#DesiBooksDiscourse: Food/Food Writing as a Social Justice and Resistance Tool

Desi Books Ep 75 w/ Madhushree Ghosh, Anjali Enjeti, Aruni Kashyap Desi Books

(available at Youtube, Anchor.fm, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn, Breaker, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic, Overcast)

Hello and welcome to Episode 75 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. Thank you for tuning in.

#DesiBooksDiscourse is available as video on Spotify, Anchor, and Youtube, and as audio on the rest of the platforms. Please see the links above.

In this #DesiBooksDiscourse episode, we have Madhushree Ghosh, Anjali Enjeti, and Aruni Kashyap discussing ‘Food/Food Writing as a Social Justice and Resistance Tool‘. While food writing about memory, childhood, and even trauma has caught on, food writing to highlight issues in injustice, history that repeats itself, or the appropriation of food, culture, ideas, and words is only now entering mainstream publications and media groups. What makes food, food writing, or even food in films, a mirror to social injustices, a reflection of how we navigate through life as immigrants, South Asians, people of color in a global sense? The panelists will discuss this topic in terms of organizing, food writing in Western journals and literature, as well as South Asian food and history perspectives and how we, as South Asian writers, continue to highlight social justice and resistance methods through the act of writing about food.

Madhushree Ghosh, Anjali Enjeti, and Aruni Kashyap discuss ‘Food/Food Writing as a Social Justice and Resistance Tool’, incl. how South Asian writers highlight social justice and resistance methods by writing about food. #DesiBooksDiscourse @DesiBooks


Madhushree Ghosh’s award-winning work has been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the LA Times, The Rumpus, Catapult, Guernica, Longreads, Brevity, Hippocampus, Atlas Obscura, Serious Eats, The Kitchn, DAME, and others. Her essays have received a Pushcart nomination and a Notable Mention in Best American Essays in Food Writing. As a woman in science based in San Diego, CA, an immigrant, and a daughter of refugees, her work reflects her roots and her activism. Her narrative food memoir, Khabaar: An Immigrant Journey of Food, Memory, and Family, was released in April 2022 by the University of Iowa Press.

Anjali Enjeti is a former attorney, organizer, and journalist based near Atlanta. She is the author of Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change, which the Washington Post called “a nuanced and much-needed journey into exploring what it means to be American,” and The Parted Earth, which was recently selected as a 2022 Book All Georgians Should Read. Her other writing has appeared in Oxford American, Boston Globe, Poets & Writers, Harper’s Bazaar, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and elsewhere. Anjali has received awards from the South Asian Journalists Association and the American Society of Journalists and Authors, multiple Pushcart Prize nominations, and two notable mentions in The Best American Essays series. A former board member of the National Books Critics Circle, she teaches creative writing in the MFA program at Reinhardt University in Waleska, Georgia.

Aruni Kashyap is a writer and translator. He is the author of His Father’s Disease: Stories and the novel, The House With a Thousand Stories. Along with editing a collection of stories titled How to Tell the Story of an Insurgency: Fifteen Tales from Assam, he has also translated two novels from Assamese to English, published by Zubaan Books and Penguin Random House. Winner of the Arts Lab Faculty Fellowship from the Willson Centre for the Humanities, and the Charles Wallace India Trust Scholarship for Creative Writing to the University of Edinburgh, his poetry collection, There is No Good Time for Bad News, was a finalist for the Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize and Four Way Books Levis Award in Poetry. His short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Catapult, Bitch Media, The Boston Review, Electric Literature, The Oxford Anthology of Writings from Northeast, The Kenyon Review, The New York Times, The Guardian UK, and others. He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Georgia, Athens. He also writes in Assamese and is the author of a novel called Noikhon Etia Duroit, and three novellas. 


MADHUSHREE GHOSH: I think, if you’re really looking at it from a scientific perspective—and I’ll always bring science into this equation—is, you know, my book is Khabaar. So Khabaar literally means food. And I’m slowly changing the Western world by introducing more Bengali words out there without italicizing them. So that’s also resistance, in my opinion.

But I feel like, you know, when you’re talking about food—we’re talking about comfort food—food, in itself, is comfort. And it actually, memories give you the, you know, happy, happy hormones in your head, just like, if you fall in love, the first tinge of love gives you this good feeling. Food does the same thing. Why? Because it reminds you back of the childhood. But in addition, it’s how your mother gave it to you or your father brought food from wherever or you sat down with your aunt, and she taught you how to cook. So for for South Asian communities like us, as kids, we spent a lot of time in the kitchen just getting in people’s way, we would just get in people’s way. But that’s how you get it.

