Rewriting the Curry Book | A Conversation with Naben Ruthnum
aben Ruthnum is the author, most recently, of the book Curry, a slim volume of linked essays that manages to be equal parts cultural and literary critique, culinary history, and self-aware food memoir. Born in Canada to Indo-Mauritian parents, Ruthnum has a particularly apt purview over the conglomerations and contradictions inherent in the study of a subject like curry. A catch-all term that first gained currency among Westerners looking for a taste of exotic India, curry eventually morphed, over generations, into a handy though reductive simulacrum for a certain subcontinental branch of brown identity itself.
Ruthnum takes readers on a giddy tour through the phenomenon of “curry books,” the genre of silk-and-sari novels and memoirs that are often steeped in nostalgia for childhoods spent in India or elsewhere in South Asia, or for a subcontinent gone by. Though Curry starts with an account of the common and clichéd tropes that typify many of these books, Ruthnum eventually comes around to revealing the ways in which his own book is a curry book of sorts. In its final assessment, Curry presents the much-maligned genre of curry books in its fuller, more forgiving sense: as an attempt to deal with the complex, knotted-up dilemma of talking about an abandoned homeland—whether it be Mauritius, India, or some other distant place made mythical by the machinations of displacement.
I met with Ruthnum on a bracing, bright fall day in his adopted hometown of Toronto (he grew up in faraway Kelowna, BC). We talked over beers on the sunny patio of a dive bar in the city’s increasingly trendy neighborhood of Queen West. A discursive and expansive talker, Ruthum pivots frequently, pinballing from hybridity in writing to the hunt for authenticity in Indian food to the freighted meaning of the word curry in its modern usage. His own digressive conversational flight path conveniently mirrors the multiple routes along which brown identity and culture have developed, routes that have left us with layered, often contradictory histories and influences.
The interview below is part of a longer conversation with Ruthnum that was originally published in the Margins, the magazine of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.
Rohan Kamicheril: There is a really interesting hybridity to your book—it’s not just a food book, it’s not just a cultural study, it’s a little bit of both. Even many books that talk about food as a cultural phenomenon still try to stay firmly in the food camp.
Naben Ruthnum: Well, one thing that those books have that my book doesn’t is a high degree of expertise. In my book, the hybridity is not quite an escape, but a way for me to cover a lot of territory while also not having to go into extreme depth about anything. By virtue of coming at curry, which is a hybrid food, I wanted to make a hybrid book. That’s one of the tricks embedded in the book. The other trick is that Curry is a curry book. I talk about my mom’s recipes, I talk about nostalgia—all that stuff is in there.
RK: But it has a metanarrative, too, because you’re talking about your curry book in the context of talking about curry books.
"Hybridity sort of sneaks up on you."
NR: Yeah. And I also shouldn’t deceive you and say that this was all entirely deliberate. Hybridity sort of sneaks up on you. You’re talking about different foods, different texts—all of a sudden you realize, I need to section this up quite a bit. And then you realize, oh, these sections are all in conversation with each other even though they’re all talking about quite different things.
RK: So, where did the idea of doing something on curry first come from?
NR: I really liked that it was cheeky and funny and super typical. I know some people who’d followed my career—and I say this in quotes—from my short story days were disappointed by this title because I’d always written atypical fiction for what’s expected of a diasporic Canadian writer. I think some people read this as, Oh, I guess Naben’s surrendering to the demands of the market. I just thought it would be subversive to write a book called Curry about curry. But I also really love curry! As I say in the book, it was my first recognizable connection with a culture that wasn’t the one around me in the white world. The food that I ate was sort of an unshakable truth: my parents came from a different place that I still had something to do with
RK: What do you think it is about food that makes it so tempting as something for people to both identify with and to be identified by? Why is curry considered such a stand-in for Indian diasporic culture, experience, identity…
NR: I think it’s because it’s easy and, secondly, because it was designed to be exactly that. It was designed to please the palates of those who consumed it, and at different times in history and in different places—in Guyana, in Mauritius, especially in England, in the United States—it was designed to deliver a different culture to the palate of another culture. And I think that has made for a very easy math: This is a food that I understand, that I like.
RK: But then it gets complicated because the people who are cooking it for other people then also start consuming it themselves. Like, in New York you have Indians going to these terrible Indian restaurants all the time.
NR: Yeah, there’s a section I quote in the book from Lizzie Collingham’s much superior book Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerers where she has an interview with a big mogul restaurateur and he talks about how his son now only has a taste for UK Indian food. And he doesn’t have a taste for it at all, himself.
"There’s been a drive to have this universalizing brown identity in the West."
RK: It’s an interesting cultural moment where rather than having Ruth Reichl say this is the lodestar of Indian cuisine—and I just chose her at random, it could just as easily be Julie Sahni talking about larger truths in Indian food—you now could have someone like Tejal Rao saying in the New York Times, my grandparents’ Gujarati food is my touchstone. What do you think about that?
NR: As I move toward concluding in the book, I talk about how there’s been a drive to have this universalizing brown identity in the West, and I think part of that comes through in us wanting to identify what real, authentic Indian food is. The only thing that ends up happening is that we see just how many separate variations there are on what real, authentic Indian food is. Which I think reflects so much on the fact that you and I, for example, have extremely different backgrounds. Our histories aren’t shared and our ordinary day-to-day lives are reflective of an enormously different experience. So it’s sort of the double edge of solidarity—of course we share experiences all the time, based on how other people perceive us, but that shouldn’t color how we view our histories or our need to belong to each other.
I had that line in the book about how, if “Indian” is a baggy term, then “South Asian” is parachute pants. It really is that way, it’s ridiculous. My parents are from Mauritius so, yeah, I was constantly aware of this, and as a kid it would annoy me that they were drawn toward books from the Indian diaspora. I was like, you don’t have anything to do with these books, even your grandparents didn’t—their parents did. You have no relation with them at all. That doesn’t bother me anymore. I understand it, quite a bit. Because so many of those stories are also about people who are displaced looking back.
RK: You’re critical—and I mean that in the full sense of the word—of the genre of curry books; you really explore what they are and it seems like you start with one notion of what they are and the picture changes. Can you talk a little bit about that, and also, how do you think this book fits into the canon of curry books?
NR: That really reflects my experience of doing the research for this book because I had an overly stereotyped idea of what they were. When I say “curry book”—or, as others call them, “silk and sari novels”—brown people in particular are always like, oh, I know that story. And I always thought I knew that book and knew that story, too. Now I’ve read several of these books that cling to these tropes—the displaced person in the West looking back, finding solutions in the homeland. But what I discovered was that a lot of them—Brick Lane, for example, by Monica Ali, which starts in such a typical way that unless it was homework for me I never would have finished that book—actually ended up being quite nuanced, quite rich in character, and quite different. That book ends with the book’s main character, Nazneen, and her husband, who does end up going back to Bangladesh, discovering that nostalgia is a lie after all, and Nazneen loves her life in the West. Some aspect of her at least doesn’t want to go back.
"There’s more of a range of complexity within people who’ve written curry books than I’d previously thought."
I think there’s more of a range of complexity within people who’ve written curry books than I’d previously thought. They still have a lot of those trope elements but people are really playing with them. And this is a book that plays with them. I’d say the most curry bookish element of it is the memoir aspect, but as you say, it’s memoir that’s constantly interrogating and questioning—
RK: Including itself.
NR: Yeah. You’ll read something that’s very much like, he misses his mom and is trying to cook her food, and then on the next page you’ll read something that’s really mocking that notion.
This is an excerpt from a longer conversation originally published at the Margins. You can read the piece in its entirety over here.