by Meghna MehtaOct 30, 2019
It was the wholly unexpected manner in which Sheila Heti’s unnamed narrator casually name-dropped Simone Weil in the opening pages of Motherhood that had me sold. I had been on the fence about whether to buy a book that was squarely about the indecision of a female writer on the verge of 40 in regard to child bearing. I am tired of the dated debate that furthers the belief that having an artistic career and being a mother are mutually irreconcilable activities. Assertions like this one made by Dana Erekat hold more prophetic possibilities, especially for Third World women of colour—“Motherhood is an act of defiance in the midst of colonisation.” But I was at Haymon, a wonderful bookshop in Innsbruck, thanks to my residency at Künstlerhaus Büchsenhausen where I was working on a thesis that had its origins in one of these columns—In the Name of the Mother, and so, stumbling upon this unanticipated citing of Simone Weil, the French philosopher and mystic I had been relating to at an intimate and scholarly level since 2017 felt divinely ordained. Buying the book was suddenly a given.
Among Heti’s narrator’s many hesitations regarding motherhood as vocation is her fear that she might be approaching it through the gaze of sentimentality, which she defines as “a feeling about the idea of a feeling”. To punctuate her point, she recounts a story told to her by a religious cousin during a Shabbat dinner about the girl who always made chicken the way her mother did—always tying the chicken legs together before putting it in the pot—which was the way her mother did. She writes, “When the girl asked her mother why she tied the legs together her mother said, ‘That’s the way my mother did it.’ When the girl asked her grandmother why she did it that way, her grandmother said, ‘That’s how my mother did it.’ When she asked her great-grandmother why it was important to tie the chicken legs together, the woman replied, ‘That’s the only way it would fit in my pot.’” Heti’s narrator draws a parallel between the act of child bearing and the tying of the chicken legs, a sentimental gesture that may not have the urgency of the original context. I, however, believe that this little parable of the chicken legs has more profound revelations encoded within it if one extracts it from its use within Heti’s book to validate the decision to remain child free. I think the ‘sentimental’ aspects that presumably inform the matrilineally inherited gesture of tying the chicken legs can be theorised as a form of citational practice.
This felt evident to me as I occupied a position as an audience member during the most recent iteration of Hiwa K’s Cooking with Mama at Steirischer Herbst’s 2021 edition. Hiwa K had begun the series in 2006, when he was an art student in Mainz in Germany. He hadn’t seen his mother in the four years since he had immigrated from Iraq. He orchestrated a way of being with her despite the distance by inviting his friends to cook with him as she presided over the meal’s administrations over a video call. One could argue that her long distance presence was a form of visual and virtual citation. By summoning her and following her instructions, Hiwa K was performing a way of being in relation to her, ‘with’ her, allowing for gestures and habits to pass between them, ensuring a transmission of maternal knowledge and the steady building of an archive. For the iteration in Graz, Hiwa K adapted the project, inviting migrants to prepare their favourite dishes while speaking to either their mothers or a close relative in front of a live audience from the pulpit of a street-kitchen-bike he custom-designed drawing inspiration from food stalls in Iraq and Syria. In doing so, he expanded the citational range of his artwork, implicating many more intimacies within the core of his original work, which was always collaborative in nature. I had been registered for a session by Rowena Wogrolly, an immigrant from the Philippines who had made Graz her home.
As I watched her demonstrate her improvised method of making a coconut milk infused prawn and vegetable stew, which she eventually served along with rice, I was privy to her own citational practice wherein she either performed gestures she had seen her mother make, or modified them to suit the changed environment in which the dish was being made. Though she had her sister, who was in the Philippines, on video call, they spoke often about their mother’s method of doing things, constantly citing her, revealing the extent to which kitchen-based methods and techniques are matrilineally inherited and also manifesting some of the wealth of embodied knowledge that is rarely ever transcribed into written text, that is always left out of recipes because it exists not even within the space of orality. It is body-based. I see it transpire in my own body, when I unintentionally purse my lips while straining rice as a corollary to the act of paying attention, as if it allowed for greater focus, suddenly becoming aware that this is both a learned and an inherited gesture. It is how my mother focusses her body’s attention, a way of summoning mindfulness. These gestures exist outside the domain of institutional discourse. However, it is within the realm of feminist artistic practice that they find the greatest room for articulation, primarily because the visual and imaginative dimensions encoded within art as a medium offers room for their citation.
