There Is Power in 'Curry'

Naban Ruthnum’s provocative intellectual journey traces the complex roots of curry and its diasporic colonization of the West.

Curry: Reading, Eating, and Race

Publisher: Coach House
Length: 144 pages
Author: Naben Ruthnum
Price: $13.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2017-08

“Curry’s just as fake and real as a great novel, as a sense of identity,” writes Naben Ruthnum. “Like the English language, curry is a colonial endpoint: everything ended up in it, and it remains infinitely changeable, even as its complex colonial roots became disguised as homeland authenticity.”

Ruthnum’s provocative intellectual journey in Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race explores this colonial endpoint, tracing the complex roots of curry as well as its diasporic colonization of the West in a series of interconnected essays that are as deliciously pleasant in narrative style as they are provocatively piquant in theoretical debate. Always already a product of colonialism, the great paradox and power of curry lies in the manner in which it has become a pliable anchor for diasporic identities. The field of curry today encompasses cookbooks, restaurants, and reality television programs; and those who aim to harness its power do so by appeals to their own authenticity: memories of grandparents and the homeland, family secrets whispered between generations, aromatic nostalgias and sensual memories of eating with hands. To sell a cookbook, or a restaurant, means persuading the consumer of its cultural authenticity.

Yet how to square this shifting presentation of authenticity with reality? Curry’s professional purveyors rail against mass-produced curry powders, denouncing them as inauthentic colonial inventions, yet Ruthnum reminds us that “every diasporic kitchen that I’ve opened cupboards in contains curry powder”.

There is power in curry, yes, but its power is not so much rooted in an authentic form as it is rooted in its ability to adapt, absorb, and transform itself. Before the West, there were the Persians, also colonizing and lending their touch to the curries we love. And what about the predilection of India’s urban contemporary for chow mein and Chinese street food? “Curry is only definably Indian because India is a country that has the world in it.”

Ruthnum, whose ancestral roots lie in Mauritius, reminds us that “curry’s reassuring power isn’t a resurrection of a stable past, but a reminder that the past, and our former countries, are as fractious and adaptable as the present.”

In his thoughtful and engaging essays, Ruthnum explores not only curry but also what he calls ‘currybooks’: works of diasporic fiction that “follow an invisible and flexible set of genre rules… currybooks typically detail a wrenching sense of being in two worlds at once, torn between the traditions of the East and the liberating, if often unrewarding, freedoms of the West…”

There are other common elements: generational divides, dislocated characters, existential arguments over curry and spices; phenomenological reflections on eating with one’s hands; and the inevitability of mangoes. Ruthnum offers a broad survey of recent ‘currybooks’, analyzing several examples.

Beyond the complex experience of South Asian and diasporic writers who must grapple with these tropes in their writing and the question of how to engage with them while remaining original and true to self, there are broader issues at stake as well. There is the marketization of curry books -- and diasporic literature more broadly -- by the publishing industry. “[G]enre rules and parameters emerged as the commercial viability of immigrant fiction became clear, and editors and publishing boards began to seek variations on a certain type of brown story,” writes Ruthnum. “There’s profit to be made in a relatable, seemingly authentic presentation of race and culture, even if there’s a placeless tinge of Westernization, subtle and ignorable under a formulaic blend as precisely calibrated as a Marks & Spencer chicken tikka masala.”

Pleasant and enjoyable though these narrative norms may be, they reduce the variety and complexity of immigrant experiences and desires (and those of their descendants) into a narrow formulaic mold, notes Ruthnum.

However, he admits, it begs the question -- are these tropes actually bad? If they have roots in an actual reality, experienced or imagined, what is the harm in them? Perhaps the ubiquity of mangoes in Indian literature has something to do with their ubiquity in India. “Is there something wrong with finding comfort and truth in tropes, whether as a South Asian writer or reader?” Ruthnum asks. After all, romantic comedies, western action films -- mass entertainment culture is replete with tropes, so why should immigrant or diasporic fiction be any different?

Part of the problem, he notes, is the uncomfortable sense that using such tropes makes the writer feel like they are “’serving’ a white audience”. But while literary tropes belie much of the complexity and variation in immigrant and diasporic experience, they still have at their root a sense of drawing on and after something authentic (much like curry). “(I)mmigrant novels that cleave to embedded beats of authenticity still speak of a genuine sense of displacement that, while it isn’t always based in lived experience or doesn’t always hearken to a past and other place that actually exists, appeals… [we] are in need of confirmation that the alienation we feel is at least shared, that it resonates for another, and that there is perhaps an answer to it in an embrace with the realness of another place and culture…”

Ruthnum has experienced first-hand the dilemma of the publishing industry’s expectations; he writes crime fiction, not the diasporic identity-angst that publishers expect (although he’s shown to be accomplished in a diversity of styles). His final essay, which touches on film and television, also explores his personal experiences and packs a powerful punch.

“Alienation and a sense of being severed from the past is visited on South Asians from the outside on a regular basis, in forms ranging from violent racial attacks to the ongoing, often lightly intended and genuinely curious ‘Where are you from?’ that isn’t asking where you grew up, but where you were supposed to grow up if your parents hadn’t up and left. Alienation has branches, and the thickest and most poisonous stalk of alienation in the West is fuelled by racism and the norm of whiteness,” he writes.

However, Ruthnum reminds us (after a lengthy analysis of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle), “just as curry doesn’t exactly exist, neither does the diasporic South Asian. If we’re attempting to build solidarity out of a shared history, it will never quite mesh.” The notion of a shared identity is as problematic as the comfortable curry-narratives that reinforce white westerners’ belief that they understand that identity.

“The restricted stories of brown homecoming and nostalgia that form the tropes and clichés of currybooks don’t reflect the variegated, class-divided, and culturally widespread experiences of brown people in the West. They present a comforting, streamlined, and largely untrue version of what brown people were and are, to a multiracial audience of readers who are supposed to recognize themselves or their neighbours. They also continually point to the fact that brown people aren’t from the West, even if they live in the West, even if they were born in the West. A link to one’s genealogical and geographical roots can be fulfilling and enriching, but when it’s imposed on you from the outside that you’re supposed to know and tell these roots, to be able to present the papers that explain your skin to a waiting audience, the homecoming trip feels a little less heartwarming.”

“Telling the same story of brownness over and over doesn’t only express a coherent notion of race and history to white readers, it creates an impression of commonalities among a brown audience who may come from vastly divided pasts and have little in common in their present, other than they ‘all look the same’ in communities where they’re part of a box-tick minority category.”

“The diasporic bond is a shared, invented history, based on real events and a real place, but shared only as a tissue of agreements, disagreements, and ideas imposed from the outside.”

Ruthnum’s musings wander at times; the narrative sometimes risks getting lost in the smartness of its own prose. But the essays are deeply rewarding nonetheless. He meanders through well-trod academic terrain, but he does so in a deeply personal manner that renders it more accessible, realistic, and meaningful than other academic works on hybridity and cultural authenticity. So yes -- eat curry, make curry, enjoy curry -- but also read Curry, to better understand the complexity and fraught potential of this spice mix that we so love and the cultural meanings that are wrapped up in it.

And remember that as much as we love our curry recipes and our post-colonial diasporic fiction, “there must be other stories that are lost, or go unread, because of the dominance of the story we’ve heard before.”

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