Lillian Li uses her past as a server for inspiration in her debut novel, Number One Chinese Restaurant. “I got a taste of the physical and emotional toll that kind of work takes; a taste of the isolation of working six days a week, 12 hours a day serving other people; an understanding of the necessary camaraderie that forms between waiters and other staff to counter that isolation,” she said.
Her debut follows the Hans family and various staff members at the Beijing Duck House, a well-known Peking duck restaurant in Rockville, Md. Food is, of course, a big part of Number One Chinese Restaurant. While praising Ann Hood’s food writing (and “especially her essay on tomato pie”), Li also cites Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and Eddie Huang’s Fresh off the Boat as books about food that have impacted her life.
Li and I spoke via email about food, books, the past, and Number One Chinese Restaurant.
The Millions: I’d like to begin by asking you about your writing process in regards to creating a family saga. You balance characters as they age; you weave plots; you create entire histories that extend far into the past and point toward various futures. It all sounds incredibly difficult to me. Some writers like to draw their characters to create some kind of tangible connection. Others use charts and different kinds of sorting tools. There are probably even a few out there who wing it. I’m curious to know what your outlining process was like for Number One Chinese Restaurant.
Lillian Li: When I look back at how I wrote this book, I’m just amazed. I had no idea what I was doing, and I had no idea that I had no idea. For the first four months, there was no outline. There was no plot! There were only characters, their relationships to one another, and the restaurant. But I also knew that the relationships, more than even the restaurant, were where my interest in writing the book began (though maybe it’s better to say that I was interested in the kinds of relationships that could only exist in a restaurant like the Beijing Duck House). I think that’s why even though I threw out so many pages in the revision process, I didn’t end up cutting a single character.
Once I nailed down all the relationships in the book, I was able to work backwards. I think that’s why the multiple plotlines and character histories you’ve cited didn’t need to be outlined. The plotlines and histories came about naturally to explain why the relationships are the way they are in the present. For example, why Nan and Ah-Jack have been friends for 30 years, why Jimmy can’t stand his older brother Johnny, and so on. The trick, for me, was finding the realest-feeling part of my book and then using it as a compass for the rest.
TM: To build on that question a little, after you finished your first draft, how difficult was the edit for a novel so complex?
LL: I was fortunate to be in grad school when I started my first draft, which gave me a big pool of readers. This allowed me to write the novel almost recursively. I would write a hundred pages, show a classmate or teacher, then go back and revise. I believe that by the time I finished a full first draft, I had written multiple unfinished ones. I remember telling someone at the start that I was resigned to having to write 800 disposable pages to get to 200 workable ones. This felt less labor-intensive, though, than editing the novel after it had already been built. Then it’s a game of Jenga, where any change had the potential to send the entire structure crashing. I’m getting very nervous just imagining it.
TM: I know you worked briefly as a waitress at a Peking duck restaurant that is similar to the one in your novel. I’m sure your experience influenced your book to some extent. Did you find this experience to ever be a burden in regard to the creation and development of your novel?
LL: Brief is right! I didn’t even last a full month. At the time, I was feeling pretty weak for quitting (I mean, my mom worked at a Chinese restaurant for five years when she first came to America), and then when I realized I wanted to write a novel that took place in a Peking duck restaurant, I was even angrier at myself for not staying longer. But it was actually a blessing that I quit so early. I’d assumed the more time I spent in the restaurant, the more authoritative I’d feel writing about one. That turned out to be both true and untrue. I would be more authoritative…about the real restaurant. Not the fictional one. I think too much reality ends up suffocating the imagination. The few weeks I spent as a waitress gave me just enough information. I got a taste of the physical and emotional toll that kind of work takes; a taste of the isolation of working six days a week, 12 hours a day serving other people; an understanding of the necessary camaraderie that forms between waiters and other staff to counter that isolation. There would be no book without that kind of personal experience. There also wouldn’t be a book, at least not a book of fiction, if I’d spent a much longer time in the real restaurant. Or if I’d come into the restaurant wanting to write about it, instead of just wanting to make some money for grad school.
TM: I was struck in the second chapter by the loneliness the employees at the Duck House feel. When describing the connection between some of the workers, you write, “They were all friends, if one defined friendship as the natural occurrence between people who, after colliding for decades, have finally eroded enough to fit together.” I think this statement is so sad, but I also think it’s incredibly truthful for many of us. How prevalent do you think loneliness is in our current culture?
LL: What a good question! Whenever people say that writing is a lonely process, I both do and don’t understand what they mean. Like, yes, you often write alone, sometimes for many hours on end, and if you’re especially dedicated (I’m not), you eschew social events in order to stay home and write. But for me, without writing, I wouldn’t be less lonely. I’d be estranged from my loneliness. Or worse, I’d be ashamed of it. I think that loneliness isn’t so much prevalent in our current culture as it is universal. To be an individual is to be lonely. Writing, both the act of doing it and the act of reading it, puts us in touch with the loneliness that exists inside all of us. It shows us that loneliness might take a unique shape for each person, but no one is alone in feeling it. I’m not talking about the loneliness of being excluded by others or alienated by society, which is external and awful and should be undone, but the internal loneliness that we’re all born into. I think that kind of loneliness isn’t a problem, unless we either don’t admit to living with it, or think we’re the only ones who are.
