While the PEN Freedom to Write panel was motivating, the ladies headlining the Food, Metaphor, & Memory panel were stimulating for another reason. There’s nothing like a food discussion to rouse various senses, both physical and emotional.
This all-woman panel (a curious accident) included Lara Vapnyar (Russian), Monique Truong (Saigon), Amy Besa (Philippines), and moderator Jessica Hagedorn (Philippines). I mention their national/ethnic backgrounds for a reason: I find that when reading literature, the discussion of food provides an excellent window into cultures, both familiar and unfamiliar. And what food do these writers know better than the food they grew up with, in their home countries and in their homes. An obvious example of food in literature that takes the reader out of his own culture and into another is Mexican writer Laura Esquivel’s use of a dozen culturally specific recipes in Like Water for Chocolate. A less obvious but equally effective food/culture window includes passing mentions of yam dishes and palm wine in Nigerian novels, from Chinua Achebe to Chris Abani and everyone in between—when these are mentioned in the story you can be sure you are in Nigeria and not, say, India.
The point was driven home by the selections the authors chose to (write) read; despite the fact that the authors all live in the United States and eat American food, their (writings) readings focused on their ethnic cultures. Besa, for one, listed a buffet of tropical dishes and ingredients that plucked me out of the festival and plopped me onto a Philippine island: pan de sal, tapas, local fish, mango jam, rice cakes, and limes, just to name a few. Just listing a few items not readily sold and consumed in my Queens neighborhood transports me to her homeland. Yup. Food talk is transporting.
Food talk, of course, can also be sensual. Lara Vapnyar nailed it: talking about food is the safest way to write about sex without looking like a pervert. (Says Booklist of Anthony Capella’s debut novel, The Food of Love: “The book's food scenes give way to sex scenes, which yield in turn to simultaneous sex and food couplings.”) Even food critics begin to sound like trashy romance novelists when they describe savory meals.
The most intriguing take on the food/literature theme, however, belonged to Monique Truong, whose protagonist, Linda, in the book Bitter in the Mouth (Random House, 2010), suffers from (or delights in?) the neurological condition of synesthesia, in which one sensory perception is replaced by another.In this instance, Linda reads words but experiences tastes. The words do not necessarily taste like their given meaning, however. Reading the word “apple,” for example, might trigger tastes of black pepper on Linda’s tongue. Truong’s assignment of this characterization seems daring. As I have not read the book, I cannot judge to its effectiveness in plot construction or character development or even pleasure of reading, but its very boldness demands attention. If anyone out there has read her book, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this approach: does it work for both a storyline development and pleasure reading?
The panel made me hungry, but no time for lunch – off to the next panel!
Food, the Philippines, BKBF 2010