Welcome to the second installment of Brain/Food! This month’s contributor is Fathima Cader, Renaissance woman. She is a writer, world traveler, lawyer, web designer, and photographer. She is also one of the funniest and most original thinkers I’ve ever met.
Fathima was a student in the very first university course I taught. It was a first-year, intro to Lit class. It was an unusually smart class–I got into all kinds of trouble with the administration for giving out “too many” high grades, but what could I do? I had a class full of geniuses.
Still, Fathima stood out amongst the geniuses. Did I mention originality in thinking? I must also add courageousness. She was willing to follow lines of thought that no one else was able to conceive of in the first place. Better yet, she challenged me constantly. I can’t speak for other teachers, but the only students that ever stood out for me in the long run were those who were infinitely more interested in working out ideas than either impressing me or getting it “right.”
Also, Fathima has read approximately 10 times more books than I have, with about 50 times the variety. She’s the reason I gave Can Lit another try via Gaetan Soucy; she introduced me to the lovely Jerome K. Jerome. She’s got a few more suggestions below.
You’ve been in Tanzania for almost six months now—what’s the best book you’ve read so far? The best meal you’ve eaten? Where/how were these gems found?
My favourite book so far, found in a roommate’s library, is Abdulrazak Gurnah’s By the Sea. It’s about a refugee from Zanzibar who seeks asylum in the UK and refuses to speak. The book’s prose is poetic and its preoccupations headily existential. Gurnah says beautiful things about place and maps, my favourite obsessions. A winning line: “Can an I ever speak of itself without making itself heroic, without making itself seem hemmed in, arguing against an unarguable, rancouring with an implacable?”
How has your time in East Africa changed your relationship to books and reading and/or food?
Right, we need to talk about two things: samosas and chappatis.
In two months, I will be in Toronto, possibly for the long haul. In that part of the world, outside Scarborough and in particular wherever the skinny-jeaned and heavily-bespectacled congregate, samosas generally cost something insufferable, like $2 a pop. Here, they cost about 20c each, which is more in line with my understanding of equitable samosa distribution strategies. With my departure looming, I have decided to make the most of my remaining time in Tanzania: I will eat samosas every day.
But I find Tanzanian cultures regarding samosas a small mind-trip: they’re breakfast food here, whereas my Sri Lankan-born heritage reveres them as delicacies. Chappatis, the Tanzanian variety of which I would otherwise know as parathas, are also standard breakfast fare, which also blows my mind. Moreover, Tanzanians generally eat chappatis solo, whereas I’ve always understood them as conduits for curries, sambols, and the like.
That it has taken me a while to adjust to this (I have jar of pineapple jam, acting as breakfast condiment, stored in the office fridge and have attempted, with limited success, to convert coworkers) makes me wonder about how I’ve internalized notions of culinary authenticity. The fact that the Indian subcontinent is where samosas and chappatis (of many varieties) were invented (you’re welcome, world), intensifies the surprise I still feel when I see that Tanzanian cuisine often features brown food, but with significantly less spice (with tikka being a notable exception). This experience has been good for me, as I learn to see the foods that I can get possessive about in different ways.
Also, on the topic of breakfast—you know how everyone loves to talk about how “Africa” is so chaotic? Obviously, these are people who have never tried to procure a fresh Tanzanian chappati after 11AM. This is when streetside breakfast operations shut down and start going into lunch & dinner mode—i.e., we now approach the hour of ugali and rice. Myself, I have suffered many a hungry elevenses.
Literature is another place I have started to think a bit more closely about local production. Dar es Salaam doesn’t have very many bookstores, but one of the more well-known ones prices all its books in Euros, emblematic of enraging expat disinterest in indigenous literary communities.
But if you’re into that kind of elitism, you can get books from downtown street vendors. Streetside booksellers are one of my favourite things in the world. I first encountered them in my preteen years in Colombo. Nairobi is especially full of them. You can get everything from Victorian classics to pop erotica, from contemporary political autobiographies to bibles and self-help tomes—and cheap. I hear the books are pirated, but I’m not sure.
