Between the Lines: Eileen Chong
Between the Lines interviews a diverse selection of Australian writers to uncover the hidden processes, research, and inspiration that goes into the making of a book. With a focus on debut writers from independent presses, Jay Anderson and Amy Lin ask questions of short story writers, novelists and poets to learn more about what informs recent works of literature. In responding to Between the Lines, our authors open up new questions, and ignite further conversations.
Eileen Chong is a poet based in Sydney, Australia. She was born in Singapore of Chinese descent. Her poetry collections are Burning Rice (2012), Peony (2014), Painting Red Orchids (2016), and Rainforest (2018), all from Pitt Street Poetry, Sydney. Eileen’s newest book, The Uncommon Feast, is now out with Recent Work Press. Chong writes about food, family, migration, love and loss.
Your book The Uncommon Feast is a collation of recipes along with poems and essays about food. In the book you say ‘Cooking is a creative act, like writing poetry’. What do these practices create that is similar, and how are they different?
In the introduction to the The Uncommon Feast, Judith Beveridge summarises it so well for me. She says that ‘[y]ou could argue that a good poem and a good recipe have much in common. Both need to be very precise, no extraneous ingredients, all the weights and measures, the words and the lines must all have as their purpose the final result. A poem, like a well-executed recipe, becomes more than just the sum of its parts.’. Yet, often, I don’t know what the poem I am writing will become; I am not writing to any given recipe. I am thrown a set of ingredients, and I must figure out how to make the best dish from it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, like any instance of cooking. Practice certainly helps, though. Like food, some poems can be technically very good, almost perfect, with all the right components, but they might lack some essential ingredient. That ingredient, for me, is often heart. Let’s strip away the bells and whistles of both food and poetry, and only take into us what nourishes us, body, heart, mind, and soul.
In The Uncommon Feast, you touch on food as a teaching that is passed down the generations, that transcends generations, even if literacy or a love of books is not shared or passed on. Can you talk about the importance of food in your heritage and in your relationships with your ancestors?
I was born in Singapore of Chinese descent. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, the limits of the world I grew up in were very much defined by the language of food. Ancestor worship and veneration centred around food offerings; my grandparents and parents certainly never told me they loved me when I was growing up, but they would ask if I was hungry, and they would do whatever it took to feed me, and they fed me well. My maternal grandmother, an extremely intelligent and resourceful woman who had been kept illiterate by her family, put her six children through school from her income earned by cooking at a food stall. So without the nourishment of food on multiple levels, I wouldn’t be here, writing these words.
You have commented that many of your poems are like recipes, and indeed many of them include rich details of ingredients and processes. Can you comment on the process of turning a culinary experience into a poem?
I rarely consciously set out to write a food poem. Yet food occupies so much of my thoughts; I love planning meals, preparing them, sharing them. Food, for me, holds so much enjoyment; I love the language that accompanies the components of food, the rituals, the way it can bring people, events, and disparate cultures together. So I don’t think, “Oh, I’m going to write a food poem.” I simply go to food in words, I consume of the food in words, I share of the process in words. I bear witness to the process, and the poem reflects that. The poem is then part of the process of preparation and consumption, and by extension, nourishment.
In the book, what comes through is the capacity of both writing and recipes to instruct, to teach, to allow one to learn or gain from experience. How do you see the role of food writing in teaching about culture, family, or politics?
Food is one of the basic necessities of life; it unites all living things. At the very basic level, a plant, for example, needs air, water, light, and nutrients. We can argue all we like about power structures and identity politics and all the uncountable griefs we know exist in this world. But to live, we must eat. Food is not apolitical, don’t get me wrong. But it is a good starting point of unity, one that can be non-threatening, one that can be welcoming.
That being said, I recently heard an anecdote about a (presumably white) man in the UK who had been banned in a court of law from patronising any Asian restaurants, following a string of racist speech and actions enacted on multiple Asian restaurant owners. His response was revealing of his complete lack of connection between people, culture, and food: ‘So how will I get my curry in future? How will I feed myself?’. Now this might be apocryphal, but the message still stands. What I’m saying that food is also a point of pain for many migrant communities—the same people who will eat the food of a culture will also be discriminatory towards that culture. Some food for thought there.
