Country profile: The Bahamas
If countries could be compared to inanimate objects, the Bahamas would surely be a collection of showcase cars – varying in their shape, size and maximum speed. With pristine exteriors, this collection of gems would attract buyers, investors and those who simply wanted a test drive – just to see what it’d be like to live ‘that kind of life’. The cars might be auctioned by a set of dealers with questionable motives, their hands slick with backhanders.
The Bahamas is an age-old tourist bait – an escape. It has everything an idyllic Caribbean holiday destination is supposed to have: sandy beaches, coconut trees, friendly locals, crystal waters and iconic local food. It has reggae music blasting from every restaurant and sunshine at least 355 days of the year. But there are a few skeletons in the closet.
Tourists are not averse to some of this history: tales of pirates, plunder and fort-based attacks add a dash of spice to the mix. The Bahamas was a haven for corruption even in its earliest days. It has been home to slavery, rum running and, fast forwarding into the more recent past, offshore banking, which some might call piracy by a different name.
The capital city, Nassau, is where it all began, and tourists often get no farther than its casinos, luxury hotels and high-end shops. Many of the outer (particularly southern) islands and cays, are untouched by mass tourism development and retain the old, simple way of living. From mid-Bahamas upwards though, the spread of hospitality development risks encroaching on quintessential island life – and the stark contrast between the unattainable wealth of tourists and living conditions for ordinary Bahamians has inevitably led to a rise in petty crime.
In Nassau, there is the ritzy section ‘Out West’ but many Bahamians live ‘Over the Hill’ – the local term for the less-developed end of town with its older houses and basic standards of living. On the outer islands, you have a different divide. In northern islands like Abaco, there’s growing disparity between native Bahamians and illegal migrants from Haiti, who live in shanty towns (‘The Mud’) with makeshift buildings lacking proper sanitation and electrical wiring.
As with many countries, government corruption is inevitable, particularly if you are the Caribbean’s wealthiest nation. Perhaps more troubling still for young Bahamians like me is the sense that the country has been sleepwalking since its independence from Britain in 1973. Although it has taken big steps to improve the experience for tourists, it hasn’t built a legacy for future generations of Bahamian people. So the big investors dig deep into the natural resource wealth, and all those who can do so milk the tourism cash cow – feeding an aspiration to keep up with our US neighbours. Meanwhile printing, citrus, sugar cane, rum and beer, all of which were once valuable industries, are now costly imports.
It’s as if the motivation of recent ancestors to build a stable and secure future for the Bahamas has been forgotten. Instead Bahamians rely on the money of others as the last of its few remaining industries sell out.
The upcoming generation is stuck with a lack of prospects, their choices limited to tourism or banking, and the lack of government concern about this has young Bahamians like myself scratching our heads. If we’re going to continue using the phrase ‘It’s better in the Bahamas’ then we need to reset our standards. Better than where? And if we can’t do this, maybe the country should be listening to its youth, who are urging ‘It’s time to wake up, Bahamas’.
2016: The Year of the Fashion Revolution
With screenings of films such as The True Cost documentary, choreographed dances, the 'hacking' of fashion shoots and the publication of Slow Fashion by ethical fashion pioneer Safia Minney, the worldwide Fashion Revolution movement (led by Carry Somers and Orsola de Castro) is far more than a social media campaign. This year's Fashion Revolution week highlighted the need for better working conditions and respect for garment workers, and called out those in the fashion-industry who have yet to change their ways, three years after the tragic Rana Plaza disaster which killed more than 1,100 Bangladeshi garment-factory workers.
Young voices, including that of 21-year-old Alana Watson, who recently blogged for New Internationalist have had their say, putting conscious shopping into the minds of a youth accustomed to YouTube 'hauls' and throwaway fashion. This is a new age, in which annual or bi-annual wardrobe makeovers offer an immediate shopping high. With saving for expensive things such as higher education or a deposit for a house, now out of the reach for the average earner and young person, clothes – at their cheapest today, in an unethical industry – satisfy the hunger for feel-good statement 'must-haves'.
Hebe York, a 17-year-old A-levels student in Oxford, has this to say about the current state of fast-fashion:
When and how did you find out about the Rana Plaza disaster? How did you feel when you learned about labour conditions in places like Bangladesh?
