The Food Memoir: Harking Back to Childhood

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One of the most profound depictions of memory in literature is immortalized in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. The Madeleine Moment, as it is often called, exists in Proust’s seven-volume novel, where the narrator is swamped by memories when he dunks a madeleine, a sort of cake, into tea.

Proust’s magnum opus is fiction, but if there is an equivalent in nonfiction, it is perhaps the food memoir. If memoir relates to memory, the memory of food is one of the deepest in our lives, and as such, constitutes the staple of food memoirs.

Some of the finest food memoirs trace the authors’ gastronomic experiences and memories to childhood. Indeed, some of the greatest memoirs, not just the food autobiography, at least touch upon the authors’ earliest years.

The food writer’s seed is often sown in childhood. In her classic The Gastronomical Me, M.F.K. Fisher starts by describing her earliest memory of taste.

“The first thing I remember tasting and then wanting to taste again is the grayish-pink fuzz my grandmother skimmed from a spitting kettle of strawberry jam. I suppose I was about four.” In Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India, the stamp of taste was put on the author, Madhur Jaffrey’s tongue even earlier in life – when she was born. An elder in the family drew a shape on the new-born Jaffrey’s tongue with a finger dipped in honey to signify sweet.Continue Reading

The Autobiography of the Imagination: Toward a Definition

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The autobiography of the imagination writes itself, one could say. It writes every time we write, every time we dream or daydream. It is its own captain’s log, the transaction and receipt. It reveals the self to make the self into a stranger, twisting the I to wring out a you. With every persona poem I write, every autobiographical lie, I manifest a self-portrait in silhouette, not so much an accurate depiction of what I look like or who I am, as much as a chart of where my shadow falls.

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If I were to tell you about my childhood, I could tell you about my parents’ divorce, how many dogs we had, that I liked to draw. I could tell you I went to St. Peter’s Episcopal School and spent afternoons with my grandparents playing cards. Or I could tell you I wanted to grow up to marry Don Johnson from Miami Vice; that I fantasized in Wednesday chapel about a flood leaving me stranded for days in my school in which I’d carve a pew into a canoe and paddle the halls with a crucifix; and that I believed the cemetery near my house would “leak” ghosts like radon up through the ground into my bedroom. The autobiography of the imagination is as vital, as personal, to the self-revelation of oneself as the autobiography of one’s experience.

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In his 1986 introduction to A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess, with an air of pseudo-Freudianism, said, “It is the novelist’s innate cowardice that makes him depute to imaginary personalities the sins that he is too cautious to commit for himself.” The autobiography of the imagination then is an autobiography of our base desires, the things we haven’t done but have longed for. It is our fantasies, our secrets from which we curate by redaction how someone else sees us. It is an autobiography of instinct, desire.Continue Reading

On and Of the Page: The Life–Art Collapse

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A few years ago at a conference, I read a section from my long poem “Sublimation” in which the speaker describes a miscarriage that, in its vicious pain and effusions, wakes her up in the middle of the night. After the reading, as I was mingling my way toward the wine, two women approached me. They were kind and complimentary, and I was surprised and admittedly flattered. I thanked them, but then one of them said, “I’m so sorry about your miscarriage. Are you okay?” I hadn’t indicated whether or not the poem was based on my own experiences; for me, it wasn’t relevant if I had a miscarriage or not. This poem, like others about trauma and loss, has incited the life–art collapse more often than not, seemingly inviting others, strangers even, into intimate, if not silent, conversation with my life.

Working at poets from the other end is a phenomenon I’ve come to call “sieving” or “mining,” which I first noticed when I was in my MFA program, when there was a great deal of pressure on us to produce one or more poems a week, when we needed the wine-bottle crack of an idea to begin our voyage. Any time we would tell one another about something odd we’d seen, something interesting we’d read, or something from our past, someone would say, “That’s a poem” or “Have you written about that?” or “Title!” I thought perhaps that this life/art equation here would leave my life after graduation, but since then there have been numerous times I’ve posted something on Facebook or caught up with an acquaintance at AWP when someone has said only “poem” in response to an anecdote or phrase.

In tenor, this kind of comment sometimes comes across as a gesture of enthusiasm or an “I hear you,” but other times it feels like that person is insinuating themselves as the long-sought-after Rosetta Stone capable of translating my life into good poems. Perhaps I should be flattered—they want to see me write about these things—but I can’t help but feel annoyed when I’m engaged in conversation, and someone interrupts to say, “That would make a great poem,” as if they would much rather engage me through the filter of the page.Continue Reading

You’re So Vain, You Probably Think this Post is About You

mirror 1A friend once asked if I’d based the guinea pig (mentioned, but offstage) in my first novel on his daughter’s imaginary friend (of whom I’d never heard tell). In his defense: they had the same, unusual name. In my defense: ?!@&?#*%?

Maybe people want novels to be true. Maybe they want to be in those novels. Or maybe they’re terrified of this same thing—of having their secrets exposed. But all authors get asked if we’ve “based the characters on real people”—something that in my experience is actually extremely rare. So w­hat happens when friends and family convince themselves that they’re the ones you’ve written about? I asked a few friends to weigh in with their juiciest stories of supposed identity theft.

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The Winged Seed

wingedseedThe Winged Seed
Li-Young Lee
BOA Editions, April 2013
200 pages
$16.00

Reading Li-Young Lee’s The Winged Seed reminded me of an argument by economist Tyler Cowen. Cowen cautions against our propensity to impose narrative on everything. He claims that life is not a story but a mess, and that in insisting on making sense by giving it a storyline, we actually exclude and erase much of it. This may sound like a damning statement, especially for writers of nonfiction—and yet it seems that (over a decade before Cowen) Lee followed the same philosophy when writing this book.

The Winged Seed was first published in 1995 and won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. It is sometimes marketed as a memoir and sometimes as an autobiography, but if we have to put a genre label on it, I propose to call it by its subtitle: a remembrance. Lee presents the reader with a series of memories—his own as well as those that his parents shared with him about their own lives.

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