Harmony Holiday with her mother
I don’t know what hunger is, do you know what hunger is? 
—Ganja & Hess
You are starving. Come closer now.  
—Lucie Brock-Broido

If I could figure out why we starved ourselves into a mutually helpless tenderness, the stars would well up and sparkle with the resolve of better demons. If I could explain why I was never hungry then, how the song cradled and nurtured me like a balm and all the plants were poison until the land healed, the eternal language would speak me into its every seed. And we could get greedy. We could be needed how we needed you, kneaded, new. We could say camel to needle’s eye, so what, experts in the power of impossibly ferocious diminutives. Some women starve themselves in search of that miracle, shapes annul hoping for vision, ashamed of their desire or at its mercy, the women tape their mouths shut, the men nail theirs open, and children become their confessions. Houses fall down into battleground ruins, bones compensating for the shame of skin. It’s as if the apocalypse is a fantasy and you become your own version of it, that tattered but seamless American beauty.

My mother was starving, a harp made of bones and beatings, but she took it all in such stride that maybe my young mind believed that natural for a time. In the con/text of America’s endless hustle, the white women who make brown babies must feel like traitor gods. She had traded the fallacy of progress, of a clean white slate, for me. It was a means of confessing something, a prayer against one’s own privilege, a wreckage sifted for the innocence of new forms, the thrill of a second chance enhanced by the child’s double consciousness, a hunger for the other so deep she reinvents it, becomes it, and at the same time so naive and natural she may not realize it at all, the power of unconditional love makes both mother and child vulnerable to forgiving one another in advance, thankful, and at one another’s mercy.

Observing my mother with loving disdain, I learned that it is easier to give up food than to give up other delusions, like wine and peaceful interracial love, and either way you can’t suffer your way out of white privilege, but it’s easier to suffer that revelation while drunk and white than fat and starving or black and blue and sober. Whatever it was, bulimia, anorexia, grief, we love our grief, it was born in a suburb of Chicago where my grandfather’s voice, as he came home from work as a children’s book publisher for his stiff martini, billowed up the staircase why are all my daughters fat! Maybe with a job like his he couldn’t handle any more euphemism by the end of the day. He was a nice, funny, strikingly intelligent man, charismatic, even lenient sometimes; a deep sense of irony colored all his condemnation, a misunderstanding of what America was asking of bodies, even the allegedly white ones. And my grandmother was gorgeous and stoic about it all, fit, a P.E. teacher when he was drafted, never indulging the packages of sugar cereal and chips the kids asked for daily. Family values in an age of mass reproduction. They didn’t understand what America was asking of bodies. There was one way left for my mother to be useful, in a household where her dreams of playing guitar and writing songs and singing in a band were feared or placated into corners, she could be thin, grow her hair long, and be the beautiful one.

Starvation opened doors, was a route to deeper creative energy, helped build will power, taught her how and why to keep secrets, taught her to need less and desire more, taught her magazine cover energy and seduction, so that in her later escapades with hyper-visibility, like when she was on the cover of The Enquirer with Eddie Murphy and Arsenio, she was ready, she was always ready, hungry, restraint as a kind of greed, whiteness as glare against the shadowy lane of inner purgatory. When I heard her throwing up some nights, I couldn’t tell if it was wine or some binge on carbs inspiring it, there was hardly any difference, except in her next-day psychology, in what I could expect her to lie about in the morning. After an embattled relationship with my father, wherein she had to face the race war in the very brown bodies she had borne, the eating and not eating became less about vanity or pleasing her own father, and more about a sense of control of self and surroundings, which maybe it always had been at its root, a power grab the only way her soul remembered how, a practice that produced visible results, frailty that felt like stability. The strangest thing about it was that I had never encountered someone more stingy for her own existence, more certain she wanted to live; remaining Hollywood- or hospital-thin just helped make her presence more confrontational, more of a confession of a kind of pain that her white skin intruded upon to the point of ruining. It was all so indulgent, so ornate, so common, our tame melancholia taken out on the female body.

Earlier on, when I was the hungry one and not yet conscious of any correlation between my hunger and my mother’s, golden new and raw-hearted numb, she and I would watch Lily Tomlin together, that show where she ate pb & j in a rocking chair, some kind of pre-sunken-place hypnosis, while my mom fashioned what we called peanut butter balls, having discovered a way to get me to eat something high in fat, these were cute wads of peanut butter with candied dates or raisins rolled into the center. The comedian on television helped me forget I was swallowing, let me choke down the distraction, laughing. It was not that I didn’t care to eat or that I was thinking about my body at all in my case, it was that watching the people who had made me argue and beat one another and lie to themselves about what love is, let it be domesticated into a kind of self-hate or disciplinary act; witnessing that smothered me in the throat, naturally, because I could not find the words to stop their violent union, to save them or myself, my body constricted around the absence of necessary language—my first poem, that unnamed hunger, that suffocated blues chant. It was my way of saying no when I was too young to truly articulate the severity of my repulsion. I would eat green grapes, peanut butter balls, oysters (sometimes), avocados, and cherry Life Savers, exclusively those years. Nobody could tell me nothing. I was at once rebelling and shifting the focus from their conflicts to my own unwavering becoming. Embodied living. I was being honest with ourselves. In the face of violence and denial, I lost my appetite or replaced it with different desires, for safety, for softness, softening.

