The first time I started writing a Sri Lankan cookbook, it was meant to simply be a Christmas present for my mother — writing down some of her recipes. The book only offered a few dishes in each section, and featured sketches that a friend drew illustrating me and my mother cooking — “You cannot read and stir at the same time!”
Because I knew people in small press publishing, it quickly spiraled into an actual little book, but the focus was still simple — what little I knew of her recipes. It was designed to be accessible to students like the one I was at the time; I was an immigrant who had come over very young, had grown up eating rice and curry every night, but had only a tenuous connection to the food culture of the homeland.
I knew it wasn’t going to be all that authentic — my mother had had to make many adaptations when she came to America in 1973. Her recipes had already changed, and as I made them myself, they changed further, adapting to my tastes. When I gave my mother the finished book, she was pleased, I think, but also immediately started pointing out where I’d gotten things wrong. For a while, I threatened to do a second edition of the book, with “Amma’s corrections” all through it in red. I still think that would have been a good book, actually, but she didn’t go for it.
So the book stayed as it was for many years. It could have been left there. But instead, more than a decade later, I started working on a second edition.
Kevin and I were talking recently about how I choose which projects to work on. There’s often a pressure to spend my time and energy on the more commercial projects, the ones that have the best odds of a good payout. This second edition of the cookbook — it should sell some copies. Hopefully, it’ll sell lots of copies for the small press that’s publishing it. But it’s hardly the most commercial project I could work on, and making the recipes, some of them over and over again, trying to get them right, has been exceedingly time-consuming. If it were just about the money, this second edition would make no sense at all.
But writing is rarely just about the money. Over the years since I did the first edition, I have made more and more Sri Lankan recipes. My cookbook shelf has been overtaken by Sri Lankan cookbooks — from classics like the Ceylon Daily News Cookbook, to war-related books like Recipes of the Jaffna Tamils and Handmade, to fancy coffee table books full of glorious photos, to what is still my favorite, Charmaine Solomon’s Complete Asian Cookbook — she is Sri Lankan, and her recipes taste like my mother’s, like home.
I do enjoy cooking dishes from other cuisines. Ethiopian is one of my favorites, and there are days when I crave sushi. Pizza is a family standby, and my children are built in large part out of mac-and-cheese. But I come back to Sri Lankan food — I cook it at least once or twice, most weeks. These days, I go online and read a dozen different recipes for a dish before I even start making it. I interrogate my Sri Lankan friends (both diaspora and homelander) about their recipes, about how they are generally done. I want to know how these dishes were typically made, in the villages, for generations and generations back. What should the balance of salty-sour be? How thick do we want the finished gravy?
Why does that matter? If I still cannot get a certain leafy green considered key to traditional cookery, why do I feel such frustration? Does it matter if the finished dish is really how Sri Lankans would make it? My adaptations of my mother’s adaptations are tasty, after all. Once, when Kevin and I were talking about naming our first child, he asked whether we wouldn’t be better off if we didn’t cling so hard to ethnic, racial, nationalist traditions. Divisions. In some ways, I think he’s right. Sri Lanka was riven by ethnic conflict — surely, it would be worth giving up much, if you could thereby make the conflicts end.
But this is who we are; this is what it is to be human. We are composed of our mother’s hand with a salt shaker, the squeeze of fresh lime at the end of the dish. For those of us who are a little…attenuated from the food of our grandparents and great-grandparents, learning how to cook this food, in its many iterations, can feel like filling a hole in your heart.
So I choose this. I choose to put time and energy into learning this food, into serving it to my mixed-race children, with the hopes that they will grow to love it too. Kavya comes into the kitchen to ask excitedly, “Oh, are you making the yellow chicken?” My heart skips a beat. She’s a big fan of papadum too. We try to teach the children to be loving, to be fair and welcoming to all, whether or not they share our cultural traditions. Can we choose the good parts of our culture to cherish, and leave the darker aspects behind? We’ll see.
