‘Uneasy Habits: A Review of Fiona Wright’s “The World Was Whole”’, by Alexandra Hollis

NewSouth Books

In Queer Phenomenology, Sara Ahmed talks about spaces as being “like a second skin that unfolds in the folds of the body”. Becoming at home in a place, she writes, is:

…a process of becoming intimate with where one is: an intimacy that feels like inhabiting a secret room that is concealed from the view of others. Loving one’s home is not about being fixed into place, but rather it is about becoming part of a space where one has expanded one’s body, saturating the space with bodily matter: home as overflowing and flowing over.

I mention this because this kind of merging of the self and its surroundings, the familiarity which allows us to know our homes like an excess of ourselves, is such a particular and special kind of love; it’s a kind of love that I’ve only recently learnt how to articulate, and (because I always say things before I feel them) realise as a need.

Fiona Wright’s The World Was Whole — her second essay collection, the follow-up to Small Acts of Disappearance — charts the establishment of a finely-tuned domestic ecosystem, and the ways in which this can be easily disrupted by bodily and housing instability. It’s full of half-tender moments overheard in public spaces (“on the way home, on a bus, another man says to the woman beside him, please let me be gentle”), written in a prose which has a direction, intentionality to it, but drifts in language rather than pushing through it. The body and the home are intertwined, and interdependent, in Wright’s work. In the first essay in this collection, ‘To Run Away From Home’ Wright cites Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space in observing that “the places that we move through often, that we inhabit, become inscribed on the body as habits of movement: that instinctual grasping of a door handle in the dark, the collapse into a favourite chair where we know it will catch us, and at what height.” And yet as much as Wright speaks with tenderness about her home, the relationship is not simple: she continues the above essay by writing that, “if we carry our homes within our bodies, as Bachelard suggests, just as we house our bodies in our homes, I don’t know what that means for those of us whose bodies are contested.”

Wright speaks from and about illness as quotidian, refusing “the rhetoric of recovery and its fucking awful metaphors (the worst of which…[is] the continual injunction to start living, rather than just existing, as if a life lived with an illness [is] no real life at all.)” Her prose, which is always beautiful, is particularly striking when she writes about illness. It’s quietly, constantly devastating, not just for how she writes about her illness but also for how she writes about the spectre of her illness, the negotiation with the person she used to be before she became ill and the person she thought she would become. She has a real gift for presenting emotions with honesty and simplicity. One essay, ‘What It Means for Spring to Come’ (seasons are charted almost obsessively throughout the book), concludes with these lines:

Outside the library, strips of brown paper are tied to the rails of a fence, printed with calligraphed text. The strip that I unfurl reads, no winter lasts forever. I’ve been in treatment for eight years now. I still don’t know what I can hope for, how to make, or wait for, the season to turn.

Towards the end of The World Was Whole Wright describes the process of transitioning from thinking of her illness in terms of recovery narratives to thinking of it as a chronic illness (“It wasn’t a clean process”, she is clear to note, “or a tidy one, and it was riddled with fear and anger and a suffocating grief”). The metaphor she finds to conceive of her illness is the gravity problem, “a predicament that either can’t be solved at all, no matter how hard or how often you try, or that can’t be solved because it has been misapprehended as a problem in the first place”. Gravity is an obstacle to movement, but it’s not an obstacle to overcome. Wright continues:

perhaps my illness, this problem I’ve been trying and failing to solve for years, is precisely this: a gravity problem. Perhaps I’ll always be orbiting around its centre because that centre is one of gravity, an inevitable force that it does not do to fight or pull against. This is important, because there’s nothing tragic about gravity.

Wright is constantly looking outwards, assessing and describing her surroundings. At times these surroundings seem to act as ciphers or stand-ins for a thought or a feeling, something inarticulable that’s extrapolated onto the physical world. I always find this impulse interesting (it’s one I share), because I’m not entirely sure where it comes from, or what it does to pieces of writing. The (nearly) titular essay of this collection, ‘The World Was Whole Always’, ends with this description:

As the train back home crosses the harbour bridge, just before dusk, the water has turned indigo and the sun is spraying like an errant garden hose through a crack in the cloud cover. At Erskineville, the sky is pink, electric.