TM: In your novel, brothers are upset with one another. A mother and son struggle to get along. Husbands and wives fight to stay together. I mean, a lot is happening on an emotional level. Still, though, there’s so much love and tenderness flowing through these pages. Was it difficult for you to love these characters after some of their decisions?
LL: It wasn’t difficult for me because if I know what compels a person to act the way they do, it softens my judgment of them. It allows me to see how I might have acted similarly if I’d been given the same set of circumstances and history. And when you write characters that are, hopefully, real on the page, that means everything they do, no matter how awful, has an underlying explanation. The bigger issue I face is whether the reader can still love these characters after their decisions. Some probably won’t. That’s understandable. What I love about fiction is how it stretches certain muscles that daily life only stiffens. Relating to someone who acts against how we think they should is one of those muscles. Some readers will be able to stretch with my characters more easily, and others will feel that stretch acutely and hate the discomfort. I know that I’ve been on both sides of that reading experience. But no matter what, those muscles have been stretched, and that’s ultimately what matters. Or so I tell myself…
TM: As I was reading, I began to notice an appreciation for the past. I love how you mention the Duck House’s history: “Before it became a restaurant, the Duck House building had been a pharmacy, a real estate office, and at least a half dozen other businesses in between.” Everything really is built on something.
I think the focus on the past’s richness is probably most evident, though, when looking at the two restaurants. The Glory is shiny and new, with fusion cuisine. It’s attractive, but it doesn’t seem to have much of a heart. The Duck House, on the other hand, isn’t very attractive: “The gaudy, overstuffed decor didn’t help. A deep, matte red colored everything, from the upholstered chairs to the floral carpet to the Chinese knots hanging off the lantern lighting, their tassels low enough to graze the heads of taller customers. Framed photos of famous clientele protruded from the walls.” However, this is the place that has heart. Was this a conscious decision on your part?
LL: Rather than an appreciation for the past, I’d say that I have an appreciation for personal history, for the accumulation of years in the same place, with the same people. I think that is ultimately why the Duck House feels like it has more heart than the Beijing Glory—it’s been around longer, and it’s built a backbone of staff that has seen the restaurant, and each other, through multiple decades. I don’t think the original owners of the Duck House, Jimmy’s parents, intended for their business to have heart. I don’t want to romanticize past generations and give them more credit than they deserve. In the end, Jimmy’s parents were driven by the same motivations as Jimmy: ambition, respect, and financial success. At the same time, by simply existing and thriving for as many decades as it has, the Duck House has accumulated a kind of priceless history. To lose that history, or worse, to throw it away, is a great tragedy. No amount of money or class can give an establishment that same density of spirit, that intangible richness, and that’s the lesson Jimmy ultimately has to learn.
TM: Since you are a bookseller at the beloved Literati, I can’t leave without asking you a couple of questions about books. I’ve really been into books about food recently. I just finished Michael W. Twitty’s The Cooking Gene and thought it was absolutely wonderful. With your novel being set largely in a restaurant, were there certain books based around the food/restaurant industry that you read for research? Or were there other books that inspired your book in some way?
LL: I didn’t read any books for research, but I have always had an interest in chef memoirs. My perennial favorite is Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. I picked it up at a used bookstore when I was a sophomore in college and have read it countless times since. Not on purpose, though. Kitchen Confidential is the book I keep in my bathroom at my parents’ house. If you have not experienced the phenomenon of keeping a book in a bathroom you only occasionally use, I recommend it! As a result of its placement in my life, I read Kitchen Confidential from start to finish every two years or so. By the time I finish the last page, I just turn right back to the first. The bravado and energy of Bourdain’s writing definitely seeped into a few chapters of my book and made certain kitchen scenes easier to access. I also loved the anger in Eddie Huang’s Fresh off the Boat. By the time I read his memoir, I’d already finished a draft of the novel, so the experience of reading Huang was more affirming than informative. I was gratified to see how many parallels Huang and my character Jimmy shared, and the similarities in their emotional landscapes. Finally, I love Ann Hood’s food writing, especially her essay on tomato pie. Her exploration of food, family, and memory very much align with my own interests.
TM: What new or soon-to-be-released books should we be reading?
LL: As a bookseller, I can’t generalize about books! I always have to ask, what else have you read? So here are the books you should be reading…
If you love explorations of the American dream transplanted in Shanghai, generational sagas, and the lives of the newly rich and confused, read What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan.
If you love trippy, experimental ruminations on the intersections of technology and the human condition, read Rubik by Elizabeth Tan.
If you love satirical, hilarious, and ultimately compassionate snapshots of contemporary black life and interiority, read Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires.
If you love atmospheric mysteries full of light and mist, dreams and omens, all set in small-town Japan, read Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan.
If you love lush, historical love triangles where history plays a shadowy, villainous role, read If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim.
If you love short story collections where every story is a contender for your heart, as well as a deep dive into the emotional depths of black boys and men learning how to care for themselves and each other, read A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley.
If you love beautiful and piercing narratives about grief, friendship, the loneliness of a writer’s life, and the love of a good dog, read The Friend by Sigrid Nunez.
