In Defense of Grossness
When my friend first read Jenny Zhang, he wrinkled his nose and said “She’s very forthright about her grossness, isn’t she?”. It’s true. Zhang’s work traffics in the gross—in bodily fluids of all kinds, in snot and blood and tears. In her essay “How it Feels,” written for Poetry Magazine, Zhang describes episodes of bed-wetting during spells of depression in which she couldn’t summon the strength to leave her bed. Her poetry deploys anatomical slang, sex acts, and various bodily processes with an ease that can feel jarring to a casual reader. In “How it Feels,” Jenny Zhang discusses her admiration for the film of the same name created by the British artist Tracey Emin. The film delves into Emin’s artistic process, and how profoundly that process was disturbed by a traumatic abortion, which Emin describes in graphic detail. Zhang admires Emin’s ability not only “to be just as ugly as anyone but to emphasize that ugliness over and over again, to let yourself be the subject of your art and to take all the pummeling and the eye-rolling and the cruel remarks.” In other words, Zhang admires Emin’s investigation into her body and its processes, and the continuation of that investigation despite the grossed-out reactions of the male British art establishment.
In Alexandra Kleeman’s eerie novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, two characters with varying degrees of disordered eating maneuver themselves through the minefield of their relationship, against the backdrop of a mysterious eating-centric cult in their neighborhood. The protagonist observes the other eating Popsicles, noting “Sucking sounds came from her mouth as the orange slick pooled around her teeth. She was working at it as though she hadn’t eaten for days.”
Someone once told me that reading my work felt like scratching the surface of an emotional scab. “Just one fingernail, and everything is out in the open.” All the blood yes, but all the grossness of self-doubt and shame that preoccupies a lot of my mind and, thus, my work. I think bringing the body into writing is important, and not just as a filter for perception, but as a battleground crisscrossed by intersecting lines of power, as a patched and pockmarked and, yes, gross place.
In Zhang’s work, grossness is a testament to her existence, to her physicality in her own, unique body, to the physicality of the body writing its way through a discipline whose history rejects her. Flannery O’Connor describes grotesque fiction as the kind in which a reader finds that “the writer has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life.” The paradox of the gross and the bodily grotesque is that it is precisely our own bodies that we inhabit most completely every day. Perhaps our bodies have become too close to ourselves, to close to what we feel is most intrinsically us, to merit examination for qualities that are undesirable.
The grossness that’s been described here, in eating and excretion and accumulation, strikes to the heart of the gross person’s identity. Zhang uncovers the taboo of mental illness by describing her depression experience. Emin describes her abortion so gross we remember- remember the story yes, but remember that reproductive rights and women’s bodies are even more heavily under siege in this new presidential administration. Kleeman’s viscera of consumption de-familiarizes the act of eating, every day for the majority of the population, and twists it to emphasize the strangeness the act embodies for those with disordered eating issues.
Grossness is unique. We are all of us, individually, a particular brand or collection of gross. I want a literary world with room for all of them.