Interview with Lauren Camp by N. Dhar

1. Your book involves multiple perspectives, spaces and voices. One of the significant choices you make, is not to use the lyrical “I” persona. Instead, we get a very resonant “she.” What were the reasons behind such a choice? 

I was too familiar with my own story. I realized that if I shifted some important perspectives, I had a chance to find the richness in it. I began by writing the daughter sections of the book, allowing mythological elements into certain vignettes I wanted to hold close in memory. I also switched to third person. Both approaches gave me necessary distance to witness my earlier life and to reflect on some of what I experienced. The result is semi-autobiographical, but I enlarged the parameters of who I had been.

2.  Food plays a central role in your book. And, we have often thought, food is a tricky thing to engage with for a writer who claims any kind of ancestry that's not strictly white and European. In other words, there is a danger of exoticization that lurks in our use of food as lynchpins in our stories. Yet, food makes so much visible in your work. The way we read it, food brings onto the open a lot of histories that have been silenced politically. What did it mean for you to make food such a central metaphor in your work? Especially since the word “hunger” is there in your title, and coming to think about it, even your poems which we accepted for Elsewhere, had such strong food themes.

Food is so often the element that brings people together, whether those people are families, friends or lovers. We gather around moments of cooking, serving and eating. Our ancestry is in the ingredients that our mouths know as nourishing as much as it is in a specific language or family rituals or how we spend Saturdays or the music we listen to and the books we read. I didn’t know many of these things about my heritage, so the table became my main source of history.

When I look back on my childhood as it intersects with shared moments in my father’s family, every single instance involved food (even those that required fasting because fasting requires a later feast). Food was the conduit for the past to settle with the immediate now. All of it moved around that very long table in my grandparents’ New York home. The history traveled between the dishes, and landed on my plate, serving by serving. Food generated laughter, arguments, gender-specific identities, preferences, connections.  

The food in my grandparents’ house, which was made almost single-handedly by my grandmother (and maybe an aunt), was exotic, but at the same time, familiar. It was those mouthfuls I had every second or third Friday that made me feel connected to a culture that was not otherwise discussed or much exhibited.

3.  You write about such divergent spaces – the desert, the trains, the river and even Wall Street. Yet, in spite of the poems commenting on these open spaces, the central emphasis on your book is on the domestic space. More specifically, the kitchen. Kitchen becomes the space where mothers or grandmothers acquire or lose their voices. Kitchen becomes the space where silences are broken and the children come to wonder about the spaces left behind. To what extent was this a conscious choice?

It was not a conscious choice at all. (Sometimes writers need readers to explain what we’ve done!)

The kitchen in my parents’ home was a gathering place. It was yellow, which made it like many other suburban kitchens. We did homework there, and my mother made meatballs and tuna noodle casserole there. It was not a particularly interesting place.

In my grandparents’ home, the kitchen was the domain we walked through to get to the central gathering place: the dining room and its grand table of plates and bowls, candles and foods. The kitchen was cluttered and bubbling over. My grandmother’s kitchen wasn’t a place to assemble.  

I didn’t understand how important that interior space was, how it was the heart from which the countless dishes originated, how it was what allowed us to go out into the world feeling cared for. It was a place of labor, a place I entered only to dry some dishes, and then, only when commanded to do so. It was a place I went through to reach the back door. It wasn’t a place I revered, but in retrospect, I realize my grandmother was a wizard, shaping her quiet love into nourishing meals for so many, so frequently.

4.  Would you consider silence and breaking of silence to be central themes in your book?

Both forms of communication certainly reoccur continually in the book. Both were resources for information and omissions. From them, I gathered particles of details. In a way, I think both silence and the shift away from silence made up the most tender parts of my childhood. On some level, I was forced to understand the wounds by not seeing them and not asking about them.