This isn’t an emotional resolution, not really, nor is it concluding an argument, but it’s beautiful, and it works. Sometimes I think that the impulse to describe a (one’s, my) literal outlook is a way of seeking solace, reassurance from surroundings when the landscape of the mind is terrifying and uninhabitable. Sometimes, I think, I can find in the rhythm of my home, its variations and constants, a barometer for how steadily my self is contained on any given day. The gathering of domestic intensities and forces into ritual, habit, habitat, in order to construct some semblance of a life out of them. It’s hard work, especially when parts of yourself are actively working in opposition.

The constancy with which Wright returns to the same geographic objects of study in The World Was Whole results in a loving and incisive map of parts of Inner-West and Western Sydney. Wright has the long memory of someone who has lived all their life in one city; in describing places, she describes their change, the buildings or shops that lie in the stead of others. The spectre of housing instability, in the form of rapid increases in rent in the inner suburbs, short-term leases, and landlords with the power to evict without cause, is always present: “I want to be able to get attached to a place”, Wright says once, “without knowing that my presence there is always subject to someone else’s needs or even whims.” In her discussions of the (semi-)precarious housing situations in which most of us live, the meeting points between personal narrative and socio-political argument are not always smooth. This is perhaps an inevitable problem with personal essays, but I found her arguments about housing instability often foreshortened by domestic anecdotes; for all that Wright expands on the phenomenology of her homes, the corresponding analysis of the temporary home as a permanent state was flimsier than I’d have liked. While issues like gentrification in Sydney’s Inner West, and the ways in which Wright is implicated in this as a middle-class white woman, are addressed they’re not looked at in great detail — at times I felt as if Wright was gesturing towards arguments rather than making them.

This might be a formal bias, or a bias of attention. Whenever I write about the domestic, I feel two kinds of shame: one is that this isn’t a hefty enough topic for study, that I should focus on more important issues; the other is that the narrative of women reclaiming the domestic as important is a played-out second wave trope. (Actually, a third — it seems like evidence of being a deeply boring person, that I don’t have anything more interesting to write about.) And I want to argue against the first part, to say that the domestic doesn’t need to be made a literary subject because of trauma or despair, that it can be turned to simply because it is and because it is important. But I’m not convinced that writing about the things that give us comfort or unselfconsciously admitting to joy is a radical act. I’m not convinced that we need to reclaim the mundanities of the domestic as an example that the personal is political. However much the political might, to borrow Kathleen Stewart’s phrase, ‘world up’ out of these mundanities, it doesn’t make the quotidian inherently special or interesting. And yet I keep returning to the domestic, and to writing about the domestic, its dysfunctions and horrors and unfunny hilarities. Near the end of ‘Relaxed, Resigned Perhaps’, an essay detailing an inpatient hospital stay, Wright notes that:

I’d missed my home, the habits I have that shape it and are shaped by it, the small delights it gives me across the day. I felt collected, grounded. And I thought, I must remember this, in the coming months, as my habits and routines become once more invisible because of their ordinariness, their everyday repetition. I must remember that they are important, that they are beautiful, luxurious, that they are a part of who and how I am. They quite literally mean the world to me.

This is partly why.

Outside my living room window, on the street, a man and a woman are trying to fit a giant hamster wheel into a car. It’s not quite human-sized; it looks like it would suit a medium-to-large dog. They try putting it in the back seat, then the car boot, then stand for ages on the footpath just holding the hamster wheel. At one point, the man gently places the wheel on the roof of the car, assesses it, then takes the wheel back down. After a while I get bored and look away.

Alexandra Hollis is a writer living in Wellington, Aotearoa. Her work has appeared in Best New Zealand Poems 2015, Contrapasso, Sport, Starling, Sweet Mammalian and Turbine.