Food in writing

As I wrote about last year when I read Ethan Frome, descriptions of meals in books are one of the things that really catch my attention when I’m reading. I like to imagine how all the elements of the meal work together.

I read this description recently in Margaret Drabble’s The Ice Age:

Sadie brought her a tray full of chicken soup and chopped liver and cold chicken and cold salmon and salad and fruit and gherkins and water biscuits…

What I love about this is that it’s so much. Almost too much food, it seems at first. When I first read it I imagined plates groaning under the weight of meat and gherkins. But really it’s probably small amounts of cold meat, leftover from the day before, and just a few gherkins, and then it seems okay. Good. In the book, the character describes the meal as, “infinitely reassuring,” and I tend to agree.

I have a friend who has a knack for assembling delicious, cohesive meals out of varied ingredients, particularly for picnics or otherwise leisurely summer eating. Recently she brought small slices of quiche to a picnic, and I thought, “Of course!” It made so much sense, but I never would have thought of it myself.

In The Ice Age, the character arrives at a friend’s home after a long day of traveling. She isn’t expected, she just shows up, but her friend (well, her friend’s relative), pulls together an “infinitely reassuring” dinner for her, the kind she needs at that moment. I like to imagine my friend is the same way, and that if I got off a plane and went directly to her house, she’d rummage in fridge and cupboards and the result would be infinitely reassuring.

I’d like to strengthen my weak skill for last-minute meal assembly. Mine always seem to lack some vital component, or overdo it on one thing, and the end result is wobbly, unfinished. I suppose this is another reason I’m drawn to food descriptions in books.

Perhaps I should stock up on water biscuits?

Nothing and everything

Nothing changes, maybe even me. I wrap my scarf around my neck three times and nestle in. I drive my father’s car in the dark, in the rain, winding my way around random streets, wandering until I run out of coffee. Or I’m an early morning passenger with a bagel in my hand, passing my husband his coffee as we wander together, wondering how our lives will be next year.

He drops me off at the station and the sun is bright. On the train it’s quiet and outside it’s warm and I walk to the place where my friends are waiting, and we spend our time together in such pleasant and easy conversation, and I sit my friend’s toddler on my shoulder and the baby laughs and strokes my hair and I feel so lucky to know her, and to know them all. On the train heading back I lean my head against the humming window, a head full of plans, and it feels like such an end-of-the-year cliché to realize what was always obvious, and nothing and everything seems possible all at once.

The Outward Room

I wondered how it was that I had never heard of this book and its extraordinarily promising young author. I asked around, but no one seemed to know or remember Millen Brand, or his books. It’s somewhat frightening to learn that good books – even books heralded in their time – can disappear so quickly and completely.

[. . .]

All of Brand’s work is modest and sincere, two qualities that are undervalued, if not dismissed, in modern fiction . . . Despite the titillating claims of the paperback reprints, there is nothing sensational about The Outward Room. Its power comes from its tenderness and quiet. As Brand himself observes, near the end of the book, ‘the evidences of winter were small, only to be seen, like the signs of spring, by the heart that feels small changes.’

– Peter Cameron, in the afterword to The Outward Room

When it comes to books, I tend to rely unquestioningly on the recommendations of my friend Amy. It isn’t that I dismiss other recommendations outright or find no value in them. It’s just that, somehow, Amy intuits what kind of book will fire up the electrical connections in my brain like no other. It’s especially impressive to me because people’s taste in books is so personal, so hard to pinpoint. So I have to publicly thank her for recommending The Outward Room to me.

I long ago realized I was terrible at book reviews, so I will let the above quotes from the book’s afterword stand in for my own words.

Writing and Filipinos.

My friend Teri has an article in the latest Ricepaper, titled Between Representations: Filipinos in Canadian Literature. Teri’s one of my favourite writers so I am always eager to read anything she writes, but I was especially excited to read this.

She and I are both half-Filipino, and have talked in the past about how we express that in our writing. For my part, I’d say about half of my stories have either fully Filipino or half-Filipino characters in them, but for the most part they’re still pretty “Canadian,” which is a term that I personally find fairly fluid, depending on who’s using it.

In the article, Teri writes about the difficulty in finding portrayals of Filipinos in Canadian writing that go beyond the usual nanny or maid cliché, or address it in a deeper way. With my own characters, I wonder sometimes if having these first-generation Canadians of Filipino background is enough. Shouldn’t they be doing something more? And then I can’t think of what that could possibly be. Do I want to have the characters in there to teach the world about pancit, or maybe about the cultural repercussions of hundreds of years of Spanish rule followed by a shorter period of American influence? Or do I want to have them just there playing their parts in the story, being a little bit Filipino and a little bit other things, like me and all the other first-generation people I know? Maybe having them just there is enough, maybe it’s more than enough right now.

I don’t have an easy answer to these questions, but I do know that not having these characters in there at all seems weird and wrong to me, and I like having them, these little blips of a world that some people might not know too much about.

Anyway, I didn’t intend for this to be a huge post about myself. I highly recommend picking up a copy of Ricepaper and reading Teri’s article! You can order print and digital copies here if you can’t find any in your local bookstore.

Another IFOA

Every year it feels like the last IFOA (International Festival of Authors) was just two weeks ago.

Admittedly, I got an earlier than usual start this year. Yesterday, Teri and I went to a reading and interview with Ben Lerner and Ian McEwan, and it seemed to go by in a blink. Right near the end, the two authors were asked what they were working on. I can’t remember McEwan’s exact answer, but it was along the lines of, “I’m very good at not writing.” And I’ve been feeling that way for a long time. Maybe it’s the summer. I never really write in the summer. I feel dormant and quite at ease about it, too. I barely think about it.

Perhaps it’s good timing, then, that IFOA starts at this time every year. During the interview I could feel little cracklings of story ideas in my brain, thoughts of dusting things off and continuing on. I feel the word “inspiration” is overworn in the blog world, but it’s really the exact word for how I feel every time at IFOA. Another yearly tradition, it seems.

Revelation.

INTERVIEWER

What was going on with your writing then?

ISHIGURO

At the time, people weren’t talking about books. They were talking about TV plays, fringe theater, cinema, rock music. Then I read Jerusalem the Golden by Margaret Drabble. By this time I’d begun reading the big nineteenth-century novels, so it came as an absolute revelation to me that the same techniques could be applied to tell a story of modern life. You didn’t have to write about Raskolnikov murdering an old lady, or the Napoleonic Wars. You could just write a novel about hanging around. I attempted to write a novel at that time, but I didn’t get far. It was pretty bad. I have it upstairs. It was about these young students drifting around England one summer. Conversations in pubs, girlfriends and boyfriends.

 

Peeling Rambutan

I’ve been reading poems like mad recently, so I got excited when Teri invited me to an evening of readings hosted by her friend, poet Gillian Sze.

Even getting there felt sort of poetic, visuals full of meaning. My husband and I drove down Dundas in the rain, passing through the Junction, Little Portugal, Trinity-Bellwoods. Neighbourhoods that seemed so physically and spiritually remote when I lived in Toronto. We parked in Chinatown and walked the rest of the way through Kensington Market, a rainy warren of colour and umbrellas.

There were four writers and poets reading – Teri, Alexandra Leggat, Jessica Hiemstra, and Gillian – and they were all wonderful. Teri read my favourite story of hers

I bought a copy of Gillian’s book, and I’m having trouble putting it down. I long ago forced myself to admit I was useless at reviewing books even in the simplest terms, but suffice it to say it’s deeply satisfying. Go check it out!