Fiction and Cannibalism

A passage from Beth Conklin’s Consuming Grief, about funerary cannibalism among the Wari’, an Amazonian tribe —

“Wari’ emphasize that when they used to destroy corpses by eating or burning them, this had the same purpose as burning the house and other acts of destruction aimed at eliminating things that remind mourners of lost relatives. Elders have been bemused and at times rather irritated by anthropologists’ apparent obsession with the subject of eating human flesh. ‘Why are you always asking about eating the ones who died?’ one man complained to me. ‘You talk to me about eating; Denise [Meireles, a Brazilian ethnographer] came here and asked me about eating. The missionaries and the priests always used to say, “Why did you eat people? Why did you eat?” Eating, eating, eating! Eating was not all that we did! We cried, we sang, we burned the house, we burned all their things.’ Pointing at the notebook in my lap, he directed, ‘Write about all of this, not just the eating!’”

This man’s frustration feels familiar. When I saw Peter Rock read from My Abandonment at Green Apple, he complained that people always ask him about the true story that inspired the novel – I confess, I did the same thing — when that’s just one of many elements integrated into My Abandonment. While it’s okay to ask those kinds of questions, you won’t understand the answers unless you ask other kinds of questions too.

The affinities between fiction writers and cannibals run deep — ours is the art of cannibalizing reality, digesting it, and extracting anything it may contain in the way of nutritional value. We chew on and savor humanity, devouring so we can mourn. But this is not all that we do! Please see our anthrophagy in its proper context! We also cry, sing, and burn the house…

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  • Dash of Saffron

    It's interesting that her book is titled, "Consuming Grief." I assumed, at first, that the Wari eat their dead so as to feel that the deceased is with them, in them. But, perhaps, it's an effort to consume the grief, end it? Overtake it? This would make sense given the fact that they also burn down the house and all the relics that remind them of the deceased. I don't know what I would do without my mother's keepsakes – but I suppose we all deal with loss in different ways. I can imagine, though, how intense it must be to burn it all down. I mean, Burning Man is intense and that's just a silly effigy burning down!

    James, what a lovely analogy between digesting reality and digesting one's loved one. (How odd a thing it is for me to write!) But I hope those crazy writers out there aren't busy burning the house down!

  • James Warner

    The reason fiction means more to me than non-fiction: the experience recorded in non-fiction tends to feel insufficiently DIGESTED…