Nani Power‘s first novel, Crawling at Night, earned the kind of attention and honors that most debut novelists would surely envy: Named a New York Times Notable Book of The Year, it was also a finalist for both the Los Angeles Times Book Award and the British Orange Award, and has ultimately been translated into seven languages. Her second novel, The Good Remains, was also a New York Times Notable Book of The Year as well as a finalist for The Virginia Library Award, and her third, The Sea of Tears, was praised by Publisher’s Weekly as “a fine yarn of the lost and lonely seeking intimacy and love.”
This fall saw Power shifting genres with the publication of Feed the Hungry: A Memoir With Recipes, a book which begins with her childhood in Virginia and follows her adventures — culinary, familial, romantic and more — around the world: to Mexico, Peru, Rio, and Japan, with Power both broadening her cultural horizons and delving deeper into an understanding of herself. By book’s end, Power is urging readers toward journeys similar to her own, not only “tasting” the world out there but also savoring our own histories: “Start remembering what you ate as a child,” she writes, “ask people what they ate. Their stories start to tumble out as quickly as the memories of food, because they are all intertwined, food and memory, love and taste, all piecemeal of this lovely, sensual world we live in.”
In the Washington Post review of Feed the Hungry, critic Carolyn See wrote: “In Feed the Hungry, Power gives us the story of her family, along with the misunderstandings, the tragedies, the resentments that dogged them for as long as she can remember. The metaphor for all this restless longing is… food: what it means to all of us, how we present it to each other, what we especially crave and value, how it becomes the ultimate symbol for who we are and what we want to be, as well as what we want, or love, to eat.”
Power recently took the time to answer some questions about the new book and her writing in general.
After three novels, what prompted you to write a memoir?
I actually came about this book as an attempt to write about food. I’ve always loved cookbooks. They seem to have a storytelling quality when I read them — jottings of good times, tastes, cultures. Then, I started thinking about my favorite family recipes and how they intertwined through the tales of my family. As that materialized, I realized I also wanted to try and understand the reasonings and flaws of my family. As I wrote, I understood more of their fragility and the ephemerality of our lives — and food personifies this. A moment of a taste, a sensation, and then, gone. Recipes attempt to capture those moments.
The book avoids strict linearity — a straightforward “this happened and then this happened” narrative. Individual chapters don’t necessarily proceed chronologically (Chapter 7 is Peru 2003, for example, while Chapter 8 is New York 1990), and even within chapters you often flashforward and flashback, mixing together stories from different parts of your life. Can you comment on your use of these time shifts?
I guess you have really clued in to what really interests me stylistically in writing. And I suppose I shouldn’t say style because that implies a superficial mechanics, perhaps. What I strive to do — what interests me — is exactly the shifting and transformative nature of memory. Memory, at least as I can percieve it, because it is so subjective, appears to be the essence of fiction, an inaccurate and impressionistic blanket surrounding our minds. What makes one memory take precedence over another? And how they are woven in our daily consciousness, jumping to the surface with various markers — smell, déjà vu, sounds, and of course, back again, food. Eat something you ate as a child and the sensation is forcibly retrospective.
I find that what happens in real life distinctly breaks many of the “rules” of writing craft that we are taught, and I’d like to find a way to create a more of a sensual expression of this experience called life for the reader — merging time and place, shifting point-of-view, even bringing in major themes or characters late in the story. Playing with these ideas interests me a lot.
One of the book’s richest and most persistent themes is about how various cultures meet and mesh or clash: different worldviews from generation to generation, different nationalities or ethnicities meeting and greeting, even that scene where you compare your house to your childhood friend Nono’s, with its “refrigerator crammed with soft drinks and Cheez Whiz.” Is this a theme you explicitly set out to explore, or a pattern that emerged in the writing?
Oh, this is something that fascinates me endlessly — the merging and intertwining of ancient cultures and American modernity. I love the suburbs actually — strange, isn’t it? I grew up in the country and the suburbs were frowned upon as artificial and plastic. And yes they are, in a delightful way. To me, the suburbs reappropriates life and repackages it in a rough yet poetic sense. Restaurants that are theme parks of various cultures. Small ethnic food stalls amidst strip malls with mainstream Dollar shops and grocers. Immigrants in Costco buying burlap bags of Basmati rice and giant frozen boxes of pigs in a blanket. It is in the suburbs that we see the meshing and evolution of new cultural terroir.
To a great degree, your experiences make you who you are. Is it your experiences that give you the best knowledge and perspective (of self, of world)? Or your writing about those experiences that offers the greater wisdom?
Writing offers a sense of completion. One can explore the family as a separate whole, and thus gain a compassionate new view of the workings. A writer must view a character in all their dimensions, and as you do this to your own family — I mean take the time to remove the reputation, the biases — and see the person as a human, you gain an immense sense of understanding. I think everyone should write a memoir in their life, even if it is never shown to anyone. The main word to remember in memoir, that I tell my students, is “witness.” To tell the truth as you knew it. Whether you wish to share it with the world is your choice. The benefit in the end is very personal.