When the first recipe appears on page 24 of The Cooking Gene, it arrives as a kind of unmerited gift, a gratuitous offering to us, the community of readers. It’s a simple recipe for “Kitchen Pepper,” but it is as if Michael W. Twitty is giving away something into which an entire history has been condensed. It immediately follows the question, “How exactly did I get here?” and so does not arrive simply as a try-this-at-home kind of recipe, but as an invitation. Twitty is inviting us not so much to theorize about cultural foodways and to sample the flavors of ancient cultures, as to do. This simple recipe for Kitchen Pepper comes with an implicit interrogative force: are you just going to sit there, an armchair culinary historian, or are you going to cook—and not just for yourself but for your neighbors? And while you do, ask yourself too: how exactly did you get here?
To publish a recipe can be—especially in the world of rock-star chefs, cooking-themed reality television, and the general atmosphere of cooking as a variety of warfare—an act of self-conscious display of culinary erudition or imagination. It can have the effect of dangling before the reader the lure of the possibility of participating, however briefly, in the ex nihilo genius of a famous chef who somehow thought of putting ingredients together in a way designed to wow and astonish our dinner guests.
There is another way in which a recipe can be written, however, and more importantly, received. It can be written as an invitation into a reality that you did not recognize was possible before, an invitation into a kind of fellowship or communion. A recipe can be the transmission of a tradition, and to cook from such a recipe is not to “try this at home” but to enact a performance of that tradition, and thereby to participate in it in a mysterious and unrepeatable way. This is the way that recipes operate in Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South.
This is partly because The Cooking Gene is not a cookbook. It contains recipes, but those recipes come freighted with the weight of American and Twitty’s own personal histories. They arrive in the context of a sprawling account of inveterate American racism, history, and the quasi-sacramental nature of food. The Cooking Gene is far more than a cookbook. It is a personal memoir, travel narrative, socio-culinary history, diatribe against the food industry, occasional gastronomic rhapsody, and quest narrative. Its moods are as varied as the fragments that compose it: it is by fairly swift turns witty and somber, indulgent and biting, ponderous and winsome.
The Cooking Gene moves from historical excursus to culinary memoir to travelogue in often breathtakingly sharp turns. It is constantly looping back on itself, and sometimes leaving discussions feeling stranded in the way an oxbow lake is left isolated by the changing course of the River. These fragments are made of the same stuff as the river, but do not flow with it.
This can be perplexing for the reader, but is in a way entirely consistent with the logic of the book, which is that the quest for personal identity is almost never straightforward but is instead sinuous, and results in bits of personal history that are at a slight distance from but never superfluous to the main thread of the story, if such a main thread can be found. It is illustrative of the cost of such a search, that finding oneself in the stories of one’s ancestors is never cut-and-dried or without anecdotal cul-de-sacs that can stand alone but have become unmoored and adrift from the general flux of personal history, whatever that turns out to be. It is also, in Twitty’s case, intentional:
My aim has been to give a sense of the bric-a-brac mosaic that is the average African-American’s experience when he or she attempts to look back to recapture our cultural and culinary identities obscured by the consequences of racial chattel slavery. If it were possible to give a linear, orderly, soup to nuts version of my story of any of my family’s without resorting to genre gymnastics, I would have considered it. Instead, I am pleased with the journey as it has revealed itself to me.
“The journey as it has revealed itself” to Twitty amounts to a sort of record of discovery, not unlike the formation of potlikker. It is not the stuff that sinks to the bottom that is important, but the gloss on the surface, the greasy, flavorful sheen that “winks back at you.” The Cooking Gene is the sum of the surprising accretions of ancient history that rise to the top that reveal who its author is. In this book, Twitty seeks his own reflection in potlikker—from the time it was mixed with cornbread to make his first solid food to when it was smeared on the bodies of enslaved men and women on the auction block to make them appear “shiny, a little fat, and machine lubricated.”
But what makes The Cooking Gene more than simply a personal memoir is its attempt to reconstruct this personal and cultural history through food. The book is a literary extension of Twitty’s work as a chef and historical interpreter of antebellum culinary habits among enslaved peoples, developed initially through Twitty and his then-partner’s “Southern Discomfort Tour.” Twitty’s goal on the tour from 2011 onwards was to “travel the South looking for sites of cultural and culinary memory while researching the food culture of the region as it stood in the early twenty-first century.” Along the way, Twitty cooked the way enslaved people cooked, and in using their ingredients, their methods, and their tools, found more than just historical curiosities: “I lost arm hair and eyebrows, a little blood here and there; I was scalded and branded, burned and seared. These are the marks of my tribe”
One might expect such a tour to have left Twitty jaded and cynical. But for Twitty: the result of the “Discomfort” experience is a hopeful, capacious vision of Southernness and its promise for the American future:
I dare to believe that all Southerners are a family. We are not merely Native, European, and African. We are Middle Eastern and South Asian and East Asian and Latin American, now. We are a dysfunctional family, but we are a family. We are unwitting inheritors of a story with many sins that bears the fruit of the possibility of ten times the redemption. One way is through reconnection with the culinary culture of the enslaved, our common ancestors, and restoring their names on the roots of the Southern tree and the table those roots support.
