Sunday, 31 October 2010

Hunger as a metaphor.

I have a confession to make. I spent a whole weekend in bed with Joanna Fedler and it was a passionate experience. Well, alright, so she wasn’t physically there, but she could have been. I was reading her book, When Hungry, Eat, and it felt decidedly like she was there, talking to me personally, directly. Intimately and passionately.

So when we eventually meet in Coogee, one of Sydney’s most beautiful eastern coasts, it feels that we are merely picking up the conversation which we had begun in bed. I quickly discover that just as most books are better than their film adaptation, Fedler in reality is even better than the book version. She is chatty, friendly and open. In fact, as we sip our freshly squeezed fruit drinks, it feels decidedly like I’m catching up for a natter with an old chum, so that when the odd expletive comes out it doesn’t feel incongruous; it’s just the way friends chat when they let their hair down and give free expression to their passion.

And passion she has in spades.

“I don’t do all this bottling up or compartmentalising. A psychologist once told me that there’s a whole party going on inside me" she laughs. And the party extends beyond our table: she recognises a friend passing by and introduces me to her, a moment later she’s nodding to someone else who, she tells me, is about to undergo surgery. “I’ll send you some food for when you come out” she yells to her before returning to our conversation. We somehow side track to talk about Amnesty International, vegetarianism, God and female genital mutilation. Finally we’re back on track: the book.
When Hungry, Eat is a book about hunger, loss, love, pain and finding your way home again. It begins shortly after Fedler’s hits 40, when she takes a long hard look at herself. And what she sees is excess baggage which she is carrying on her. She seeks the counsel of a dietician who peremptorily informs her that she’s obese. The food fascist, as she is fondly referred to in the book, also decrees a strict diet and instructs Fedler to wear a pedometer and do 10,000 steps a day, to boost her ‘sluggish metabolism’. And so Fedler embarks on a journey to lose weight.

But as so often happens in life, just when you think you’ve finally understood something, you discover that it’s something else, quite different. Her journey is indeed about loss, but not of weight; it is the loss of home, a land, a family and an identity. “The book is about learning to let go of the things that you love and deal with loss in a way that takes you forward in your life.”

Fedler grew up in South Africa in a designated a 'whites only' area. She was raised in a Jewish home and received a Jewish education. So how Jewish is she, I ask. “In percentage? Well, judging by my nose, I am definitely, 100 percent Jewish” she turns to the side and points to her protruding snout in profile.

“I married a Jew and we keep the Jewish holidays although I try to give them a more universal meaning”.

Her father, Dov Fedler, was a well known political cartoonist for The Star, parodying the absurdities of apartheid and her mother made chicken soup. Fedler studied law at university and by the time she graduated she had already become a political activist, attended anti-government demonstrations and tasted tear gas. She went on to become a law lecturer and an outspoken advocate for women’s rights in Johannesburg where she worked as a legal counsellor at a women’s crisis centre before setting up a legal advocacy centre to end violence against women.

And she had her work cut out for her because, as South Africa was emerging into the light of post-apartheid democracy, the country was descending into a dark tunnel of violence; a raw, random and sadistic kind of violence. And yet, she loved South Africa with a burning passion. The book offers a glimpse into a country “that can feed your soul and extinguish your heart in the space of a heartbeat”. With wit and humour Fedler depicts a country of immense beauty, inhabited by the friendliest people singing harmonious songs and capable of colossal kindness.

In beautiful prose and chilling details, she itemises the names of victims of domestic violence, murdered friends, raped acquaintances and shattered lives. A bipolar sort of country. Finally, after one particularly horrifying event, when ‘there was no room for the violence to get any closer’, Fedler and her husband decide to take their children and leave the country they had called home.

They emigrate to Australia.

Her illustrious career ground to a halt. From a feisty political activist and reformer who had been used to a comfortable life, Fedler had to contend with anonymity in the antipodes. The family fortunes also went through a sea-change when her husband lost his job. “All of a sudden I had to think whether I could afford a coffee, paying for parking...little things like that. I made jewellery and sold it to bring in some money. It was a humbling experience,” she summarises.

But as one door closes, another opens and it was in Australia that Fedler discovered her flair for writing. She first published a work of fiction Secret Mothers’ Business which became a run-away success, selling over 300,000 copies world wide - the latest launch being in Germany. “Had I not come to Australia I don’t know if I would have had a writing career,” she says.

Possibly not, but as Fedler points out rather philosophically, nothing is truly random. “We are all gods’ children and like it says in the Torah: Anochi imach [I am with you]”. She declares a strong sense of faith. “My true belief is that God exists” she announces. And then quickly adds: “Oh OK maybe not God, but there is a spirit”. I am a little confused now. So is religion different to spiritually? “God yes!” she snaps, and then laughs at the irony.

So how did her journey change her? What has she learnt in the process of losing 16 kg of body weight?
“Hunger took me to a place of mindfulness”, she explains. “It’s the idea of emptying yourself from ideas about food, losing your vocabulary of eating and then starting again. I learnt to be OK with hunger. It’s like loss, grief or any unpleasant experience. You make friends with it”.

She is referring to the voluntary denial of her homeland and the self-imposed exile which forced her to confront hunger in its other, figurative, sense. And this is where it all ties up and connects: the literal and the metaphoric. The hunger and the satiation. “It took me a while until I found that home is here (she points to her heart); it’s what you have inside you. I understood that that learning to eat when I was hungry was just another way of making a home in a new place”.

When Hungry, Eat is a profoundly moving narrative. It is not a self help book of the type you find in cartloads in bookshops, nor is it a book containing ideas and recipes for those wishing to diet. But it is, as its dedication suggests, a book for all those who feel lost and long to fit in. Fedler spins a yarn with the craftwomanship of a professional story teller. Her language is poetic in parts, at times sardonic and often irreverent. Her writing engages all the senses – including the olfactory (it contains a rather quirky recipe for low fat chicken soup) – and triggers the entire gamut of emotions. From shock to hilarity; from a chuckle to a nod. Many of us have been there, felt that, experienced it. To those of us who have been tossed by the hands of fate across oceans to unchartered places, this book speaks directly to the heart.

I am not the first to observe this, she tells me.

“People email me all the time to tell me their own personal stories and how this book resonates with their own life. I know it sounds totally sentimental, but I get very tearful when I read some of these emails, at the way in which people share such intimacies with me.”
Two hours later, we part almost midsentence: she has to run. In all this time, I don’t mention that I, too, am dieting. In any case, I already feel much lighter.

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