We’re leading off the fall in conversation with Naben Ruthnum, author of Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race. Curry is part of the Exploded Views nonfiction series published by Coach House Books.
In this compelling essay, Ruthnum critically examines a range of key works by brown writers. He casts his gaze upon novels, travelogues, recipes, and other pop culture signifiers to argue that “the distinctive taste of curry has often become maladroit shorthand for brown identity.”
Naben Ruthnum won the Journey Prize for his short fiction, has been a National Post books columnist, and has written books and cultural criticism for the Globe and Mail, Hazlitt, and the Walrus. His crime fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Joyland, and his pseudonym Nathan Ripley's first novel will appear in 2018. Ruthnum lives in Toronto.
THE CHAT WITH NABEN RUTHNUM
Trevor Corkum: You’re an award-winning fiction writer, and have a couple of thrillers forthcoming. How does it feel publishing a first book of non-fiction?
Naben Ruthnum: It’s something I didn’t foresee. I got into criticism and essay-writing long after I’d been writing fiction. I had the luck to work with editors like Emily Keeler and Haley Cullingham early on. I started to get better at this kind of writing and to enjoy it as well. The various subjects of Curry had been creeping into much of my work over the years, so it made sense to assemble it all into a book.
TC: Give us a sense of what led you to write the essay in the first place. Was there a particular seed or moment when the writing announced itself as a full-length book?
NR: The nice thing about the Exploded Views series is the compactness of the books: for readers, and also for writers. I was able to consider the book as more of an ongoing project, nothing so daunting as a book—even though it is, of course, a book. But yeah, I think that the ideas coalesced over the course of a couple of days when I’d been reading J.G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur, eating a curry or two, and having my usual discussions/complaint festivals about writing life with friends such as Michael Lapointe and Andrew Sullivan, as well as talking about the challenges of managing a perceived identity with writing whatever-you-want with Rudrapriya Rathore. Curry is a book in conversation with other books, and it came from conversations with people and books.
Curry is a book in conversation with other books, and it came from conversations with people and books."
TC: Curry is subtitled Eating, Reading, and Race. Which section was most difficult to write?
I’d say probably the Coda section, recently excerpted in The Walrus under a somewhat sensationalistic headline. That’s the section that’s thickest with recent memoir, with speculations about my career (inasmuch as it exists at all) and how I’m perceived. It also holds most of my arguments related to the perception of race by readers and eaters, and how repeated stories have become near-sinister patterns that permeate the way brown writers produce and publish work. It was complicated and tough to get right—Keeler’s keen edits allowed me to get it where I needed it to be.
NR: A meticulous amount of reading went into the book. What surprised or startled you most in your research?
TC: Definitely how many of the novels that I had previously dismissed, offhand, ended up being excellent, or at least eminently readable. There are certainly great currybooks among the trope-ridden bad ones, and many that are an interesting blend of the-story-we’ve-head-before and invigorating new angles and rich character work. Monica Ali’s Brick Lane comes to mind.
NR: What’s the best curry you’ve eaten in your life?
A reheated grab-and-go curry from an Indian lunch counter place that my dad used to frequent in London. This memory is almost certainly enhanced by nostalgia for that trip, by my dad’s stories about his med school days, and being able to eat this curry in an enormous city that I’d barely gotten to know. I think it was a chicken madras, but that’s almost beside the point.
This memory is almost certainly enhanced by nostalgia for that trip, by my dad’s stories about his med school days, and being able to eat this curry in an enormous city that I’d barely gotten to know. I think it was a chicken madras, but that’s almost beside the point."
Excerpt from Curry
Curry isn’t real. Its range of definitions, edible and otherwise, rob it of a stable existence. Curry is a leaf, a process, a certain kind of gravy with uncertain ingredients surrounding a starring meat or vegetable. It’s an elevating crust baked around previously bland foodstuffs, but it’s also an Indian fairy tale composed by cooks, Indians, émigrés, colonists, eaters, readers, and writers.
Curry is a leaf, a process, a certain kind of gravy with uncertain ingredients surrounding a starring meat or vegetable. It’s an elevating crust baked around previously bland foodstuffs, but it’s also an Indian fairy tale composed by cooks, Indians, émigrés, colonists, eaters, readers, and writers."
