Bite on my Belly
I never refuse seconds. You can tell this by looking at me. Since I don’t make a habit of stepping on the scale, I really can’t say in precise numbers how overweight I am, but I can say that the label gordo would not be inappropriate. I often joke that my favorite mispronunciation of my name is heavier because it describes me so well. Other ways of joking around about my weight: “I find no sweeter fat than sticks to my own bones” (Whitman), “The girls, the girls, they love me because I’m the overweight lover Ja-a-vi” (Heavy D), and “Un kilo de papada no es papada!” (Paco Stanley). Do I have a weight problem? No, because Maria, my partner, the woman I love, does not seem to mind. She actually likes that she has difficulty wrapping her arms all the way around me. She even likes to pull up my shirt and bite on my belly. I don’t get it either. But if it works for her, it works for me. All of this is just to say that I would make an awful hunger artist.
I often wonder if I would have grown up skinny had my family stayed in Mexico. The day we crossed the river my seven-year-old body had not an ounce of fat on it. It didn’t take long before I transformed into a pudgy little bastard. When we returned to Nuevo Laredo eight years later, one of my uncles commented on my size by grabbing mine and my little brother’s stomachs and saying, “Y dicen que hay crisis en los Estados Unidos” (And they say there’s an economic crisis in the United States). What are the reasons why my little brother and I gained weight? It could be a Houston thing. Men’s Fitness magazine ranked Houston at the top of “America’s Fattest Cities” for three straight years, 2001, 2002, 2003, and suggested the following reason: “Given the region's climate (hot and humid), air quality (abysmal) and relative lack of outdoor recreation, staying active presents a Texas-style challenge.” It could be a poverty thing. Many studies have found a relationship between poverty and obesity.
“It’s a question of money,” Dr. Adam Drewnowski, director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition in the University of Washington School of Public Health and Community Medicine, said. “The reason healthier diets are beyond the reach of many people is that such diets cost more. On a per calorie basis, diets composed of whole grains, fish, and fresh vegetables and fruit are far more expensive than refined grains, added sugars and added fats. It’s not a question of being sensible or silly when it comes to food choices, it’s about being limited to those foods that you can afford.”
During our first years in Houston, my mother worked two jobs. In the day she worked in the kitchen at Luby’s Cafeteria; in the evening, she worked in Housekeeping at the Westin Galleria. This left my little brother and I on our own until almost midnight. We walked home from school and locked ourselves in the apartment for the rest of the day. My mother bought frozen dinners for me to make while she was at work. I like to justify the ways of my bulge to everyone by citing these early experiences: lack of exercise and unhealthy foods. Even when I was at my fittest running around Coronado Island about five times a week, I was never able to lose my fat completely. Still, those early experiences don’t justify why I don’t exercise and eat healthy now. The mayor of Houston after hearing about the city’s notorious ranking hired a fitness czar to get the city into shape. I refused to take part in the city’s Get Lean Program, but I thought I should do something to do my part. So I left the city.
Linh Dinh is my favorite Harriet blogger. I especially appreciated his posts on “Border Poetry” and “Tongued.” In his last post, I admired his critique of hunger strikes and hunger artists. He writes, “These stunts shouldn’t count unless you starve to death, really. Put your corpse where your mouth is. Push that envelope, dude. Die, or shut up.” The refusal to eat when so many individuals starve to death in this world—30.000 a day, was it?—seems to say more about one’s privileged position in this “plantation mansion of the world” than about one’s commitment to any particular cause. To refuse is to exercise one’s advantages. The only way then to prove one’s full commitment in a hunger strike is to starve to death.
One thing I’m still trying to understand is why Linh does not extend this critique to Tehching Hsieh’s refusals. In the Cage piece, Hsieh can refuse America because he has the advantage of having managed to “escape all the way to America.” In the Time piece, he has the advantage of, well, having a whole lot of time on his hands. Of the Outdoor Piece, Linh writes, “As an illegal alien, Hsieh was already ‘homeless.’” The quotation marks suggest that he wasn’t actually “homeless” before the Piece, that there is some difference between being an illegal alien and being “homeless.” I wonder if the other homeless man with whom he fought would have refused the advantage of being a squatter. The final and biggest refusal depends on his advantage of being an artist.
Don’t get me wrong. I find all four pieces fascinating, sublime and probably will use Hsieh’s work in the Literature of the Undocumented class I’m planning to teach, especially with the video that Jasper Bernes posted in one of the comments. But again I don’t understand how these pieces differ formally from Blaine’s “stunt.” Linh says, Hsieh “knew how to invest refusal with meaning.” But Blaine does attempt to invest his “farce” with meaning. Linh quotes him as saying, "This has been one of the most important experiences in my life. I have learned more in that box than I have in years." Whether we believe him or not, whether we are satisfied or not, Blaine identifies knowledge and self-knowledge as one meaningful purpose for his Piece. And we know that he has thought about the meaning of his work because, as Linh points out, he not only cites Primo Levi but also references the Kafka story. In relation to that story, the mocking during his Hunger Piece—and I guess even Linh’s mocking—probably added to the meaningfulness for Blaine, who may have thought, “this, too, happened to Kafka’s hunger artist.”
In the end, I think Hsieh’s work differs from Blaine’s primarily in that it is deemed to be Art. One hopes that we will eventually refuse such distinctions.
Hsieh’s work fascinates me because it does provide an exciting answer to the question I’ve been asking myself since I started writing poetry: What would an undocumented poetics look like? The Time Piece seems to attempt to document time itself. The Time Cards say something like I existed at this hour and this hour and this hour and this hour. Linh puts it well when he says, Hsieh’s “every act has been calibrated to convey the most symbolic meanings.” But I’ve always thought that an undocumented poetics would be against symbolism. This poetics, like the lives of undocumented immigrants, would be all about practical considerations. As Michel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecœur says, “ibi panis ibi patria is the motto of all immigrants.” Where there is bread, there is my patria is echoed in Ramon “Tianguis” Perez’s “logic of el mojado”: “If luck isn’t with you in one place, surely it will be better in another place.” What is missing from the descriptions of Hsieh’s Pieces are the practical considerations. How was he able to dedicate years into these projects. Was he funded? Did he save up money? Did he have volunteers? These questions are more intriguing to me than “the most symbolic meanings.” I see the symbolic realm as inhabited by Hsieh as an individual artist; I see the practical realm as inhabited by “Immigrants of all stripes [who] have been drawn to this country” and “super hungry and insanely industrious first generation immigrant.” The energy behind those immigrants is not one of symbolic refusal. I believe an undocumented poetics is to be based on those same practical considerations that led “illegal aliens,” including Hsieh, not to refuse amnesty.
Javier O. Huerta's debut collection Some Clarifications y otros poemas (Arte Publico 2007) received the 31st Chicano/Latino Literary Prize from UC Irvine. He is also the author of American Copia (2012). A graduate of the Bilingual MFA Program at UT El Paso, Huerta is currently a PhD student in the...