Dad ate eggs covered in syrup (pistol on the table just in case), his mother’s greens, grits, and the sound of his own screams. Mom ate Gerber and good blood after her jaw was broken. I ate with my attention and then fasted to the sound of theirs, grapes and cherry candy, tender things made of sugar and source.

I don’t know what hunger is, do you know what hunger is?

There is this vampirism of the spectacle, of woman as at once messenger and message, until what we watch or observe begins consuming us, eating us alive. To retaliate by cannibalizing ourselves feels almost empowered when the scenes decorating our lives are absurd or traumatic or impossible. A body is a confession. Dad’s went away and we moved to LA where it was ok to only eat grapes, those modes of a holding back were celebrated, and mom found wheatgrass and cocaine and a black-owned dance studio run by former Ailey dancers, where I was promptly enrolled and entranced. Maybe she was making sure no one would ever body-shame me the way her father had her. Perhaps she had forgotten the color of my skin and the place we were in, but in one way or another, her determination to transcend and master the body become my own. One of my first memories of serious dance training is of a bunch of us tiny brown bodies on the studio floor crowded around a video of young ballerina hopefuls in communist Russia. They were being tested for their body mass indexes, and filtered into trades accordingly, like items on a conveyor belt. If their bodies were ill-equipped for ballet training by these ruthless standards, the young girls were sent away crying like beggars. There was also footage of some more advanced Russian dancers piously eating carrot sticks, that was the happy ending part. And I remember scanning my body in my mind’s eye and feeling a sense of relief, thinking to myself, I might have been seven, I would have passed, I have the right body type for this aestheticized suffering disguised as effortless grace. And I loved to dance, loved it more than anything, more than starving, which by some stroke of divine intention dance made me forget. I was satiated enough to stop going hungry, I stopped denying myself what my body needed to move, to swan and limb around and feel at home again in music, though knowing the level of restrained yearning I had once practiced made me braver on the dance floor, as if I had been forewarned of a life of willing my body to overcome its needs. 

I don’t know what hunger is    do you   ?

By the time I went away to college, my younger sister was bulimic, my mom was still between wine and binge eating, I was doing my thing not really thinking about food, not afraid of it, not enamored, I loved grapes and Hot Cheetos and I still danced every day and my body did as it was told. And I had found poems, another space to train my will and reshape the world, and it was like being a little girl again, huddled around a blank fable, starving, not knowing, and then finding the most benevolent substance I could and living on it exclusively. Poems and song made me hungry in new ways, ravenous, agile. I felt closer to my father, to something unseen, crazier, safer, more like myself, and more in touch with whatever god was, and at that point I was sure he was fraudulent on their terms, one of the dead white men who had made my father so defensive and godlike himself, and who had made my mother after being raised in the Catholic Church and handed all that raging guilt, so afraid to be saved. And even though I had surpassed whatever haunted feeling one would need to deny the body all together, I spent my years as a student at Berkeley eliminating food group after food group: meat, then dairy, then fish, then grain. It had finally dawned on me that health should be the priority, nutrition. Hunger was emotional for the people around me, for me too. I was always losing my appetite in undesirable conditions or when I got distracted, but nutrition was tangible, could rescue me from all that. And the more writing fed my soul, the more I cared about my health in literal ways, not just as a body but as a subject with a story to tell and not starve into incoherence and oblivion. I never really looked for the reason why women were made to feel so guilty about their bodies. Instead I learned to write in impolite heaves and confronted the page with my presence and search for ways into my own form that didn’t require abuse of it; but I didn’t correlate the adventure that a personal poetics is with saving me from a life of hunger and forbidden desire, a life I witnessed my mom endure, and shook off. She was one messy example of a woman who didn’t want to face herself or her children, the life she had created, for what it was. That’s what I half told myself as I dismissed her as a willful ruins, because you do learn to let go of the desire to fix people, even the ones you love; that’s part of accepting the self, part of the call to the crackling machine of the poem to tell it.

And then one day another kind of kinship intervened. I got a call from a woman across the country, this woman named Lucie Brock-Broido, she was inviting me to come visit Columbia’s campus, courting me for the writing program there. It was early April and I was standing in the hall of my part-time job, a former army base in Alameda where I tutored kids in writing and history. These were children who had never had enough to eat, and local food banks sent expired snacks that we would pass out to the kids on breaks—this insistent, state-funded malnutrition broke my heart. I would always show up with blood oranges, ginger, and grapes. Everyone would try my snacks and we’d bond over funny food,  starting to recognize what hunger is, a search for true communication. I left for New York to teach dance and write poems and forget what hunger is some more.

