more incomplete.
Leslie Jamison, whose fabulous book The Empathy Exams I was reading towards the end of the writing process, talks about personal experiences as being ‘the perpetual mess’ of how bigger narratives – history, science, politics – play out. I loved this idea, that our individual and specific experiences have resonances far beyond ourselves, and are important far beyond our own small lives.
One of the things that stands out about your book is how different it is from what we expect from a book that interrogates eating disorders – why is it important to you to create a different narrative?
Creating a different narrative was important to me because the existing one has never matched my experience, or the experiences of most of the people I’ve met with eating disorders. I think we have a cultural understanding of these diseases as illnesses that only affect teenage girls, and that are always about thinness, or some kind of vicious vanity – and not only is that completely untrue, but it’s also the reason why I was unable, for many years, to recognise the true nature of my illness. Because I wasn’t a teenager, and didn’t want to be thin, I thought that I didn’t have an eating disorder. I also think there’s still a lot of shame and misunderstanding that surrounds these diseases, and make them difficult to talk about – and that’s incredibly dangerous.
You write about how reading/literature impacted you on this particular journey – what’s the power of literature in supporting people through difficult times?
The power, for me, was something that I first felt when I was re-reading Christina Stead’s For Love Alone, because I had a vague memory of the main character going hungry early on in the book. As I read the book again, with a new set of experiences behind me, I noticed that this hunger, and self-denial were threaded right through it, but no-one had really noticed this or written about it before – because no critics had been alert to the peculiarities of hunger in the same way as I inevitably was. It was the first time that I felt something positive and powerful that was a result of my illness, something new that it might bring, and it was wonderful to feel like I might make something out of my difficult experience.
I also think that literature, at the best of times, can and does offer us sparks of recognition sometimes, and that this is powerful because it makes us feel less alone. And that’s incredibly important for anyone in any kind of difficult time, to feel some kind of understanding or communality in that experience.
You’re speaking at FWF on the politics of personal writing – what do you want people to get out of that discussion?
It took me a long time to feel comfortable writing about myself, because I worried constantly that it might seem self-indulgent, somehow gut-spillish and gratuitous – and even longer to realise that there was something very female about these concerns. We’re taught to be quiet and self-effacing, to not draw attention to ourselves, to not complain – the same kinds of impulses, incidentally, that are a part and parcel of anorexia – but this also means that we don’t tell our stories as often as we should. I want people to leave the session feeling more comfortable with the idea of writing personally, more assured in their own ability to do so.
What other sessions are you excited about attending at the Festival, and why do you think people should attend?
I’m really excited by the panels on finding your voice – because I think this is something that we’re all continuously doing, over and over again – and on feminism and publishing, because for such a predominantly-female industry, there’s so much that’s horrible and unequal that goes down, and I’m really curious to hear what we might do about that. It’s hard to pick out individual sessions, though – I’m really thrilled about the whole day, and excited to think of the ideas and energies that it’s likely to bring together, and by what might come of those as well.
Find out more about the Feminist Writers’Festival and register to attend here.