If You’re Bengali, Food is the Center of Everything: An Interview with Madhushree Ghosh

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As an Indian American writer and reader, I am wary of books with saris and cups of chai on their covers as is the case for Madhushree Ghosh’s debut collection of essays Khabaar: An Immigrant Journey of Food, Memory, and Family. The book features a photograph the author took herself, but like the best culinary experiences, Ghosh’s writing won me over with its nuanced flavors and bold pairings. I followed her eagerly into a Delhi fish market with her father, as well as the fraught moment she realized her marriage was over while locked in a hotel bathroom before a big pitch for her biotech job, all of it wound together expertly with investigations into the history of tea or a recipe for lamb curry as a substitute for goat curry.

Her essays bind together the journey of a diasporic Indian student trying to find themselves in America, the bafflement of loss—of both parents and her marriage—of global politics and corporate maneuvering, while ladling out ideas of nourishment, flavor, and how what we eat shapes who we think we are.

Though quarantined in our Zoom boxes, our wide-ranging conversation about the crucial importance of sharing trauma stories, food writing as a political tool, and being a good literary citizen had the warmth of a Bengali adda (freewheeling conversation) session held on neighboring balconies at dusk.

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The Rumpus: What led you to write creative nonfiction?

Madhushree Ghosh: Well, I come from a family of journalists, so my mother’s side of the family were editors of different shapes and sizes at The Statesman, so that was part of our lives. But then she married into a family that was into the typical hustle. My father was in banking, basically trying to survive. In my family, we always wrote, but we wrote more fiction. I had to stop writing at the time I immigrated here to get my PhD and my post-doc. It was only when I came to San Diego, right after 9/11, that I seriously started writing fiction again. I was taking a lot of classes because I had to learn everything. I had to relearn how to tell stories. If you’ve been brought up on Amrita Pritam, or Tagore’s poetry, or even writing recipes—we come from cultures of showing and telling. And then you come here, and they tell you your English is not right. My PhD advisor actually asked me if there was an on-campus ESL program to help me on my dissertation because they thought the way I wrote didn’t match what the white readership wanted to read. So, it was a journey…but I started to learn to write for an American audience and was working on a novel. Then, in 2012, my marriage fell apart. I was writing this novel and I just couldn’t work on it anymore. So, instead of trying to work on that, I thought, “Let my write through what I was going through in my life.”

Rumpus: Was it hard to do that? I teach creative writing in the Asian American Studies Department at UCLA and have a lot of students who are STEM or Public Health majors, and when we get to creative nonfiction, they are like, “I can’t write/talk about my family!” And I have to give them permission to do so, even in an assignment that no one else is going to see but me. So, how did you get over that hump, especially in writing about your marriage?

Ghosh: I think that’s a great question because I think we are taught not to do that. The way I was brought up—at least in Delhi households, you are told, “What happens in the house stays in the house.” And because of that, you’re supposed to live your life in pain. And, if you have children, you perpetuate that by continuing it into the next generation.

My marriage imploded, actually. It imploded in a very spectacular way. It’s very different when it explodes, and you have words, and you have clashes, and you’re like, “Oh, I hate you. I hate you,” and you move on. I was stunned into silence. My now ex stopped talking to me for 214 days, and as can you see, I talk a lot, ha ha. I really had to figure out what do you do with that silence when my parents were not there to support me; when I had fought with them in order to marry this man.

I started trying to process what was happening in my marriage, and realized it was a form of intimate partner abuse, which showed up as emotional abuse and gaslighting—but still, I really struggled with writing about myself. But then I realized that because we don’t talk about something, it keeps happening. It’s the same thing as the violence of Partition. We have a lot of narratives, and a lot of oral, visual records of the Holocaust and what happened there. Whereas for us, the trauma of the violence of Partition just passes down through the generations because we don’t talk about it. I read a cover story recently that had survey results that showed 40 percent of South Asian women in the U.S. are facing intimate partner violence.

So, I gave myself permission to write about what I was going through. And, it was to my advantage that my parents were not alive anymore. I say that and people are like, “How dare you say that?” But it is a fact. When I filed for divorce, they were both gone, so I didn’t have to go back and break their hearts all over again. I felt like I had to write about what happened to me because I feel if I didn’t write about it, some other girl is going to do the same thing that I did. I’m just trying to talk to that other girl. I don’t know who she is. I hope she reads this and knows that she’ll come out a jolly divorcée, ha ha.

Rumpus: Why did you choose to write these essays through the lens of food?