I found out about it on the radio as soon as it happened. l felt incredibly shocked that something like this was allowed to happen. It also made me think about the ethics of the clothing industry. I couldn't believe that so many people were working in such a small space.
How do you feel about the awareness of ethically-sound fashion vs unethical? Have you done anything to raise this awareness in your personal choices?
Unethical fashion is really common on the high street. Most people (including myself) would like to do more to support ethical clothing; however, when it actually comes to shopping it's a lot cheaper and easier to buy non-ethical brands. My guess is that most people may not even be aware of ethical brands. I mostly shop in charity or vintage secondhand clothes shops. At least in this way I'm recycling.
If I do need something new, then I try to choose ethical clothing brands but there's not much of a selection in a city like Oxford. There's a bigger choice online but buying clothes in this way isn't as much fun. What I try to do is avoid the shops and brands that are known to be unethical.
Are 'slow fashion' products easily affordable to a young person? How do you think they are branded for young people – particularly with the rise of YouTube 'hauls' and throwaway fashion?
I believe they could be affordable if [young] people adopted a less consumerist mind-set; although they are more expensive, they are likely to last longer. However, they are still often much more expensive than high-street clothes and would therefore be out of most people’s price range.
The society we are growing up in promotes buying new clothes; for example, summer or winter ‘looks’. This mind-set is increasingly being promoted by YouTubers who encourage their viewers to buy more and continually change their wardrobe.
Do you think that the pressures teens and young people face to ‘fit in’ (or to stand out) affect the fashion choices they make when it comes to labels vs ethics?
Yes, people are led by what’s expected of them. Social media means that people see a ‘look’ at the same time and the fashion industry seems to jump to meet this demand. Or maybe it’s the fashion industry using social media to put the look out there in the first place. Most people follow these trends, so ethics quite often go out of the window.
There’s less choice, especially for affordable clothes, when it comes to ethical fashion. Also, because ethical fashion doesn’t promote wearing the new season’s collections, this may deter young people from buying more ethical clothes. People may prefer to buy cheaper clothes, meaning they can buy a new wardrobe every season, rather than buying clothes that are going to last them several years because the fashion will inevitably change. This is why I like charity shops – you can choose things that are close to current trends but not identical, so you look a bit different from everyone else.
We want to thank all who have bought a copy of Safia Minney’s Slow Fashion: Aesthetics Meets Ethics which provides a 360-degree view of a fashion world that is changing, from the cotton fields to the cities. For our global audience, we would like to encourage you to enter for the chance to win a FREE, signed hardback copy of the book. Today is the last day to enter!
If you’re a UK reader and you’d like to buy a copy of Slow Fashion for the special price of £12.99 from our Ethical Shop, find it here. If buying from elsewhere, you should be able to buy or order from your local bookstore. Please be patient as stock is still making its way to our main distribution centres worldwide.
Slow Fashion Book Launch
Wednesday, 23 March, London – 80 guests gathered at The Duke of Cambridge pub in Islington to launch ‘Slow Fashion – Aesthetics Meets Ethics’ by Safia Minney MBE, pioneer and founder of ethical fashion brand People Tree.
Released by New Internationalist on the same day, Slow Fashion is an ‘illuminating and highly visual new book’, ‘an ethical fashion bible’ giving an in-depth insight into the designers, labels and eco-concept stores around the world that are taking the lead in sustainable fashion.
The evening launch gathered journalists, fashion bloggers, contributors and ethical fashion and Fairtrade campaigners who heard from Safia Minney; Caryn Franklin; Lucy Siegle, journalist and social justice advocate; Mike Gidney, CEO of Fairtrade Foundation; John Hilary, Director of War on Want; Jean Lambert, MEP for the Green Party; and Orsola De Castro, Co-Founder of Fashion Revolution, and others.
‘Slow Fashion reflects Safia’s expertise, intimate and intuitive knowledge of Fair Trade supply chains and her 25-year history of campaigning for ethical business. Slow Fashion brings you the future of the fashion industry,’ opened Lucy Siegle (who MC’d the event). ‘Safia, you always have an answer. You are an unstoppable force. I hope we can all pay [you] back by getting this book out there.’
