Foodways and Subjectivity in Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies

Article excerpt

"Preparing fish is a political act."

--Janice Mirikitani, "Why Is Preparing Fish a Political Act?" (86)

Proposing a "Gastronomic Theory of Literature," Brad Kessler ponders a friend's observation that "every good novel she'd ever read opened with a food scene in the very first or second chapter" (149). He questions how these early meals function, whether they "stimulate the reader's appetite for the larger meal ahead" (151). For Kessler, food in great fiction "opens doors to double and triple meaning" (156). Discussing a scene in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man in which the narrator purchases a hot baked yam from a street vendor, Kessler notes its racialized significance: "the yam is as packed with meaning as it is with pulp. Eating it openly, on the street, is an act of defiance and liberation for the narrator" (156). The narrator rejects the internalized impulse to repress his pleasure, thinking to himself, "to hell with being ashamed of what you liked" (266).

As this example demonstrates, writings about food and eating may serve to draw the reader into racialized subjectivity, but they may also complicate desires and appetites. Describing his own early response to reading about Wang Lung's hunger in Pearl S. Buck's novel The Good Earth, Kessler states:

   His hunger became mine. Some chapters later, when Wang finally eats
   a handful of hot rice, and then wheat bread folded around a sprig
   of garlic, I could barely contain myself. I ran to the kitchen,
   ravenous, ransacking cupboards for white rice, jasmine tea, bags of
   take-out noodles (anything that seemed Chinese) trying to fill
   myself with what Wang Lung lacked. I didn't know what to do next:
   read or eat. (148)

Kessler slips into what Lisa Marie Heldke refers to as "cultural food colonialism," as "Chineseness" becomes a commodified quality that can be approximated with a variety of foodstuffs easily located in his well-stocked American cupboard. Such an impulse to consume Chinese food approaches Orientalist desire, as Rey Chow discusses it in her notes on a museum exhibit of 10,000 Chinese restaurant menus: "[A]ll those items that signify 'Chineseness' even while the ingredients and methods of preparation may be 'inauthentic' or nonexistent in China--are not unlike the ideologically suspect literary, historical, and cultural texts that, as Said rightly cautioned, depict the non-Western world with implicit Western motives and desires" (20). Questions of "authenticity," desiring, and consuming the Other remain unaddressed by Kessler's gastronomic theory. (1)

In Asian American literature, food as metaphor frequently constructs 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. Although food functions as an important metaphor throughout the collection, culinary knowledge and practice is especially important in "A Temporary Matter," "Mrs. Sen's," and "This Blessed House." 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. As Gayatri Gopinath notes, "the centrality of [male-male or father-son] trope as the primary trope in imagining diaspora invariably displaces and elides female diasporic subjects" (5). …