White families in America often have the privilege of a recorded history. Their deeds are frequently a matter of public memory. Domestic mythology may often trace a white family’s history back to a romanticized utopia, a green and pleasant land from which one’s forbears valiantly “chose” to sail to the New World. Or they may hang up family crests which may or may not be authentic—they help to shape a sort of familial sense of self, of belonging to a particular tribe with a particular past, however factitious or fabulous. In any case, white families may often be able to trace their lineage back several hundred years with impunity, without ever noticing what a privilege such a record can be.
But in such cases what counts as material evidence in a family history (or mythology) does not include a bill of sale for a human person.
Twitty uncovers one such document late in The Cooking Gene, related to his ancestor Harry Townsend. It is a salutary lesson about what “white privilege” really means: it means, in part, not having to reconstruct your family’s history from receipts. It is different for the descendants of enslaved peoples:
We know so much, but know so little, and the fine details keep shifting, but unlike any other American ethnic group those details are always hotly debated. We are not allowed the peace of mind of our own self-rumination. Every aspect of our history becomes a contested article on social media, a gospel truth to be disproved by experts at conferences, and a groupthink to be contained. Our cultural myths we design ourselves around are not sacred like other people’s myths; our anchors are constantly being pulled up to make white people feel as it they’re in control, and because of this we have struggled to come up with a cohesive and empowering narrative of our own.
At the heart of The Cooking Gene is the reality that a material record is not available to the descendants of enslaved Africans who were brought here against their will for 250 years. The lives of the enslaved were often anonymous, their deaths not recorded by name, their bodies not marked with hand-carved headstones. Their history is often inscrutable and at best conjectural. Slavery is, in part, the condition of being deprived of a genealogy, a “heritage denied.”
Michael Twitty’s family history is vivid and detailed, but his recorded history only goes back so far. In The Cooking Gene, he sets out to reconstruct—by his own family’s oral history, by documentary research, and by DNA testing—his own genetic composition, to find some semblance of a story of himself that crosses the vast ocean of oblivion separating America from Africa, that traverses the boundary that divides before and after slavery.
The Cooking Gene is itself a kind of literary descendant of Alex Haley’s Roots—which was not just a literary but a pan-cultural event when the television adaptation aired when Twitty was a small child in 1976. Roots inspired a generation of African-Americans to “connect to a place and a people,” and to ask “Who would we become once we confronted the Africa we longed for?” The series inspired African-Americans to identify their own “furthest back person,” their “Kunta Kinte.” In many ways The Cooking Gene is about the liberative power of being able to give your own past a name.
As a stylist, Twitty has a distinct fondness for the inventory. Whole paragraphs sometimes consist of little more than lists of names—of things, people, places. Chapter Twelve, “Chesapeake Gold,” is a paradigmatic example. When Twitty cites Letitia Burwell, Frederick Douglass, Frederick Law Olmsted, and George Bagby in this chapter, he often gives us their lists of foods. He recites activities on tobacco plantations with a certain relish in the poetry of the sound of it all, and a wonder at the often forgotten diversity of African American foodways. These lists are evidence for Twitty of a world that “seemed to burst at the seams with a diverse variety of crops.”
The book begins with an account of building a fire for a presentation on a plantation in a way that gives the flavor of Twitty’s style:
The hardwoods are like friends, and each one has a different conversation with your food—the smell-the burn, the colas, the heat, the smoke—the hot intensity of white oak; the savor of hickory; the mellowness or pecan, the red oak, ash, apple, and maples. Sometimes you have to split the big logs up so that you can stack them like a chimney. When that happens, the day begins with the brooding energy of iron and all of its accompanying West African spirits—Ogun, Ta Yao, Ndomayiri.
A youthful fascination with words nourished by the civil rights movement and the 1976 national bicentennial, Sesame Street and Yan Can Cook, inspired Twitty with a curiosity about his own origins, which he would later find the words for:
Familiensinn: German, the feeling and sense of family connection. I longed for it. I cultivated it despite the pain it has often caused me—family is not easy to seek or create. Toska: Russian. According to Nabokov’s translation of the Afro-Russian writer Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, it is “a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause…a longing with nothing to long for.” Fernweh. Back to German, “a longing and homesickness for a place you have never been.”
One possible response to this is simply to be overwhelmed and maybe a little glazed over by the seemingly endless array of foods that flourished at the hands of enslaved people. And this is, it seems, precisely the point of Twitty’s fondness for the list: when recorded by Frederick Douglass, the repertory of the dishes served at the Big House in Maryland is an instance of reportage from personal experience; so too is Olmsted’s recollection, but from a seat at the table and not as a servant. Both accounts are suffused with wonder—at the sheer variety of meats, fruits, vegetables, and grains that constituted a single meal in the antebellum South. But only one side—the enslaved people who prepared these meals—could have known the ingenuity and the back-breaking labor that went into the preparation of such feasts, and the cultivation of each ingredient. Every crowder pea and sweet potato is a kind of living memento of the suffering and creativity that brought it to table, every rasher of bacon and hot-buttered roll an unspoken secret of the toil and torture endured by the people who raised, slaughtered, and dressed hogs; planted, cultivated, and picked wheat or corn; and transformed, by some mystical alchemy only they knew, the raw products of the Tidewater farm into the quasi-sacramental matter of the feast.
