Why We Chose It: "The Hunger Essay" by Claudia Cortese

Melanie Brkich

Claudia Cortese blew us away with her genre-bending nonfiction piece, “The Hunger Essay,” featured as one of Gulf Coast’s Online Exclusives for Spring 2016. Cortese is a fearless writer, exposing the deep, dark history of body dysmorphic disorders­—how they go back much further than we might expect, how they stay with us longer than we’d like to admit. Each vignette in her essay shines on its own like a self-contained poem, but together they weave an even stronger, complex, time-traveling web of women’s stories. We wanted to delve a little deeper into the origins of this piece and its meaning for Cortese, so without further ado—here is Why We Chose It. 

Melanie Brkich: First of all, this piece made us feel so many important things—discomfort, sadness, shock, empowerment. And as we move through “The Hunger Essay,” I think our understanding of hunger begins to change. This piece addresses not only eating disorders, but also whiteness, the body, and holiness, among other things. These are difficult subjects to confront. What was the genesis of wanting to tell these stories? How would you describe the process of writing them?

Claudia Cortese: This piece was 34 years in the making. It came from my mom telling me that the first time she danced with my dad, he pinched her hips and said, “You’re fatter than I realized.” It came from my mom confessing that she’d eat on the scale, her bowl of Cheerios hovering above the number, to make sure she didn’t gain weight while she ate. It came from my twin doing lemon cleanses and refusing to go to restaurants. It came from “fatso” and “tub o’ lard,” names I was called from elementary to high school. 

When I started teaching at a mostly African-American and Latinx college, we discussed beauty and fat, and the air in the room didn’t sizzle with terror. The positive way we discussed bodies made me realize how much of my shame comes not from a universal experience within heteronormative patriarchy. Rather, it is a particular kind of shame born of the terror that too much body signifies too much hunger, too much sex, too much indulgence—in other words, too much joy. I started thinking about how whiteness is built on a foundation of fear, and my sitting in front of the television eating Cheetos then running to the bathroom with my finger down my throat was a particular experience within a particular kind of girlhood. As I discuss in the essay, eating disorders are found among all demographics, so I don’t mean to say that only white girls suffer from them, but there’s a certain hysteria (which I know is a loaded word, but it seems apt here) about fat, sexuality, body that pervades white culture, one that is rooted in Protestantism, fear of the racial Other, alienation from one’s community (which promotes alienation from one’s body).

MB: One line stuck out to me in the opening vignette: “This is not poetry. This is what she did.” And yet, much of this piece does read like poetry, which immediately drew me to it. It takes risks in its genre-bending, but also in its unabashed presentation of the facts, however difficult they are to admit/accept. How did this piece unfold for you on the page? What was it about this content that inspired the form? 

CC: I use this form in which numbered sections unfold out of order to mirror, as closely as language can, the experience of being in a body: how I walk beneath cherry blossoms and am transported back to playing hopscotch beneath a spray of pink flowers and remember a Judith Butler quote about the process of “girling” and sit beneath a tree and read the latest Toni Morrison when my iPhone beeps and it’s an email from a student who needs help on an essay, and that is what I am trying to capture—how living is ungrammatical and run-on, past rupturing the present, and most moments are not singular: they intersect with memory and thought.

MB: How long did you work on this project?

CC: About seven years. I first wrote a poem in the voice of Catherine of Siena. Then, I realized that this was not only Catherine’s story—this was my story, our story.

MB: Several nonfiction texts inspired this essay, and pieces of them are incorporated into it. What do those texts mean to you? What was going through your mind when you first encountered such quotes as “TB gives me an air of languor that is very becoming” or the lines you end with, Catherine’s bargain?

CC: I stumbled upon the line about TB giving one an air of languor when reading Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, and it made me LOL and throw up in my mouth and murmur with understanding. It’s hilarious to think that a devastating infection would make one more attractive, and it’s also grotesque that we are so afraid of the body, disease seems like a gift. But I also murmured with understanding: when I got food poisoning from eating duck, I loved puking out all of that rot, loved seeing my stomach flatten as the days of not-eating unfolded before me, loved the burning at the base of my throat, as if it were a sign’s red neons wonderfully declaring: Exit Only.

Another text that inspired me is about artist Audrey Wollen’s “Sad Girl Theory,” which says that women’s sadness and suicide, our eating or not eating, are forms of resistance. To not smile is political. To decide whether the body fattens or starves, survives or dies, is a way to claim power. 

MB: Another line that particularly moved me was “I am never home / in my body.” The pacing of this section (2) and its line breaks create these powerful moments of tension, and I think this line in particular gets carried as an undertone through the rest of the piece. How would you unpack those words?

CC: In college, I’d often leave the house I shared with three friends—a house with dishes crusting in the sink, a toilet I never cleaned—at 8:00 a.m. and not return till 2:00 in the morning. I didn’t cook; I didn’t exercise; I didn’t clean my filthy house. I studied, read, went to class. I wanted to live in my mind. Even bingeing, which I did regularly, was an escape: I’d eat mindlessly while reading in the library. My body was not safe: it could be bullied, dissected, deconstructed; it could be hit and stripped and raped. But no one could hurt me inside the story, the essay, the classroom. My brain was wrapped in bone; no one could touch me there. The home is the place where we are most likely to be hurt, just as our bodies—which are homes for the self—are often sites of trauma. So, I could not be at home in my house or my body.

MB: How would you describe your relationship to Catherine?

CC: Catherine is the patron saint of Italy. She’s famous for helping to resolve a conflict in the Church involving the pope, or something boring like that. I’d never had any interest in her until I stumbled upon a book that described how Catherine had a twin who died as an infant. This sister drank watery liquid from a wet nurse while Catherine sucked her mother’s thick milk. Catherine felt responsible for her sister’s death. As she grew up, she stopped eating. The less Catherine ate, the more power she gained: she told God to do her bidding: in exchange, she ate nothing. Reading Catherine’s story, I sobbed in the corner of the library, feeling guilt burn my belly as I fantasized about my twin dying while I survived. Catherine was no longer a figure who helped resolve a political dispute in the Church (yawn) but a twin whose guilt and love drove her from food, a woman whose desire for power drove her from food, a saint whose feminine form of asceticism drove her from food. 

What fascinated me most is the economics of hunger she performed: when Catherine ate, her sister starved. When Catherine grew weak from hunger, her soul fattened with power. Reading her story, I remembered how my teen body fattened as my twin’s form shrank. The logic of capitalism was written into our bodies: there is only so much abundance: for some to thrive, others must starve.