Mike Gidney, who was next to speak, professed that ‘Safia brings a radical compassion and a humanitarian approach to everything she does. She has a remarkably clear eye and focus on turning a mission into ethical business with such dedication. Slow Fashion, her new book, is partly manifesto and partly “how to” – it’s a must-read for all!’
‘Safia knows the people at the beginning of the [supply] chain. We don’t usually know where these products come from – we don’t know the stories. But Safia unravels what’s behind each of those products we buy on a whim.’ – Romy Fraser, Founder of Neal’s Yard Remedies and Trill Farm
New Internationalist’s new eco-fashion book (which follows on from Naked Fashion, 2011) explores the rebirth of the slow fashion movement following the 2013 Rana Plaza factory tragedy in Bangladesh and the 2015 documentary The True Cost, and highlights further issues regarding slavery and fashion. Minney also celebrates the 25th anniversary of People Tree, which she first founded in Japan.
‘We’ve spent the past four years developing the European market for People Tree and I’ve been blown away with the fashion and media people involved in promoting fair treatment, whether it’s organic, vintage, upcycled, ethical produce, bicycle-repair shops or organic cafés,’ said Safia at the end of the launch. ‘I really hope to create livelihoods and support people to help themselves… and for [Slow Fashion] to inspire people to start new stores and to continue to campaign for fairer fashion.’
Slow Fashion contains a wealth of contributions from fashion insiders around the world. Mother and daughter Jo and Leah Wood swap styling tips and confidence tricks; Caryn Franklin looks at why women make the choices they do when buying clothes; and Summer Rayne Oakes reveals her passion for sustainable design. The book’s visual concept, with interactive QR codes, transports the reader from Bangladesh (where Zandra Rhodes meets local hand weavers) to ethical boutiques in Amsterdam and Japan. It is a woven compilation of engaging essays by experts such as Caryn Franklin; model, activist and social entrepreneur Lily Cole; Livia Firth; and designers Bora Aksu and Peter Jensen, as well as the evening’s speakers.
After War on Want’s John Hilary – who ‘really recommends reading Slow Fashion’ – heralded Safia as ‘holding a mirror to unfair trade’ and being ‘fearless in shining the spotlight on what is unacceptable business practice in the fashion industry’, Peter Melchett of the Soil Association highlighted that ‘it takes horrendous tragedies to get people to pay attention to what happens to the people supplying our clothes.’ Caryn Franklin then joined Safia on stage for a Q&A about Safia’s career, the fashion industry and Slow Fashion.
A volley of protest in Iran
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has thrown its weight behind a challenge to Iran’s ban on women watching volleyball matches.
Iranian women have been banned from attending live sporting events since the 1979 revolution, which declared it ‘un-Islamic’. But in 2012, the ban was extended to volleyball – the nation’s most popular sport.
Since then, men and women can no longer watch even televised matches in public areas together, and attempting to do so can lead to arrests.
The #Watch4Women campaign is leaning on the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) to penalize Iran for its discriminatory law.
Minky Worden, Director of Global Initiatives at HRW, says that if women cannot attend matches, Iran should not be allowed to host international games. The Iranian Volleyball Federation hosted six international matches in 2015, from which women and girls were excluded as spectators – a policy that goes against women’s rights, the FIVB’s own constitution and the Olympic Charter.
‘Cheering for your team is a basic human right,’ Darya Safai, a spokesperson for the group Let Iranian Women Enter Their Stadiums, told Swedish news agency TT.
For her, the volleyball campaign is a way to tackle the wider issue of gender discrimination in Iran.
The cow should not have the monopoly on milk
With an ever-growing list of vegan products, restaurant chain Hiltl and tibits offer tips on going 'dairy-free'.
Milk alternatives are abundant. They are made from spelt, oats, rice, quinoa, amaranth, soy or almonds and are available in wholefood shops, and increasingly in supermarkets and corner stores. There is no formula as to what milk is right for you, but this can also be a good thing: it’s a lot of fun to find out which of the very different aromas and consistencies of each product you like the best from the large range. For vegans, we recommend milk drinks that are enriched with calcium and vitamin B12. Spelt, oat, rice and almond drinks have a low protein content. If you prefer soya drinks, we recommend those which are made from organic soya so that you are sure that the product is GMO-free.