In the chapter, Citation as Relation: Intertextual Intimacies and Identifications, in her book, Autotheory as Feminist Practice in Art, Writing and Criticism, Fournier builds a context for reading ‘the performative, even theatrical, use of citation in postmemoir and autobiography as a strategy in feminist and queer work’. Fournier considers citation—the referencing of other people and texts as sources of influence and information—as a mode of intertextual intimacy and identification. I returned to some of the ideas proposed in this and the subsequent chapter, Performing Citations and Visualising References: Drawn Bibliographies, Sculpted Theory, and Other Mimetic Moves, after having listened to a lecture by the theorist Amber Jamilla Musser on YouTube. Musser’s intellectual practice is invested in embodiment, which is clearly visible from her lecture title, Sensual Excess: Moving Through the Flesh to Elsewhere, in which she cites Judith Butler’s notion of The Citational Self while dwelling on a photograph by Lyle Ashton Harris—Billy #21—which is also the cover of her 2018 book, Sensual Excess. Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance. Musser theorises that citation is “a way of positioning one body against another, a dimension of habitation. One does not ‘become’, but sits alongside the other.’ This felt, to me, like the clearest articulation of gestural citation that exists within visual, performative and literary spaces. In speaking about how Harris portrays the iconic Billy Holiday, Musser inadvertently also creates a framework for thinking about the performative nature of citation. “The force of Billy #21, then, emerges in our recognition that the photograph is explicitly not revealing Harris’s interiority, but that it instead illuminates the possibility of reading Harris as a plural self both in relation to Holiday through his performance of citation and in relation to the otherness of himself that he summons. These forms of otherness—excess forms of embodiment—are central to what I call brown jouissance. In contrast to an ecstasy that images transcending corporeality, brown jouissance is a revelling in fleshiness, its sensuous materiality that brings together pleasure and pain.”
As I immersed myself further down this path of relating inherited kitchen gestures as a manifestation of feminist citational discourse, I wondered if one of the reasons marginalised cultures are sensitive to culinary appropriations by White-Western contexts is because in the process of appropriation, the dish in question or its preparation gets divorced from its indigenous context. One of the appeals of Uncle Roger’s YouTube channel is definitely the meticulously conceited ways in which the Malaysian comedian, Nigel Ng performs East Asian stereotypes, speaking with a pronounced Cantonese accent to mock the ways in which Asian cuisine is appropriated. His take-downs of Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay are priceless. The format of the video is simple. We watch Uncle Roger watching videos of celebrity chefs making an Asian dish, like egg fried rice while commenting on their shoddy techniques and their limited understanding of East Asian kitchens. It is in his critique of the methods of professional chefs that we can gain insights into culinary practices that could only have been transmitted through a form of citation, through actually inhabiting the kitchen with the container or repository of that knowledge, which is frequently maternal.
I was reminded of my recent encounter with a 2021 artwork by Nicole Godreau Soria, titled Across Oceans, part of a larger ongoing series called Flavoured Legacies, a work she describes as “an homage to the known and unknown women who passed down the ritual of cooking plantain, across oceans and generations”. I was on the jury of an exhibition planned by Women Made Gallery, formulated by me, called ‘Word of Mouth’ and Soria’s work was among the various entries. It shows two brown-black hands peeling and pressing the flesh of a plantain upon a painted oceanic surface collaged onto a reclaimed wooden panel. In the little film, available on the website, Soria describes the intent of the series, exploring the deep connections between diasporic foodways and cultural traditions as medicinal, a method to heal and access ancestral memory, as well as a ritual for people living in diaspora to time-travel through alchemy. In an email to me she wrote that “the work confronts the often-silenced stories of cooking, medicinal plant knowledge, and the culinary history of generational recipes buried through colonisation and gendered labour.” I was drawn to this piece because of how marvellously and poetically it isolates a culinary hand gesture, making manifest how these unspoken forms of bodily movement are covertly inherited ancestrally. It is a form of visual citation. I was also drawn to Soria’s focus on the plantain, an ingredient that has culinary histories across the Global South. Soria describes her own practice as heavily influenced by her ancestry, earth kinship, and the anticolonial resistance of the Caribbean. In the video accompanying Across Oceans, she speaks about this portrait of her own hands peeling a plantain to make Mofongo. “As the eldest daughter, forming the freshly fried plantains into balls with my hands was my gendered task, one that I now reclaim,” she says. “Each recipe within the series has its own complex and multi-dimensional culinary history, as is reflected within each diasporic person themselves.”
Somewhere, I believe the word ‘umbilical’ threads together all of these embodiment-based forms of artistic practice. Umbilical connotes something about the fleshy mode of these gestural citations and how they circulate ancestrally and are perpetuated by female and queer bodies. What if we ascribed to the word umbilical some of the gravitas Heti’s narrator imagines the word ‘sentimental’ as conveying? One of the most revelatory moments in the book is in the chapter titled, PMS, when the narrator arrives at the insight about motherhood possibly not being about posterity but a retrieval of matrilineal ancestry. “Maybe motherhood means honouring one’s mother. Many people do that by becoming mothers. They do it by having children. They do it by imitating what their mother has done. By imitating and honouring what their mother has done, this makes them a mother. I am also imitating what my mother has done. I am also honouring my mother, no less than the person whose mother feels honoured by an infant grandchild. I am honouring my mother no less. I do as my mother did, and for the same reasons: we work to give our mother’s life meaning. What’s the difference between being a good mother and being a good daughter? Practically a lot, but symbolically nothing at all.” Within this logic, the act of imitation is a direct form of citation.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)