The Politics of Retching

Doesn’t late-stage colonialist capitalism just make you want to hurl?

By Sarah Aziza

A watercolor image of a figure leaning over a lake and vomitting
Courtesy of Drea Cofield

“Are you gagging from the smell?” I said “Or are you sick?” 

Fellis waved a hand at me and breathed deep. We were almost by the tribal museum, almost to the bridge and out of that rotting place, when Fellis pulled over.

“Can’t you wait?” I said. Fellis got out of the truck and dropped to the ground, hands and knees among hundreds of dead caterpillars, and he vomited. 

The smell took over the inside of the truck. I gagged and went to open the door but it would not open…I threw up on the floor of his truck.”

Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty 

At first, I didn’t notice the nausea creeping in as I made my way through Morgan Talty’s recent story collection, Night of the Living Rez. Unassuming, I turned the pages with the ravenous appetite I always have when encountering exquisite prose. I was a few stories deep by the time I realized my gut had twisted into a familiar, sour knot, my shoulders hunching forward as if to protect my queasy core. I was feeling sick — and I was not alone. At some point in each of the poignant and often-humorous stories in Rez, at least one character is nauseous, gagging, or vomiting. 

As physically uncomfortable as it is, Talty’s visceral prose does important, expansive work. While much of the press around Rez has fixated on the collection as a portrayal of Native life (Talty is a citizen of the Penobscot Indian Nation), the pages portray — no, embody — much that is resonant beyond the few-mile radius spanned by the pages of the book. Talty gestures towards the broader realities of trauma and survival in modern America. In this, he invites a larger critique that I am calling a politics of retching.

I am something of a connoisseur of nauseas, and quite accomplished in the field of gastrointestinal distress. I have vomited on five different continents. I have played host to several strains of parasites. I had my first ulcers at 15. This precocity was triggered by the stress of my family’s recent relocation to the United States and the pressures of the academic perfection my immigrant father insisted would enable my (his?) American Dream. After my first sexual assault in college, I spent a semester feeling so nauseous I consumed only dry cereal and Sprite. I suffered severe diarrhea for an entire year of my early 20s while enduring daily sexual harassment at my job. Throughout, my ulcers have disappeared and returned, a barometer of repressed distress. I carry antacids with me everywhere. 

Nausea, like life, can be acute.

So I was perhaps particularly attuned to the presence of nausea and retching in Talty’s work. Despite its frequency, the characters’ sickness is usually secondary to the story. So it is in life — an upset stomach is rarely a major plot development, seldom treated as a serious threat. According to an article from Harvard Health, “functional ​​gastrointestinal disorders affect 35% to 70% of people at some point in life, women more often than men.” These disorders have “no apparent physical cause,” and thus, no obvious treatment. Like so much of modern life in late capitalism, our stomachs become a site of resignation, of quiet, chronic misery. 

But nausea, like life, can be acute too. On the morning of November 9, 2016, I found myself in a bathroom stall at New York University, filling a toilet bowl with my bile. In the next stall over, I heard the heaving of my classmate, a fellow survivor of sexual abuse. We emerged together, bloodshot and quaking, unable to speak. I vomited many more times that month — often as a result of drinking too much scotch, which supplanted most of my nutrition. Of course, my ulceric symptoms worsened severely, but when I met my doctor and admitted my majority-alcohol diet she gave me a slow blink. “I think we all get a pass this month,” she said quietly. 

I think about this moment often. I am struck by the doctor’s breach of the fourth wall, her admission that the ways we cope with sickening realities often compound into other, sickening effects. In Rez, much of the retching and nausea occurs as result of drug withdrawals or substance use, conditions which Talty layers into the stories while refusing to sensationalize. Like the character’s financial situations, bodies in Rez feel in constant tension with decay. Cigarettes, boxed wine, beer, methadone (including doses which are rumored to be puked up and resold) are provisional, corrosive solutions to the intractable catastrophes in which these characters live. 

“Nausea” is derived from the Greek, “nausia,” meaning ship-sickness — that is, an illness triggered by instability, the absence of stable ground. That is certainly how I’ve experienced the world in the last decade or so — a continual sense of rocking, the bottom giving out, lurching to ever-lower and more obscure depths. How much more true this must be for those living in the aftermath of the nation’s original sin: genocidal settler colonialism. I can empathize somewhat, reminded of my experience as a Palestinian visiting Tel Aviv. There, I feel the too-smooth roads heave beneath me, the over-groomed beaches trembling with the presence of all who should be there, but are not. 

“Little is known about the subjective aspects of nausea,” writes Dr. Robert M. Stern, “it is a private sensation.” While this privacy can be isolating, it also places nausea alongside other forms of intuitive and even communal knowledge. The queasiness can be the result not of some individual indigestion but of living on bloody, putrid terrain. Modern survival requires us all to live alongside horror, but descendants of the murdered, displaced, and enslaved are forced to live on top of family ghosts. And this haunting, so entwined with history, with the very land itself, can feel impossible to escape. The ground is forever unsound; the entrapment is nauseating. In Talty’s stories, nature itself can turn menacing. Seeping reminders of rot issue from the land. A flood of dead caterpillars, decaying turtle flesh. It causes his characters to heave. 

And it is key that most of the nausea in Talty’s collection is not resolved; vomiting doesn’t relieve it. The politics of retching means a constant queasiness, a refusal to digest an oppressive status quo. 

But we can recognize our private nausea as connected to a larger, noxious norm and, like Talty’s characters, continue to nurture collective life. As much as nausea features in his stories, eating appears more. His characters continue to offer each other food. Grilled cheese (a little singed), boiled fiddleheads, creamsicles. The ingredients of survival, fuel for the rough road always ahead. “I wondered if there was a way around,” reflects the protagonist, as he prepares to drive back down a road littered with the stomach-turning stench of rotting bugs, “but I knew there wasn’t.”  

Sarah Aziza is a writer and translator who splits her time between New York City and the Middle East. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Harper’s, The Nation, The Asian American Writer’s Workshop, and The Intercept, among others. She is currently working on a book.