In line with my samosas-every-day philosophy, I deliberately scope out works by African writers that I know I won’t find in North America. To that end, I’ve put down some serious coin down on trucking home to Dar a duffel bag full of Kwani journals, dedicated to highlighting Kenyan writing. The first books I bought in East Africa were Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief and Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s I Do Not Come to You By Chance, both put out by the Nigerian publishing house, Cassava Republic Publishing. As a writer who’s been based in North America for the last 13 years, it is exciting and transformative to be reminded of all this incredible literary activity happening elsewhere on the planet.
What is your favourite either unknown or underappreciated book?
Agha Shahid Ali’s The Country Without a Post Office should be read more widely. It’s a scathing and heartbreaking collection of poems, one of my favourite gifts to give. There’s this:
“Don’t tell my father I have died,” he says,
and I follow him through blood on the road
and hundreds of pairs of shoes the mourners
left behind, as they ran from the funeral,
victims of the firing. From windows we hear
grieving mothers, and snow begins to fall
on us, like ash. Black on edges of flames,
it cannot extinguish the neighborhoods,
the homes set ablaze by midnight soldiers.
Kashmir is burning:
By that dazzling light
we see men removing statues from temples.
We beg them, “Who will protect us if you leave?”
They don’t answer, they just disappear
on the road to the plains, clutching the gods.
Even his form was revolutionary: it was Ali who introduced ghazals, a form central to classical Udru poetry, to the English language.
Favourite childhood book?
I rarely re-read novels, but as a child I regularly revisited Enid Blyton’s corpus, especially The Five Find-Outers and Malory Towers. Tin Tin was also a big deal. And Dickens was a standby—Hard Times, in particular, moved me in mysterious ways.
What book would a prospective lover/marriage partner/friend have to say they loved for you to end your relationship with them immediately?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel. It would break my heart to exhaustion that someone I respected could appreciate opinions so poisonous and so reliant on stereotypes that marginalize and dehumanize communities that sustain me.
Amazing (in either a good or bad way) literary collaboration that hasn’t happened yet?
Dionne Brand and Sahar Khalifeh write a short story. Rohinton Mistry and Sherman Alexie produce a screenplay. Preeta Samarasan and A. Sivanandan pen a lyric novel. Colson Whitehead and Warsan Shire create something vaguely sci-fi, maybe in cahoots with a graphic artist. In all of their works a City is a character.
Tangentially related, the xx’s Coexist album is basically this Judith Butler passage (from Undoing Gender), in indie register:
Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something. If this seems so clearly the case with grief, it is only because it was already the case with desire. One does not always stay intact. It may be that one wants to, or does, but it may also be that despite one’s best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel.
Also not exactly literary, but I wonder what beef keeps Talal Asad and Mahmood Mamdani from sharing a byline.
Favourite literary description of food?
I regularly revisit Martin Espada’s poem, “Imagine the Angels of Bread:”
So may every humiliated mouth,
teeth like desecrated headstones,
fill with the angels of bread.
You have to read the whole thing to appreciate the force of those closing three lines.
Reading and eating simultaneously, yes or no? Dangers and benefits?
I can’t not. It’s a terrible habit. These days I have taken specifically to ‘reading’ pop culture cookbooks as I eat. There’s something about devouring photograph after photograph of food significantly prettier than your own that somehow contributes to a pleasant sense of fullness once the meal is done.
But then you get sticky pages. I already have a sticky keyboard.
Have you ever read a cookbook front to back like a novel? What was it, and what story did it tell you?
My roommate’s copy of The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook. The story it tells me could be accurately sub-titled, “Deb Parcelman’s Lifelong Search for Fathima Cader, the Best Friend She Never Knew She Was Missing.”
Your favourite author writes a book about your favourite food/dish just for you: Title? Genre? Summary of contents?
Someone needs to write a book about kothu rotti. Junot Diaz might be a good fit, since kothu rotti, comprising as it does a million tiny pieces of a million other foods, is any footnoter’s dream. Or maybe Arundhati Roy, given her track record with pickles. Fact is, I need to read more Sri Lankan writers. (And no, I won’t brook the inevitable Ondaatje suggestion.) It would be an urban novel, with short and punchy chapters, the kind of novel that runs the risk of too quickly and too easily, a la Slumdog, becoming a movie.
Is it okay to write in cookbooks? What about novels or books of poetry? What’s the difference?
Briefly: I read pencil in hand. (If sans pencil—borrowed books are sacrosanct—I Tumble.)