I still make no claim to authenticity — there are many more authentic Sri Lankan cookbooks, painstakingly researched. But if there was a thin line drawn with that first cookbook, connecting me to the food of my ancestors, then the last few years of adding recipe after recipe to this cookbook have thickened and strengthened the connection, into a sturdy rope. One that you might use when lost, to find your way home again.
I’ve come to appreciate the long history, the gathered wisdom of a thousand thousand cooks, who have come to know that with the perfection of hoppers at breakfast, all you need is a little fresh coconut sambol to accompany it, with perhaps an egg cracked into the center to steam. The more I cook these recipes, the more I grow to love this food. I hope other readers of this cookbook will feel the same.
When Anand gets frustrated with being asked to do something like oh, gosh, wash the Nutella off his hands, he’s started getting snarky in response. “What-ever.” And I have this weird reaction to it — on the one hand, the rudeness is super-irritating; we don’t talk that way to each other in this family. On the other hand, he’s getting this from his Youtube gamer videos, I’m sure, and it’s sort of funny hearing teen language / tone coming out of a 7-year-old; hard to take too seriously.
On the third hand, it’s so hard for Anand to be good at camp, and he’s really working at it, so I feel like I ought to cut him some extra slack at home, where it’s safe to act out a little. On the fourth hand, Kevin was sick today, I worked really hard on various things on the computer as well as doing two loads of laundry, a huge sink of dishes, feeding everyone, etc., and I am emotionally kind of a mess about writing these days, so I need my children to behave well or I will snap.
Feeling grateful that we have enough space that I can send them upstairs when I can’t deal with them anymore. Going to watch some Stargate and self-soothe while cooking a chicken curry, which is comforting and mindless, the sort of thing I can do in my sleep.
And yes, I made him wash his hands.
First readers wanted. Well, first brainstormers. I posted much of this in the comments to a post yesterday, but wanted to pull it out into its own separate post.
I’m now working on a book (well, actually two books, which
will possibly be two linked series, eep) set in the same universe as The Stars Change, and I’m trying something new in terms of feedback — I’m finding that I want a space where I can babble my ideas as they come, and ask questions, without worrying about spoiling it for readers, as I would if I posted all this on Facebook.
So I’ve set up a Slack channel for discussing it, and if you’d have any interest in joining me there, please do let me know. Right now, I’m mostly world-building, soon there will be much plotting. The first 12,000 words of the first book are written, so I’ll ask you to read that as a first step.
Slack is asynchronous — it’s a message board, so that if we happen to be on at the same time, great, that’s conducive to back-and-forth quick chatting, but if not, you could read stuff at your convenience and post any comments then.
Someone asked how many people I wanted, and the truth is, I’m not at all sure if there’s an upper limit on this being workable. If it starts getting crowded, or feeling like there are too many cooks in the kitchen, I may reduce the numbers at that point. But for right now, feedback good.
Comment with an e-mail if you want an invite to the group. Spoilers ahoy!
(And if you’d rather read mostly complete stories, I’m sure I’ll still be posting requests for crit of those on FB per usual.)
ARTS ASSISTANT JOB POSTING (Chicagoland)
Do you love literature and want to learn more about arts programming and administration?
I’m Mary Anne Mohanraj (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Anne_Mohanraj), and am looking for an assistant both to help with managing my own writing career, and to help manage the two arts foundations I direct, the SLF (www.speclit.org) and DesiLit (www.desilit.org). As an assistant, you’ll read and manage e-mail, plan and organize meetings, plan and organize events, publicize events and projects, run fundraisers, keep calendars, make travel arrangements, copyedit / proofread, and supervise quarterly budgets.
I’m also looking for occasional general household help — it won’t be the bulk of the duties, but you may be asked to run errands (pick up groceries or drop off a child) on occasion, run a load of dishes or straighten up a work space, etc. (The job will not entail regular childcare or heavy cleaning.)
Additional duties and projects as assigned.
– self-directed, efficient and able to handle multiple tasks and priorities in a professional and confident manner.