Ghosh: I feel if you’re Bengali, food is the center of everything. Food has always been part of my life. I think with writing creative nonfiction, you can use anything as a lens—music, houses, doors, seasons—but for me it has always been food, from childhood to when I first immigrated to Long Island as a graduate student in 1993. It was a complete food desert in terms of Indian food or anything green! Learning how to cook allowed me to survive in those early years, and it was an important part of my marriage to someone from a different part of India. But food is not just a tool for memory, but also important in terms of social justice issues which Indian Americans don’t talk about because we are the model minority. We don’t want to get in trouble. We don’t want to talk about other people’s cultures or issues, but we need to!

Rumpus: You bring out the capability of food as a tool to talk about anything through the form of the braided essay in your book. One of my favorites was an essay about competition between you and your ex-mother-in-law braided together with the story of competing prata stands in Singapore. What’s your braided essay writing process?

Ghosh: I think everybody’s got a crutch, you know—a writing crutch. My brain usually has twenty different threads going on. And, there’s always something in common, and I don’t know what it is, so I explore them as stand-alones before I start to write them. Sometimes they come very naturally, and it’s like, “Oh, okay, this is what it means, and this…” And sometimes it’s like, “Why is this fascinating to me? Why am I so attracted to it?” And by attracted, I don’t mean it’s a good attraction, just that I’m curious about something. The writer Dani Shapiro says, “Notice what you notice.” Not what you notice, but why do you notice what you notice. So, I question that a lot, and for me, braided essays are my answer to that.

Rumpus: I was really moved by your essay, “Of Papers, Pekoe, Poetry, and Protests in 2019 India,” which talked about the history of tea in India along with protests against the right-wing Hindutva Modi government in India, specifically the Citizenship Amendment Act, which was a sign of excluding Muslims from the Indian state. Clearly, things have gotten much worse since then regarding India’s treatment of Muslims, led by the government. What do you think Indian American writers and creatives need to do to respond to what is happening in India?

Ghosh: Thank you for asking this question because I’ve been interviewed by many people, and nobody’s asked me this question. And to me, it tells a lot about what fascinates Western folks. I wrote this primarily because I am extremely angry about where we have landed as the diaspora here, as well as a people back home. For me, home is both places. So, I’m not gonna sit here and argue with people about where I belong. I’m not asking anyone to tell me where I belong. I belong in both places. The only thing I can do from here is talk about it. The only thing I can do is write about it. And I feel like South Asian authors should be activists first, before they are writers. I don’t think that’s what most of us are, because we are the model minority, and we have bought into that identity. It is horrifying to watch what’s happening back there. It’s reached a state of a farcical proportion. And if it’s not affecting the diaspora here, then we cannot call ourselves Indian. We cannot sit around and throw color for Holi and post it on social media. We cannot wear whatever clothes we wear for Durga Puja and say, “Look, you know, I’m Indian, and I’m Hindu, and I’m proud.” What does that mean when you do stuff like that and not react to people dying? I’m very concerned.

Rumpus: Can you talk a little bit about your journey to publication for this book? And what you’re working on next?

Ghosh: My book journey took twenty years because, you know, these were stories that were marinating. I’d written them as fiction, then I’d written them as nonfiction. So it’s taken twenty years and it’s been interesting. It really helped to turn forty because then you don’t care about the accolades and the big presses, all you want to do is write a good book. But it came about because I moderate one of the Binders for Women writing groups and Nina Furstenau, who is an editor for the FoodStory book series at Iowa University Press, just posted if anyone had a book on food, and I responded. Then we worked together on the proposal and they published the book. I didn’t go around trying to shop this book elsewhere. I loved this experience. I recommend everybody to go to small presses, university presses, because they love words. And we got the audio rights, and then Deepti Gupta narrated the book, and there’s a mutual fan girl club going on. What I’m trying to say is there’s a lot of love around this book. And I feel like publication should be about love. Publication should be about joy. You know? Like: Look at what we created! It’s not just my own creation. It’s all these people who did so much to shape this work. I recommend that to everybody. I recommend everybody publish a book, but in order for you to do that, be a literary citizen first.

Up next, I have a few nonfiction projects I’m working on. I’ve been writing a lot about the food and restaurant scene in San Diego and there is some interesting stuff there, which is turning more into a comment on the liberal whiteness in San Diego and how it affects people of color; and also an epistolary memoir that’s in the form of letters to my parents, called Dear Baba, basically telling everyone you can’t ever really go home.

 

 

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Author photo by Hannah Claire


Neelanjana Banerjee's writing has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines, Fiction Writers Review, FirstPost, HTML Giant and more. She is a co-editor of Indivisible: An Anthology of South Asian American Poetry (University of Arkansas Press, 2010) and currently lives in India. More from this author →