Except the feast was for other people. In Douglass’s words, all the richness of the plantation table “conspir[ed] to swell the tide of high life, where pride and indolence lounged in magnificence and satiety.” The effect of the inventory, in Twitty’s hands, is to disorient the reader, to disturb and overturn the received perception about enslaved life. The latter was far from monocultural; it was often unimaginably diverse agriculturally as well as culturally; its foodways proved incredibly inventive and subtle, adapting itself to new circumstances and supply. The list as a form is, for Twitty, a kind of act of restoration: it restores to memory the names of things and people we should never have forgotten. These lists are Twitty’s litany of saints, gifts of the good earth, and it is as important that we remember the names of forgotten foods as the names of those who grew and prepared them, who bequeathed Southern foodways to future generations. They serve to destabilize preconceptions of African American foodways, to show that they—and therefore the world and its history—are far more complex, varied, sophisticated, and original than the hitherto dominant narratives of history might imply. They are also signposts of order, in marked contrast to the sometimes confusing and often obscure genealogy of Twitty’s family, which it is his task in The Cooking Gene to uncover and retrace.
But there are darker inventories too, which are not so much reminders of the immeasurable bounty of the earth but of the equally immeasurable, instrumentalizing savagery of human beings. In Chapter 18, “The King’s Cuisine,” Twitty tries to reconstruct, from fragmentary evidence provided by agricultural census and slave schedules, the life of his maternal great-great-great-grandfather, Harry Townsend. He lists five such lists from farms and plantations from Alabama and South Carolina where he has identified his own ancestors. Their names and relations appear only as the result of painstaking research. Otherwise, they are included in a roll-call of the anonymous, indistinguishable from mules, oxen, or bales of cotton.
“This,” Twitty writes, “is what America looked like for over four million people in the decade before the Civil War. They were numbers, human machines with a measurable output. They almost completely disappeared into history after building this country and creating their own unique American civilization.”
The Cooking Gene is perhaps the most significant contribution to the growing field of “foodways” literature. But it stands at least one remove from the farm-to-table, artisanal, small-batch, craft-style frenzies of recent years. His work involves “a return to the sources,” as it were, of Southern—and therefore African—cooking, but in a way that is both more personal and culturally load-bearing. More is at stake for Twitty than simply a resistance to corporate, mass-produced food: “It is not enough,” he writes, “to know the past of the people you interpret. You must know your own past.”
The Cooking Gene is Twitty’s attempt to uncover not just lost methods and recipes, but a self occluded and dismembered by both a relentless schedule and the weight of a uniquely American kind of oblivion of its own past: “crumbling kitchens, rotting auction blocks, graveyards iced in asphalt. With each deterioration, I was becoming someone fading from who I was and where I came from, just in time for the world to catch amnesia with me.”
The recovery mode of contemporary artisanal chic has something in common with Twitty’s project, in terms of a shared awareness of the social, political, and racial implications of the way we eat. Yet the “contemporary reclamation of barbecue, offal, hoecakes, wild foods, black-eyed pea cakes, and other plebian fare by white chefs with the capital to promote and polarize these foods is one of the cornerstone issues of culinary justice.”
But Twitty wants to go further still: the way we eat (and the way our ancestors before us fed themselves and others) makes us who we are. So all our eating—whether we recognize it or not—is the work of anamnesis: “My entire cooking life has been about memory. It’s my most indispensable ingredient, so wherever I find it, I hoard it. I tell stories about people using food, I swap memories with people and create out of that conversation mnemonic feasts with this fallible, subjective mental evidence.” So the goal is not recovery simpliciter, but something stronger: “In memory there is resurrection, and thus the end goal of my cooking is just that—resurrection.”
Human fellowship is still possible, though, in the unlikeliest of places, and it is the common vocabulary of food, the shared stock of folk culinary knowledge, that provides the occasion for mutual recognition. In one episode, Twitty recalls cooking for a group of Confederate reenactors (“never really easy for a black guy”). In this instance, it is Twitty’s persimmon beer that starts as a conversation topic but becomes an almost magical object, with the sacral power to effect a sort of qualified understanding between apparent enemies:
Trading facts and figures and avoiding all other subjects, I had never felt so close to a group of white Southern men with guns who outnumbered me in my entire life. As I traveled more, I noticed kinship with strangers based on knowledge of the old plants. Sour faces turned to smiles at the mere mention of a pawpaw or discussion of techniques for breaking black walnuts and the like. I felt as if I was among a family of people keeping a flame alive—a university of volumes written in the understory and canopy and marsh and streamside that could not be relinquished, but desired, and for our survival’s sake, to be savored. I took a picture with those reenactors that day, for in a small way, we made peace.
The final section of the book has Twitty dreaming about a return to the source of both food and being, to Africa, but is also a kind of hymn to cooperative memory: the work of restoration as a common human task.
The payoff, for Twitty, is the discovery that “the world is a marketplace full of tasty things,” that “there are many good things to eat, but the rest of the world marketplace doesn’t know it yet.” At the core of The Cooking Gene is a profoundly religious vision, a wonder at the beauty of this world of gifts, a kind of relentless hopefulness in the possibilities of human communion, and the fervent desire to give names back to those we have scratched out, to revivify the unforgotten.
As an omnivore, I define the word “enjoyment” as anything from a heady intellectual excitement at exposure to new ideas or narrative structures all the way to an uneasy/comfortable feeling that lives visceral in the gut and defies analysis. I’m not really interested in imposing my own idea of a good book on what I read—I want the book to imprint itself on me and take me over and change me.
