Read our new 5Q Interview with Madhushree Ghosh University of Iowa Press, author of “Khabaar: An Immigrant Journey of Food, Memory, and Family.”
Madhushree Ghosh works in oncology diagnostics, and is a social justice activist. Her work has been awarded a Notable Mention in Best American Essays in Food Writing and a Pushcart Prize nomination. She lives in San Diego, California. Find her online here: https://writemadhushree.com/
1. Can you tell us a little bit about your new book Khabaar?
“Khabaar: An Immigrant Journey of Food, Memory, and Family” is a food narrative memoir intertwining the journeys of South Asian food over generations and continents through immigration, migration, and indenture. Each linked essay focuses on a particular cuisine or food, and on chefs, home cooks, and food stall owners, while questioning what it means to belong and how do we hold onto the memory of the country of birth in the country we now call home. These questions also highlight my own immigrant journey to America as a daughter of refugees (when India was partitioned by the British in 1947 into India and Pakistan), my life as a woman of color in science and one who left her abusive marriage and now continues to keep her roots, and memory of her parents alive through Bengali food.
2. Did you write any parts of this book during the pandemic?
MG: Yes, I actually wrote about a third of the book during the pandemic. With the pandemic shutting us down in physical, emotional and creative ways, the tone of Khabaar changed—I had to understand and reflect on what it means to be isolated the way we were, to be fearful with a new unknown and all the while pretending that we were all okay. This was what it was my first year as an immigrant graduate student in New York and it made sense to revisit what it means to hold onto hope when there was none.
Around the same time, in my country of birth, there were protests and activists on the streets highlighting a vast gap between the predominantly Hindu nationalist government and what the citizens wanted in terms of their rights, freedom of speech and who gets to be called ‘Indian’—a people’s movement protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act (2019) that finally got squashed when the shutdown took over. I wrote about it and how chai or tea plays an important role in how we protest in Of Papers, Pekoe, Poetry and Protests in 2019 India, and followed that with Rituals of the Great Pause—a reflection on what habits we created during the initial months of isolation and why that brought all of us solace.
3. Do you have plans for readings or events for this book, either in person or virtual?
MG: I have a combination of in-person and virtual events planned all across the country and in London. The generosity of fellow writers, chefs and women of color in championing Khabaar has been humbling and overwhelming. I’ve always said this book is a love letter to my parents, my country of birth and the country I now call home. And all the people around me have made me realize what a beautiful community I belong to. A couple of events that I am very excited about are the Center for Fiction in-person (and virtual) event on April 13 in Brooklyn, a conversation with Mira Jacob and Mayukh Sen, two amazing South Asian diaspora authors, and the Warwick’s indie bookstore in La Jolla with dear friend and bestselling author Adrienne Brodeur on April 7th.
I mention them both because I landed in New York City three decades ago with two suitcases, a few travelers checks and a dream to make it here. It brings me such joy to return to where I started. And Warwick’s is a San Diego iconic bookstore that has been my dream to be a featured author at. So, yes, lots of friends to say hello to, lots of good conversations to be had, virtual and in-person and I cannot wait.
4. What are you reading right now? Any books from other university or independent presses? MG: I just re-read Arundhati Roy’s Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction, by Haymarket Books. In my opinion, Roy can do no wrong—in her passionate and meditative reflections on what it means to live in India, what it means when the pandemic shutdown leads to the day laborers-mass migration on foot, walking hundreds of kilometers to get to their own hometowns and villages, or how fiction informs life and why—to understand what protest rallies mean when we fear for our lives and do it anyway, Roy’s words are the call we need in contemporary India (and the world).
What I’ve realized is that I mostly read independent or university press books—it’s not by design but that I feel a lot of great writing comes from these groups where it’s about the work and not about the marketing. I can’t say enough good things about Grace M. Cho’s Tastes Like War (Feminist Press), Natashia Deón’s The Perishing (Counterpoint Press), and I’m looking forward to reading Neema Avashia’s “Another Appalachia: Growing Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place” from West Virginia University Press.
5. What is your writing routine? Do you have a daily routine?
MG: Since I have a very demanding day job in oncology diagnostics, I’ve had to have a routine to accommodate my writing, or else I can go down the rabbit hole of teleconferences and never get out. I usually write between 5-7AM before work and then around 9-11PM after. Since my work is global, that also used to mean pre-pandemic, that I was traveling or pretty much living on planes. Which was also another avenue for me to write on long trans-Atlantic flights. That’s my routine, and it works for me, but I certainly don’t expect it to be that for others. Also, writing for me is meditative, and I look forward to it, even when I know the output may not be what I can use anywhere. Some people draw or doodle. Some listen to music. Some meditate. And then some practice yoga. I write.