‘Talking Histories, Making Stories’: An Interview Between Richard Fung and Ramabai Espinet
In this exclusive extract from Wasafiri 110 – produced during the Covid-19 pandemic – video artist and writer Richard Fung interviews author Ramabai Espinet, discussing the intricate implications of Indo-Caribbean and Chinese cuisine, legacies of indentureship within their communities, and the shedding and reclaiming of identities.
Richard Fung: I have a terrible memory, so I can’t recall when we met. However, I associate you with my first trip back to Trinidad as an autonomous adult. I left in 1971 at the age of sixteen to finish high school in Ireland, and on subsequent trips I’d be paraded from one aunty and uncle to the next. But it was for a screening of My Mother’s Place, I believe. The family house was sold, I stayed at a hotel, and you gave me several people to see including the folks at Banyan (Christopher Laird, Tony Hall, and Bruce Paddington), who were making the most innovative Caribbean-centric television. I basked in these new cultural and political connections, experiencing Trinidad anew.
Ramabai Espinet: No comment on your memory, Richard, but we first met at DEC [Development and Education Centre] in 1988, sometime before your Caribbean trip. I had spent some time in the Caribbean doing research for my dissertation and was in touch with many of the artists, thinkers, cultural producers, and activists in the region. An exciting time for creative work and the rise of the Women’s Movement, the formation of groups such as CAFRA [Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action], WAND [Women and Development Unit at the University of the West Indies], Working Women … I was back, looking for work and you were on the Board that hired me. Thanks, I really needed that job.
Funny that I don’t remember the circumstances. In 1988, I released The Way to My Father’s Village, which addresses my relationship to China as an ancestral homeland halfway around the world. And I must have already been thinking about its pair, My Mother’s Place , which explores my relationship to Trinidad. I asked you to appear as one of four feminist muses, along with Dorothy Smith, Himani Bannerji, and Glace Lawrence. When I read Gaiutra Bahadur’s Coolie Woman, your words about violence against women and children rooted in slavery and indentureship came back to me.
We usually meet over meals. We’ve debated Caribbean foodways and you contributed narration to Dal Puri Diaspora, my documentary retracing Indo-Caribbean migration through Caribbean rotis. This brings to mind your short story ‘Indian Cuisine’. It touches on many social themes that I’ve tried to tackle in my own work, but one particular element of the story unnerved me because I’d thought it uniquely personal. At one point, the young protagonist ‘swallows’ a cookbook, the Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, and from then on, she conjures elaborate and delicious concoctions while consuming the same humdrum dishes made by her cash-starved mother. In secondary school, my lunchbox carried wax-paper-wrapped sandwiches of commercial white bread exactly like those artist Christopher Cozier features in his installation ‘Attack of the Sandwich Men’. Never liking sandwiches, I would conjure my favourite dishes as I ate. Fantasy is so much part of the creative process, I’m wondering if we share this ability.
In the story it seems to be the logical trajectory for the girl who swallows the cookbook, as the first step to transforming everyday food on her plate to experiments with ordinary ingredients when the task of cooking fell upon her. Your tracing of neat sandwiches transformed into your favourite foods is interestingly deliberate.
I looked for a recipe for ‘privilege’, mentioned in the story, and I could only find it in the eponymous cookbook by the late Barbadian Prime Minister Errol Barrow with Trinidadian dentist Kendall Lee. It didn’t show up in an Internet search. Does it have another name?
Your research suggests that ‘privilege’ in Barrow’s cookbook is far from common in Bajan cuisine. Similar to ‘jug’, that I saw in an old cookbook, and confirmed by Austin Clarke as no longer made. ‘Indian Cuisine’ employs the item as a metaphor for elevating a peasant dish into something fabulous while honouring its origins as ‘poor people food’. The text is playful about ‘privilege’. Does deprivation secrete a different kind of privilege? Or does fruit cocktail, an unhealthy luxury item, hit closer to the mark?
For me there are two aspects to that interaction around the fruit cocktail. The first is the competitiveness in the relationship and the protagonist’s annoyance at being misread as privileged. The second is the imported canned fruit cocktail as a symbol of colonialism’s cultural impact. In my 1960s Port of Spain household, canned fruit cocktail was a preferred dessert. Local fruit was never good enough for guests.
In the short story ‘Indian Cuisine’, the irony of the title refers to the extreme permeability of the culture of ‘Indian food’. The seductive Creole culture in Trinidad invites mixing and merging and a ready arena for commercial food ventures. Hence today’s popular foods such as doubles and roti. But what remained fixed in Indian cuisine was method — the grammar of cooking that came with indenture.
Ramabai Espinet writes poetry and prose and teaches in the Caribbean Studies programme at the University of Toronto. Her work includes the novel The Swinging Bridge (2003), the collection of poetry Nuclear Seasons (1991), and the performance piece Indian Robber Talk. She has been an activist and thinker in the poetics of the Indo-Caribbean diaspora in Canada, the Caribbean, and India, and for many years was a columnist in a Toronto community newspaper writing on these issues. In 2008, she received the inaugural Nicolás Cristóbal Guillén Batista Philosophical Literature Prize from the Caribbean Philosophical Association. Espinet’s short fiction and poetry have been anthologised widely, including publication in Green Cane and Juicy Flotsam: Short Stories by Caribbean Women (1991), Wheel and Come Again: An Anthology of Reggae Poetry (1998), and Trinidad Noir (2008).
Richard Fung is a video artist and writer, and Professor Emeritus at OCAD University. His work includes Orientations: Lesbian and Gay Asians (1984) and its redux Re:Orientations (2016), Sea in the Blood (2000), Uncomfortable: The Art of Christopher Cozier (2005), and Dal Puri Diaspora (2012). He is the co-author with Monika Kin Gagnon of 13: Conversations on Art and Cultural Race Politics (2002). Among other honours he has received the Bell Canada Award for outstanding achievement in video art, the Toronto Arts Award for media art, the Kessler Award for substantial contribution to LGBTQ Studies, and the Bonham Centre Award for distinguished contribution to the public understanding of sexual diversity in Canada.
Guest edited by Andil Gosine and Nalini Mohabir, Wasafiri 110: Afterlives of Indenture explores the legacy of indentured workers across the Indo-Caribbean, and the diasporic experience. With fiction from Ingrid Persuad and Stephen Narain, a conversation between Richard Fung and Ramabai Espinet, life writing from Maria del Pilar Kaladeen, and more, Wasafiri 110 is testament to the legacy that indentureship leaves, and the ways in which affected communities process and reclaim their histories.
Author photos courtesy of Bocas Lit Fest.