Admittedly, strawberries and cream are a wonderful combination. However, you do not necessarily need cream made from cow’s milk for this. Those who love sauces and soups refined with cream can turn to cream alternatives such as soy, rice, oat or spelt cream without a problem, or, as in Southeast Asia, to coconut milk. This, however, has a strong taste which you have to think about when seasoning each different dish. Vegan double creams are available in wholefood shops, but often also in the supermarket.
Back to the strawberries: vegan whipping cream and squirty cream in a can may be found in many health-food stores and in wholefood shops. When buying vegan whipping cream, you should check whether the product will need a cream setter.
Butter to spread on bread can be replaced with vegetable margarine without a problem – in most cases. It is worth checking the list of ingredients carefully. Sometimes traces of milk protein, yoghurt or fatty acids can be found in supposedly vegan margarine. Also, vitamin D, which is often made from lanolin, is sometimes an uninvited guest in products which otherwise originate purely from vegetables.
When you bake, do not just replace the butter with margarine, but use vegetable oil as well – nut oil, rapeseed oil and olive oil are not only fit for purpose, but also add to the wonderful smell of the baked goods.
Yoghurt lovers can find a wide range of similar soy-based products in specialist shops. Many of these are produced with bacterial cultures and come in many different flavours. Rice-based yoghurt alternatives can also be bought, but only in better-stocked shops. Those who love set yoghurt as a dessert can strain natural soy yoghurt or vegan cream cheese using a sieve or towel in order to obtain a firmer texture. Thicker textures are often excellent for dips and spreads.
The powerful, unmistakable taste of cheese can also be produced nowadays without using milk from animals. There are many types of vegan cheese, from hard cheese to creamy mozzarella and everything in between, the taste of which is impressively close to the original. Vegan types of cheese, however, contain neither calcium nor protein, which must be considered along with its nutritional value.
If you are looking for a vegan replacement for grated cheese (for example for pasta or risotto), dried yeast flakes are suitable for this, which have a full, rounded taste – and which additionally contain useful B vitamins.
Cheesecakes that are made with tofu have some particularly tempting results – that is with a mixture of natural tofu, which has been puréed with silken tofu. This mixture is then seasoned with sugar, lemon juice and vanilla extract and baked on vegan shortcrust pastry. It is definitely worth a try: even hard-core cheesecake lovers won’t notice that their favourite dish has been made in a different way.
Leave the eggs to the hens...
We begin with breakfast.
Those who are used to starting the day with creamy scrambled eggs can still do this the vegan way. The magic word is tofu, more specifically an elegant mixture of natural and silken tofu. The natural tofu is seasoned and coloured with turmeric, broken up with a fork and fried for a few minutes in a little oil. The puréed silken tofu is mixed into the natural tofu. Then the tofu scrambled eggs are seasoned with salt and pepper and sprinkled with chives, spring onions/scallions and, if liked, chopped tomatoes. A good tip for everyone who particularly likes good aromas: if you replace half of the salt with kala namak, black Indian salt, your vegan breakfast takes on the most amazing taste.
Also, breaded dishes can be adapted to the vegan way of life without a problem. Replace the beaten egg with 1 tablespoon of cornflour/cornstarch or even with spelt, soy or chickpea flour, mixed with 3 tablespoons of soya milk or water. This mixture makes superfluous not only eggs, but also the countless powdered egg substitutes that can be found in health-food shops – these fulfill their purpose, but are, as rule, processed products which contain additives which are best gone without.
A hot topic for many is that of vegan baking. In vegan cooking, the egg is replaced by soya flour or additional baking powder: 1 tablespoon soya flour or 1 teaspoon baking powder take on the function of an egg. In fruit cakes or bread dough, linseeds or chia seeds puréed with a little water can take on the binding function of the egg – or, even more simply, apple purée or a mashed banana.
Light sponge mixture can also be made in the vegan way without a fuss. Sparkling mineral water supplies the carbon dioxide which makes the mixture light and fluffy (see the recipe on page 215). The same trick can also be used to make vegan pancakes. For cake glazes and fillings, you can again try the trusted mixture of silken and natural tofu, see above.
This is an extract from Vegan Love Story by Hiltl and tibits, recently published by New Internationalist, to celebrate World Vegan Month.