And I’ve always said this, I never cooked Bengali food till my parents died. And after they died, you know, I suddenly realized I had lost all that knowledge. And it was interesting that, you know, I knew that my mother used to make this cauliflower curry. And I knew she added something, but I didn’t know what she added. And it was almost like magic. And you could talk mysteries of spices, but it was like magic that I could actually get back to cooking in the way she did. So is it muscle memory? Is it what we remember? But I think it’s more that you’re you knew what it was, you just didn’t know that you knew it.

ANJALI ENJETI: I think, too, what I loved about your book is how you wrote about food as one of the most important inheritances that we can have, right? I mean, there are the physical things in the world that don’t matter once we’ve passed on, right? Like, yeah, whatever money furniture, books have—well, books, I would argue, probably do matter—but it’s our food ways, I think, that really fill some of the loss.

I mean, you know, I love in your book, how you write about how preparing food and growing food, actually, it’s a process of mourning and grieving for you, now that they’re no longer here, and then you have this added urgency of not having them in your ear telling you: okay, these are the ingredients. And you know, these are the proportions that you need. These are the measurements for the recipe.

And so it’s just, it was beautiful for me to read how you recreate. You not only use the memories to create the food, but you almost use the food to create new memories with your parents who are no longer here. And that was such a poignant aspect of your book, I think, and one that I had not really thought about or reflected on much until I read it in your pages.

MADHUSHREE GHOSH: I also feel like, you know, we go through trauma, all of us go through different forms of trauma. I mean, my trauma is not yours, and yours isn’t mine. But, in order for us to go through life with joy, with love, with peace, with supporting each other, we need to continue to talk about that trauma, but create better memories on top of that. Our brain is really a hard drive. And so are you erasing it? Or are you writing overwriting it? That’s what you have to understand in terms of memories. And I think food does a great job of creating new memories that you want to latch on to or you think is more important or actually respects what you lost.

So in terms of that, let’s talk a little bit about social resistance or social justice when it comes to food. And I know we are all South Asian American authors here, but do we want to start with South Asia and then move on to the global world? Let’s talk a little bit about that. Aruni. I’ll direct it to you.

ARUNI KASHYAP: You know, I grew up reading a lot of South Asian—or, rather, say Indian—literature in the languages because I grew up in India. And one of them, one of my favorite writers, is a Bengali writer called Ashapurna Debi, who is known to have written more than 179 novels, and 3000, nearly 3000, short stories. And she’s one of the most prolific writers of her generation, had a career of 70 years. In her novels—obviously, I have not read all of them, you know, but I read a lot of them—in her novels, I saw how, especially among upper-caste Brahmin widows, food was used to control women, especially women who are widows. And because, after widowhood, you could not eat a certain kind of food, and you could not eat after the sun set, and there are numerous rules and regulations.

I saw a similar kind of narratives also in the novels of Indira Goswami, for example, who was an Assamese writer of wide international repute. And in her novel, The Moth Eaten Howdah of the Tusker, I saw for the first time that the plight of upper-caste widows in India was extremely horrible compared to, say, lower-caste—or, as we say, general-caste—widows because they had comparatively more freedom because they had to join the workforce, work in the fields. With upper-caste women and rich women, they were controlled. You’re not allowed to get out even to the living room. They always had to live in the back side of the house, you know . . .

Madhushree Ghosh, Anjali Enjeti, and Aruni Kashyap discuss ‘Food/Food Writing as a Social Justice and Resistance Tool’, incl. how South Asian writers highlight social justice and resistance methods by writing about food. #DesiBooksDiscourse @DesiBooks

You’ve been listening to or watching episode 75 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. Thank you for tuning in. Today’s #DesiBooksDiscourse episode was with Madhushree Ghosh, Anjali Enjeti, and Aruni Kashyap discussing ‘Food/Food Writing as a Social Justice and Resistance Tool’. Thank you to all of them.

Episode 76 will be up shortly. Follow on Twitter @desibooks, Instagram @desi.books, Facebook @desibooksfb. Tag the accounts if you have requests or suggestions. Sign up for the free, weekly newsletter and you’ll get all the updates you might have missed as well as some new stuff. And please share this via social media to help raise the tide of South Asian literature. Thank you.

Stay healthy, keep reading, and write well.

You might also enjoy these features: