Feeding Diaspora

Food culture, diaspora and queerness as sites of reckoning

illustration by Gabrielle Funk

I used to think that to know home was to learn my mother’s hands - her repertoire of creation forever connected to homeland. While I still believe that learning how to make Lebanese food from my mom is a reclamation, I know there is an irreconcilable distance between her and I, here and there.

But what is diaspora outside of failure? As I came into my diasporic artist self, my longing turned into romanticizing. I quickly became paranoid about being a first-generation cliché, but I remain insistent on failure as a marker of transcultural experience.

On my food journey, recent food failures have looked like a poorly recreated cultural dish, or settling for a less potent spice because of geographic access. They’ve looked like experiencing the limits of my ability to relate with my mother’s nostalgia, or becoming frustrated with my mother’s intuitive kitchen process as I sought precision in recording her recipe. They’ve looked like accepting the mere impossibility of striving for authenticity.

Diaspora is held within those slippages. Diaspora, like memory, cannot be contained - just represented in fragments. Diaspora is the effort; the reaching toward. Like queerness, it is imagination, recreation, resistance.

As I explore what it means for me to identify as an Arab femme, focusing on food has created an excellent point of departure.

Food creates space for intergenerational knowledge to be shared. Food provides room for specificity and room for play. The infamous phrase “you are what you eat,” coined by Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, holds true on a different level for diasporic peoples.

In Paula Torreiro Pazo’s Diasporic Tastescapes: Intersections of Food and Identity in Asian American Literature, she theorizes on the experience of Winberg Chai, a Chinese father’s harmful obsessive consumption as “eating in order to become.

“As if metabolizing those enormous quantities of roug sung would help him overcome his identity crises, and find - and silently intensify - his Chineseness,” she adds.

Alongside the experience of pleasure, catharsis, compassion and joy, food can also involve a reckoning or reconciling of trauma, shame, imposter syndrome, eating disorders and other toxic forces.

To feed diaspora is to be connected to identity and place. Aside from sustenance, food provides intimacy, ritual and ties to ancestry and land.

Within a Palestinian context, Leila Abdelrazaq writes about exile in her beautiful illustrated zine, The Fig Tree, as she ponders how to connect with homeland.

“One way is the passing on of traditions. The ones that last are often the ones we need most to survive … traditions that hold us together while everything else is falling apart,” she writes.

Food holds biographical, geographic and performative qualities at once. It is a highly raced, classed and gendered material - a foundational concept in the beloved podcast, The Racist Sandwich.

“Both food and the ways we consume, create, and interpret it can be political,” the description reads.

While I am intrigued by sites of food preparation and consumption - kitchens, grocery stores, gardens, homes, restaurants and parks - I am also fixated on experiencing food through art, writing and media.

Both food culture and diaspora are abundant genres with great potential for experiencing, relating and theorizing.

As a displaced first-generation Lebanese-Canadian femme-nist and guest on stolen Indigenous territory, it is the fruitful intersection of food, queerness and diaspora that I choose.

Here I may interrogate land, labour, lineage, nationhood, borders, assimilation and home. Here I complicate my understanding of identity politics and power, gain a better sense of responsibility, find pleasure, build relationships and grow.

Christina Hajjar is a first-generation Lebanese-Canadian pisces dyke ghanouj with a splash of tender-loving rose water and a spritz of existential lemon, served on ice, baby. Catch her art, writing and organizing at christinahajjar.com or @garbagebagprincess.

Published in Volume 73, Number 5 of The Uniter (October 4, 2018)

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