Starving for Hunger: The Fiction of Anzia Yezierska

Article excerpt

From mediaeval saints to modern anorectics, starvation has been a pretext and a stimulant for literature. This essay focusses on Anzia Yezierska's obsession with hunger, which was greedily charged with cultural, spiritual, and aesthetic valences. Yezierska wrote to keep her feeling of hunger aroused.

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Hunger occupies an important place in the history of literature. Augustine argued that the complete satisfaction of appetite stupefies the hunger of the imagination (qtd. in Kilgour 110), and Simone Well famished her body to save her words. Milton advocated for the epic poet the sparse diet of Pythagoras (Kilgour 120); Byron was notorious for his austerities (Ellmann 25); and Rimbaud claimed that to write was to hunger (13). Kafka relegated art to the fundamental experience of lack (65). Emily Dickinson used negation as a method for writing (107); Mary E. Wilkins Freeman theorized fasting as the source of poetry; Sylvia Plath was diagnosed as anorectic (25); Fannie Hurst was haunted by the slimming craze in No Food with My Meals; and Margaret Laurence was obsessed with weight control (King 166). Hunger is converted into self in Jenefer Shute's narrative on anorexia, Life-Size; it is turned into a poetics of survival in The Art of Starvation by Sheila Macleod; it is featured as the route to self-knowledge in H unger Striking by Kit Brenan; and presented as a source of collective subjectivity in Stephanie Grant's The Passion of Alice. It is used as ideology in Rigoberta Menchu's testimony; and understood as propaganda in Bobbie Sands's diary (O'Malley 53). The list can be extended. From the mediaeval saints to hunger strikers and modem slimmers, fasting has been gorged on in the hope of transformation: sainthood, freedom, artistic expertise, or removal of fat. Be hunger an occasion for literature--in the case of mystics, revolutionaries, or anorectics--or a physical stimulant to write for professional writers, the fact is that one must stop eating in order to start writing. Although this logic is hard to stomach, it does not defy rationalizations. In her poetics of starvation, Maud Ellmann, following Julia Kristeva, ingeniously argues that, because language and eating compete over the same zone, we can conclude that "speech is a form of fasting, and writing represents an even fiercer abstinence than speech, although it is easier to write than to speak with one's mouth full. It is revealing that we devour books, not speech, and that we read, rather than hear, 'voraciously': these expressions hint that the written word can actually take the place of food, whereas the spoken word is too ethereal for nourishment. [...] What this means [...] is that the expression of the word requires the repression of the flesh" (47, emph. Ellmann's).

As it happens, writing is an act of discarnation generated by physical hunger. As a pre-text, it becomes desirable, and never to be satiated because, if ever satisfied, the urge for speech would die away. As the "hunger artists" in Ellmann's work The Hunger Artists, Anzia Yezierska was also obsessed with hunger because she was hungry as she wrote, Levin claims (28). According to her daughter, even in her moments of greatest financial comfort, she "lived according to her usual frugality" (Henriksen 173). Like their hunger, hers recurs as a metaphor that unifies the act of not eating with that of speaking, contributing thus to the mythology of hunger as a soulful passion. Yet, it is my contention that her hunger is somewhat distinct from the more classic types, more gluttonous than others'. Hunger, deemed by Yezierska to be "at the root of economics, sociology, literature, and all art" (How 136), involved for her cultural, ideological, and psychological, moral and aesthetic vectors. On the one hand, it constitu ted her identity as well as her means to refuse redefinition of herself as an American. At variance with Simone Well's concept of hunger as renunciation of the past and of the body's stored anteriority (18), Yezierska considered hunger to be a recollection of heritage because she learned to starve in the Jewish ghetto. …