Photo credit Karen Meyers

Lucie had been starving at one time or another, I knew as soon as I met her. I loved her right away because, like me, she refused and detested any and all pity, and even some compassion. She was as stubborn about her pathologies and bad habits as I am, and she was so modest and so regal at the same time, so haute-everyday, so casual about her virtue, that her body disappeared beneath all her radiance and velvet—a thick golden mane that hung past her hips, glorious Victorian outfits, perfect burgundy lipstick and an idyllic pout, oceanic eyes that pierced so far into and past all that they witnessed that they felt askance, a sense of rebellion so obedient to itself, the pressure of wondering about her well-being as she took so much care of so many young, neurotic, ego-driven, soul-stricken poets, lifted. And she had a wicked sense of humor—she could laugh at herself and love herself in the same gesture. But for me there was more to the bond: I had met a version of my mother and of my own hunger that I could see and deeply respect, past my sense of woundedness, she was light in those wounds, beyond my sense of having been neglected by a basket case who knew nothing about my experience as a black body in America, having fended off starvation and hunger all those red years, here was a woman so much like my mother but still able to love herself, to try. Some circle closed and made a rogue new hologram in my consciousness, wherein I could see that my mother had been trying too. Our tenuous relationship improved. I thought a lot about what I knew but hadn’t allowed myself to face, that the emaciated bodies of white women, starving with plenty to eat, were evidence of a soul sickness so deep in the American experience that it required women brave enough to represent it physically, to bring it any attention at all through an effort to starve it out of themselves, to purge, to offer reparations, to unconsciously take the blame. And is over-consumption any less of a cry for help or just more the American way? I let go of disdain for any way of coping with this place. For my own mother, over- and under-consumption were the same thing for a very long time. Excess and restriction became one. And she has survived it for now, she’s alive, she’s gone vegan, she does yoga every day and thrives for the most part, though she still finds ways to abuse her spirit with anxiety and dread, and still I worry she’ll call me slurring and starving.

When Lucie died last month, I felt the hunger pangs of denial, the ones that come when an irreplaceable energy changes form. I know she hadn’t been starving anymore but hoped that this country hadn’t starved her in other, less literal, ways—plucked a song out of its cardinal city in an era of rage and propaganda, taped another honest mouth shut. I thought about food, about hunger, about her beauty and silent retreat into its depths, and I thought my mother, my father, my sister, myself, and the language that keeps us and the community of starving bodies, whether obese or emaciated, in this rich nation, who don’t accept advice from anyone, who don’t know what hunger is.

I don’t know what hunger is, do you know what hunger is?

It’s vernal equinox as I write this. Every year on each equinox and solstice, I try to fast on juice for three days. It’s more like a prayer to the power within me, that it may deepen and become more positively focused. It’s also a way I cleanse and renew my cells for the coming cycle. And if I’m honest, maybe it’s an effort to recall what hunger is, to access its friendly ghosts, to remember what it feels like to refuse to consume anything until it feels right, to not let desire become a reflex before understanding what ignites it, its actual source. At the end of the three days I’m not hungry, but food and poems are eager for me. It’s a methodology, a way of being in the world, a hypocritical monasticism, craving everything and nothing and enjoying it.

There’s no tucking a bow of morality around any of this, no neat conclusion or savory outcome. There are just facts and memories, strange nostalgias that become false or real temptations, proclivities, inheritances, states of being and the language that rescues me from being anguished about it all, the way I’ve trained my body to speak everything it once denied, the way watching people try and fail is more healing than watching the ones who get by on acting like they’ve mastered normativity. Nobody is well-adjusted here, we just have our degrees of hiding from or blurring our haunts. And I still don’t know what hunger is, it’s still an echoing question. As a woman who grew up around other women who starved themselves at one time or another for what some would say is no apparent reason, one of whom is my own mother, the other a member of another tribe I’m from, another kind of family, all I can say for certain is that a country that hides its ruins and avoids atoning for the sins it was founded on pays for that hypocrisy, body by body. And out here in the middle, buoyed from both sides in the wild hue of ambivalence, when it is a kind of conviction, I can tell from here that we’re all so desperate to find a craving that doesn’t destroy us, to find out what hunger is, to tell the other, and warn the yet to come, it was you all along, that demand for a better song and resonance from within, that broken mother giving you her good cells that one of us may be whole.

Originally Published: April 12th, 2018

Born in Waterloo, Iowa, poet and choreographer Harmony Holiday is the daughter of Northern Soul singer/songwriter Jimmy Holiday. Her father died when she was five, and she and her mother moved to Los Angeles. Holiday earned a BA in rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley and an MFA at...