NI's Easier English provides 'ready lessons'
The Easier English Wiki provides the same content that New Internationalist magazine offers, but with easier vocabulary and grammar. This content covers the issues many of the readers of Easier English are living with or experiencing, or issues that are vital to understand in today’s world. Learners can learn English, reading the simplified article and then the original, and break down barriers at the same time.
The wiki page has become a platform, short-listed by the British Council ELTons Awards in June 2015, for its innovation as a learning resource, providing 'ideal materials for developing learners' awareness of global justice, and, at the same time, helping them to develop their reading, vocabulary and sentence structure’. The judges commended it for the ‘refreshing opportunity to read about more controversial topics’. It is rare to find these controversial, often taboo, topics in ELT materials, as publishers cannot afford to offend, so often ban ‘PARSNIPs’ (any reference to Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, -Isms and Pork). Teachers then may be afraid of discussing or conditioned not to discuss these issues in class, as they have no supporting materials. Surely, though, these are the topics learners need to discuss, read about and learn with. English is now such a global language and ELT is such a booming, multi-million pound, publishing industry, that teachers have a responsibility to bring global issues into the classroom and not impose Westernized, euro-centric world views in their materials.
Managed and written by ESOL teachers and trainers, Linda Ruas and John Shepheard, New Internationalist Easier English Wiki offers these global justice materials: an ever-growing resource of simplified articles for learners to read, then compare with the original, Search and Category features to research topics of interest, quizzes to generate interest, and resources for teachers with guidance on several ways to use the articles in class and as self-access learning.
The aim? To get more English-language learners reading about global issues and having the confidence to discuss, protest and boost their desire to learn more. The topics covered in New Internationalist are varied, but the information provided and the format which Easier English presents encourages readers to respond to injustices felt directly or by other, more distant, communities. And this will hopefully encourage further independent reading and action.
Major cultural rifts such as differing religions, as discussed by Linda Ruas, can potentially be lessened when a fairer picture is presented and discussion is encouraged. 'Learners can respond emotionally to these authentic, topical issues, especially if they have been directly affected and sensitive, supportive handling in class can even help learners come to terms with a difficult past.'
The Easier English wiki also provides 'Ready Lessons' which help teachers present the topics and texts to classes and further engage learners with what to read. They offer the latest teaching ideas with variations on dictations, discussions and grammar and vocabulary tasks within highly meaningful contexts.
In summary, Easier English will hopefully encourage learners to practise:
- Disagreeing: Having an opinion about political, religious or lifestyle issues different to your neighbour comes from confidence.
- Progressive Reading: Reading the simplified text and then the original article allows an even fuller grasp of the language and the subject matter.
- Inclusive Thinking: Feeling included and being a part of the wider world comes from working towards a common goal and understanding both the issues and the people involved in a more thorough manner.
Tell English teachers and learners you know to have a look and follow Easier English on Twitter (@EasierNewInt) to get the latest simplified articles.
'Cooked Up' at the London Short Story Festival
'Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World' at the London Short Story Festival 2015 Waterstones Piccadilly, Saturday, 20 June
This evening event at the London Short Story Festival attracted a crowd of intrigued fiction readers and writers looking for a taste of 'flash fiction' writing and a cross-cultural reading experience.
Food fiction is an emerging genre which New Internationalist's 'Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World' aptly fits into. In his collection of short stories inspired by food, 16 authors from 'around the world' showcase stories about meals and experiences from Cambodia to an Indian kitchen in the US, from Russia to war-torn Croatia.
One story, written by one of the evening's panelists, Krys Lee, is titled 'Fat' and tells of a young man who attempts to avoid military service by over-eating. Elaine Chiew, editor and also contributor acted as the evening's chair and kicked off the event by asking the panel to talk about their favourite dishes. Elaine began with hers: noodles. 'Noodles of any kind! And chocolate is my secret passion.'
Ben Okri, contributed to Cooked Up with his 'stoku' – 'The Mysterious Anxiety of Them and Us' – and exclaimed that he has 'a love for all kinds of food' and referred to it as being 'one of the most beautiful parts of life…'
Nigerian pepper soup however, is definitely his ultimate dish. 'It opens up the tastebuds, makes you sweat and makes you really hungry.' Pepper soup is 'full of many different types of herbs' and can vary between Delta pepper soup to Aruba pepper soup. Richly flavoured – these spices are used to marinate the choice of meat or fish or vegetables. And that's just what he enjoys as a starter. 'For mains, joloff rice with plantain and black-eyed beans'.
