Women and Food in Multiethnic and Global Women’s Literature

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A review of At the Kitchen Table: Women and Food in Late Twentieth-Century U.S. Multiethnic and Global Women’s Literature, by Allyson Denise Marino.

This dissertation analyzes the role of women as producers and consumers of food in four novels: Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions (1988), Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994), Cristina Garca’s Dreaming in Cuban (1993), and Helena Mara Viramontes’s Under the Feet of Jesus (1995). Drawing on materialist, postcolonialist, and ecofeminist theory, Marino argues that “these stories and protagonists represent and critique and consequently resist the construction of women’s identity by Western capitalism’s manipulation of food and its production and patterns of consumption” (p. 4). According to Marino, the protagonists in these four novels “engage the effects of a food culture shift”  from traditional, subsistence-based “kitchen culture” to a “patriarchal, anti-subsistence approach to land, resources, and women’s bodies and identities” (p. 4) dominated by global, capitalist agribusiness and a “homogenous Westernized food culture” (p. 30). Her readings explore how “their physical bodies and gendered identities are shaped, mainly negatively, by this shift” (p. 5).

As Marino notes, much of the growing literature on food and gender is “Americentric” and tends to focus on native-born white women in the U.S. Her selection of texts by three immigrant Americans and one Zimbabwean-English woman offers a welcome opportunity to explore literary representations of how non-white women with origins in the Global South relate to food and their bodies. She also claims that most existing scholarship on women and food is “psychoanalytic in nature and overlooks the role of material culture and economy in shaping women’s relationships and interactions with food” (p. 15). Her own strategy involves contextualizing each novel in some aspect of the economic and political forces that shape the characters’ lives, with particular attention to colonial and postcolonial histories and the availability and flow of commodities like maize and sugar. Her attention to the materiality of food, rather than merely its symbolic or psychological dimensions, enables Marino to balance accounts of women’s resistance with an acknowledgment of the exploitation of women’s labor and bodies and the real suffering women experience as a result.

In Chapter 2, which focuses on Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, Marino argues that “the role of food reveals the complexities of colonial ideology and its reverberations into current crises” like the food shortages in Zimbabwe since 2000 (p. 43). Marino’s primary departure from previous interpretations of the novel is to read the anorexia and bulimia of one of the primary characters named Nyasha as “anti-resistance” and the “absence of voice” instead of an act of resistance or expression of protest against patriarchy and colonialism. According to Marino, Nyasha is an example of Gayatri Spivak’s subaltern who cannot speak, and “her illness is the self-destruction of an already fractured identity, perhaps a last act of protest but attempted without any agency” (p. 39). Meanwhile, other women in the novel have more positive and empowering experiences with food, which Marino interprets as evidence that colonialism only silences some of the voices of the colonized.

Chapter 3 on Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory also focuses largely on a character’s eating disorder and argues for its direct connection to the material realities of colonialism and transnational food policy. This reading builds on the work of critics like Allison Donnell and Helen Scott, who argue for the importance of the “materiality of experience rather than symbolic representations” in Caribbean literature (p. 94). Marino argues that Sophie’s bulimia is better understood as a response to the brutal history of the sugarcane fields in Haiti than as either a reaction to her sexual abuse or as a symbol of Haiti itself. She argues that both Sophie and her mother Martine’s experiences of trauma and anxiety are caused by the “ongoing effects of patriarchal colonialism and capitalist accumulation, and the move from subsistence-based culture to capitalist commodity culture” in Haiti (p. 113). However, Sophie is eventually able to begin to heal, which Marino reads as a testament to the power and promise of women activists in Haiti and their community of resistance. As Marino contends, the tradition of women’s resistance in Haiti has been ignored by most Western narratives about the country, including in the media coverage of the 2010 earthquake. Thus, she argues that novels like Danticat’s offer a valuable record of Haitian women’s lived history and resistance.

In Chapter 4, Marino moves to a revisionist analysis of Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban. As a corrective to existing readings, which have overlooked the character Lourdes and her struggles with food, Marino asserts that “an analysis of Lourdes’s struggle reveals the impacts of colonialism and the Cuban Revolution on women and the consequences when those struggles are left in silence” (p. 132). Building on the analysis of women’s experiences within nationalist movements by postcolonial scholars like Anne McClintock and Robert J.C. Young, Marino argues that Lourdes’ behaviors can be understood as a resistance to the patriarchal nature of Cuban nationalism. After emigrating from Cuba to New York, Lourdes opens a bakery where she sells quintessentially American sweets. She binges on the sweets and then starves herself, gaining and losing over a hundred pounds. Marino also connects her struggles to the history of sugar production in Cuba. Per Marino’s reading, Lourdes “rejects Cuban nationalism by selling the country’s national symbol—sugar—and transforming a symbol of both nation and revolution, and ultimately the rejection of U.S. capitalism, into a commodity. However, her own body becomes sickened through the overconsumption of this commodity” (168). Lourdes’ daughter Pilar is critical of both U.S. and Cuban nationalism, which Marino argues may make her as a figure of resistance.

Marino’s final chapter focuses on Viramontes’s Under the Feet of Jesus, a novel about a migrant farmworker family in Southern California. Marino argues that Estrella, the novel’s young female protagonist, offers an example of resistance against the “ignored exploitation and naturalization of women’s labor and land by revealing and confronting the ‘invisible’ workers and injustices without which U.S. agribusiness would become unsustainable” (185). She builds on criticism of industrial agriculture by critics and activists like Vandana Shiva, Maria Mies, and Val Plumwood, asserting that “The same system—the patriarchal capitalist domination of nature—which has allowed man to copyright seeds, privatize clean water, and genetically modify and homogenize the diversity of earth’s plants into a few main crops to be controlled by transnational corporations has contributed to women’s exploitation as well” (214). Estrella and the other members of her family do backbreaking work, struggle to feed themselves, and suffer from pesticide poisoning, and Marino connects these struggles to NAFTA, the WTO, and GATT. After a nurse misdiagnoses Estrella’s pesticide-poisoned friend and love interest with dysentery, Estrella threatens her with a crowbar to get a refund so they can afford the gas to get him to a hospital. Marino does not interpret Estrella’s violent act as a direct form of resistance, but instead sees the potential for resistance in Estrella’s “refusal to let herself be swallowed and disposed of by the system” (220).

In all of her interpretations, Marino emphasizes the continuing violence of colonialism and global capitalism, particularly in the effects of industrial agriculture on the environment and women’s labor and bodies. However, she also points to the possibility of defying these enormous forces. Her analysis of the role of food in women’s identities and experiences in these four novels will be of interest to scholars interested in food studies, women’s studies, postcolonial studies, and ecofeminist criticism.

S. Margot Finn
Lecturer in University Courses
University of Michigan
smargot@umich.edu

Primary Sources
Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions (1988)
Edwidge Danticat, Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994)
Cristina Garca, Dreaming in Cuban (1993)
Helena Mara Viramontes, Under the Feet of Jesus (1995)

Dissertation Information
Indiana University of Pennsylvania. 2012. 265 pp. Primary Advisor: Susan Comfort.

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