In the poem ‘Burning Rice’, you compare burnt rice to an ancestor’s ashes. There is the sense that the wastage of food is akin to the wastage or death of life. Can you talk about this striking metaphor, and how you may see food and life as interconnected?
I am a very concrete person; many of the experiences I live through are transmuted into my poems. That being said, I need to stress that poems are not reports, and of course I often take poetic license. In ‘Burning Rice’, I actually did burn rice, and I was upset that I had ruined the microwave rice cooker that had been given to me by my mother when I moved to Australia. I was struck by that horrible charred stench, and recalled my grandfather’s cremation, and other cremations I have read about or attended. And I simply joined the dots. I think, ultimately, nearly all my poems are underpinned by the big questions: What does it mean to live? What does it mean to love? What does death bring to us? I never stop thinking about what it means to be human; and I try to celebrate the joys and sorrow of living, and the ways in which we all are dying, and eventually arrive at death.
Recipes, poems and short essays all seem adept at capturing the ephemeral, to allow something to be made from the moment. How do you see the role of each of these forms in capturing something transient or fleeting?
As a poet, I am very interested in patterns. I am a magpie—I am extremely observant, and I feel like my role as a poet is to simply be present, but also to exist on a separate level at any one time as a detached observer. So I might notice one thing, and I will hold on to that in my mind, then I notice another thing, and another, and another, and perhaps they all come together in a sort of pattern, and all I do is trace this pattern in the way I know how, which is through words. I don’t know if writing things down is one way of making the ephemeral more permanent. I feel like my poems don’t stop having a life once they are written down. They go on to live beyond me and beyond the page, in other minds, in other contexts. I simply feel grateful that I have some ability to hold together some of these moments so others can connect with them, too. Essays are slightly different, there is a little more room to be expansive, but in a way, prose is much more laborious for me, because you have to be much more explicit about your thoughts than in a poem. Recipes are a different kind of writing; it forces you to be clear, precise, and logical, in a way that is obviously more structured than a lyric essay, or a poem.
In one poem, you mention the ‘sudden understanding’ that food can bring. Can you comment on food’s ability to bring recognition or awareness, bringing attention to the nature of things, as writing does?
I think adventurous eaters often have open minds, or are more open to new experiences. Being cooked for is an act of being cared for, especially if no money is exchanged. It then ceases to be a transaction, and becomes a gift. To consume that gift, in the form of food, can be a form of spiritual nourishment as well. I am one of those people who take photographs of food. I like to record the gift that I am about to consume, paying attention to the pleasure I take in the way it has been presented, in eating, in sharing. I like to recognise the labour that goes into preparing that food, the histories of any one dish, the transfer of knowledge that had to occur for the dish to be realised, the refinement of technique, the pride taken in making that food. I like to think about the source of the food; the growing of it, the part the farmer, that nature, that the sun and the moon and rain has played in bringing every aspect of that meal to the table. It’s gratitude, it’s paying attention, it’s recognising someone’s ability and effort, it’s taking into yourself what has been given to you freely, it’s an act of trust, and transcendence.
In the poem ‘A Winter’s Night’, food is portrayed as capable of unlocking memories, as well as allowing you to ‘laugh about the future’. How do you see the role of both food and writing as serving as gateways to the future and the past?
My husband and I definitely bonded over food when we first met. I think it would be hard for me to be in a relationship with someone who only ate to survive. It was very healing for me to be able to recreate food from both our cultural histories and to have each other appreciate and extend those understandings. For example, my husband, who is Anglo-Scottish, cooked me my comfort food, chicken congee recently when I was recovering from surgery. He made it slightly differently from how I make it, and it was so good. I make him his comfort food, which is Scotch broth, and I definitely make it differently from how he and his family make it. Mine is much more stew-like in consistency and I have greens in it…! To take a traditional, inherited recipe, and to tweak it, to add something of yourself to it, and to share it is a form of reinvention as much as recovery. There is so much of the personal, and so much power, celebration, and healing present in food, and in writing about food.
Amy Lin is a Perth writer who has recently completed her PhD on mental illness in Australian poetry. She has published poems, essays, interviews and reviews in Westerly, Cordite, Social Alternatives, Verity La and Axon. Amy has performed her poetry at Perth Writers Festival, Voicebox, Perth Poetry Club, Sturmfrei Poetry Night, and Spoken Word Perth.