For Krys Lee, who is of South Korean descent and lives in between the US, South Korea and Italy, her favourite food 'is always going to be home food. Food is such a pleasure and a nostalgia. I love dahls and different foods inspired by India and the time I spent there. I also have fond memories of making kimchi with my mother.'
Charles Lambert, who wrote 'The Noise, and After the Noise, the Calm' in Cooked Up based on his childhood spent on an egg farm in the Midlands, also spoke of a distinctively favourite meal or two:
'My private pleasure is definitely aubergine parmigiana (Charles lives in Rome with his partner) or slow cooked porky belly.' Long, slow cooking of food is a must for him because 'you can carry on talking and drinking before you sit down and eat.'
Charles also thinks of English cooking as comfort food or a symbol 'mother's affection' such as baked eggs with maybe a bit of salad cream and his best food memory is of 'sitting around a table in the Italian countryside.'
Elaine, who's earliest food memory was actually recounted to her by her mother, is of sardines. At first finding the salty snack a bit alarming, she then opened her mouth for more proving she had quite an adventurous palette even at a young age.
Ben's earliest food memory takes him back home to Lagos where he and his family are sat around the fireside and their mother is telling stories. 'The whole process of cooking comes with punctuating a story with the food.' He also remembers being 'summoned back from playing' by the aroma of his mother's stew.
'It was as if she was calling you with the fragrance of food.' A similar tactic he says relates to Indian restaurants cooking fried onions to entice passers-by. 'Fragrance is a tremendous promise and you can be easily seduced.'
'It's as if you have the 'taste first' and then 'the appreciation comes from the initial expectation and how descriptions can often affect reading.'
'I always had pasta and kimchi growing up, there was this sharing and mixing of culture,' added Krys, who also remembered being slightly embarrassed when her friends would come over to her house. Their first question would be 'what is that smell?'
At the end of the evening, the panel was asked if they eat while they write and if they do, what is their food of choice.
Ben was the first to reply who explained that he 'used to...especially when I used my typewriter. There's definitely a rhythm between writing and chewing on something. Like Ritz for example. I wrote one book largely on them.' (He then made a joke about that first chapter being quite dry which the audience appreciated.)
'Now,' Ben added, 'I handwrite and I don't eat or drink. But there is definitely an analogous relationship between writing and food. Writing can often be a process of slow cooking. A mixture of herbs say… an alchemy.'
'Or you can do it very quickly and it's perfect (like calamari) or too long and it's overdone,' Charles added further.
'I tend to eat while I write,' said Krys, ' my laptop is often covered with traces of my last snacks. I have notebooks smeared with chocolate. I am often at leisure with writing… Part of the pleasure of the body is combining the two together. Chewing also wakes you up, too.'
'And the act of writing is really so difficult,' said Ben, before the authors headed off to sign copies of the book. 'Feeding is a source of energy. There's a ritual quality of food...the consumption of cultures.'
Cooked Up: Q&A with Elaine Chiew
In 'Run on the Molars', a short story from Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World, multi-award winning author Elaine
Chiew writes about a slightly dysfunctional Singapore family based in London. This last story in the anthology highlights just one example of how different cultures and generations can clash over flavours and ingredients — adding an extra bit of heat to a family reunion.
What truly inspired you to write about a Singapore family in a London setting? Does the story of the mother visiting her daughters and the relationship between them reflect something you relate to?
For me, the intersection of one culture with another is a perennial source of fascination, probably because growing up in Malaysia I was steeped in a clash of cultures (propaganda likes to call it a ‘melting pot’ though). Then, having lived and traveled in different parts of the world —from Thailand to Bangkok to San Francisco to Hong Kong, I witnessed the myriad ways one culture can rub up against another; it provides a rich source of narrative tension, and often throws up a few humorous encounters as well.
I chose Singapore for two reasons: I feel close enough to be able to write about it with some confidence and two, I wanted to layer in the language of Hokkien, this particular Chinese dialect that the characters in the story speak. It’s a dialect that sounds almost flavourful to the ear (and since food is a thematic concern in this story, it seemed an organic choice).