I have left off most of thousand or so books I blurbed in 2017, believing their blurbification gave them an unfair advantage. However, I couldn’t resist including blurbed books by Leonora Carrington, Jac Jemc, and Quintan Ana Wikswo. (Since this is The Year of the Machado, I don’t think I need to draw your attention that way—if you haven’t read Her Body and Other Parties, what’s your problem?) I have also included a couple of 2016 titles that I first read this year.
As for regrets, my current to-read pile includes Clade by James Bradley, Compass by Mathias Énard, Camilla Grudova’s The Doll’s Alphabet, Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin, A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee, Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, Chemistry by Weike Wang, and The Inner Lives of Animals by Peter Wohlleben. My regrets also include a half-dozen much-lauded titles that I would characterize as damp sparklers dressed up as a full fireworks display, but the less said about them the better.
Belladonna by Daša Drndić, translated by Celia Hawkesworth (New Directions) – I place this selection first, out of alphabetical order, because it was my favorite read of 2017 and one of my favorites of this decade. Using as her canvas the life of the elderly ex-psychologist and ex-author Andreas Ban, Belladonna unflinchingly explores the horrors of fascism in Croatia, the break-up of Yugoslavia, World War II crimes against humanity, and the absurdities of aging and of the modern era. Deftly diving into various periods of Ban’s life, Drndić’s accomplishment here is astonishing for several reasons. First, that what easily could be drifty, dreamy, and unfocused is so sharp, structured, and acerbic. Second, that she can deal so nakedly with atrocity and yet say something new and pin the offenders to the wall and somehow not become didactic in the negative sense of that word. To give just one example of the novel’s many strengths, Drndić in chronicling a trip made by Ban to Amsterdam observes of a particularly stupid example of recycling that “people are obedient, they like to separate their trash, to recycle the debris of their own and other people’s lives. Following a diktat, they fly to embrace goodness, which they shift around in their pockets the way men scratch their balls, then they sleep soundly.” Like much of Belladonna, the observation sends up modern life but also has relevance to the terrible history Drndić lays bare. The novel is multi-faceted, sharp, surprising, darkly and grimly hilarious, relevant to our times, and possesses limitless depth. It also bristles with intelligence and defiance in every paragraph, like an exceptionally erudite and alert porcupine. Belladonna deserves major awards consideration, and I don’t mean for “best translation,” although definitely that too—Hawkesworth’s work here is marvelous. (Curmudgeonly aside: Reviewers, please stop comparing authors to W.G. Sebald just because a novel includes a grainy black-and-white photo or two and pays attention to history.)
The Idiot by Elif Batuman (Penguin Press) – This first novel chronicling hilarious and sad misadventures on a college campus in 1995, and then in Hungary for a student work program, delights in large measure due to the unusual narrator and the exasperating relationship at the story’s core. Batuman has a talent for exposing the absurdity of how we conduct ourselves in the world and the ridiculousness of societal rituals. It’s a tribute to Batuman’s formidable magic tricks that although the novel fades a bit in the final fifth, I still enjoyed The Idiot more than almost anything I read in 2017.
The Gift by Barbara Browning (Coffee House) – An overlooked gem from the year, The Gift chronicles a woman’s journey through art and experience in the context of the Occupy movement, with observations about our modern attempts to form meaningful connection. As I wrote for Bookforum, “The Gift is unusual novel about the performance of life and the life of performance that tells us empathy and passion are deeply political, and that fiction that flips a finger to the boundary between storytelling and the body is an expression of hope and a way toward a different future. In so many ways, Browning’s creation is a beautiful meditation on art, and a balm for readers in these difficult times.”
The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington by Leonora Carrington (Dorothy) – The famous surrealist painter and contemporary of Max Ernst also wrote fiction, and this fiction bridged the gap between the surrealists and post-World War II fabulists. Her writings were a huge influence on Angela Carter, and likely allowed Carter to imagine a surrealism wedded to stronger cause-and-effect and something resembling a plot. In short, Carrington is essential to the history and evolution of 20th-century non-realist fiction. Stories like “The Debutante” and “White Rabbits” are strange and timeless and conjure up the universality of fairy tales while being thoroughly modern.
The Green Hand and Other Stories by Nicole Claveloux, text translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (NYBR Classics) – These heady, surreal, transgressive stories from a forgotten imaginative juggernaut in French comics feature talking vegetables, depressed birds, and imagery that will lodge deep in your subconscious. The art style is like some aggressive mash-up of R. Crumb, Moebius, and Jim Woodring, but utterly unique. Simultaneously beautiful and disturbing.
The Trespasser by Tana French (Viking) – My first experience with French’s fiction, The Trespasser is a layered, complex tale that includes the added frisson of the detective narrator’s justified “paranoia” that the murder squad is out to sabotage her because of her gender. The combination of a fascinating case, a deep dive into the history of the narrator’s colleagues, and the fraught relationship she has with her partner create something special. I’ve now read all of French’s novels and recommend everything she’s written. Her work has contributed greatly to my continuing education as a writer.