– knowledge of literature is a plus, esp. contemporary SF/F, mainstream lit., and/or South Asian lit.
– excellent English skills are a must;
– must drive well (but do not need own car)
– experience in marketing / publicity / project management / grant-writing / web page management using WordPress would be welcome
Schedule: 10 hours per week, timetable to be determined between us, but probably 2-3 mornings / week. The bulk of the work will take place at my home in Oak Park, IL (accessible from Chicago via Blue line, Green line, and Metra). The home has a small and gentle dog.
Start date: Immediately.
Initial pay: $12.50 – $15 / hr, depending on experience.
If interested, send a paragraph introducing yourself to firstname.lastname@example.org, along with a resume listing any relevant experience, with the subject line: ASSISTANT. Thanks!
I’ll note that I am once again having the standard worries about whether this science fiction stuff is ‘serious’ enough. They rise up to throttle me periodically.
Serious enough for what, I couldn’t tell you. To justify my continued literary existence to my colleagues in English departments, to my grad school classmates from Utah? Something like that.
No need to chime in here saying not to worry about them, that plenty of people like my stuff, regardless of how serious / literary it is. I know that. That’s not really the issue.
It’s more about…
– am I doing the best work I’m capable of?
– are the projects I’m choosing to spend time and energy on the right projects?
– am I just avoiding writing a mainstream ‘literary’ novel because I’m afraid it’ll crash and burn like the last time I tried one twelve years ago? [shakes fist impotently at HarperCollins]
– can I really write a SF novel that will do what I want it to do in terms of prose and literary quality (and yes, I do think that’s a thing, and a thing I value)?
– am I right in thinking that if I want to have big reach with my fictional ideas, that it’s not a terrible idea to try to do that through science fiction, which I happen to also love quite intensely and unreasonably?
– is it all right that I feel like I’m reaching for something that could be great, but could also just end up mucky and mediocre and disappointing?
I miss having a grad school advisor, is what I miss. I guess we’re supposed to graduate past needing one, but I dunno.
I am seriously considering building a little writing shed in the backyard. Kevin is tentatively on board. Next: budget. Ideally, we’d like this to be a proper structure, with screened windows that open and close, electricity, and baseboard heat. It’d be notably cheaper to do it modern-style with a shipping container as the base, but given our Victorian, I’d prefer a hexagonal or octagonal gazebo approach. We’ll see what that’d cost.
Now I just need to figure out…oh, all the rest of the world. Eep. World-building is not my strength. I think I want around a Renaissance technology level (with plenty of ship travel), but I don’t want it to feel like England culturally.
Anand went off to camp happy today; he had a good day yesterday, as he and multiple counsellors told us enthusiastically at pick-up. His aide started with him last week, and though the initial transition was a little rocky, with Anand feeling like the aide was mostly constantly telling him what to do, over the course of a week, they seem to have worked out a better rhythm.
Honestly, I doubt he’ll need the aide for long — a week or two is probably enough to help Anand through the new camp structure. (He’s in the second of two 4-week sessions now). He has a hard time with transitions, and with following new rules, especially if there are a lot of them, and if they seem inconsistent to him. He wants to argue, which the counsellors rarely have time for.
The camp counsellors overall are sweet, but young, inexperienced, and harried. I was in high school when I taught a summer session of fifth graders, and while I remember coping reasonably well with the occasional crisis (there was one *dramatically* bloody knee), I certainly didn’t get any training back then in how to support kids with atypical physical / emotional / mental needs. That’s probably improved, but still, it’s a lot for teens who are also getting the kids for just a few weeks — not much time to get to know individual needs, or learn the best strategies for teaching / managing the group.
Mostly, I’m thinking about how little it takes to make it possible for Anand to be a fully-integrated, happy, camp member. The aide is a tremendous help — and expensive, so I’m very glad we live in a wealthy enough area that our property taxes give the Park District enough resources that they can do this; I’m very aware this isn’t available for all kids. But even without an aide, mostly what he needs is a little time, understanding, and patience.
Which, honestly, I think we could all use more of.