Who’s Hungry, and What’s on the Menu?

Xu writes in Eating Identities on the topic of food and community—cuisine is an integral part of sustaining ties with one’s culture; the ritual of cooking itself being a bonding agent of social cohesion. “Eating is indeed inseparable from personhood,” Xu writes (4). If food is an agent of humanization, what are the psychological and sociological effects of malnourishment stemming from economic destitution?

Often in Zhang’s Sour Hearts, the characters’ emotional states are reflected in their state of hunger. In “We Love You Crispina”, Christina and her mother’s hunger peak in a vignette of a period of eating out of the trash of local restaurants. Both mother and daughter are overcome with violent illness as the parents apply for dozens of jobs, ultimately leading up to the fateful trip to Atlantic City to grift $40 on a day’s roundtrip incentive (34-38). On the bus ride home, Christina’s mother loses it on her father, in a dramatic expulsion of the infinitely exhausting task of survival in the throes of poverty. Physiological well-being aside, to Xu’s point on food’s relation to community, the absence of food— or the squalid conditions of food provided—impart a devastating psychological reality of alienation and dehumanization among those living in abject poverty. To be deprived of food, of cuisine, of community, is to fundamentally demean the dignity of a person and ensnare them in a state of poverty that extends beyond economic means.

With a retrospective gaze at our previous readings, Zhang’s perspective on hunger brings into sharp relief the space between hunger as a demonstrative act and hunger as a state of abjection, largely demarcated by class. In the works of Kraus and Kafka, starvation is an act motivated by an appetite for something beyond themselves. Starvation was an election, a means ‘consumed’ [1] for the purpose of achieving a different state, be it enlightenment, artistic achievement, or decreation. Conversely, Zhang writes from the perspective of starvation as a subjected state of being. Her characters are rarely hungry for a deliberate purpose—starvation was borne from a lack of means, and symbolic of an appetite for the state from which Kraus and Kafka [’s artist] begin.

Further, if we extend the notion of food as a collectivizing agent, how does the practice of fasting intersect with the social binaries of the individual vs. collective, and the body vs. the mind? Simone Weil championed the notion of elective starvation with the end goal of deconstruction. Per Xu’s writing, particularly in conversation with the theories of Žižek and Anderson, fasting would be an intentional act of severance from the masses. As such, is fasting (albeit in this case, limited to the scope of a handful of Western cultural figures) a uniquely self-modular attempt at transcending the realities of being a member of a larger whole? While the choice to choose hunger is in itself a privilege, is it a more interior self-privileging which motivates a person to attempt this decreation or transcendence?


[1] Hopefully the ironic choice of words doesn’t convolute my already convoluted point here!

One comment

  1. OK Cleo! Your critical style has really started to become apparent over the past couple of weeks and it is wonderful to see. You seem to think on a pretty big scale; that is, to favour systemic critique, and to take on questions as rooted in political and economic theory as they are in literary studies (not sure what your courses are like for the coming year, and I know he’s on research leave just now, but let me recommend any of Paul Crosthwaite’s classes to you for next semester – I think you would really enjoy his approach).

    I enjoyed your turn to ‘againstness’ here, as you parsed Kafka and Kraus against Zhang’s work (some of this reminded me of the weirdness I felt when reading Maud Ellman’s book on hunger artists, where the tendency to abstraction always felt a bit – off? to me). At the same time, I think I’d push you on your reading of Kafka here (whether or not this applies to Kraus I’m not sure…), and I think my point finds resonance in Zhang’s work too. Is it ‘wrong’ to hunger for attention? What is attention – what does it do, what does it give us? Or to put it another way, what is the relationship between artist, audience, and the material world?

    Your questions about fasting (which might also cover dieting?) and its capacity to separate the individual from the social are well posed around the figure of Weil, even if her aim was rather the opposite to the one you describe. It also reminds me (predictably!) of a scene from Normal People. Where Marianne chucks a flapjack or lemon slice or some such into the bin – do you know the bit I mean? The luxury of self-denial; as you have it, the choice to hunger. I don’t know if you know Pragati from the other group (she’s an MA student too) but she explored some similar ideas in an earlier blog post (I think on Kraus) – you two should definitely chat if ye haven’t already!

    There’s more to ask here about the way we might understand class in America, and how poverty figures in the ‘immigrant story’ – and what Zhang does with this trope in her work. I’m also interested in questions of form and perspective here, and of the close focus on childhood in much of the collection – what effect does this have? You might think too about the bodily nature of Zhang’s writing; is this related to class? Race? Gender? Your point about the degradation of poverty here is well made and well taken, and clearly a concern of Zhang’s. what are we to make of the humour she uses to treat this throughout the collection? What is the place of the absurd in Zhang’s writing? It’s also interesting that you suggest food is ‘an agent of humanisation’ (would love to see this developed slightly further) – this will be a good point to return to for next week’s reading, which asks some of the same questions you’re interested in here.

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