Houses of Ravicka by Renee Gladman (Dorothy) – Gladman continues her utterly marvelous tales of the imaginary Ravicka, this time focusing on the mystery of invisible houses that seem to experience spatial dislocation. The narrator pursues this mystery with an implacable logical illogic that is reminiscent less of Franz Kafka or Italo Calvino than of a fabulist J.G. Ballard. Time and space are compressed and expanded in ways that create beautiful glittering structures in the reader’s mind. By the end, your brain has new secret compartments, which will reveal themselves when least expected.
The End of My Career by Martha Grover (Perfect Day) – An utterly enthralling and sobering tragicomic memoir of job and life experience that showcases Grover’s perfect sense of pacing and her eye for the absurdities of life and of the institutions of the modern world. Highlights include the essay “Women’s Studies Major” and the title essay. Out from a press in Portland, Ore., this collection deserves a much wider audience.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Riverhead Books) – The author demonstrates the power of using a slight speculative element—mysterious doors used by people fleeing civil war to pass into Europe—to create a near-perfect novel about love, loss, and displacement. The novel’s most brilliant extrapolation is in not undermining the emotional resonance of the doors, and their effect on the main characters, with pointless explanation. Instead, Hamid creates a sensitive tapestry that comments on our current situation to devastating and beautiful effect.
Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett (Tin House Books) – Set in Freedom, Ala., Hartnett’s novel is an exploration of a mother’s death and the lives of animals that manages to be both “funny and heart-breaking” while avoiding the cliché inherent in the bittersweet. The narrator, Elvis Barrett, is endearing and in some ways wise beyond her years—and certainly knows more facts about critters than the average person. Although dead when the novel opens, the mother’s character is vividly portrayed and the family dynamic rather beautifully rendered as well. This is the kind of book I try to resist as a noted curmudgeon, but with not a smidge more sentiment than needed, Rabbit Cake is an instant classic that you could confidently give as a gift to any reader.
Crawl Space by Jesse Jacobs (Koyama Press) – Jacobs’s 2014 Safari Honeymoon was a tour de force about contamination and containment, portraying in lush comic panels relationships between humans and the environment that were horrific, hilarious, and unique. Crawl Space, with its psychedelic chronicle of people discovering a hidden world behind mundane reality, warps and rewires the reader’s brain in ways more about control and damage, while exploring a genuinely unearthly ecosystem of creatures.
The Grip of It by Jac Jemc (FSG Originals) – An original ghost story is nearly impossible to write, but somehow Jemc manages to come very close. In part, her clever structure—alternating between the points of view of a husband and wife as they encounter horrors in their new house—helps achieve new effects. But the novel also demonstrates an uncanny knowledge of ghost story tropes in the answers it provides—and doesn’t provide. I found The Grip of It genuinely creepy, in a jaded context in which I’ve been marinating (almost literally, and much to the detriment of my internal organs) in weird fiction for decades.
The Answers by Catherine Lacey (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – I love the conceit of Lacey’s second novel, which allows the author to tackle so much that is so relevant about relationships and power structures. A rich creative seeks to have his personal life so structured that different women perform different roles for him. The narrator of the first part of the novel, whose own life is fraught, is hired for one of the roles and from there Lacey pursues the idea about as far as it can go. The novel then opens up to include other points of view. The real genius of the novel is how the central conceit allows Lacey to structure scenes in ingenious ways, creating narrative drive and reader investment for what, on the face of it, might otherwise seem a purely intellectual exercise. The differences between The Answers and her wonderful first novel suggest that Lacey will continue to surprise and is unlikely to repeat herself.
Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou, translated by Helen Stevenson (The New Press) – Author of the infamous African Psycho and Memoirs of a Porcupine, Mabanckou’s Black Moses is less formally inventive than prior translated works, and perhaps an easier entry point for readers unfamiliar with his fiction. But it is nonetheless riveting and powerful stuff, set in the 1970s and 1980s in Congo-Brazzaville. Tokumisa, whose full name means “Let us thank God, the Black Moses is born on the lands of the ancestors,” lives in an orphanage run by a jerk and abused by his fellows. Following his escape, Tokumisa joins a gang and thus begins a dark journey through a criminal underworld, with tragic consequences.
Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People by Timothy Morton (Verso Books) – Considered by many to be among the top philosophers in the world, especially among those tackling issues related to human effects on our environment, Morton herein provides an important, spirited, and sometimes frenetic analysis of the foundational assumptions of Marxism and other -isms with regard to nature and culture (whilst also wanting to redefine those terms). Morton makes a compelling case for how our existing ideologies must adapt or change radically to repatriate ourselves with a world in which we are entangled physically but which we have convinced ourselves we are estranged from, or stand apart from, in our minds. If that sounds wordy, it’s because this is a complex topic and Morton is better than I am at expressing complex concepts in ways that are useful to a layperson.
Sourdough by Robin Sloan (MCD/FSG) – This satire of the tech industry manages to be both sweet and savory, in telling the story of a woman who inherits the possibly sentient starter for a sourdough recipe. More fairy tale than incisive critique, Sourdough epitomizes the heart-warming story that isn’t saccharine and as such it’s a rare novel indeed in a landscape dominated by more weighty books. But lightness is much more difficult to pull off (without devolving into the trivial), and Sloan manages the magic trick handily.