I also wanted food to tease out the uncomfortable and alienated relationships within this dysfunctional family. I wanted the sounds of eating to become a stand-in for all that they can’t or won’t talk about. There was a lot of activity and noise, but these characters did not seem able to say anything of substance to each other or be able to reach an understanding with each other. There was a mountain of food on the table and all of it went into this cauldron of broth, which is symbolic of what they try individually to bury. To maul Tolstoy’s adage about families, perhaps each dysfunctional family (while unhappy in its own way) is dysfunctional in just this way — defined by its lack of communication.
Was it fun writing the story/being involved in Cooked Up? Is food fiction a difficult style of writing to craft?
Yes. Definitely fun. I think I lucked out like crazy — I never thought Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni or Ben Okri would say yes to being asked to contribute to the anthology since they didn’t know me from ‘diddly' or ‘squat’ (being tongue in cheek with the expression here). More than anything though, it helped that I already had a quasi/implicit nod from New Internationalist to publish the anthology — this gave me a lot of credibility in approaching agents and emerging literary writers more successful than myself.
Perhaps the most rewarding challenge was receiving a story that was almost there, but not quite. It can be tricky as a fellow writer suggesting changes to another writer who is more established — especially when it comes to knowing where to draw the line. My main thing was to make sure I kept the spirit of the story intact, and that the changes, while constituting going back to the drawing board in a couple of cases, didn’t at all change the heart or backbone of the story.
I don’t know that food fiction is an official category. But there are progressively more and more stories and novels where food is front and central in the fiction, e.g. a character opens a cafe in Kabul or the history of coffee is woven into the seam of the narrative. Here, in this anthology, because none of the writers bills him/herself as a food writer, the food theme — in the very apt word of a blogger’s review — acts as ‘enabler’ of story.
I do think, given the burgeoning of gastronomic interests among home cooks, especially with the seeking of food knowledge, food fiction will become more widespread and popular — people would have gained a core body of knowledge so that reading about how something is prepared no longer fazes them. Using food in literary fiction has the benefit of symbolism as well as bringing illumination and insight to issues of personal and cultural and sociological and even historic significance.
What is the underlining message behind 'Run on the Molars' – what would you like your readers to take from it?
In one sense, in the spirit of Calvino, I want the reader to have total freedom, to interpret the story based on what strikes home or resonates. I hope it’s a rich enough story to be able to offer that. I hope all the stories in the anthology offer that.
In another sense, there is one thing I’d like to say — it isn’t particularly related to the message or thematic significance behind the story, but more to do with the fact that critics of ethnic fiction tend to use linguistic yardsticks for literature as set by the dominant culture. I’ve been guilty of this myself. I don’t mean to be preachy or to come across as such, but what I’ve come to realize is that writers can have many different styles for different stories, or even several ‘voices’. No one voice fits all his/her stories. Why should this be a surprise, since we live in such a pluralistic or even contradictory culture? What’s more plausible for me is that each of us is probably capable of writing in a multitude of voices.
This means though, that the language, the diction, the choice of words, indeed the way words are assembled in the entire story, will be connected to the character(s) in the story in ripple-throughs, like a matrix. The story — from character development to setting to plot to prose style — should form an intrinsic whole. In other words, the way words are spliced together may reflect an inner narrative voice that is attuned, connected to, if not closely aligned with the characters’ voices. In ethnic fiction, while grammar rules shouldn’t be broken in most situations or subverted too flamboyantly (depending on context), the way one stitches a sentence together, its cadence, its alliteration, may be considered ‘below’ the high standards of literature. What I am contending here is that we be mindful of the filter we use to ‘judge’ prose, and the origins of those filters.
What is your favourite dish, one that you think is powerful enough to silence even the most hard to please, opinionated mother / mother-in-law?
Oh, this is a great question! I think it would depend on the mother-in-law, but since in Chinese culture, there’s a pervasive myth that mothers-in-law are notoriously fiendish and difficult to satisfy, it goes without saying that one should attempt the most difficult dish possible (in reality: maximum possible error). In Chinese food, some of the most difficult dishes are also the simplest conceptually — the trick is in the execution of it. For example, steamed fish. The fish is usually steamed in ginger and soy sauce, but there is no exact recipe for how long to steam it for. Much depends on the weight of the fish, and what kind of fish it is. What one is striving for is that velvety, melt-in-the-mouth quality when the fish is just cooked and flakes right off. So timing is critical. Inadequate steaming results in the fish being raw in the middle; too much loses that silky texture. You can just hear the 'tsk tsk' from a dissatisfied mother in law!