5.  We have been especially moved by your poems “Letter to Baghdad” and “Peripheral Vision.” Read together, they reveal such a complex political history between Middle East as a region and United States – wars, empires and imperialisms, colonialisms, anti-Semitisms. In your poems, you offer us readings of this complex history through an individual's feelings, journeys, often explored through images of silence. Were you ever daunted by the profoundity of your themes as you were writing this book?

I wasn’t nearly as daunted by expressing the history as by infiltrating the silence. The history meant study, which is comfortable to me. I like the work of research. For a long time, I was very focused on getting the scope and details correct.

The hardest part of the book by far was the challenge of expressing one individual’s feelings. I was unsettled by the effort of trying to capture my father’s story without having his input. That challenge stopped me several times.

6.  In “Letter to Baghdad,” you write “he showed me a word for the boy he once was/and he showed me this Arabic word and in this way I knew/this was the most authentic mourning I would ever see” and in “I am Practicing Now,” you write “So many syllables saturated with flavors of mourning” and “Words don’t stick right. They emerge mournful and curled/as if stirred in the wrong pot.” Indeed, language as a form of mourning is a theme that runs through many of these poems. Could you talk about how this theme informs your own writing?

Mourning was invisible, but somehow embedded in the air that held a language I don’t understand. It lined every plate on the table, the way my grandparents struggled to speak English, the way my father filled with riddles. As I was writing, I wanted to experience the burden of a lost beginning. I wanted to know—bodily, emotionally—what it felt like to be unable to fully claim a country as one’s own because a part of that soul belonged also to another country. Where does one stand when their feet touch both sides of a dividing line?

7.  In your poems, another way of mourning the loss or absence of language is to locate narrative in the body or in food. In “Marriage,” for instance, you write “With sweat, I/write corollaries and unknown vocabulary, right to left, on the warm skin/of his thigh, rub my thumb under his ear.” And in “Devour,” you write “The trick of each meal was how it explained its sweetness/This was the story she ate every day.” It seems, however, that the narratives written on the body are not quite legible and the consumption of narratives doesn’t quite satisfy the hunger for language and for the places language carries with it. Could you elaborate on the relationship between hunger and narrative as it relates to this book?   

No matter how I search, I cannot get the story I most crave: my father’s. My solution, undertaken with the writing of this book, was to allow the undertow of imagination and research to help me develop a sensory awareness of a place I’ve never been and a time to which I can’t return. Baghdad doesn’t exist the way it did in my father’s childhood, and even if it did, my experience of it, as a visitor and as a woman, would be different.  When I couldn’t get the feel of the country despite what I had researched, seen or heard, I wrote listening to the oud and its long mournful lines.

Shortly before I answered this question, Donald Trump signed an executive order banning Muslims from seven countries, including Iraq, from entering or re-entering the U.S. He redoubled his vow to build a wall, excluding Mexicans from entering the U.S. Suddenly, many people are discussing the very personal realities and dangers of being immigrants or the children of immigrants. It is not just our stories that hang in the balance, but our ability to claim a place. Our ability to feel safe in whichever place(s) we deem “home.” This country is vibrant because of the many other cultures that emigrated here. Our country has been imprinted in remarkable ways with narratives from elsewhere. It would be a travesty to exclude any of them.

I often say that One Hundred Hungers is about my father. It is not a book for my father. It is for anyone who has a connection—recent or distant—with another place. For anyone whose history is unsatisfied. We all need to be able to affirm our places in the world. We all need to feel safe to look back or around. We must champion the diversity of customs and tradition that exists in every window on every block in every city and rural area around us.

Lauren Camp is the author of two books of poetry. Her third book, One Hundred Hungers, won the Dorset Prize (Tupelo Press, 2016). It details her father’s childhood in Baghdad and her interaction with the rituals and language of his culture. Lauren is a 2015-2018 Black Earth Institute Fellow and the producer/host of “Audio Saucepan” on Santa Fe Public Radio. More at www.laurencamp.com. Photo by Jim Gale.

 

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