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (Wednesday Books ) – Like a relic from a simpler time, Smith’s novel, originally published in 1948, is a bit of a time capsule, but no less enjoyable for that reason. In charming and disarming prose, 16-year-old Cassandra Mortmain chronicles her family’s life in a crumbling castle. The place was bought by her father at the height of his literary success, but the death of their mother has given him writer’s block. Now they’re penniless and trying to eke out a spartan existence in their huge empty palace (complete with moat). Then Americans buy a neighboring farm and by extension become the Mortmain’s landlord, creating complications. All of the characters—from Cassandra’s siblings to her step-mom and her dad—are expertly drawn and the novel has lovely pacing and astute observation of human behavior.
My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci, translated by David Hackston (Pantheon) – By turns subtle and explicit, Statovci’s first novel focuses on the mysteries of a love story across two countries narrated by Bekim, a displaced Yugoslavian living in Finland with a boa constrictor as his sole companion. Investigating his mother’s life (and loves) brings him back to Kosovo, which he hasn’t seen since he was a young child, and the novel opens up to become a haunting and beautifully written exploration of identity, father-son relationships, and history. Did I mention that a sarcastic talking cat also figures prominently? I’ve never read anything quite like this novel, expertly translated, which draws equally on fabulist and realist influences to create a unique tale.
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell (Riverhead Books) – If environmental pollution and climate change require new approaches to narrative, then Schweblin in Fever Dream has hit upon one potent approach. At the crossroads of the surreal and the real, her story about a dying woman and a boy who is not her son manages to convey the confusion and pain of the modern condition in a way I haven’t seen before. A short read, utterly riveting and poignant.
Stages of Rot by Linnea Sterte (PEOW) – This first graphic novel by a talented Swedish artist depicts an alternate Earth in which up is down and the small have become the mighty. From giant moths ridden by post-humans to orcas that cruise through the sky, Sterte up-ends the order of the natural world and in doing so makes that world more visible to us. The panels are largely wordless, the story told through the lifecycles and everyday existence of the fantastical creatures on display. The ecosystems she’s created are monstrous and magnificent.
Orgs: From Slime Molds to Silicon Valley and Beyond edited by Jenna Sutela (Garrett Publications) – This slim glossy expose of slime mold organization as applied to a (not always subtle) critique of capitalism is oddly charming and especially relevant in how it attempts to map organic systems to the human world. Diagrams and maps along with full-color photos of various weird slime-molds jostle for dominance along with fascinating main text that discusses “Sublime Management” and the biological metaphors inherent in corporate-speak. As a writer who tries to get beyond the human and is invested in exploration of soft tech like mushrooms, I found Orgs very interesting. However, I must point out that a supposedly progressive or leftist approach to the topic might have come in a more eco-friendly container: the glossy paper of this booklet stank of chemicals when I rescued it from the unnecessary shrink-wrap. (Thus, we all live with hypocrisy.)
Black Wave by Michelle Tea (Feminist Press) – This skillful, sui generis, and bawdy intertwining of climate change anxiety and queer feminism has no equal or parallel in my experience. Set in a future of impending environmental doom, Tea’s narrator attempts to carve out a life, career, and relationships in a crumbling San Francisco. In a series of brilliant and hilarious set-pieces, sex and drugs and gender issues figure prominently, but also a complex awareness of the precariousness of our modern times. Although the environmental movement has in some ways lagged behind on social justice issues, Tea demonstrates the value of non-cis-gendered voices in this space, and how deviating from predominantly straight white male experiences can radicalize and make new the whole idea of the apocalyptic or mid-apocalyptic novel. Messy, poignant, funny, sad, visionary—Black Wave is pretty much everything.
The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty (Amistad) – If everything is political and nothing about our foundational assumptions should remain unexamined, then The Cooking Gene helps hasten the process in an interesting direction, coming at racism, gender, and faith from a different vantage. Twitty’s thorough and thought-provoking book uses recipes for West African Brisket, among others, and trips to Civil War battlefields, synagogues (Twitty is Jewish), and plantations to tell the story of his family’s own personal history and the origins of Southern cooking. He also explores our relationship with animals, where our food really comes from, and how we’ve become disconnected from the natural world. Much of the history of food preparation he uncovers concerns survival and necessity. The author’s loss of his mother while writing the book adds a sadness but also a kind of strength.
A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be by Quintan Ana Wikswo (Stalking Horse Press) – Taking on all kinds of issues with regard to history and the marginalized, this deep and ultimately cathartic novel, replete with anchoring photographs by the author, chronicles the attempts of a midwife abandoned by her husband to establish a sanctuary for the downtrodden in a deserted plantation. This location, the secrets of the small town nearby, and the lives of those who seek sanctuary come together to create a powerful story about the damage of the past and the power of community. But, honestly, until you live within the intimacy of Wikswo’s prose, you can’t really understand A Long Curving Scar; it tends to defy summary.
The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch (Harper) – This transformative and ecstatic retelling of the Joan of Arc story in a future dystopian setting of environmental collapse and fascism challenges the reader to confront the iniquities of the present day. This is a phantasmagorical literary opera full of dramatic moments but also quiet scenes of intense realism, and Yuknavitch has created a timely tale that is always disturbing and thought-provoking. Nor, as in some dystopias, does she neglect an searing examination of the role of animals in our lives. I also highly recommend her nonfiction book The Misfit’s Manifesto, released late in the year.
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