The Iowa Review
MEENAKSHI GIGI DURHAM
Hunger Pangs, Part 2
There is a discipline to starvation. My starvation was not exactly voluntary, but it was still akin to a religious fast or a hunger strike in its mechanisms. I had to adjust to it mentally, knowing I had little money for food, and therefore determined to resist its terrible, mouth-watering temptations. My goal was not political or spiritual: it was crassly material, in that I was bent on survival and solvency. I think that in this sense my starvation differed little from that of a person enduring a famine or enforced food deprivation. I had to make hyperrational decisions about how much money to spend on food, what portions to eat, how long I could go without eating, how much to hoard, and how much to consume. Perhaps people on dramatic diets have to do this as well. I had to think carefully about my eating and stick with my decisions in order to stay alive. I could not dive into a repast at sundown, as Muslims can during Ramadan or Jews during Yom Kippur. I could not tell myself that I would eat again once some political point had been scored or some social goal achieved. In the Bible, Isaiah fasted to "loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke." I—well—my fast was not noble or inspired or spiritual. And there was no end in sight to my starvation.
I felt stoic about this. Sometimes I even forgot about it. Eventually, once my appetite had dwindled, I did not think even about it very much. In her acerbic short story "Hunger," Jean Rhys writes of astonishment at being without food ("There must be something one can do"), of headaches and tearfulness, of arguing with invisible listeners. Finally she writes that one becomes "calm and godlike." But then she teases the reader: "I have never gone without food for longer than five days, so I cannot amuse you any longer."
I went without food for much longer than five days. Looking back, I calculate that I was in a state of semi-starvation for about four years.
Perhaps I should have achieved some kind of preternatural clarity as a result of my detachment from the needs of the body; saintliness tends to follow from self-sacrifice or physical mortification. St. Augustine fasted to overcome sinful worldly temptations: "It is sometimes necessary," he reminded us, "to check the delights of the flesh in respect to licit pleasures in order to keep it from yielding to illicit joys." But my desires grew fiercer, sharper, more avid, as my hunger faded. I was not in a relationship at the time, but my dreams were fervid and carnal, like an adolescent boy's; I would awake sweaty and filled with inchoate yearning. I flung myself into my work. It is startling to me to realize that I did very well in graduate school despite my starvation. I don't recall feeling particularly weak or distracted, either: I participated in seminars, kept up with readings, wrote solid papers, made friends.
In the preface to his great oeuvre, Le théâtre et son double, Antonin Artaud argued for the necessity of thinking of and past hunger: "What is important, it seems to me, is not so much to defend a culture whose existence has never kept a man from going hungry, as to extract, from what is called culture, ideas whose compelling force is identical with that of hunger." Would he have understood, then, the displacement of my hunger onto art and other imaginary fires—the fierce longings to understand, to create, to write, to love, that possessed me?
I suppose I should have become ill, or weak, or even mentally unstable because of this lack of food, because of the intensity of my sublimations. Somehow, none of this happened. I must have been malnourished, though. My thick and shiny hair began to fall out in alarming quantities during this period. At the time and for years afterward, I blamed either the cheap shampoos I was using or the intense daily blow-drying I engaged in to combat Florida's humidity. "Don't ever blow-dry your hair," I warned my daughters later. "It will make it fall out." But in writing this, I realize for the first time that it was neither the blow-dryer nor the shampoo that wreaked the havoc: my hair loss was, of course, a symptom of my starvation. My hair has never looked the same since. Even once I began eating again, it never regained its luster or thickness. I wonder about other things that may have been affected: bone density, muscle mass, organs. Will I one day have osteoporosis, liver damage, periodontal disease? I suppose I will find out, eventually, what the long-term impacts of my short-term hunger will be.
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MEENAKSHI GIGI DURHAM
Meenakshi Gigi Durham's essays and short fiction have appeared in a variety of publications, including the Chronicle of Higher Education and Harvard Review. A former newspaper and magazine journalist, she is now a professor in the University of Iowa's School of Journalism and Mass Communication and an Associate Dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Her essay "Grieving" was selected for inclusion in Best American Essays 2011.
"Hunger Pangs" originally appeared in The Iowa Review Volume 42, Issue 2 (2012). This is Part 2 of 4.
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