Chinese steamed fish does happen to be one of my favourite dishes! (Luckily though, I had the best mother-in-law. She loved Chinese food, but couldn’t really cook it herself, so all was well.)
Where is your favourite place to eat (in London or elsewhere)? Your best food-related memory?
I have several. In New York where I’d worked or lived for about seven years, it would be Balthazar, just up the street from where I used to live — the bakery there was so wonderful that I once saw two absurdly coiffed upper class ladies fight over the last croissant.
In London, I’d say the best meal I’ve ever had would be Marcus Wareing’s at The Berkeley. Actually correction…it comes close to being one of the best meals of my life, but I’ve never gone back, because this is exactly the problem — can the second time ever beat the first? Ben Okri in his book The Age of Magic wrote this, “the first seeing had something special about it” and one is especially “attentive to the revelations and misunderstandings of first encounters…”
I don’t know that I have a best food memory, but I do have a couple of earliest food memories, as recounted to me by my mother (so are they really my memory?). One of them involves the eating of sardines. Newly introduced to solids, I apparently watched my mother eat spicy canned sardines with round eyes, and I opened my mouth. So she gave me a taste, and I had the shivers, but then opened my mouth for more!
In this 'melting pot' of cultures (particularly in London/ the UK) where others are moving from and marrying into different cultures with different food-related-beliefs and prejudices, why do you think it is that food is not just so important, it causes so many 'heated' discussions?
Our food knowledge is imperfect. Increasingly, I find that the more I read or learn, the less I seem to know, because of many reasons: there are so many food fads, food myths (one minute smoothies are great for you, the next they contribute to acid in your mouth and ruin your gums), and ‘holes’ in our knowledge of exactly what ingredients went into the processing of a certain food, or how it got from farm to market, or indeed how exactly it was farmed or raised or grown. The word ‘organic’ for example — considered universally preferable to non-organic, do we really understand what it means, what went into getting the organic designation for the particular product we are buying? Nowadays even pencil eyeliner can be organic!
There are fishery issues — overfishing for one, distrust of farmed fish for another. There are brewing debates over ‘free-range’, over grass-fed, over Fairtrade, over food prices; just a couple of days ago in the Evening Standard, a Wahaca manager was quoted as saying that wanting healthy, fresh food choices isn’t just for the rich or middle-class. These are all issues that interest me greatly. I know more and more people share a similar need to know — because food is subsistence, it is fundamental. But on another level, it’s also something that we interact with daily, several times a day, more than with anything else in our lives, and it can give such pleasure and satisfaction.
You just had a successful Cooked Up event at Waterstones Piccadilly June 20th, what other events for the book are you excited about, one that will give a real taste of what the book delivers?
On July 6th, Arts Club, Mayfair, Wordtheatre will run an exciting program of stories centered around food, and will feature Vanessa Gebbie’s story in the Cooked Up anthology. It’s a glamorous and entertaining production where actors and actresses will read stories written by short story writers, performed in an intimate but chic setting.
We will also be featuring another panel discussion at The Birmingham Literary Festival Oct. 13, Ikon Gallery, with Nikesh Shukla, Susannah Rickards, Pippa Goldschmidt, Sue Guiney and myself, all contributors to the anthology.
A couple of London book clubs have contacted me re: coming to speak about the anthology. It’s a chance for me to promote the book, and also to cook and bring something! It’s a pleasure to feed people, I don’t know if you agree, and when food doesn’t cause ‘heated discussions’ it becomes a shared interest/hobby. Tasting usually brings a smile too to the lips.
When asked to choose her favourite 'Cooked Up' story, Elaine decided to politely skip such a difficult decision.
You can follow more developments with the 'Cooked Up' anthology by visiting the Cook Up Fiction website , following @CookedUpFiction on Twitter and on Facebook. Elaine also blogs about food and fiction on: redemptioninthekitchen.blogspot.com