Monday, February 7, 2011

Day of Honey, an Interview with Annia Ciezadlo

I first met Annia Ciezadlo in the 90s when we were working for a small newspaper in western New York. She was an overwhelmingly articulate young woman; a brilliant, deeply funny, dumpster-diving DIYer who taught me how to can peppers and make jam, who read Orwell books and Julie Doucet comics, and who knew what it was to live hand to mouth. She quickly became one of my best friends.

It’s well over a decade later, and Ciezadlo has had a distinguished career as a war correspondent, covering Middle Eastern war and politics for newspapers and magazines like The Nation and The New Republic. Her new book Day of Honey: a Memoir of Food, Love, and War, has just been published by Free Press. Today, Dwight Garner of the New York Times called it among “the most intimate and valuable [books] to have come out of the Iraq war.” Ciezadlo may be the only war correspondent in history to have her work described as “mouthwatering” or to be lauded by the editor of Saveur.

I have been lucky enough to have read Day of Honey from some of its earliest incarnations. Over the years, I have had various conversations about politics with the author, often while she is cooking. Here is one.

Q. One of the questions that seems to keep popping up about Day of Honey is: why would someone with your background choose to write a memoir about food?

Ancient feminist proverb: The personal is political. Western depictions of the Middle East tend to focus on politics. Ideology defines everything—the people are secondary. Or worse, they become objects the writer uses in order to prove a particular point. And that’s why I chose to write about food: it’s harder to be an abstraction when your mouth is full of rice. When it comes to the Middle East, and especially the Arab world, simply depicting people as human beings is the most political thing you can do.

Q. So did you conceive of your work as overtly political when you were writing it?

I don’t think there’s a difference between writing about food and writing about war or politics. Food is inherently political: Who makes it? Who buys it? Who eats it, and who doesn’t, and why? All of these are deeply political questions. Follow them and they lead you to power, economics, inequality, and even war. So you could say that I’m still writing about politics. But in a more concrete form than before.

Q. Were you reacting to any of the trends of the past two decades—dick lit, chick lit, hip lit, et cetera?

I like to play with genres. I was reacting to a couple of literary stereotypes: men are encouraged to write about war and politics and public life. Women are encouraged to write about family and food and personal life. Look at which books get profiled on The Daily Show, and which ones end up on Oprah, and you’ll see what I mean. I wanted to play with those expectations by combining the overwhelmingly femininized genre of the culinary memoir with the more traditionally masculine genre of the war/travel/adventure book.

Q. So in that sense it was more about the social and literary expectations focusing on gender?

Yeah, because most culinary memoirs these days are by women. They tend to center on subjects like romance, career advancement, and personal relationships. We’re taught to be ashamed of writing about these things, because they’re not “serious” topics like war and peace. But in fact they’re what make up the fabric of our lives. Most war memoirs, by contrast, are by men. They tend to focus on soldiers, adventure, and physical danger. But it doesn’t make sense: Men have personal relationships, and feelings, and women fight and die in wars. I wanted to write a book that reminded people that the larger politics—of war and peace, and sectarian hatred, and US foreign policy—are inescapably bound together with the supposedly “smaller” details of our everyday lives.

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