Fuck off, my ideal reader might be saying right now. Of course it’s real, it was on my plate and soaking into your naan last night. And you’d be right, sort of. But even if the flavour is real, and delicious, it’s also become a crucial element of how the story of South Asian cultural identity is told, in our mouths and on the page. It’s a concept too large to be properly controlled by a recipe – the recommendations become descriptions of certain dishes, each push toward using hing or amchur an encouragement to use the same spice in a different dish, or to add so much turmeric that you permanently dye your roommate’s white plastic cooking spoon.
Curry can, and often does, tell a loaded story, but one that goes beyond emphasizing aspects of a single persona: it carries a weight of meaning across the immense and indefinable South Asian diasporic culture. The familiar flavour is an aromatic but invisible link between the writer and the reader, the cook and the eater. In the steadily building mass of South Asian diasporic writing and discussion of identity, curry is an abiding metaphor for connection, nostalgia, homecoming, and distance from family and country. This collection of dishes covers a lot of metaphorical ground. It relies on a non-specific blend, a combination that can be adjusted and spun multiple ways, and yet carries identifiable defining top and bottom notes of flavour. The exact ingredients often aren’t clear to anyone but the cook, and sometimes not even to him or her – the Indian ammas of recipes and diasporic novels are notorious for their freehanded dashes and pinches of ingredients, and the first- or second-generation protagonists of these novels are consistently grasping for a sense of identity and place as they try to get the recipe right.
Curry was a territory I defended as a child, an absolute truth based on the way it was made in my family’s kitchen, despite the delicious counterarguments we ate at restaurants in Vancouver (and eventually even in Kelowna, the expanding small city in British Columbia where I grew up). There was an acceptable authenticity in what we ate, one I felt ran counter to the books with various brown hands, red fabrics, clutched mangoes, and shielded faces that turned up on our shelves with such regularity that we may have been members of some Columbia House Diasporic Novel subscription package that none of us knew how to cancel. My family enjoyed the books, and continue to read some of them. In doing research for this volume, I had to expand beyond my usual method – picking up books that interest me and finding connected texts. I asked a close relative if she had any recommendations for – as I put it in the email – ‘super-typical “I miss the homeland” novels you’ve read by South Asian authors in the past few years.’ She replied, ‘Oh God, I avoid these like the plague. My white friends seem to enjoy them.’
I asked a close relative if she had any recommendations for – as I put it in the email – ‘super-typical “I miss the homeland” novels you’ve read by South Asian authors in the past few years.’ She replied, ‘Oh God, I avoid these like the plague. My white friends seem to enjoy them.’"
They do indeed – so do some of my white friends, and their parents. But so do some of my brown friends, and their parents. I’ve read quite a few of these books by now, both by accident and on determined purpose for this book, as I’ve tried to hew out exactly what I’ve had in mind when my teenaged self defined these novels that I avoided as ‘currybooks’: it’s certainly not a description I’d apply to absolutely any book from the vast output of diasporic authors, or authors still based in India. Anita Desai’s work, Salman Rushdie’s, Hari Kunzru’s, Michael Ondaatje’s – it doesn’t linger in the nostalgic, authenticity-seeking reconciliation-of-present-with-past family narratives that are endemic to what I call currybooks. They don’t follow the genre rules, even if they nip in and borrow here and there. They exist as reflections of the author’s consciousness and culture, with culture processed through that consciousness. For example, Rushdie’s continual seeking of the truth outside of realism is exactly how he escapes tropes before they can solidify: his own recollection of India in Midnight’s Children had to acknowledge the existence of an India-of-the- mind, constructed from recall. And Anita Desai’s vision, in books such as In Custody, is as connected to the stylistic work of authors such as Henry James and Edith Wharton, with whom she presumably went through that whole anxiety-of- influence thing that writers do, as it is to the places where she grew up and the work of Indian authors such as R. K. Narayan.
Food and literature are the defining elements of the way I see myself in the Indian diaspora in the small world I’ve built around myself as a brown adult in the West: curry’s the vehicle I use to look at how we eat, read, and think of ourselves as a miniature mass-culture within the greater West. Curry’s just as fake and as real as a great novel, as a sense of identity.
Reprinted with permission of Coach House Books.