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Foodways and Subjectivity

March 10, 2012

I’ve been taking an interest in how food is used in literature (there’s heaps on this – and it’s very interesting!) Anyway, Laura Anh Williams looks at this in Jhumpa Lahiri’s work and writes:

“… writings about food and eating may serve to draw the reader into racialized subjectivity, but they may also complicate desires and appetites.” (69)

She mentions an interesting term ‘cultural food colonialism’ (assigning it to Lisa Marie Heldke) after giving an example of a piece of writing in which an American ran to their cupboard to look for “white rice, jasmine tea, bags of take-out noodles (anything that seemed Chinese)” (Pearl S. Buck, quoted p.69 Laura Anh Williams). It is a moment she describes as one in which “‘Chineseness’ becomes a commodified quality that can be approximated with a variety of foodstuffs easily located in his well-stocked American cupboard.” (69)

In Asian American literature, food as metaphor frequently con-structs and reflects relationships to racialized subjectivity and also addresses issues of authenticity, assimilation, and desire. As Sau-ling Cynthia Wong has argued, in this literature the first generation is often preoccupied with food as necessity-associated with nourishment, staples, and survival-while the second views food as extravagance-excess, treats, and desire. Yet the short stories in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies (1999) complicate this binary; the snacks and treats consumed by characters, and even an abundance of ingredients, can reflect those characters’ poverty (both monetary and emotional) and isolation.” (70) 

Of the stories in Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies, Williams writes: “In these stories food is the means for characters to assert agency and subjectivity in ways that function as an alternative to the dominant culture. Lahiri’s female immigrant characters, in particular, work to complicate the comfortable association between “home” and food. …

These stories highlight the elided female diasporic subject and invest food practices-the things characters eat and the ways they eat them, as well as how characters relate to the preparation of food-with significance that speaks to conditions of migration and diaspora. The women in these stories, wives of Indian academics, all utilize foodways to construct their own unique racialized subjectivity and to engender agency.” (70)

Of the story, ‘Mrs Sen’s’, for example, she writes that: “Food preparation is linked not only to Mrs. Sen’s subjectivity, but also her ethnic identity and her ability to forge a connection with others.” (74)

“As Jennifer Ho comments, “Food is a critical medium for compliance with and resistance to Americanization, a means for enacting the ambiguities of an Asian-ethnic identity that is already in a con-stant state of flux”. For writers, food may also function autobiographically to enact identities that are always unstable and in flux.” (77)

“For individuals such as Lahiri’s mother, cooking constructs a sense of identity, interrelationship, and home that is simultaneously communal and yet also highly personal.” (77)

For transplanted, racialized sub-jectivities, culinary practice may be a comfort as well as a bittersweet act, a surrender to pressures to assimilate and an articulation of difference. These articulations are acts of subjectivity-making and self-assertion, expressions of desire and yearning which participate in a literary tradition connecting the Asian American immigrant experience with a visceral, embodied experience of difference. Lahiri’s stories often deny narrative closure, making them slightly unsettling and difficult to swallow, yet her foodways open up spaces in which marginalized identities generate a sense of agency and difference with transformative and productive potential.” (78)

A couple of questions came out of reading this (questions to put to texts in which food seems key, that is):

– What purpose does the character’s culinary knowledge serve? Is this culinary knowledge dependent on another? Does this character have agency outside this knowledge (or is food their means of agentic expression?)?

– What community or agency has this migrant character had to give up for the purposes of migration?

– Are the characters mutually aware of each other (in terms of their autonomy/creativity/agency, etc.)? Can each character comprehend/control the other’s agency?

Ref: Laura Anh Williams (2007) Foodways and Subjectivity in Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies”  MELUS, Vol. 32, No. 4, Food in Multi-Ethnic Literatures (Winter, 2007), pp. 69-79

Two interesting looking references she mentions are:

Heldke, Lisa Maria. Exotic Appetites: Ruminations of a Food Adventurer. New York: Routledge, 2003

Ho, Jennifer Ann. Consumption and Identity in Asian American Coming-of-Age Novels. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Kessler, Brad.” One Reader’s Digest:T oward a Gastronomic Theory of Literature.” Kenyon Review 27.2 (2005): 148-65.


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