2018 Barthelme Prize Honorable Mention:
Hunger

Yi Jiang


Every year, outraged people stage protests and write think pieces about Chinese people eating dog, like the classmates who asked me whether I ate dog, assumed I ate dog, mocked me for eating dog. Last week, a neighbor told me proudly that her dog had been rescued from a Chinese meat truck, which left us in an awkward silence. In Jiangxi, my father once took me to an old classmate’s house where we had lunch outside at a rickety table in 100-degree heat. On the center plate, straight from the wok, stringy gray meat fried with leeks and chilies.

“It’s dog,” my father said.

I screwed up my eyes in a contrived expression of disgust. “That’s gross.”

He laughed and took a piece. He chewed slowly.

My father, as a child, took the scrawny dog padding ever-faithful behind him, slit its throat, and tore open its belly to reveal the steaming offal, the stinking refuse.

I used to pick up the crumbs from placemats and eat them. When I failed a test, I wouldn’t be allowed dinner. At potlucks, at others’ houses, I gorged myself sick.

Finish your food, he would bark. Tsk, I hate it when people waste. Don’t you know how I grew up?

Years later, I’m terrified the space I fill might revolt and consume me. In the mirror, the fat hanging around is misshapen and inflamed, is ugly. Arms, legs. I am desperate to have negative volume, be a mass of joints collapsing inwards. A boy once showed me a porn star’s photo and said she had the most beautiful curve between her neck and shoulder. While he slept, I traced my own shoulder: graceless. He disappeared on me, but he was right: the human body can be such a glory of angles and planes. “Woah, you’re skinny,” a coworker says. During that summer long ago, we left Jiangxi for Shanghai, where I lumbered past girls with legs like birch trees.

Now my fridge is overflowing: jar of pickles, zucchini with pockmarks, withered scallions, chicken, peppers, takeout container of minestrone, week-old rice congealing, vanilla diet coke. I want to eat. In half-dark hours alone, I’m dreaming of oil-rice glistening, star anise buried as gems – gorgeous eidolon, rich enough to keep me from falling asleep, closest thing to ecstasy I have ever reached. No, I want to fuck, fold limbs effortlessly beneath another, excise every feeling buried within this flesh. 1200, 500, 300 calories. I want to fucking eat.

Curled up between toilet and wall, I carve into my belly, the same way my father dug his nails into my arm when I stole snacks from my siblings.

My father calls, while the blood is still wet. “What did you have for dinner? You need to eat properly.”

How that little dog must have dragged itself listlessly through the dust. How it must have felt in the face of slaughter, about to hand over this body, break it for a world still to come.