Thrilled to Note That I’ve Received a $15,000 Illinois Arts Council Fellowship

I’ve received one of these before, several years ago. With the economic crisis in 2009, they had to cut back on grants for a while; it was good to see them start awarding them again the last few years.

I’m including a copy of my artist statement and work plan below, in case it’s helpful for those of you who are also applying for grants. (And I’ll remind speculative fiction writers once more, while I’m here, that the SLF gives out grants as well, and I encourage you to apply. Ours are a little smaller — $500 – $1000. www.speclit.org)

I want to thank Pooja Makhijani, who has been my inspiration and teacher for food writing. Pooja, we have to get together sometime in person, so I can buy you a drink, or several!

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Artist Statement and Work Plan

In France, they refer to futurists as ‘perspectivists,’ and often that role is filled by history professors. My work these days has a dual focus, looking both forward and back. While I serve on the boards of multiple futurist and speculative fiction organizations, asking what South Asian futures might look like, at least as much of my time is spent looking backwards at Sri Lankan history and culture, primarily seen through the lens of historical and immigrant foodways.

These days, I turn to food as a way to bring my students and my readers into the culture, to see the effects of colonization (British, Portuguese, and Dutch) on Sri Lanka’s culinary and social history. I’ve spent the last three years immersed in food writing – essays, memoirs, and more, such as Samin Nosrat’s brilliant Best American Food Writing of 2019, which offers a host of thought-provoking essays on diverse topics, and I’ve been delving deep into research to help me write the first major Sri Lankan American cookbook, A Feast of Serendib.

These days, I pore through my cookbooks, then go online and read a dozen different recipes for a dish before I even start making it. I interrogate my Sri Lankan friends (both diasporan and homelander) about their recipes. 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? If I cannot get a certain leafy green considered key to traditional cookery, I feel such frustration. Yet does it matter if the finished dish is really how homeland Sri Lankans would make it?

I’m currently writing a series of essays using food to explore diasporic politics and post-colonial concerns. My husband is white American, for enough generations that he’s not sure exactly where all his ancestors came from. 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 for decades, and we are still dealing with the aftermath — surely, it would be worth giving up much, if you could thereby make the conflicts end. Can we choose the good parts of our culture to cherish, and leave the darker aspects behind?

In the end, 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. These essays will focus on immigration, on questions of authenticity and distance that ache in so many immigrant hearts.

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